To call Sam MacDonald, author of the new autobiography The Urban Hermit, one of the greatest losers in American letters is not meant as an insult but as an insight.
A memoir that revolves around shedding a couple of hundred pounds by eating foul-smelling lentils and wasting dozens of puny paychecks on endless mugs of sub-Rolling Rock drafts and bong hits of marijuana, MacDonald has crafted more than the definitive update to Ben Franklin's Autobiography, that original blueprint of upward mobility and self-improvement. He has penned a tale that punches directly at the soft underbelly of an overspent and overweight America about to go on its own extended austerity program.
"By 1999," he confesses, "my waist had ballooned to something like forty-four inches… Losing the weight would have required cutting out the fun. And that was a trade-off I wasn't willing to make. The fat rolls never had that kind of power over me. Hell, no. It was the creditors who finally did me in."
(Full disclosure: MacDonald worked for me at reason magazine in 2000 and 2001, though I had no idea that he had literally become a shadow of his former self. Read his reason archive here.)
MacDonald, who now teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh (God help the children), was a trim musclehead when he left the boondocks of western Pennsylvania for Yale in the early 1990s, armed only with good grades, an enormous appetite, and a heaping serving of student loans.
After graduating from college with no immediate work contacts and fewer prospects, MacDonald drifted to Baltimore with his equally aimless cousin Skippy and began a "long, raucous march into irresponsible living" comprising equal parts underemployment (as a bouncer, a fish-slinger, and a reporter at the Laurel Leader, a nondescript weekly community newspaper in Maryland) and nightly drinking sessions at a dive bar. When asked on an early date by the woman who would become his wife, "What do you do for fun?," MacDonald responds disarmingly, "I go out drinking a lot."
Broken by taxes owed on his underclass wages, car repairs, student loans, and finally repulsed by his own slovenliness, MacDonald devised "The Urban Hermit Financial Emergency Rotgut Poverty Plan," a physical and fiscal bailout program in which he would eat only 800 calories a day (lentils and store-brand tuna mostly), stop spending money at bars and pretty much everywhere else, do pushups, and scrimp for an obscure future. Refreshingly, and unlike many contemporary memoirs, there is no therapeutic element to MacDonald's narrative, no stint in rehab or Damascus Road moment of blinding insight.
Instead, there are compelling descriptions of his hunger pains, stretch marks, blackouts, boredom, and weight loss (unable to afford a new belt, MacDonald uses an awl to punch new holes in his 42-inch strap.) And his setbacks, such as when he travels to Bosnia in 2000 to write about a Maryland National Guard unit and goes on an inadvertent and unaffordable binge. "I was just going to have one. Or maybe two," he writes. "Or however many a normal person has while getting ready to have a normal dinner. But the Fat Bastard was back. And he wasn't normal at all."
In the end, MacDonald does triumph over the Fat Bastard through a combination of hard work—he never wavers in his recognition that the world doesn't owe him a living—and willpower that is as absolute as it is uncomplicated. "You get what you deserve," he mumbles to himself, channeling the voices of the hard-luck yet indefatigable characters who raised him and whose experience is at the center of his first book, The Agony of an American Wilderness, a rich essay about the economic decline of the Allegheny mountains. "Suffer in silence. Suck it up."
By the time MacDonald finishes sucking it up, he has also moved into something approaching a state of moderated grace: He eats and drinks more normally, is happily married and a parent, and less driven to long-range manic efforts of all sorts. In finding that balance, he resolves well-observed extremes in a country split between tee-totalers and booze hounds, bingers and purgers, liberals and conservatives, and Manichean dichotomies of all sorts.
He has also set up great expectations for his next volume, which will hopefully explore the causes and influences on the mind-set that allowed him to transform himself so radically.