I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell

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At first glance, it appears that I’ll Tell You in Person is the sort of autobiographical book that has no room for anyone else. In the introductory essay, a youngish white girl talks about her lack of long-term ambitions and how hard it is to write in Martha’s Vineyard. Reading it, I could really only think about my pile of student loan debt and the degenerative arthritis in my knees.

What I’m trying to say is that my heart’s not exactly bleeding for Chloe Caldwell. But there’s a constant self-assessment that makes Caldwell’s work worthwhile. She’s obsessed with growth and everything around it: nostalgia, prediction, destiny, mistakes, luck.

When I read her first book, Legs Gets Led Astray, years ago, I wondered what her writing would be like as she started to move around in—if not beyond—the personal history she was documenting. Her writing is and has always been about experience, the doing and feeling of everything there is to do and feel. What comes after the sublime idiocy of youth?

Caldwell wonders the same thing. If Legs Get Led Astray was growing pains, I’ll Tell You In Person is simply growing. There’s a sense of a human being dealing with getting older and changing in irreversible ways. The distance between Martha’s Vineyard and a monthly Great Lakes ass-fucking notwithstanding, to come of age and then continue going is a universal commiseration if there ever was one.

From “In Real Life”:

Then you experience the second half of your twenties. Your hair grows longer or you chop it short. You learn how to cook rice properly (pretty much). You let your belly-button ring fall out and the hole closes up. You fall in love with a woman. You make kale chips. One friend has a heart attack and another has a baby.

People have drawn comparisons between Caldwell’s work and the show Girls, but that’s too easy and not entirely accurate. A closer point of comparison is Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. The gender and age (and interests, unless Caldwell traded her Tori Amos CDs for some cult classic jazz LPs) are different, sure, but the flow of the storytelling and focus on a day-to-day life instead of sporadic, enduring revelations are extremely similar.

There’s a continuous chase of whatever feels good: Caldwell shows us Portland and upstate New York and Europe and the heroin she snorted and the Craigslist ads she posted trying to get random guys to buy her scotch and steaks and on and on. Sounds fucking exhausting, doesn’t it? But almost every time I started to feel like I was being led around by a little brat, the little brat surprised me by being expertly conscious and, at all the right times, wholly succinct about who and how she is.

The incredible thing here is the recall. Caldwell doesn’t remember every little detail, but she includes all the unforgettables: the movies, the music, the clothing, the nervous habits, the games, the embarrassing tics, the food, the offhanded comments. It all contributes to a frame of reference that is somewhat rooted in pop culture: Abercrombie shirts and that fucking Lou Bega song for her teen years, $75 black shirts and Tilly and the Wall for her twenties.

For Caldwell, like many people who become a collage of the things they like, these are just a roundabout way of explaining who she is, who she’s been. We are the things we say and do, sure, but we’re also everything we’ve ever seen and heard and felt. This book is a document of the development and stasis we all go through as we figure out what in the fuck it is we’re going through—one song, one cookie, one addiction at a time. And Caldwell is an excellent observer.

From “The Music & The Boys”:

Nat’s house was deep in the woods, and he never let you forget that Wyley Gates murdered his father, father’s girlfriend, brother, and orphaned toddler cousin just down the road in 1986, the year we were both born. But Nat’s efforts to freak me out didn’t work, because I found his home cozy. Frank Sinatra sang in the background, and there was always a ping-pong game to play or a hot tub to get into. Nat’s bedroom had two twin beds and its own bathroom attached. We’d gossip in our separate beds, competitively seeing who could eat more clementines. I have no recollection of his parents fighting, only waking up to music and breakfast and conversations over the crossword puzzle.

To summarize this book is like trying to make you see what someone’s yard looks like by showing you a blade of grass. Caldwell is not a “sentence level” writer. Her writing is not particularly clever or poetic. Parts of I’ll Tell You in Person read like a simple diary. But this is the sort of book that will be passed from hand to hand with the phrase, “Just read this.”

When Caldwell has a clear beginning and end to her stories, they more resemble actual stories. Her friendship with the late poet Maggie Estep is a wonderful example. In this storyline, Caldwell has focus, and the amorphous blob of not really knowing what she’s doing with her life falls in place for a simple reason with a real arc: I miss my friend.

Is it fair to be critical of Caldwell’s life instead of her writing? What about the other way around? Where does the person start and the book begin?

To put it in terms closer to the heart of Caldwell herself, I’ll Tell You in Person is the “Summer Nights” part of the Grease soundtrack. There are periods of inertia, the caterpillar-in-the-cocoon part of growing up, but there are also moments of ephemeral love, friendship, and questioning. It exists in the world of beauty school dropouts and fast cars and ridiculous dances, but its morality lies in the ever-fleeting details, the perfectly out-of-tune notes of wanting.

Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud, instrumental rock band called Young Indian. He's online at RyanWernerWritesStuff.com and @YeahWerner on Instagram. More from this author →