Mishka Shubaly is an update on a certain kind of guy. His themes are the themes of the Brooklyn bartender, the Oakland bike messenger, the young men living in cities. Relationships. Booze. Drugs. Fighting. Trying to figure out how to be a man.
In I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You, his memoir about childhood, his dissolute 20s, and replacing drinking and drugs with ultrarunning, there are echoes of many that came before him: Henry Miller, Hunter Thompson, Anthony Bourdain. He’s smart enough to own up to the Charles Bukowski comparison early on in this book, but then he transcends it. One of the big differences between Shubaly and Bukowski is that you’d actually want to be in the same room as Shubaly, mostly because he got sober. He got smart and went his own way. He realized that some writers just want to trap you in their own hell and sidestepped the alcoholic part of the masculine writer pit.
In leaping those traditional pitfalls, he has written a nearly perfect memoir. A room full of writers couldn’t come up with a better formula. It has everything. A tortured childhood. Divorced parents. Hell, even a school shooting. The resulting substance abuse and failed relationships push Shubaly into his obsession with extreme fitness, in his case ultrarunning, the sport for the irredeemable soul who isn’t satisfied with Crossfit or regular ol’ marathons. The inevitable line that he wasn’t running from something, but, indeed, to something, is uttered and then discarded.
The book probably wouldn’t work if the author didn’t train his astute eye on himself with equal disdain and honesty. For example, the anger he feels for his old man is mirrored by the disgust he has for himself. And the book does work. His frankness is charming. He seems to delight in displaying his faults and shortcomings.
Like any writing, really, the book is the best when he’s talking about other people. As important as all the persona-building is–and the book wouldn’t float without it–Shubaly shines when he’s talking about New York City. Here he is on McCarren Park in Williamsburg: “Six years later, Young, White, and Not From Here seemed to have reached critical mass. Still, each year the infestation worsened, till the entire park was overrun, till the whole neighborhood became an open-air dormitory for adult children with platinum credit cards, pursuing their MDMA from Red Bull Academy.”
When he writes about New York it’s so much better than all the derivative Joan Didion-esque “Goodbye To All That” takes, because he stayed and wrote about what happened to the people he knew who were grinding while he was partying. “My friends had put in their time and pulled down six-figure salaries as admen or graphic designers or fashion whatevers. They were buying houses or apartments; they were getting married; they were having children. A few had hit it really big. I watched them on TV or read about them in Rolling Stone or the New York Times or the New Yorker. They’d written best sellers, or their bands had blown up, or they’d gotten their own show on HBO. One guy had even won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. Fucking hell…I had lived with one foot in the gutter and the other in the grave, face down on the bar with both middle fingers in the air.”
In the time of the Internet, when we know that there is real suffering in the world, is any of this self-inflicted pain and drama interesting? Or do we just like reading about people who make bad decisions to make ourselves feel better? Shubaly is at least self-aware enough to confront this idea. “I was reminded of National Geographic clips I’d seen as a kid of listless Ethiopians so malnourished and sick from dysentery they could barely move, then felt horrible for comparing my plight to theirs. I had done this to myself…I had been right — life was unfair. But it had been unfair in my favor.”
Shubaly has achieved a sizable, and deserved, following through his bestselling Kindle Singles about real-life events. With this book it appears he’s exhausted the most significant moments in his young life. He’s certainly talented. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when he turns his lens solely on the outside world.
I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You
by Mishka Shubaly
PublicAffairs; 352 p.