Posted by Ellen Wernecke
The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt
By Jon-Jon Goulian
Random House, 2011
Since he was a teenager, Jon-Jon Goulian developed a penchant for wearing women’s clothing, survived major surgery (medical and cosmetic), moved from surfers’ paradise to New York City and made it through law school before deciding he would never become a lawyer and taking a series of odd jobs instead. As chronicled in his underwhelming memoir The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, he thinks it could have gone a little better.
Self-awareness, for Goulian, arrives on the scene like a hero, just as one might despair it will never arrive. It fits his narrative together thus: For years, he has been navigating among various sources of self-consciousness, and subsequently producing some eccentricities to make himself able to face the world. Impending baldness can be disguised by a shaved head (this is the least eccentric in that everyone and his dad has seen it); bodybuilding forges a physique that makes people who shout slurs on the street reluctant to take their harassment any further. And an abrupt decision at the age of 17 not to care about school hides the disappointment in a low test score and the thread of being the least as well as youngest of three brothers, in a glossy coat of teenage nonchalance.
Don’t worry, young Jonathan gets into Columbia anyway (nepotism), but what’s missing from his account is any awareness that he’s not alone on these islands of bodily insecurity and low self-esteem. There isn’t a comparative grading to attest that Goulian had it worse, just no acknowledgment whatsoever. Instead, like a solipsistic Job, he lists and re-lists these trials in flat narration and the insistence that doesn’t want sympathy. (Ironically, the most resonant is likely the least common, a hernia that manifests itself first as a testicular lump too shameful to be shown to anyone for years. Talk about teenage misery.)
Goulian’s take on his life choices seems to be, at the end of the day, that he’s resigned to living with his quirks, not overcoming them. He’d rather dwell on them than on the circumstances of his luck. While his family may be puzzled as to why Goulian enjoys wearing skirts and makeup but is still straight, it’s a largely supportive concern. Despite not practicing law, he has carved out some kind of itinerant career (underdescribed for this reader, his stint at the New York Review of Books just some kind of circular anecdote about having a really good if slightly nutty boss), which in New York City is always something to note. The end of the book finds him in (spoiler) the family cabin in Vermont, feeling both isolated and relieved by his distance from civilization.
To rustle this book’s pages is to hear the faint cackle of Quentin Crisp, whose own insecurities and heightened senses of danger (as chronicled in THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, a much better book) failed to keep him from reveling in that of himself which could not be reduced. It would be impossible for everyone to live the Crisp way, but his insights had the time to mature; Goulian’s have not, and as a result, his decades-old feelings are rendered in loving detail, while his present face is a blank.
(This originally appeared at Wormbook)