An Author Worth Rooting for Reckons With Quirky Relatives

How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories , by Dorothy Gallagher. Random House, 187 pages, $22.95.

The blessing and the curse of the memoirist is that the story will be familiar to readers before the book is even cracked: parents growing older and stranger before they die; life presenting a bewildering array of choices; love proving itself, in practice, to be both more and less than advertised. No matter what the specifics of the writer’s life, no matter how one memoir differs from the next in style and literary aspiration, it all comes down to a reckoning with those forces that shape the multitudes from infancy to death rattle. I don’t mean to say, for example, that we respond to Martin Amis’ brilliant memoir Experience because we were all raised by Kingsley Amis, lost a cousin to a serial killer, and found our marital and dental problems on the front page of the Daily Mail . I mean to say that the memoirist speaks a universal language–literally, as opposed to the universal symbolism employed by the novelist–and that, because we are all memoirists at heart, no experience is so private that we can’t sympathize. This is why we readers come to the memoir as if in a dentist’s chair: powerless, the bright light of experience shining in our eyes, knowing full well what’s about to happen but unable to delay the inevitable.

I wish Dorothy Gallagher were my dentist–she’s sure-handed, lively, self-deprecating and very, very funny–and her memoir, How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories , is a small but by no means minor revelation of the form. The subjects of these 14 interlocking essays may be a tad too easily chosen (sick parents, degrading entry-level jobs, etc.), and their idiom at times may err on the side of informality (“He comes home with tubes sticking out of everything. A tube out of you-know-where for his urine, a tube from his gall-bladder”), but Ms. Gallagher’s touch as a writer is engagingly light, and her vision of the world is as generous as it is unsparing of the quirks, prejudices and frequent missteps of the fiercely independent–and fiercely loving–members of her Ukrainian-Jewish family.

The book’s opening salvo (“How I Came Into My Inheritance”) deals with just that, a court battle over Ms. Gallagher’s inheritance, and introduces both the comic tone of the ensuing essays and the major players in her family drama. “It wasn’t easy to tell when my father began to lose his marbles,” Ms. Gallagher writes, but it might have been around the same time he took the water heater out of his upstate home (this at the age of 90) and replaced it with a wood-burning model. Or the time, to demonstrate to Ms. Gallagher that he could still take care of her mother–a stroke left her, among other things, unsteady on her feet–he waited until she fell again, stuck his cane out and ordered, “Belle! Grab the cane!”

A self-styled real estate developer, sleazy Roy, ends up milking the elderly couple out of the better part of their hard-earned savings. Finally Ms. Gallagher is forced to take her own parents to court to stop the bleeding (Roy hires an attorney on their behalf) and a judge, taking note of her father’s “filthy rags,” names her the estate’s conservator. And her thanks for rescuing the family jewels? ” Oh ,” her mother says, “t hat I should live to see you and Daddy quarrel. “

Here, with a brief discussion of Roy’s relationship with her father, Ms. Gallagher’s insight shines darkly: “Roy understood … the greed at the heart of his parsimony, the same greed for life that makes old men hunch deep over their plates and shovel in the food. Roy flattered him … Roy praised his shrewdness…Roy promised him fabulous profits from their ‘development’ that would materialize years in the future–years in my father’s future.” It remains unspoken that these are all things–flattery, empty praise, the promise of eternal life–that a devoted daughter would find impossible to match.

The inspired idea behind the memoir’s construction is that, as the essays accumulate (most of them are around 10 pages in length), Ms. Gallagher’s inheritance is shown to be infinitely richer–more nurturing and troubling both–than a disputed bank account. “No One in My Family Has Ever Died of Love,” the second essay, deals with her mother’s emigration from Brailov in the Ukraine and her courtship, in the New World, with the dashing Isidore Rosenbloom. (Lest anyone feel confused, Ms. Gallagher’s surname is the result of a brief marriage.) The essay concerns the ins-and-outs of growing up in a Communist family in New York City during World War II and makes plain, with some hilarity, the divided loyalties of immigrant children. (“We still read the Daily Worker , but … I have to walk blocks to buy it at a distant newsstand and spend an extra nickel for the New York Post to wrap it in for the dangerous walk home.”) Race is a particularly thorny issue–according to Party ideology, the Negro is the most oppressed of all the workers in the world–and, though a young Ms. Gallagher is encouraged to fight “White Chauvinism” and sing the blues, her experience with black schoolmates is mostly limited to taking abuse for being white.

In one of the book’s more poignant moments, Ms. Gallagher recalls attending a rally for Henry Wallace in Madison Square Garden (the year is 1948) and instinctively rejecting the collective spirit of the whipped-up crowd. She gazes at her chanting mother and wonders, “Who was she now?” In posing this question without a hint of childish accusation, and in devoting herself, with this essay and others, to unfurling the “mystery at the center” of her parents’ long and eventful life together (they were married for 72 years), Ms. Gallagher has made a real contribution to the literature of immigration in America. And she doesn’t stop with her parents, either: There’s Aunt Rose and Uncle Albert, also settled in the Bronx; cousin Meyer, who survived the Cossacks, the Depression and a return trip to Brailov, and who finally committed suicide at the age of 87; Aunt Lily, a door-to-door lingerie saleswoman (her clients were mostly prostitutes), her maudlin husband Ben; and headstrong Aunt Frieda, who refused to meet anyone inside a restaurant and, on the afternoon of May 23, 1957, was killed by a stranger’s car–you guessed it–while waiting outside for Ms. Gallagher’s mother, who was late for lunch.

“I was grief-stricken,” Ms. Gallagher writes in the book’s final essay, “Night Falls On Transylvania,” having made peace with all of her departed. “Who would have thought? I’d complained so bitterly , and they’d been so old .” It’s a characteristic moment, the deadly serious remark followed by a flip one–a privilege of the genuine mourner, familiar to anyone who’s attended a large and colorful family wake, or who’s lost someone they loved and struggled to find a language equal to death’s absurd finality.

How I Came Into My Inheritance may not be the perfect memoir, technically speaking, but it surely boasts what many other, more presumptuous memoirs lack: an author worth rooting for. Ms. Gallagher’s got brains, guts, talent, insight and a heart the size of the Ukraine. By any measure in the book of family-memoir writing, this brave American daughter has done her forebears proud.

Benjamin Anastas’ second novel , The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance, will be out in May from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.