THICK AS THIEVES: A BROTHER, A SISTER—A TRUE STORY OF TWO TURBULENT LIVES
By Steve Geng
Henry Holt, 292 pages, $24
Several of New Yorker satirist and editor Veronica Geng’s friends—among them Philip Roth, Jamaica Kincaid and Roy Blount Jr.—were sitting around in an Italian restaurant after her wake in 1997 when someone asked Geng’s younger brother Steve where she got her brilliant sense of humor. Steve glibly replied that her best material came from him. That, of course, was untrue. A sensibility as complex as Geng’s couldn’t be appropriated, even from a sibling. Besides, by Steve’s own admission, Veronica spent much of her adult life avoiding him. It’s also safe to say that Steve’s experiences were not of the sort available to the average New Yorker writer—at least not if she had any instinct for self-preservation.
“Ron,” as Steve called his older sister, followed a fairly traditional route to literary success: She started in low-paid publishing jobs, wrote for women’s magazines and eventually caught the eye of William Shawn, The New Yorker’s legendary editor.
Her brother, now 63, took a more serpentine path to becoming an author. He spent much of his life—until about eight years ago—as a junkie and a small-time crook, a shoplifter talented enough to earn the moniker “Record Steve” for his ability to boost dozens of LP’s at a single bound off the shelves of Greenwich Village record shops.
Shoplifters tend to be among the less confrontational, more risk-averse members of the criminal fraternity. But that doesn’t mean Steve’s career lacked danger or excitement. In fact, the main hurdle the reader faces in getting through this funny, sometimes appalling and finally sad book is caring about a protagonist who apparently cared so little about himself. He would get straight, but enjoyed the junkie subculture too much to stay that way for long. He boasts that withdrawal, at least for him, wasn’t all that bad. He had opportunities that less talented or charming addicts could only dream of: He took up acting and got a recurring gig on Miami Vice; he appeared with Alec Baldwin in the film Miami Blues. But until well into middle age, when he was diagnosed with HIV—and even after that—he preferred the community and camaraderie of crooks to ordinary, law-abiding citizens.
He even recounts, with something resembling good cheer, a sabbatical on Rikers Island where he resisted the romantic overtures of a much larger inmate by trying to sink his teeth into the guy’s face. “The first time I took a shower in that dorm,” he says, “two black guys who were showering at the same time started singing that Motown song, ‘Heaven must have sent you from above ….’ I had a suspicion I was going to have trouble.”
A brother like Steve would have been a liability at New Yorker cocktail parties, no matter how good his tales. And his sister seems to have spent much of her career ducking him and his phone calls and coaching her friends to do the same. When she let down her guard down, she paid a price. On one occasion, she let Steve stay at her apartment when she was out of town, only to have him invite a couple of junkie acquaintances to spend the night. Predictably, they stole her jewelry.
And while the book is billed as the story of both their lives, Steve admits in the acknowledgements that he knew little about his sister’s career at The New Yorker, and much of what he learned came from interviewing her colleagues Roger Angell and Chip McGrath after her death.
That’s not to say that their encounters, when they occurred, lacked poignancy. They shared an outwardly normal middle-class childhood that nonetheless managed to scar both to the bone. Their father was an officer in the Quartermaster Corps with a talent for bullying and berating his children. He came closest to eloquence when he predicted, accurately, that his son would eventually “get his tit in a wringer.”
Rage and unhappiness seemed to stalk both siblings through their lives. Steve’s problems were obvious; Veronica’s manifested themselves in more subtle ways—though not that much more subtle.
She could be ruthless sexually, going behind the back of one boyfriend to have an affair with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen—to whom the boyfriend had introduced her. (When the musician started leaving weird messages on Veronica’s answering machine, her brother chivalrously offered to have him snuffed out; coming from Steve, that wasn’t an empty promise.) Veronica could also be crushing to colleagues in her criticism of their work. By the time of her death, from a brain tumor at the age of 55, she’d burned the bridges to most of the people in her life.
One of the sweeter encounters between brother and sister occurs at the hospital where Steve is recovering from a brain injury. (He’d slugged a girlfriend, only to have her dispatch a relative to bash in his skull with a hammer.)
“Talk to me a little,” Steve tells his big sister at the hospital. “What are you up to?”
“Christ, nothing this dramatic. Writing articles for women’s magazines about how to catch men.”
“Don’t make me laugh. It hurts my head.”
“You think that’s funny? What about the women who actually took my advice?”
Such reunions were rare. One of Veronica’s final acts was to keep her illness secret from her brother. She seems to have done so less to spare him worry than to protect herself. Steve believes that she was losing her mind—but given his history, her decision to cut him out of the final months of her life seems entirely clear-headed.
Ralph Gardner Jr. is a frequent contributor to The Observer.