Is there anybody more likable than Jon-Jon Goulian? Toned, tanned, bedaubed with fantastic eye makeup–the first and only cross-dresser ever to have worked at The New York Review of Books–Mr. Goulian has made friendliness his life’s work, tricking successive generations of newcomers into thinking that the New York literary world is populated with attractive and unusual people.
When word dropped in 2008 that Mr. Goulian was writing a memoir, and that he had received a $700,000 advance, the publishing industry rejoiced. For years, the city had been using Mr. Goulian’s elegant sarongs and indeterminate sexuality as a salve against drabness; a book deal meant he was at last earning recognition for his atmospheric contributions.
Now we know that Mr. Goulian’s bonhomie has been hard-won. Likability, and its nervous analogue, the desperate need for approval, are the structuring themes of The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt (Random House, 336 pages, $25) a “making-of” memoir that traces the emergence of a tattooed, glam boy layabout from a Jewish-American childhood spent among eminence-driven achievers.
Mr. Goulian’s mother is a successful lawyer who works long hours; his father is a well-known hematologist and health food fanatic; his two older brothers, unnamed, are scholar-athletes accepted to Harvard and Yale; his grandfather was the late political philosopher Sidney Hook. Growing up alongside so many winners leaves little space for Jon-Jon to distinguish himself. To make matters worse, the family lives in La Jolla, Calif.–a “theme park on the beach”–burdening the praise-addicted Mr. Goulian with a range of beauty-related pressures unknown to a Gopnik or a Foer.
As a young boy, Mr. Goulian has it relatively easy–he’s a good-looking soccer star with plans to become a surgeon. Things head south after his middle brother goes off to college, abandoning Mr. Goulian to “the overwhelming love and scrutiny of my parents.” His body begins to betray him: his nose swells, his legs start to bow and, most worrisome, he grows what seems to be a third, undescended testicle (it turns out to be a stray pies of intestine). The triple threat saps Mr. Goulian of inner strength, spurring a lifelong dysmorphic quest to conceal and correct bodily imperfections.
Mistakes are made along the way. He ruins his gums through overzealous flossing. He parches his skin with astringents. At 15, he asks his mother for a nose job, and she agrees, satisfying him for nine years until he decides he needs another. He smiles with his mouth closed, pivots his body to block the “weak” side of his face, and walks in “frenetic diagonal movements” to avoid exposing his bowlegs.
The decisive event of Mr. Goulian’s early life is the moment he learns he’s scored a 650 on the Achievement Test in Math (the easy one). He erupts in tears, scrawling in his journal “I can’t handle this intense life. … Maybe I’ll just drop out of school and marry someone wealthy.” After examination Armageddon, the dominoes fall. He quits soccer. He starts wearing lip gloss and Ugg boots. He fails to enroll for Advanced Chemistry. He goes to prom wearing white tights, black pumps, a black skirt, red lipstick and a red bow tie.
The next year, when he enters Columbia–not generally considered a second-tier school, but not the Harvard or Yale of his older siblings, and in any case Mr. Goulian points out it had a worse reputation in that era–he is heckled as a “faggot,” a “freak” and, this being the ’80s, an “AIDSmobile.” He takes refuge at Barnard, electing to live in a women’s college rather than risk hostile encounters with the football team. When he tries to get a summer job manning the cash register at Chic Accessories, a jewelry store in a San Diego mall, he’s fired on the first day for arriving in yellow overalls embossed with “riotous,” honey-swilling bumble bees. After graduating, he enters law school, but rules out becoming a lawyer on account of the dress code: wearing a tie with a collared shirt makes your head appear smaller, and Mr. Goulian’s head is on the small side to begin with. In need of a job where no one will notice or care about his sartorial peculiarities, Mr. Goulian eventually finds work at The New York Review of Books.
Sex is another source of trouble. His encounters are few, and each is more or less coerced. Girls named Zoe, Edie, Daphne and Stevie are among the assailants, as are boys named Oliver and Gunnar. (Mr. Goulian admits that some names have been changed to protect the innocent.) “After my encounter with Zoe,” Mr. Goulian writes, referring to a 14-year-old stranger who gives him a blow job and unsuccessfully tries to coax him into coitus in bushes next to a mall parking lot, “my sexual curiosity waned considerably.” An experience with a girl at Columbia during freshman year leaves him so traumatized he has trouble getting out of bed for days. The “mammalian tendencies” of the female body disgust him, and erect penises cause him to “flee.” His one object of sustained (unrequited) lust is a genderless anorexic girl referred to as “the Vegetable Monster.” In an ill-conceived attempt to get her attention, Mr. Goulian drifts into anorexia himself. It’s only later that he turns to bodybuilding, an interest he explains as an effort to direct attention away from his face, which he cannot change, and to his arms and stomach, which he can push toward perfection.
Mr. Goulian’s sexuality remains a puzzle even to himself; no amount of gender theory, with its formidable array of terms–”bisexual, transsexual, polysexual, metrosexual, metasexual, autosexual, cryptosexual, crypticsexual, protosexual, extraterrasexual”–provides an adequate explanation. Mr. Goulian himself settles for a lengthier qualifier: He is simply the Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt.
The video artist Ryan Trecartin is fond of proclaiming that “personality is replacing gender.” That would seem to capture something important about Mr. Goulian, whose gregariousness overwhelms sexual presence (and even sexual preference). Within the family, though, gender still has consequences. It’s only in his 30s, for instance, after reading a women’s magazine, that Mr. Goulian discovers that applying harsh acne products to the skin can actually increase your chances of getting pimples, since the skin responds to excessive drying by producing more and more oil. What the teenaged Jon-Jon needed was moisturizer. As Mr. Goulian points out, girls learn these things from their mothers while still in their teens. There is no analogous social mechanism for the transmission of grooming knowledge between men–you can’t ask your father about using moisturizer, particularly if the world thinks you’re “half-a-fag.” These days, Net natives can rely on the Internet to supplement paternal authority. Girly boys in the ’80s knew no such luxury.
With no Internet to turn to, Mr. Goulian often retreats into the company of his considerable collection of stuffed animals, a virtual world that provides an important crutch through several decades. The animals, Mr. Goulian explains, “are fundamentally nonjudgmental.” They accept him “unquestioningly” and don’t hold him to “any conventional standards of success, dress, or sexual virility.” Avatars of parental affection, the animals are more than pillow buddies–they travel to work, too. When a typist at the NYRB eventually points them out to editor in chief Bob Silvers, a man deft with abstraction but oblivious to his surroundings, Mr. Silvers cheerfully proclaims, “I’m very glad to have them on board. We need all the help we can get!” Mr. Silvers, another père manqué, eventually starts to remind Mr. Goulian too much of his own family. After three years, he quits.
Mr. Goulian is a natural wit, and his interpersonal predicaments provide fodder for Groucho Marx-style setups like the stuffed animal quip (they need the eggs). A Gen-X update on an archetype we associate most readily with Woody Allen, Mr. Goulian offers himself as “a neurasthenic man” in a “city of horrors,” terrified of moths, sex, saturated fat, the draft, Central Park, taxi cabs and high-school reunions. If Woody Allen were a cross-dresser from La Jolla, is this who he’d be?
The most important distinction between Mr. Goulian and his comedic forebears is not his wardrobe–it’s his will to ingratiate. Where Mr. Allen’s generation of Jewish neurotics asserted nebbishy nonconformism through the disparagement of phonies–be they professors, politicians or parents–Mr. Goulian’s departure from the mainstream is not a rejection of the mainstream, but rather an attempt to deflect its censure. To be “uncategorizable,“ Mr. Goulian concludes, is to be “uncriticizable.” He jokes that his mother won’t be able to make it past the memoir’s first paragraph, but she and all other relatives come off as superheroes (an extended riff that assesses Mr. Goulian’s parent-induced traumas is imputed entirely, and unconvincingly, to a dead grandmother). Desire for approval from his parents metastasizes into a generalized “innate capacity for solicitousness.” Unlike Alex Portnoy, Mr. Goulian has no complaint.
When I was 20 years old, struggling with my sexuality, and often consulting with stuffed animals of my own, my therapist told me repeatedly that I was not betraying my parents by being happy at college. (The same therapist insisted I was using the whole “gay thing” as an excuse to avoid pursuing women.) She was wrong, of course. Growing up is a betrayal, and a necessary one, just as surely as mothers betray nurslings when they replace the human breasts with watery bottle tops. Freud was sensitive to this, but contemporary therapy tends to obscure the tension.
To devastate one’s parents is perhaps the only permissible motive for writing a memoir. But as the personal essay boom is amplified by a family history boom (each more or less a consequence of the college admissions boom, which has sanctified the “personal statement”) the norm is increasingly to write memoir as a parental love letter. This disfiguring of Oedipal rage into something intimate and shackling, the product of a generation that gets along too well with its parents, has literary consequences whose magnitude remains unclear. The personal consequences, at the extreme end–and Mr. Goulian’s final piety is nothing if not extreme–can be quite dire: entrapment in a family romance so intense that it forecloses the possibility of any other.