“I feel some pressure internally to write a column that has a broader mission than it has up till now because it feels weird to be writing a very interior, personal column when this is what’s affecting everybody. It’s a more public story right now, so I should be trying to do that,” he said. “Besides, “I’m sort of running out of things to say about myself. How many times can you say, ‘Guess what: I still haven’t got my money in order,’ you know?”
A personal essay Mr. Lovell wrote last year for New York about class anxiety in Brooklyn (“The Upside of the Downside”) brought some harsh criticism, reminiscent of that drawn by the novelist and book critic Vince Passaro after he wrote an essay for the August 1998 Harper’s called “Who’ll Stop the Drain?” about his family’s struggle to get by in New York City on a combined income of roughly $100,000 a year.
Like Mr. Lovell, Mr. Passaro, was merciless in recounting his own financial missteps and refusal to compromise the choices he and his wife made for their three kids. Unlike Mr. Lovell, however, Mr. Passaro and his wife were $63,000 in debt, a situation he seemed neither ashamed of nor prepared to resolve.
For his honesty, Mr. Passaro found himself turned into the object of scorn by Harper’s readers (admittedly a different demographic than that of GQ), who debated the essay for months in the magazine’s letters pages. Salon’s James Poniewozik reported at the time that Mr. Passaro “became a traveling fiscal curiosity, interviewed on Public Radio International’s Marketplace and brought on Nightline Dec. 29 ‘as the national poster child for the overspent American.’” (The essayist Meghan Daum experienced a similar backlash when she wrote about her “misspent youth” in The New Yorker a year later.)
Ten years after his essay appeared and he stopped receiving “insane” letters—some urging his wife to leave him; one, he said, from humorist Joe Queenan, who sent him $100—Mr. Passaro is still in debt. “It is the way it is,” he told Off the Record by phone from the back of a taxi. (Mr. Passaro was overheard paying his fare by credit card.) “I’ve adjusted.” He separated from his wife—“money provided a good thing to fight about,” he deadpanned—and now has a fourth child with his girlfriend.
Mr. Passaro said that revealing his pecuniary peccadilloes remains the most famous thing he’s written, but he has no plans to revisit his debt in print anytime soon.
Besides, he wondered, what magazine would run such a thing? “No place that pays five grand,” he said.
As for Mr. Lovell, if he is walking around in a perpetual state of worry—about his bank balance, about other people’s bank balances and the means by which they acquired them, and, mostly, about what other people think of his perpetual state of worry—in person, he manages to keep it in check.
“For all my moaning and groaning about not having money or whatever, I recognize that I’m doing fine,” he said. “The truth is, we do have enough money. We’re not loaded. … We’re doing just fine. The money goes away, but we put a little bit away every month. I have no real complaints.”