John Grogan’sMarley and Me
sold millions of copies and, as you probably have heard, has been made into a film starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson that will be hitting theaters soon.
Many people of refined tastes no doubt saw the 2005 memoir about a man and his incorrigible yellow lab on the bestseller lists and said, “thanks, but no thanks.” I wasn’t one of those people. Marley and Me made me laugh hysterically and cry bitterly. It was a wonderful story well-told. I recommended it – and still do – to anyone who will listen. Hell, I will probably even go see the movie.
All of this is to explain why I was so disappointed by Grogan’s new memoir, The Longest Trip Home.
You know how musicians fall out of favor with fans when they put out an album with a different sound? That’s not what happened here. I wasn’t expecting Marley and Me Part II. But I did expect another good story well-told, and Grogan doesn’t offer that with this bland memoir about coming to terms with his Catholic faith.
It turns out that so far, Grogan’s life has only produced one truly compelling tale. There wasn’t enough material to mine for this second book, and in fact, some of the story recounted in Marley and Me -- about his career as a journalist and his life with wife Jenny -- is repeated here.
The first half of The Longest Trip Home is a dutiful trek through Grogan’s happy, middle-class Catholic childhood in a pleasant neighborhood outside of Detroit, Michigan, complete with purloined cigarettes and beers, teenage groping, mass skipping and neighborhood pranks. Grogan is perfectly likeable, and his writing is fine, but the yarns he spins are just so normal, so forgettable. He gets a boner fantasizing about a nun. He gets a mark on his face after his first kiss with a girl with braces. He gets busted trying to grow a marijuana plant. (Try to stay awake.)
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What is less ordinary is just how super-religious his parents are. “To say my parents were devout Catholics is like saying the sun runs a little hot,” Grogan writes. Their home is dripping in Virgin Marys, Jesuses, saints, angels, crucifixes, candles, holy water and rosaries. “It was like living in a religious supply store,” Grogan writes.
The conflict between the doubting Grogan and his fiercely religious -- and, on the whole, very endearing -- folks is the heart of the story, of course. After Grogan meets his Presbyterian wife-to-be and, at age 30, decides to move in with her before marriage, it becomes clear that the parents think they’re going to hell, and that Jenny is a used-and-abused woman. The book picks up at this point, which is to say about halfway through, but it simply takes too long to get here. The rest chronicles Grogan learning to be his own man and stand up to his parents, figuring out how to be a dad and husband himself, and finally, dealing with his parents’ inevitable decline. (Is it wrong that I cried for a dying lab, but not a dying human?)
Grogan pretty much starts out a doubting Catholic and ends up a doubting Catholic, but as the book comes to a close, he’s finally comfortable being a doubting Catholic. I’m happy for him and he seems like a great guy, but The Longest Trip Home is a long trip, indeed.
– Cathy Matusow