Wikipedia says that Block Island is 13 miles long, but when you’re on it it feels, somehow, smaller. Each summer, my family takes the Point Judith ferry to the tiny isle. When I was younger, we would spend 3 days/2 nights on “the block,” but in recent years we’ve reduced our stay to 2 days/1 night. We occasionally entertain the idea of switching still to a single day-trip. It’s a tradition, like Sunday mass, that one stays true to not out of enjoyment (though our stays are usually fun and relaxing, due in large part to the cool, clean waters of the local beach), but out of fear for what would happen if, one year, we decided not to go.
This year’s trip was a minor disaster. Without going on for too long: the weather, typically the island’s main draw, was miserable (heavy rains, unbroken gray skies, autumnally cold), the waters unswimmable; the cable in our hotel room (where we spent the vast majority of our time) was limited to 21 channels, and featured neither Lifetime nor the Lifetime Movie Network; and, most awfully, our 5:00 p.m. ferry home, scheduled for Monday night, was cancelled (25+ MPH winds, unmanageable waters), as were all but two ferries that Monday morning, destined for land where mopeds were a rarity and shirts were worn more liberally. We had a chance, we were told, of making the 10:00 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. ferries back. This information reached us at 9:10 a.m.
After hauling our collective asses from the hotel’s continental breakfast (Cinammon-raisin rock-hard bagel and the drop of coffee I managed to pour into my cup, instead of onto my reddening right hand) to the ferry terminal, we were put in the “Standby” lane, behind four other vehicles (three SUVs, heavily loaded with unridden bikes) and in front of what seemed like hundreds, where we watched the ferry load up with passengers and cars.
By a stroke of luck, the kind that makes an atheist believe God is real until, in this instance, you think of all the people stranded behind you, my dad’s Neon made it onto the 10:00 a.m. ferry (the 11:30 a.m. ferry, as well as all of Tuesday’s scheduled ferries, we later learned, got cancelled); second-t0-last car to board. Had we not made it on, we would have had to spend another night on dreary, as the morning news’ weatherman declared it, Block Island. Under such stress, I think we all (mother, father, sister, brother) would have run out of jokes, the making and telling of which was the only way we coped with the unfortunate weather situation, and each other.
In my mind, I have a clear image of that hypothetical second night’s hypothetical dinner: things are tense, steak knives fingered before any plates arrive, a second bottle of red wine ordered, family secrets spilled, extra-marital affairs (mom with her elementary school’s custodian; dad, inexplicably, with our table’s waitress) brought to light. Alas, this fantasy wasn’t realized. (Or, hasn’t been realized yet.) We made it home; tired, annoyed, three of us seasick, but alive. We ordered lunch from one of our favorite local restaurants, and my sister found a fruit fly in her Caesar salad.
Rachel Shukert’s memoir Everything Is Going To Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Trip was a deeply comforting object for me throughout our less-than-24-hours stay on Block Island. She had similarly frustrating experiences during her time abroad, while touring a play (in which she occupied a nonspeaking, nonpaying role) under a tyrannical director. Some were arguably worse than mine. I, for example, never found myself unwillingly thrown into a threesome with two swarthy Italian men. Nor had I been the victim of casual prejudice (in Shukert’s case, anti-Semitism from the skinheads who frequented her favorite sausage stand in Vienna). I didn’t reach a state of inebriation deep enough to place me in a hospital (though if we stayed that second night, I think each member of my family would have needed their own room and IV drip*).
Shukert writes candidly of herself and her shortcomings and the mistakes she feels she’s made, and you love her for doing so. Going by this book, she sounds like the kind of woman I’d have no choice but to fall in love with: self-deprecating, deep-thinking, and enormously funny.
Her disorientation at the entrance into “no-turning-back” adult life, and all its darkness, was reassuring too. It’s a disorientation and fear I feel even now, entering my sophomore year in college. She faces several obstacles her first year out of college, many of them serious, a few of them existential. By writing of these challenges with great humor, Shukert paints a lovable self-portrait, and reminds the reader that laughing at oneself makes times of sorrow, or just plain annoyance, more tolerable. Shukert’s stories make you put your own bad trips, or bad days, into new context, not because hers are so much worse than your own but because of the way she treats her memories; with great mirth. You start to look for shades of ridiculousness in your own memories, even the ones of greatest pain. Surprisingly, I think you’ll find, something resembling humor will almost always turn up. And humor can be very redemptive, in an essay or a novel, or in life.
Many of the jokes in Everything Is Going To Be Great resonated, for me, on a surprisingly personal level. When she wrote of English-speaking French people using “regard” in place of “watch” or “look,” I cracked up, remembering how each year in French, from 6th through 11th grade, we learned and re-learned the verb regarder. There was also a joke about how Europeans make a theatrical production of coffee-drinking, and someone says something to the effect of, “These people [Austrians] invented psychoanalysis, but don’t get the concept of a to-go cup,” which is something my sister has grieved over upon returning from both her stays in Florence, Italy.
Each essay reads like a long, very funny joke. Several essays, though, end not with a punchline but on an entirely sincere or serious note about, say, regret, or the constant crisis of identity, or, memorably, the morality of promoting an improv comedy show and selling hot dogs in front of the Anne Frank House. These occasional dips into seriousness never get overbearingly deep, and don’t distract too much from Shukert’s consistent sense of humor. They do, however, lend the book an intellectual weight that is welcome and rare in the travel memoir or humor genres.
I should also note that these tonal shifts aren’t nearly as dramatic as, let’s say, the shift that occurs once The Other Guys’ politically-minded end credits start rolling. Did I mention that the weather on Block Island was so bad that three of us ended up seeing a matinée of The Other Guys at the island’s sole movie theater**, (while one of us, my father, presumably did something productive with his time)? Did I also mention that The Other Guys is honestly one of my five favorite films released this year?
All in all, I think I would have enjoyed Everything Is Going To Be Great even if I read it under circumstances that, unlike Shukert’s and mine, were actually great. Imagine Eat, Pray, Love if Eat, Pray, Love was written by a woman whose journey toward self-understanding wasn’t so damn perfect, so unfalteringly enjoyable and easy. Now imagine if the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love was the funniest Jewess this side of Sarah Silverman. Everything isn’t going to be great, but this book is. Hysterical and quite often emotional, Shukert’s memoir is a warm- and light-hearted portrait of a humorist as a young, confused, broke, horny, imperfect (but contentedly so) woman.
*If Block Island even HAS a hospital. [Fact check: It does not.]
**The crowd, predominantly a mix between gray-haired ladies and elementary-school-children-looking, highly impressionable (to stupidity, that is) boys and girls, was rather humorless or maybe just deaf, for I can think of no other reasons for their unresponsiveness to Michael Keaton’s genius sense of comedic timing.
- The interview that sold me on Shukert.
- Another worthwhile interview at Half Deserted Streets.
- An excerpt published by New York Press.