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A Writer's Life

Written by Michael GreenbergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michael Greenberg

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On Sale: September 08, 2009
Pages: 200 | ISBN: 978-1-59051-358-3
Published by : Other Press Other Press
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In Beg, Borrow, Steal Michael Greenberg regales us with his wry and vivid take on the life of a writer of little means trying to practice his craft or simply stay alive. He finds himself doctoring doomed movie scripts; selling cosmetics from an ironing board in front of a women's department store; writing about golf, a game he has never played; and botching his debut as a waiter in a posh restaurant.

Central characters include Michael's father, whose prediction that Michael's "scribbling" wouldn't get him on the subway almost came true; his artistic first wife, whom he met in a Greenwich Village high school; and their son who grew up on the Lower East Side, fluent in the language of the street and in the language of the parlor. Then there are Greenberg's unexpected encounters: a Holocaust survivor who on his deathbed tries to leave Michael his fortune; a repentant communist who confesses his sins; a man who becomes a woman; a Chilean filmmaker in search of his past; and rats who behave like humans and cease to live underground.

Hilarious and bittersweet, Greenberg's stories invite us into a world where the familial, the literary, the tragic and the mundane not only speak to one another, but deeply enjoy the exchange.

Excerpt

My old man was like Zeus’s father Cronos: he couldn’t bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him. Life radiated from the central pulse of his scrap-metal yard; the world beyond it seemed to make him defensive and nervous. Self-conscious about his lack of formal education, he took my bookishness as a personal affront. “Which do you think is worth more,” he once asked me, “a commodity or some goddamn idea?”

Among the family, my violent fights with him were famous. The last one occurred when I was fifteen. I followed him around the apartment, taunting him with a line from my latest poem, “Which do you think is worth more, flesh or steel?” At the end of his rope, he took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast. “You have guts, but no common sense,” he said. “One cancels out the other. A total waste.”

A week later, I moved away from home, supporting myself with a night job in a bookstore.

Nevertheless, when I was in my early twenties, driving a cab, with a newborn son at home, my father offered me a chance to join the family business. “You get all the major holidays,” he said. “You quit work every day at five. And to make a living you don’t have to be a genius.”

He seemed hurt when I turned him down. “Those notebooks you scribble in won’t get you on the goddamn subway,” he said.

He was right, and during the lean years that followed I sometimes imagined that he was eyeing me with satisfaction. I was getting what I deserved. The idea of writing for a living was ludicrous to him, unless you were as famous as Arthur Miller or cooked up gags for one of his revered television stars. My literary ambitions were self-destructive and pretentious.

The family metal business was not pretentious. Pig iron scrap metal, and cold roll steel were the deities of our household. They represented value stripped down to its zero point, tangible and unadorned. To get by in my father's world, you had to be tough, like he was. He didn't have colleagues, only enemies. Every dollar, he taught us, had to be pried away from men who would just as soon see us starve.

My brothers, Robert and Ben, had accepted his offer to join the business, and when he died, nine years ago, they inherited it. More than a livelihood, it had become the source of our family's identity, our New York achievement. Our immigrant grandfather had started with scrap metal back in the 1920s. Prior to that, in the Ukraine, iron work had been the family trade. Robert and Ben enjoyed our special status for keeping this tradition (and, by extension, our Jewish forefathers) alive.

I am stunned, therefore, when I learn that my brothers have decided to liquidate the business and retire while still in their prime. The news puts me in the untenable position of mourning the passing of something that I had strongly rejected.

I ride the number 6 train to the South Bronx in order to see the place one last time. When I arrive, the cinder-block warehouse is almost empty. "You're looking at a carcass," says Ben, reading my mind. The building has already been sold, he tells me. In a month the new owners will move in, a sprinkler company that used to be down in TriBeCa. Robert examines the remaining scraps of steel, doing his best to look busy. They seem embarrassed by the state of affairs, and uneasy about my being there for no apparent reason other than to scrutinize their lives. "What will you do now?" I ask. "Learn to cook," says Ben sarcastically. "Climb mountains," says Robert. A rat hurries along the warehouse wall. I am reminded of Freud's remark that when rats appear in a dream, they usually stand for the dreamer's siblings.

Sitting with them in their cramped, dusty office, I feel the presence of our father. His larger office was in the adjoining room. It looks much as he left it, except for the addition of an exercise bike that my brothers rarely use. Robert once had aspirations to be an artist, and on the wall opposite our father's old desk hangs a painting he did of the warehouse crammed with rolled coils of steel. The picture of prosperity. "I feel that I'm letting Dad down," says Robert quietly. "He never would have allowed this to happen."

Our father's stamp on him was enormous. A few weeks after our father died, Robert started wearing his pinkie ring, a blue sapphire set in a square of gold. He took to smoking his cigars, driving his old, wheezy Mercedes, and thrusting his chin out like our father, growling at people without provocation. I thought of Patricia Highsmith's character Tom Ripley assuming the mannerisms of his victim Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, though in Robert's case this was a benign, seemingly unconscious homage.

A couple of months later, as if snapping out of a trance, he ditched the Mercedes, put away the pinkie ring, and returned to himself—solitary and shy. I realized then that this had been Robert's way of mourning: he had been keeping our father alive in himself.

Ben has few misgivings about quitting. Liquidation, in fact, was his idea. "When I feel guilty," he says, "I remember what I went through with the old man. And I think, to hell with it, I had enough. I can't stand this place anymore." As the eldest son, Ben felt coerced into joining the business. Expectations for him were higher than for the rest of us. Had the pressure been less, he believes, he might have led a more rewarding life doing something else. Our father punished him for that ambivalence. "He'd come in and slap his cane on my desk, spoiling for a fight.  'So you want to get out of here?' he's ask. Everything I did was wrong." For thirty years they tormented each other with accumulated rancor.

We go to a diner for lunch and return to the office. The afternoon drags slowly on. The phone is silent. The truck awaits a buyer. The line cutter, which was used to shear rolls of steel into sheets like plywood, will soon be hauled to Mexico, where metalwork is thriving. My brothers worry about getting paid. The business has always been small, with rarely more than six employees. Two remain, hanging around with nothing to do, impatient to go home. They remember our father differently than we do. "We called him The Pigeon," says one, "because every time the cutter went silent he'd stick his head out the office window to see what was going on." One morning, eager to get to work, he jumped out of his car while it was still in gear. "It smashed into a fire hydrant, but your father didn't notice. Or he didn't give a damn. He wasn't easy to work for, but that man had drive." The drive kept the business going. My brothers, they believe, have broken a tacit contract. "There just wasn't enough hustle in them. Together they couldn't do what your old man did alone."

I step outside for some air. The last time I was here, in the 1980s, barefoot crack whores prowled the streets in the freezing cold. Today, the neighborhood is slightly less dramatic, though ample signs of misery remain. Flanked by two enormous waste-burning plants, men in rags lower traps into the East River. One snares a blue claw crab. The man next to him looks on jealously. Squatter camps made of discarded car parts spill out from under the expressway.

Shortly before he died, my father recalled the day I turned down his offer to join the business. "It was just as well," he said. "You wouldn't have lasted. Your brothers will do better."
Praise

Praise

“[A] terrific new collection. . . . This book, with its intrepidity, humor, and dark insight, offers its own, irrefutable justification for ‘the writer's life.’” —The New Republic

“A writing memoir that belongs in the company of classics such as Grace Paley’s Just as I Thought, Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction, William Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life, and Eudora Welty’s One Writer's Beginnings.” —ForeWord Magazine
 
“Darkly comic. . . . Greenberg’s gifts as a storyteller—his spare style, shrewd use of detail, easy way with unpredictable references . . . lack of sentimentality, and sense of the surreal in the ordinary—are evident throughout the book.” —The New York Review of Books

“Greenberg, a native New Yorker, loves the city as a child loves a parent, and in its honor he has put together a collection of tightly written incisive chapters, each another tessera or tile in a big mosaic. . . . Greenberg is an acute observer.” —Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Brilliant. . . . Personal experience is at the center of each piece, but none is solipsistic; the tone is understated and ironic, and every essay contains a hard-won glimmer of insight.” —The Washington Post
 
“Greenberg is at the top of his form. . . . His writing [has] an attractive subtlety. . . . [It is] efficient, understated, languidly witty.” —The New Criterion
 
“Bring[s] together 44 of his finest. . . . The quotidian is illuminated and refracted through a cool, audacious eye. . . . Direct, unbuffered, sharp-edged.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Greenberg captures . . . the everyday texture of metropolitan life . . . with diaristic immediacy.” —The New Yorker
 “Greenberg’s descriptions of his encounters with mentors, his dealings with the movie world and his endless family dramas are rendered with biting humor and insight. The unflinching stories are so well written, readers will wince.”—Florida Times-Union

“Succinct, yet beautifully detailed. . . . Sometimes tragic, often funny, always moving true-life tales.” —PopMatters
“Quietly elegant, effortless, valuable, and perfectly crafted, like gems or teardrops . . . [Greenberg writes] the way Chagall would make a stained-glass window, using familiar materials and skills to create something delicate and undeniable and new.” —Bookslut.com

Beg, Borrow, Steal will become a bestseller today and a classic inspiration tomorrow. Just as people carried Kerouac and Bellow in their back pocket, Greenberg’s conversational tone stays with you, and you want to read his essays again and again.” —Blogcritics.org

“Poignant. . . . Most chapters read like anecdotes told among friends. . . . Greenberg skillfully explores issues that range from the profoundly tragic to the delightfully funny. . . . Succinct, entertaining personal narratives.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Graceful ponderings by a deeply sympathetic soul, a consummate New Yorker and terrific writer.” —Publishers Weekly
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