Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir by Norm Mcdonald (2016) (read in 2017)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
Norm’s purported autobiography is at-once multi-layered and tightly written. In few words, he paints a plethora of possibilities. The style is reminiscent of Twain, Vonnegut, Kafka and Burroughs. His stories—as was the case with these auspicious predecessors—are often seemingly inspired by hallucinogenic substances as well as completely fictitious—often bald-facedly so—and not at all autobiographical.
He is deeply funny. He is easily insightful. His writing is a pleasure to read. Some passages rear out of the work, standing alone as jewels of prosaic creation. He tells of his days and nights on the road, of his heroin and alcohol addiction, of his at-once madcap and lethargic friend, of his gambling addictions. He tells of growing up on an farm in Canada with the mysterious Old Jack, of his obsession with Sarah Silverman, his verbal sparring with Lorne Michaels, his simultaneous lack of and spectacular surfeit of success at comedy, his killer jokes that at-once cannot fail and always backfire.
His denouement or resurrection comes in the form of a ghost writer who emulates his employer to such a degree that the narrative line blurs and shifts and whipsaws, with Matryoshka-like nesting of ideas, plot-lines and authorial voices. Norm escapes to fight another day. Highly recommended.
“The plain truth is that Adam Eget is an alcoholic and that’s why he doesn’t drink. Me, I’m not an alcoholic and that’s why I do drink. Life sure is funny that way.”
““Oh, he was a sight to see. The rest of us, we all dressed in suit jackets and shoes like our dads wore, but Sam’s jacket was a long duster, and he always wore a bandana too. And when he talked, it was a wild shriek, but there was music in it. It put me in mind of a Pentecostal minister I’d seen once who hailed from West Texas and came up through the Ottawa Valley when I was a young boy—a man who handled snakes and talked unafraid.”
“Then the cat’s green eyes flashed black like the wing of a crow and her teeth tore into the mouse, and I could hear the tiny bones breaking as the cat’s neck swung from side to side until the mouse was still and limp, but the cat’s neck continued to swing. Then the cat slung the dead mouse into the short hay and strolled away. This last moment was what surprised and frightened me the most. This whole endeavor had nothing to do with food. And this is when I learned that hardscrabble truth: There is a difference between what a thing is and what it appears to be. A thing can appear to be content and happy as it lies with you so close that you feel its purr in your belly. And if you don’t look through the screen door and out into the world, you might never realize that the thing you think you know and love is another, more dangerous thing altogether.”
“And when I looked inside, a curious thought struck me, a thought that made my fear evaporate and my tears dry. You see, Old Jack wasn’t lying in the casket; why, it wasn’t him at all. It was just something that looked like him, the same way a suit lying on a bed resembles the man once wore it. Old Jack was the best fellow I ever knew and I’d been with him as often as anyone, but I wasn’t with him that day, not there in that room, where a line of people stood waiting to look at a thing in a box.”
“I don’t like it in the middle of the desert late at night. I know this is when the creatures emerge. They spend their days hiding from the merciless sun behind rocks and cactus, and it’s when the sun goes down that they make their living. In the black of night I can hear them, hungry, scrabbling over the rocks.”
“Sonofabitch, the drive was long. Why they built a hospital so damn far away from everybody, I couldn’t figure. It was way out in the middle of northern Ontario, where you have to pray your car doesn’t break down, and if it does, you have to pray you freeze to death before the timberwolves find you.”
“Oh, his name’s Fred Henshaw. He took his mother out to the cold northern tundra where the sun never sets and he cut off her eyelids. That way she couldn’t sleep or even shield her eyes from the sun. Then Fred had her wander around, tripping in the snow, falling, getting back up, falling again. Every day Fred would take a hypodermic needle and remove a half a pint of blood from the old lady. After about a week, his mother just lay down on the hard snow. Then he sat down and waited. Waited for the crows to come.”
“Don’t worry about that, Adam Eget. For idiots like you, they provide a ghostwriter. A ghostwriter is a man blessed with bright talent but cursed with dim luck. The brilliant ghostwriter will do all the work and receive a pittance, while you, an illiterate fool, will be given a king’s ransom. That’s God’s great joke, my son.”
“Julie had motioned me into her office that afternoon while Mr. Macdonald was telling a story about how he hated Eskimos. It was not so much a story, really, as a string of words that was randomly assembled, incoherent, unending, and filled with hate.”
“That was a long time ago, so I take a deep, deep drag and hold the magic stuff in my lungs, although it fights to get out. Finally, I can’t take it anymore and I lean over and cough like hell. When I look up again, there it is. The past. It’s directly in my face, like a forgotten child who’s hunted me down to find out when I’ll be returning with that pack of cigarettes.”
“And outside the Regency House, we all laughed loudly for different reasons in the cold autumn of New York.”
“As you place your chips on the craps table, you feel anxiety and impatience. When the red dice hit the green felt with a thunk and you’re declared the winner and the chips are pushed toward you, you feel relief. Relief is all. And relief is fine, but hardly what a man would give the whole rest of his life to gain. It has to be something else, and the best I’ve come up with is this: It is a particular moment. A magic moment that occurs after the placing of a bet and before the result of that bet. It is after the red dice are thrown but before they lie still on the green felt where they fall. It is when the dice are in the air, and as long as they are there, time stops. As long as the red dice are in the air, the gambler has hope. And hope is a wonderful thing to be addicted to.”
“I find my way through the casino and in a moment I am on the Strip. There is a dry chill that begins to freeze my naked face, and the buildings of iron and glass feel as immortal as the ancient streets they sit upon. I look above and the sun shining amid the blue sky and white, white clouds casts a pall of futility over the man-made monuments and their sickly neon light.”
“And the Lord begins to speak His message, but just as He begins, a second wave of the drug hits me, much harder, and the sidewalk becomes quicksand beneath my feet and I sink into it, fast. I clutch at a lamppost and hold on hard so that the sidewalk does not swallow me and fill my lungs with sand. Around me I see, in a circle that grows ever smaller, a pack of wildcats sauntering nearer and nearer, and their green eyes shine and their white teeth are slick with saliva and their breath can be seen in the cold, cold air. Time that is beyond all human calculation passes, and a crash of thunder makes the mountain cats race up to the top of the Luxor hotel, where they fasten themselves like gargoyles to the top of the pyramid.”
“The boy had been alive nine years, which made him young, but he would only be alive for one more year, which made him old.”
“Sometimes, Doc, in the deepest dark of night, I awake in my bed and I turn to my right, and with horror I see some old lady lying on my arm. An old lady that I once loved, Doc, in whose flesh I once found splendor and now see only decay, an old lady who insults me by her very existence.”
“And so I have one child now, a boy, whose name is Stephan Mikhailovitch Smokovnikov, and I tell you now, Doc, with great and deep shame, the terrible truth. I no longer love him. When I look into his eyes, all I see is the same cowardice that I see when I catch a glimpse of my own eyes in a mirror. It is this cowardice that keeps me living, Doc, that keeps me moving from place to place, saying hello and goodbye, eating though hunger has long left me, walking without destination, and, at night, lying beside the strange old lady in this burlesque of a life I endure.”
“When it’s unexpected, death comes fast like a ravenous wolf and tears open your throat with a merciful fury. But when it’s expected, it comes slow and patient like a snake, and the doctor tells you how far away it is and when, exactly, it will be at your door. And when it will be at the foot of your bed. And when it will be on your flesh. It’s all right there on their clipboards.”
““Well, wouldn’t it be a better idea to let the audience decide whether it’s really funny?” “With all due respect, Lorne, I think that would be the worst thing we could possibly do. Believe me, I’ve been down that road before.””
“Women are attracted to funny men, it is often said. This is not true. It only appears this way because women laugh at everything a very handsome man says.”
“As we waited to spot a seal, I played a game with the boy. We would look up at the white clouds above and find figures in them. “That one looks like a bird,” I said. “Yeah, it does, and look at that one. It looks like a man rubbing his nose,” he returned. “I don’t see it.” “You see the bottom of it. That’s the man’s chin and then his mouth is wide open.” And then I saw it. And we played this game for two days, and we saw alligators and pickles and trees and every sort of thing, all of them white and still and living in the cold and limitless sky.”
“We’d only walked about fifty yards when a great weariness settled on me and I didn’t think I could go farther. Suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep. But Edward McClintock had warned me that the cold will trick a man and that sleep that sweetly beckons is not really sleep at all but the deeper thing.”
““If you cry, sir, then cry with envy and not pity. For the boy is in the clouds and he is one with the clouds. It is we who are left who are reminded on this unacceptable day that life is swift and yet we are blind to its mighty splendor, which can be found in the simplest of things. Things like a walk in the park, a conversation with a good friend, a deep rich coffee leavened with half cream and half milk and served in a sturdy mug—one with some heft—and, with it, a delicious cookie that’s white and has red jelly in the middle. Thank you for listening, and, due to the solemnity of the occasion, I would ask you to hold your applause.””
“Afterward, I walked back alone down a long blacktop road, and it was cold, and in the sky there were white clouds, and they all looked like white clouds and nothing else.”
“Hey, Norm, how’d you get Weekend Update?” I’m out of cigarettes so I pour a few grains of liquid morphine into a glass pipe. I use a torch lighter that sends an obelisk of hard blue fire to attack the glass and make the morphine sizzle and spit like bacon grease. My mind begins a crazy dance. “Well, let me think, Adam Eget. Let me think.””
“Sarah had just announced she would be leaving the show. She said she could no longer live in New York, that she was being tormented day and night by some obsessive stalker. This caught me completely by surprise, as I had taken to hanging around Sarah’s apartment, hiding in the bushes day and night, watching her come and go, and I had never seen any signs of a stalker.”
“11. In music news, number one on the college charts this week was Better than Ezra. And at number two: Ezra.”
“15. Earlier this week, Marlon Brando met with Jewish leaders to apologize for comments he made on Larry King Live, among them that “Hollywood is run by Jews.” The Jewish leaders accepted the actor’s apology and announced that Brando is now free to work again.”
“20. Dr. James Watts, a neurosurgeon who performed the first frontal lobotomy, died this week in Washington. If you recall, a lobotomy involves drilling holes in the skull and then inserting and rotating a knife to destroy brain cells. What a genius. He’ll be missed.”
“24. A French man, who calls himself “The Human Snake,” was arrested this week after climbing up the side of a Manhattan high-rise. Yep, he climbed right up the side of a high-rise. Just like a snake!”
“We look out the window, out at the uncertainty of it all. The town looks torn to hell, with the young meth heads stumbling around and giggling and scratching at itches that never go away, and the old men, rum-drunk, driving golf carts aimlessly through the rubble. No one goes near the beach. The sand beside the Salton Sea cannot be seen. This is because it is covered a foot deep in the broken skeletons of dead fish. And the stench is everywhere.”
“Here we are with two goons standing by Adam Eget, another with a red duffel bag full of money, and the fat man with the artificial hair is acting like we’re in a legitimate bank doing legitimate business. But I don’t care; I’ll sign anything. My name is as worthless as a bent penny, and if it helps me to scribble it on a piece of paper, no problem. But when I look down at the document on the table, I understand. It’s a life-insurance policy he wants me to sign. It will, upon my passing, pay two million dollars to my beneficiary. And across the table from me, smiling like a crocodile with salt-caked teeth and handing me a pen, sits my beneficiary. “It came to me in a dream,” he says. I smile right back at him and sign the paper.”
““Well, Don, that’s because a jury of his peers found Mr. Simpson not guilty of all the charges filed against him. He’s as innocent as you or me. If I was to mention O.J. at all on the telecast, it would be to deliver a profound and heartfelt apology for the cruel, racist remarks I made in my self-appointed role as judge, jury, and executioner.””
“The funny thing is, the five-thousand-dollar chip was the very same size as the five-dollar chip. Probably cost the same to make. But it was worth a thousand times more.”
“I was winning big time now. I began to feel an extraordinary transformation taking place deep within me, one that mirrored my chip’s transformation, for I felt myself double in value and then redouble and press to the maximum. I was the same exact size physically, and yet I was worth much more, a thousand times more,”
“I walked onto the boardwalk, my heart and pockets full. The people around me all looked small, and I knew that I was once like them but now I was different—same on the outside maybe, but a thousand times as bright, a thousand times as powerful, a thousand times what they were.”
“I like having no phone and a phone-shaped hole in the window. The apartment can get pretty windy at night, but it doesn’t bother me. Nothing has bothered me since the day I awoke with the plan. It is just so perfectly rational. As you can see, I am not a romantic. No great writer is. But the public is a different story. A posthumous work can be highly appealing. A book that took twenty years to write, which was then summarily and callously rejected, causing its author to take his own life—now, that is downright irresistible. Add to this that the manuscript in question is top-notch literature and we have the makings of a tragedy. By ending my life, I will live forever.”
“They are hiding, they say, from the fat man with the artificial hair. And they might well be. This fat man with the artificial hair may well kill us all. There is a problem, though. He may not exist. I may have made him up. I can’t be sure of anything anymore.”
“Before I leave, I look in the mirror and am confronted by a slovenly fool. My eyes have gone blank, just like his. I am stunned for a moment. It has finally happened. I have become him. God help me, I have become him.”
“There is the way things are and then the way things appear, and it is the way things appear, even when false, that is often the truest. If I am remembered, it will always be by the four years I spent at Saturday Night Live and, maybe even more than that, by the events surrounding my departure from that show. As long as SNL exists, then so do I.”
“It can be difficult to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever. It’s like a fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck.”
That’s my metaphor for America.
“The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful it’s too late. Of course, the young man will never understand this truth.”
“But looking back now, I can see that my life since SNL has been a full sprint, trying with all my might to outrun the wolves of irrelevancy snapping at my heels. It has all been in vain, of course. They caught and devoured me years ago.”
“And as for my gambling, it’s true I lost it all a few times. But that’s because I always took the long shot and it never came in. But I still have some time before I cross that river. And if you’re at the table and you’re rolling them bones, then there’s no money in playing it safe. You have to take all your chips and put them on double six and watch as every eye goes to you and then to those red dice doing their wild dance and freezing time before finding the cruel green felt.”
“i just keep speaking words into the tape recorder because the faster i read the more words go into my book and each word is a part of my life even if the words dont make any sense because they dont have to because thats not in the contract. nobody ever said your life had to make a damn bit of sense just as long as it had enough words thats all.”
“And outside the Regency House, we all laughed loudly for different reasons in the cold autumn of New York.”
i’ve had this scribbled on the front of the drawing pad on my bedside table for 6 months or so without a single clue where it came from… been periodically looking back over what i’ve read or watched this year, trying to place it. i don’t think i ever entertained the idea it was written by norm macdonald. sort of disappointing that the answer has popped up on google now, all the same − thanks for solving this puzzle.
what a lovely sentence and what a strange & funny book.