Initially, it doesn’t appear that Merrill Markoe’s latest essay collection, Cool, Calm & Contentious, features a theme. She revisits her embarrassing, sometimes tragic teen years, engages her dogs in conversation and speaks (very briefly) at a truly dreadful college career fair in Lafayette, Louisiana. But a connection emerges as the pages pass: Markoe’s goal is to find the absurdity in everyday life. That, coupled with her sharp wit, makes her writing sublime—and surprisingly educational.
Markoe, a novelist and essayist who was the first head writer for “Late Night with David Letterman,” isn’t content just to mine situations for laughs. Anyone can mock; it takes real talent to illuminate. And Markoe is skilled—and fearless—in retracing the missteps both large and small in her life.
Her youthful misinterpretation of Jack Kerouac’s works—“I knew that what I had to do to join my artistic destiny was to get roaring drunk”—becomes a warning about the dangers of co-opting a culture based on highlights. A writing assignment to cover an all-women’s whitewater rafting trip becomes personal for Markoe, who learns the value of doing something different. Her remembrance of her late, hypercritical mother contains its share of chestnuts—the woman’s travel diaries read like a never-ending bad review of the international scene—and a key revelation: Mom was a textbook narcissist. Markoe does thank her mom for urging her to learn about narcissism. It made her equipped to live in Los Angeles.
In each essay, there’s a sense that Markoe wants to impart a lesson to readers; indeed, some chapters could double as courses in common sense, including “How to Spot an A**hole.” Yet she never resorts to the kinds of know-it-all proclamations of fluffy life advice usually dispensed on a talk show set. By being herself, Markoe’s straightforward tales of navigating the annoyances of life are genuinely helpful—and legitimately funny.