A memoir is an impression of a life, and how a writer shapes her material often tells us more about her character than it does about the facts. Jeanne Darst’s family life could as easily be tragic as comic, but in Darst’s painfully hilarious Fiction Ruined My Family, comedy wins out every time. A consummate performer, she keeps her readers balanced on a fine line between laughter and tears.

Darst comes from a St. Louis family distinguished for its politicians, writers and alcoholics; when her father gives up politics for writing, the family’s fortunes begin to decline. Darst’s mother, who had been a child equestrian and debutante, takes to her bed with a bottle of whiskey, keeping “a light cry going most of the time” as she laments her lost social prospects. When their father moves the whole family to New York, the four daughters learn to fend for themselves.

Darst’s portrayal of her father is a masterpiece of comic empathy. His rejected novels and devotion to literature make him into a kind of tragic hero, a Don Quixote of freelance writers. From him, Darst absorbs the idea that bad life equals good art, a dysfunctional lesson that she lives out as an impoverished young actor in New York. The funniest parts of this book emerge from Darst hitting bottom again and again as an alcoholic and must be read to be believed. Honestly. Still, it’s hard for Darst to compete with her parents, who “hog all the death and destruction” for themselves. Her mother divorces her father so that she can concentrate on her drinking, and yet the divorce doesn’t take; he continues to look after her until her death, channeling his emotions into an obsession with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. It doesn’t sound very funny, and it isn’t: Darst’s tone shifts in the later sections of the book, as she describes the squalor her mother lived in, and her own struggle to get sober.

Darst’s memoir is proof that the answer to her ultimate question—can you be funny, creative and sober?—is emphatically yes. Fiction may have ruined Jeanne Darst’s family, but the humor she learned from them as a survival strategy flourishes in this book.

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