To hug him or to slug him? That is the question one ponders while reading Moshe Kasher’s gut-wrenching account of his youth, during which he was both emotionally fragile and socially insufferable. Although he’s now a high-profile standup comic, Kasher offers precious little to laugh about here, only the blackest of humor. Still, his book is compelling for its grim candor and voluminous details about slacker street life in Oakland, California. There’s even a wisp of inspiration.

Unlike the solitary and largely sympathetic character of Holden Caulfield conjured up by the book’s title, Kasher in the Rye, Kasher more resembles a gang-oriented Tom Sawyer on drugs. Born in Queens, New York, of two deaf parents who separated within months of his birth, he says he was a “feral kid” from the start, “wild at heart and physically unable to handle the energy and ferocity of [his] own body.” Leaving her abusive husband behind in New York, Kasher’s mother fled with him and his older brother to her home territory of Oakland. Kasher was seven before he was allowed to visit his father again.

Given the parental clashes, his mother’s embarrassing (to him) infirmity, the family’s poverty and his brother’s tendency to excel at school and do everything right, it’s no wonder that Kasher found himself consigned to a therapist when he was four years old. He would remain in therapy on and off—and generally without success—throughout his teenage years. Not surprisingly, he was an abysmal and rebellious student who bounced from one school to another. Nor did he find relief in visiting his father in New York. There he was immersed in a rule-ridden, orthodox Jewish enclave that warred with the free spirit he was developing on the streets of Oakland.

It’s chilling to watch Kasher narrowly evade disaster as he drinks, drugs, steals, schemes and fights his way through life. And it’s infuriating to see him break his devoted mother’s heart again and again. But there is warmth, too, in roaming with the ragtag community of loyal losers he surrounds himself with. Just when it appears that things can’t get any more depraved and desolate for him, Kasher finally seizes control of his fate, and one can almost hear the orchestra swelling. By this time, it’s welcome music indeed.

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