Stand-up comic and novelist Mike Albo (Hornito) is primarily a stand-up comic. I heard him perform/read from The Underminer. That was hilarious, but a book (though it is considerably shorter than 176 pages, since it has many blank pages and illustrations) of a passive aggressive “friend” gets so unpleasant that I stopped admiring the wit that could come up with yet more covert (very slightly covert!) putdowns all issuing from a college friend who goes on to much greater success in the lower Manhattan art/performance scene than the brunt of all the faux pity and condescending (pseudo-)comfort.
Probably all of us have some experience with this kind of being put down by someone pretending to be a friend, trying to help, etc. I was onto the covert malice of “nice” girls already in junior high, making themselves feel better in “consoling” others for not getting what the consolers had (a boyfriend, a place on the cheerleading squad, whatever). The underminer here, is, I think, a gay male bltch with a gay male victim. I’ve known some passive-aggressive straight males, but straight male aggression is more typically undisguised malice and shall we say “straightforward” attacks — except within bureaucracies. And, although Albo played the Underminer as a gay male, the text is open to the you and the I being straight females instead
The book can make most anyone removed from the lower Manhattan art scene glad that they are not in that particular status game. And the sole speaker in the book, The Underminer, seems impossibly successful and connected, even with a large discount for his claimed successes and intimacies with celebrities.
Though not the object of the Underminer’s sympathy, I started to feel like a punching bag and to become irritated that anyone would (or imaginably could) take such steady abuse, even from a velvet gloved master at finding soft spots in the limited self-esteem of his friend. I am only too well aware that people stay in abusive relationships and stay and stay, but usually there is something in addition to the abuse. Not here. And there is no relationship. The Underminer and the Undermined run into each other (at Burning Man in the Nevada desert as well as in a yoga class, at a Kinko’s and NYC openings and parties).
I guess I should provide some samples of biting reassurances. How about “People get too hung up about thinness. You’re more like a typical American”? Or “I guess nerds grow up and change, and some become not-so-nerdy, and don’t need the same nerdy things.”
The Underminer is always speaking of abandoning whatever the Undermined is just discovering (not to mention obsolescent technologies). The narrator of Hornito wondered ”What is wrong with me? Why am I overobsessed with surfaces?” The reader of The Underminer has to wonder about whether the “you” of the book is as shallow though less successful a social climber and artistic poseur as the “I.”
Great as Albo is at mimicking the Underminer, I suspect that the book would get tedious even in a recording by him. Instead of trying to read the book as a narrative, perhaps one should let a few months pass between reading chapters, like watching “The Office” (the real one, the British one, or the American model) every week, instead of a whole season at once.
Effective stand-up does not a novel make – at least one side of a heedless gloater pretending to be sympathetic!does not! even with the catalog of fads across the 15 years of the book. For some of the same thwarted thrivings in the same milieu, I prefer Albo’s Hornito: My Lie Life.