BELOW AVERAGE: A Life Way Under the Bar

By Lianne Stokes

Heliotrope Books | 2016 | 172 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Ask yourself this: How many books have you read that are laugh-out-loud funny?

If anyone asked me that question, I’d immediately cite J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (which is funny and heartrending at the same time), and quickly I’d add Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  But soon enough, I’d falter.  Right off the bat, I cannot think of one dozen laugh-out-loud funny books.  It seems to me that there’s a reason for this.

By and large, in the world of books there is a prejudice against laughter that’s similar to the bias in the realms of TV and films.  Drama is considered the coin of the realm, and comedy is almost always categorized as a less impressive mode.  And yet, to paraphrase Jerry Lewis, a thousand actors can play Hamlet – but there could be only one Little Tramp, because there was only one Charlie Chaplin. 

In the case of Lianne Stokes and her spirited debut memoir Below Average: A Life Way Under the Bar, there’s a rollicking narrative that’s just as funny and heartrending as The Catcher in the Rye, minus Holden’s predilection for profanity.

From its clever title to its anecdotal overview of growing up shy, awkward, and often out-of-step in the age of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, MTV and AOL, the transition out of the 1990s and into the 21st century, this memoir by Lianne Stokes might qualify as the autobiography of a generation.  That is to say, she represents the generation of younger white American women who emerged after the Sex and the City phenomenon, but before Girls and the world according to Lena Dunham.

Below Average has hit a nerve with the media because it’s easy to highlight one of its narrative motifs. In short, the author waited until she was 30 before losing her virginity. She did not delay such a plunge due to religious orthodoxy. Nor did she stay chaste so long because of oppressive parents or a straitlaced upbringing.

What happened was more idiosyncratic and far funnier. Simply put, Lianne Stokes spent her first 30 years being utterly befuddled by human behaviors, bewildered by boys, and quasi-disoriented by the mating games she witnessed everywhere from high school to TV internships.

During her teens, and throughout her twenties, whether she was observing the vagaries of classmates in the throes of romantic distress or so-called grown-ups carrying on like hormonal goats amid the production of Spin City and Days of Our Lives, the author was perennially flummoxed by the ways of men and Eros.

However, this is more than a humorous recollection of someone in the capital of America’s sex-drenched culture (Stokes was born in Nyack, New York, attended Syracuse University, and made her way to Manhattan after college). It is also a memoir that repeatedly illustrates the absurdity of ambition, especially in the world of entertainment and performance.

And yet, before recounting the lapses, the faux pas, and the endless ironies and idiocies that she witnessed in the dating world and as an active participant in the professional milieu of stage, TV, and advertising, the author charts her life’s journey with a tone and a cadence that make turning her pages effortless.

For example, she recalls an awakening that occurred before she was 10 years old.
“I began masturbating at nine.  It was a random Tuesday in September when I was hanging upside down from the wooden bars on the swing set in my backyard.  As the backs of my knees clung to the oak bar, I felt a radical sensation in my privates. It coursed through my pelvis sending a feeling of euphoria to my brain.”

Nonetheless, as the child of an eccentric, OCD-laden Vietnam Vet for a father and a dynamo of a Sicilian mother who provided “no birds’ and the bees’ chatter in my house at all,” the author would spend all of her young life learning by fumbling.

She remembers it this way: “Each day I’d return to that swing set and I just couldn’t get that magical feeling back. So I decided to explore new objects. I went inside and sat on the geometric-print, brown-and-orange sofa and turned on Diff’rent Strokes.  ‘Where are you’ I said looking in between my legs. That’s when I resumed my position, hanging my head off the ledge of the couch. I began scissoring the air. “Lianne!  Stop it!’ my mother said, looming over me in disgust. I hadn’t been touching myself, as that simple method hadn’t occurred to me, but the image of my nine-year-old legs opening and closing, making a not-so-innocent snow angel, was enough for her. I was still wearing My Little Pony panties, so my sexuality was something she wasn’t ready to face.”

Fast-forward more than a decade, and the author’s control of her material and its tempo is always evident. For a while, she was a dental assistant. Hence, this: “My lunch break at the dentist’s office was great for my figure because looking at enflamed gums all day made me want to do anything but eat.” Soon after that, her internship on Spin City began.

Inevitably, after she witnessed the temperamental lunacies and ambitious follies that went hand in hand with Days of Our Lives and Spin City, she boldly stepped up.

“I finally got the courage to start doing stand-up,” she recalls, which was “something I’d always wanted to do. Comedy was saving me from feeling inadequate about not being close to a promotion at work. Humor had always been my escape, and for the first time I felt like I was facing my fear and trying to do something big with my life. I wanted the stability of my small paycheck, of course, but with every show I did and every laugh I got, my advertising ambitions became less genuine.”

And the weeks, months, and years roll by.  Indeed, her life’s journey is a reminder that for untold millions, the teen years are a maze and one’s twenties are a mixed bag of ambitions. But in the case of Lianne Stokes, her unique journey of a life without sex until the age of 30 sets her apart from the vast majority.

The great good news is that her story never palls (as many great comedians have testified, there’s often a sag in the middle of comic narratives), and when her book zeros in on her manifest determination to once and for all surrender her “V-card,” the integrity of her book is not compromised.  Intelligence, wit, and irony abound.

Below Average: A Life Way Under the Bar is more than a laugh-out-loud funny book.  It’s a reminder that a certain type of gifted writer can make us laugh, wince, reflect, and perhaps most of all be grateful that memoirs can be read.

(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review)

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