four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
Tad Friend
user_rating: 
0

Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor

A-Cheerful MoneyTad Friend is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Lost in Mongolia: Travels in Hollywood and Other Foreign Lands contains several of his articles on travel and the entertainment industry.

The Topic: The elements of the label WASP--White Anglo-Saxon Protestant--are familiar to most Americans. But they might have trouble explaining just why Elvis Presley or Bill Clinton, despite meeting the formal qualifications, would never have been accepted in the WASP domain. The answer isn't just money (of which the King and Bubba would eventually have bundles) but a whole collection of traits clustered around money, which Tad Friend happily enumerates in this unique combination of memoir and sociological taxonomy. As we learn, these traits include a complex intergenerational pattern of nicknames, the habit of naming dogs after varieties of liquor, privileged schools, and a fine vintage of emotional frigidity, among others.
Little, Brown. 348 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780316003179

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Cheerful Money ... is taxonomy-as-memoir, an absolutely brilliant gift to the reader, wherein Friend essentially holds open the door to the exclusive club. ... Friend is very funny. ... But he also is sad, sometimes angry, and in an effort to understand why his family withheld and bequeathed affection, hauls us with him over the emotional shoals." Nancy Rommelmann

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Be reassured: Tad Friend does fall far enough from the tree to give us a delightfully rendered account of not only his self-discovery but an examination of ‘The Last Days of Wasp Splendor.' ... Cheerful Money, in a way, is Friend's own letter to his father from a son who sees his flaws as his own, his strengths issuing from his father, deepened and enriched by his own efforts." Jane Juska

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the hands of a lesser writer, a book like this could read like the empty lament of a poor little rich boy, a tale likely to elicit little sympathy from readers without Friend's resources or options. ... [But Friend] broadens his tale into the chronicle of an entire slice of society and not just that of one cluster of families." Marjorie Kehe

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cheerful Money ... functions as not only a chronicle of Friend's determination to put the anxieties of his upbringing behind him, but also as WASP taxonomy--a bird-watching guide for people. ... Friend holds himself responsible for not carrying on the traditions of his forebears, but Cheerful Money offers a deadpan defense of the WASP culture whose outline it simultaneously traces." Ellen Wernecke

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Friend's often engaging work is too crowded: an overabundance of cousins, step-grand-uncles, Mother's friends et al. sweep by so fleetingly and confusingly that one is constantly, tiresomely driven to study the genealogical chart wisely included in the book. ... [Yet the] author's warmth and pleasant wit, his reliably graceful prose style, usually manage to carry the day." Francine du Plessix Gray

Critical Summary

Critics' explanations of Cheerful Money's appeal were as subtle as one of the intricate social rituals the book describes. Friend is a child of privilege, yet his emotional earnestness and somewhat elegiac tone more than make up for readers' potential resentment. His book is a flight from his WASPish past, yet in its thoroughness, it also constitutes a kind of defense of WASPs' peculiar culture. In any case, even reviewers who seemed to read Cheerful Money with something of a sneer admitted that its form is original, its prose well-crafted, and its characters hilarious.

Supplemental Reading

Class A Guide Through the American Status System | Paul Fussell (1983): The author of The Great War and Modern Memory offers this guilty pleasure: a guide to the tastes--or the perceived lack thereof--of different classes in American culture. Sure, it's slightly dated and pretty WASPy, but Fussell's observations seem, to many readers, spot-on.