Nathan Rabin, The Big Rewind

For the past decade, Nathan Rabin has made a name for himself as the prolific, foul-mouthed, endlessly excitable head writer of The Onion’s entertainment section, The A.V. Club. He writes omnivorously about every kind of culture under the sun, and in addition to straitlaced interviews and reviews has penned beloved columns like “My Year of Flops” and “Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club,” which manage to be as perceptive as they are uproarious.

With The Big Rewind, his first book, Rabin turns his trademark acerbic wit back on his own life, a tumultuous journey involving group homes, absentee parents, mental hospitals, polyamorist girlfriends, Topher Grace’s vomit, and short-lived cable TV shows. But his is ultimately a redemptive story: the pop culture that originally provided Rabin with much-needed escapes from reality became a hobby, then an obsession, and finally a career. The critic in him retains a key role here, too, as each chapter begins with a discussion of an album, film, or Simpsons episode that’s had a particular resonance for a period of his life.

On the whole, The Big Rewind is a wildly uneven memoir — even a frequent failure. Yet it’s not that I wish Rabin had kept his knack for pop culture dissection further at bay, in favour of the true events. If anything, the book could have benefited from a little more of the intentionally narrow focus that, say, a film review demands. Ask Rabin to write 2,000 words on The Love Guru, and he’s a pyrotechnic delight; give him 80,000+ on everything he can conjure from his 33 years on this Earth, and he’s all over the place.

Rabin’s life began its unpredictable zigzag early, when his father abruptly quit his cushy government job in suburban Wisconsin and took off with Rabin and his sister to Chicago. Despite having a this-is-my-future cultural epiphany while watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Rabin’s social and academic failings  got the best of him — until one night, in a half-thought-through cry for help, he swallowed an entire packet of caffeine pills. It wasn’t nearly enough to kill him, but a month later, his father, well-meaning but misguided as usual, had him committed to a mental hospital anyway.

His stay there was short — they gave him the boot once his father’s health insurance ran out — but from there Rabin would see his dad only sporadically. Instead, he bounded from a yuppie foster family to six long years in a group home to a stint in a filthy co-op at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Along the way he fell in with the original Onion crowd, where it was love at first sight (at least from his end), and bumbled his way through a series of unsteady relationships.

The memoir’s first problem is logistical: Rabin simply has far too much material to fit into a book this size. As a result, many of the early chapters feel rushed, with dozens of minor characters introduced, given one or two brief moments to shine, and then discarded. There’s very little actual storytelling in the first half. It’s obvious Rabin includes these peripheral figures because they genuinely matter to him, but too often it comes across as caricature. The chapter about the mental hospital, for example, opens with an analysis of Susanna Kaysen’s own asylum memoir, Girl, Interrupted — but where Kaysen devotes a whole book to the experience, Rabin condenses his own journey, from intake to outtake, into fewer than 25 pages.

The other major shortcoming is, surprisingly, those pop culture springboards that open each chapter, and which sound so tantalizing on the book jacket. Aside from maybe Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman, Rabin has done more than any other working critic to show the permanent, character-defining marks pop culture can leave on its consumers. Yet here, where art and biography should most easily intertwine, it never quite comes together. Maybe it’s because these insights aren’t as convincing as in Rabin’s journalism; maybe it’s simply because our most important connections with art are also the most private, the most difficult to properly express.

In fact, the most successful parts of the memoir are the ones that bear almost no relation to the specific foils Rabin uses to set them up. When he slows down and really hones in on his subject, as in the truly heart-wrenching chapter on his absentee mother, or the long end section about his stint on a chaotic, short-lived AMC movie review show, Rabin carries his story effortlessly. Who knows, maybe Movie Club with John Ridley really does resemble the 1952 melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful. It’s a crutch Rabin doesn’t need.

For all its flaws, The Big Rewind is frequently a blast to read — it’s a page-turner, and Rabin is an entertaining, if easily distracted, tour guide. Patient readers, as well as pre-existing Rabin fans, are sure to find, amidst the mass of creative expletives and biting sarcasm, what is at heart a remarkable story about depression and the redemptive powers of Jean-Luc Godard and Dr. Dre.

I’m a little worried that many newcomers won’t make it past the phrase “Cunt-fucking Christ on a Crucicracker,” from the introduction. Then again, I’m sure Rabin wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scribner, 368 pp, $32.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, July 23, 2009)