This is a story about a memoir that might have been. It begins with Nevertheless, the newly published memoir by Alec Baldwin, already close to topping all bestseller lists, and rising. Reviews have been largely favorable, though not without snark – Baldwin has a depressing history of controversy related to his notorious anger-management problems. Of late, however, he has been widely popular, partly due to his inspired impersonation of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.
Early in Nevertheless, the author reveals with disarming candor the real reason he’s writing a memoir: “I’m writing it because I was paid to write it,” he says. Many reviewers have seized on this quote as if it’s uniquely revealing among all quotable passages in the book. The line does bring the reader up short, especially after passages that deliver a wholly different kind of disarming candor: “Over time,” he writes, “I realized that, through acting, I could touch every station of the cross, as I perceived them (humility, service, loyalty), that might earn my late father’s approval.”
“The author reminds us throughout his book why money equals love for him.”
This quote, and others like it, rarely (if ever) appear in a review. Yet given such a priceless observation, why are reviewers – including this one — so cynically drawn to a flippant quote about money? Do we harbor a secret desire to believe the worst of people? Does the choice — pithy and out of context — somehow make our jobs easier? The author reminds us throughout his book why money equals love for him. Do we forget that he has three small children to raise on what he clearly considers an uncertain income from a gig-profession? Or that he describes many times the lifelong financial anxiety that lingers from his childhood?
The fact is, the choice is not so much ours as it is Alec Baldwin’s. The man is a talented writer – this is his second book, and he does write them — who is well aware of the words he chooses and the games he plays. He understands the risk of writing such a delicious, provocative sentence, because he admits as much immediately afterward – whoa, he says, this attitude could cost me readers, maybe even fans. Hell with that, I’m going to write it anyway. Here’s the thing about Nevertheless: tracking the author’s sometimes shocking, sometimes disappointing choices is the real reason to read it.
We could talk, for instance, about his choice to include that last, shocking joke in the last chapter – how the joke just hangs there, seemingly unrelated to anything. Why? I think there is literary justification for the joke, although the author doesn’t make that easy for us to see. In my eyes, though, the more interesting choice is the memoir that got away.
“Readers can rest assured they’ll get their money’s worth from this book.”
The most powerfully written of these chapters is the first two – other reviewers have agreed. They are also the most deeply troubling. If Baldwin had stuck with this memoir – the memoir about the darkest of forces that shaped his childhood and his life — it might have been a less commercially viable choice, but a greater artistic choice. I mourn this lost narrative and can only hope that the memoir that might have been is still something Baldwin can turn to in his future writings.
In the meantime, speaking of money, readers can rest assured they’ll get their money’s worth with this book. Alec Baldwin dishes in fine style, speaking openly about his marital troubles, his career-breaking communication with his daughter, his former drug addiction, his feud with Harrison Ford. He describes the good stuff too: his love and admiration for Anthony Hopkins and Julie Harris, his life-affirming love affair with the theater. It’s a great read, no matter the choices.
There is a pervasive sadness to Nevertheless that never dissipates. Still, we can’t stop turning those pages. What greater testimony to the author’s skill than this?