Hollis Gillespie's father, when not too boozed up, sold mobile homes in California. Her mother designed missiles for NASA and took beauty school classes at night, dreaming of the time when she could trade in rocket science for cosmetology. One of Gillespie's sisters grew up to become a Las Vegas cocktail waitress. The other married a gun-toting, alcoholic Swede with visions of Korean pig-farming in Arizona.
Gillespie wears a number of odd hats herself: She's a flight attendant, trilingual interpreter, sometime essayist for NPR's All Things Considered and regular columnist for Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly. The column chronicles the offbeat, dysfunctional lives of herself, her family and her best friends. Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood (Regan Books, 279 pp., $23.95) is essentially a best-of collection from that column.
With such a vita, it's no surprise that Gillespie is funny. Consider the beginning of "Something Caught": "I just got popped for speeding on the way home. Daniel was in the car, and not until the officer was gone did we figure out the perfect way to get out of a speeding ticket: You pretend you have something caught in your throat, and then ask the police officer to kindly use his penis to help dislodge it."
But Gillespie is more than just funny. Her vignettes are also poignant, and the lessons she learns are sensible. (Be nice to people because we're all going to die. That kind of thing.) She knows the essay form well and makes good use of its opportunities for controlled wandering: The pieces continually loop back on themselves, beginning and ending in the same space but traveling everywhere in between, propelled by observations of the ordinary that trigger extra-ordinary memories.
Often the seemingly mundane becomes a metaphor for something larger. In "Letting Go in Las Vegas," for example, Gillespie begins with, "I'd had two cocktails and it wasn't even 10 a.m., which led me to conclude that I loved Las Vegas." The narrative is ostensibly about "letting go," as in "letting it all hang out," but it also includes meditations on crime, prostitution ("The going rate for a tongue bath was only $95. Is that all? I thought, and to this day I can't think of a harder job than being a whore"), her parents' wedding and the MGM Grand fire that killed 84 people "as they clung, dangling, from their useless skytop perches." By the end of the essay, the words "letting go" have taken on a new meaningor at least a more resonant one.
Which doesn't mean Gillespie is going to be America's next poet laureate. But what separates her from run-of-the-mill comedy writers is that underneath her humor is a kind of poetic search for meaning, an attempt to connect things great and small. In a fractured world, her timely and humorous examination of all things human deserves attention as well as laughter.
Gillespie will read at Davis-Kidd Booksellers 6 p.m. April 8.
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