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Thanks for the Pranks

By John Dicker

The Sound of No Hands Clapping

By Toby Young

DeCapo/Perseus, 288 pages, $24.95

There are very few reasons to pay serious attention to Toby Young’s second memoir, The Sound of No Hands Clapping. That’s because Mr. Young is 42 years old and, yes, you read it right, this is his second memoir. Unless you’re a first-person prodigy along the lines of, say, Mark Twain or David Sedaris, is there any reason to have two memoirs at this age? Aside from the prodigiously talented, exceptions can be made for those raised by paraplegic Kangaroos, but being ambitious and British hardly seems compelling enough for a $24 book.

Or so you might think . . .

Other reasons to dislike Toby Young: He’s as vapid and fame-starved as the cast of a thousand Real Worlds. And the critical eye he capably turns on pop culture, love and marriage somehow dissipates when it comes to himself. Or at least his overarching desire for fame. Why does he uproot his wife from London to L.A. to pursue a screenwriting career he can easily have from home? Why does he hire paparazzi to stalk a producer who won’t return his calls? Why is his self-worth so wrapped up in the very same careerism his first memoir ultimately, and vehemently, rejected?

Don’t think about this too much.

In How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, Young fell (hard) from a seemingly enviable journalistic perch at Vanity Fair magazine, where he upset movie stars and his editor, Graydon Carter. Years later, married and returned to London, his gaze is still fixed on America, but this time it’s the Hollywood film business instead of its satellite-celebrity industrial complex. Contracted by what he assures us is a Very Powerful Hollywood Producer—name omitted for legal reasons—Young busies himself adapting a book about a legendary disco-era record producer into a screenplay. Only it never really takes and, at risk of being reductive, drama ensues.

At the same time, Young has become a father and, oddly enough, an actor while holding down a day job he admits being totally unqualified for: theater critic. None of this is terrifically exciting, mind you, but the thing about Young is that, despite so many reasons to dislike him, he is genuinely funny and charming—while being a complete ass.

Case in point: His account of his short-lived cub-reporter gig at The Times (of London). Rather than work his way up a promising career ladder, he hacks into the company computer network and releases the salary details of the entire editorial staff. Logged in as the boss of his supervisor, he does things like this: “When he got to work 15 minutes late one morning I sent him a message, purporting to be from the editor, saying, ‘Move your fucking car. It’s in my space.’ He leapt out of his chair as if he’d received a jolt from a cattle prod.”

To most mortals this would seem an astoundingly poor move: The prank payout being outweighed by its consequences. To Young, however, such mischief is as inevitable as exhaling. Yet unlike his real life, Young the writer has great instinct for knowing how far he can push our tolerance for foibles. So embedded in his painless, but indulgent, romps are many compelling insights into the life of a successful, if not iconic, writer. Also buried in these pages are some great exchanges between Young and a Hollywood “industry” friend in Los Angeles about screenwriting in particular and the creative process in general. It’s a mix of technique and tough love that’s more interesting than this review might suggest.

The Sound is hardly a book without problems. Young’s self-deprecation is shticky, in part because his knack for making a royal twat of himself grows suspect due to its preternatural frequency. However, in most cases, the funny manages to cancel out the megalomania and the skepticism regarding its authenticity.

Maybe it’s because Americans instinctively put British folk on a pedestal of erudition, it’s a welcome relief to find a Brit who’s book-smart and a complete imbecile. In his first memoir, an exasperated Graydon Carter tells Young he’s “like a British person born in New Jersey.” It’s meant as a slight, of course, though it’s not totally untrue. Young couldn’t buy couth in a Greenwich country club with a fistful of Vanderbilt zygotes. But thank goodness for that because it’s what makes his memoirs work. He’s a tacky Brit just interesting enough to make us care, with the self-deprecating stupidity to make us laugh and the decency to keep his acting career confined to the stage. If only more British people were born in the Garden State . . .

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