Where At Home in the World is an accomplished piece of memoir writing despite 15 years of critical attacks on Maynard’s reputation, Brendan Jay Sullivan’s recently published remembrance of his friendship with Lady Gaga during the early years of her career, bearing the subtitle- and SEO-ready name Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives, is the exact opposite. Whereas Maynard’s book is a thoughtful, serious recollection of a young girl on the brink of a breakdown and her struggles to overcome the emotional turmoil of both her relationship with Salinger and the dreadful circumstances of her adolescence, Sullivan’s book is a self-congratulatory appreciation of himself in the faint shadow of the young Lady Gaga, who would go on to be one of the most famous performers in the world.
While Salinger exists in At Home in the World as a figure who offers comfort and mentorship to the young Joyce Maynard before breaking her heart, Lady Gaga appears in Rivington Was Ours as someone who, while on the cusp of stardom, repeatedly boosts Sullivan’s ego with constant praise of his creative talents as he rides on the coattails of her success as her DJ. When he isn’t spinning, Sullivan recounts his attempts at writing a novel — a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet told from the point of view of the doomed Mercutio. “Isn’t that brilliant?” he remembers Gaga gushing. “Such a good story. I can already see it being a big movie. You’re going to be huge.” (To be fair, plenty of other minor, less-famous people Sullivan encounters also attest to his “genius.”)
Perhaps the most embarrassing example of hubris in the memoir, though, comes out in this exchange between Gaga and Sullivan in what begins as mutual appreciation and goes someplace even more mind-blowingly awful:
“I’m insecure. It’s way different.” “You’re not insecure.” “I know I am because I like hearing you tell me I’m not.” “You’re not insecure, baby. But you’re protecting someone who’s insecure. Inside of you, you have a little geeky Brendan who didn’t fit in and probably wore glasses.” “It was not cute.” “You have to spread your wings, buddy. You’re six foot two, you dress like a champion, and you have a nice, thick—” “Stop it.” She shrugged. “What? Girls talk.”
Yes, this is a man who just revealed by way of a conversation with Lady Gaga that he has a large penis. (Typically, such a revelation isn’t so overt in a memoir penned by a dude.) In an already obvious attempt to place himself within the same world as Lady Gaga’s fame (which is, it should be noted, a sentiment Gaga herself would probably get behind, considering her own desperation for acknowledgement), Sullivan’s book reads like a incessant quest for validation, a bid to legitimize nightlife as an art form. Compared to Maynard’s, it’s a tacky display. Sullivan, of course, will likely not receive the same kinds of criticism as Maynard — a man’s boasts about his own girth are generally more appreciated than a woman’s recounting of her budding sexuality, especially when her sexual discovery was at the hands of a very famous and beloved man — but perhaps that’s due less to misogyny than to the fact that Sullivan’s book is so clearly a fleeting and ephemeral grab for relevance.
Maynard’s book, on the other hand, will hopefully receive a more positive, thoughtful, and less knee-jerky response. Nothing about At Home in the World truly feels like a gross retelling of a young woman’s association with a famous writer; rather, it comes across as a respectable and nuanced look at womanhood during a time when the notion of femininity was changing. Fifteen years after its initial publication, the book can also be read, within the context of its critical response, as a meta-commentary on the importance masculine voices and sensibilities hold over the writing of words. Looking at Rivington Was Ours, it’s clear that nothing has changed, but we can at least better identify when masculine bravado is being oversold at the expense of intelligence, poignancy, and relevance.