Wednesday, March 12, 2008
How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gates Gill
Two word review: Don't bother.
Ostensibly the story of a high-flying advertising exec who lost his job and his family at 50, but found redemption in work and service, this is actually the most cynical and saccharine of "self help" books.
The author is the son of a quasi-famous editor of the New Yorker, and as such lived a live of insulated privilege with access to other famous people. Sent to Yale, upon graduation he is tipped to the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency by a school chum, and then hired by a Yale alum. Fired by the company once in his fifties, he forgoes an age discrimination suit in return for favorable references and job feeds for his own consulting company. Ten years later, the work has dried up, and he finds himself at 64 working at Starbucks.
To say this guy is arrogant and a gasbag is only the start. He is a hopelessly gauche name dropper, wedging in anecdotes of his encounters with famous people wherever he can, despite their being utterly disconnected with the story. Sure, you met Jackie Onassis, and Ernest Hemingway, etc. etc. You are still a bore. A boor, as well.
Next, the "lessons" he learns are at least 50 years behind the zeitgeist. Black people can be articulate! Walmart is a retail store! Some people graduate from college, but don't get cushy jobs through the Old Boys' Network! Did you know that your salary at Starbucks doesn't really mean you can charge all your dinners at the Oyster Bar? Who knew?
The aura of privilege is never convincingly eliminated either. One of the first questions Gill addresses is whether he could work for a African-American woman manager. Of course he can! Didn't he love his Old Black Mammy who was the family cook back in the day? Just like those old days back at the plantation--he was all but raised by Hattie McDaniel, until his parents fired her for being too old to get up the stairs of the four story townhouse. So, he's no racist!
He offers a number of war stories about his days as a Creative Director for J. Walter Thompson (oh, did he mention that he worked at J. Walter Thompson? Only about a million times), and frankly one leaves with the impression that he was fired because he wasn't very good or creative. When introducing a meeting with a client over changing the name of a company, he brings along a bat and a ball. While mouthing some pablum along the lines of "This new name will be a home run!" (I know--cliched at best), he tosses up the ball and swings. And the elderly owner of the company has to throw himself out of his chair to avoid being brained.
And this is presented as a GOOD idea.
The book is subtitled "A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everybody Else." We are treated to a lot about being born to privilege, and having lived most of his live in privilege, and at the end of the book, we discover that he remains privileged. In the acknowledgements at the end, he thanks someone for getting him a literary agent on the title of the book alone. School ties, anyone? It looks like he got the book deal before writing the book, and then sold the movie rights to Tom Hanks, while being represented by CAA. Sure--"everybody else" gets a CAA brokered movie deal before writing their book, don't they?
Oh, you mean they don't?
I guess Gill is just to privileged to know about that.
This is not a man made more human through suffering--this is a man still riding on the crest of the wave of privilege, proving once again, it's not what you know, it's who you know, and the "whos" that Michael Gates Gill knows are powerful enough for him to coast back into prosperity while other, better writers don't.