© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sloane Crosley mourns her best friend in 'Grief Is for People'


Between 2008 and 2018, Sloane Crosley published three collections of personal essays that were as snappy and tart as Granny Smith apples.

She frequently dined out on her own foibles, including the ongoing challenge of keeping her stuff together — apartment keys, wallets, cigarette lighters. She also addressed more serious subjects, such as her mixed feelings about remaining single and childless into her late 30s.

In Grief Is for People, her first full-length book of nonfiction, Crosley drills much deeper to examine the greatest pain she has known: the loss of her best friend (and former boss) to suicide in July 2019. Her new book is a meditation on loss and grief that combines her verbal alacrity and mordant wit with moving descriptions that capture the ache of sleepless nights in which "the hole in my heart was like a wind tunnel that whistled straight through until dawn."

Her friend was Russell Perreault, whom Crosley identifies in this book exclusively by his first name. The head of publicity at Knopf's Vintage paperback division, Russell hired Crosley in 2004, when she was 25 and he was 37. Among other things, Grief Is for People offers an insider's account of the role of publicists in publishing, a business that changed markedly — and not for the best — during Russell's decades of "resurrecting literary lions, of keeping them alive in the press."

Although Russell was not as difficult as one of Crosley's earlier bosses (whom she skewered hilariously in I Was Told There'd Be Cake), he was not an easy person to work for. "He was an excellent mentor so long as you didn't expect anything resembling patience," she writes. He had a "blunt managerial style" and "zero facility for office politics." In the years before she left publishing to write full-time, he taught her how to generate attention for authors — and deal with crises like the mess that arose around the paperback launch of James Frey's factually questionable A Million Little Pieces.

But in the early years of their working relationship, Russell, whom she describes as "pathologically social and abrasively generous," invited Crosley and other assistants to the Connecticut home he shared with the man she refers to as his "longtime partner." (A quick Google search turns up Perreault's husband, Reed Maroc.) Swimming, poolside lounging, barbecues, and thrifting at local flea markets were on the agenda — until the weekend houseparties ended abruptly, without explanation. Crosley assumes Russell's partner had decided he'd had enough.

Over the years, Russell and Crosley became so close "there was no daylight between our professional and personal lives and we did not see how this could turn into a problem." Oddly, Crosley does not question what such closeness to her boss and another man's husband said about her — or him. On weeknights when Russell was in town and his partner was in the country, they attended publicity events, operas, and dinners together. Their texts were filled with snappy repartee. He was the dedicatee of her 2018 book, Look Alive Out There.

One of the hardest writing decisions is where to begin a story. Crosley chooses to start her tale of grief one month to the day before Russell's death, when a thief entered her West Village apartment through her bedroom window via the fire escape while she was out on a brief errand. The thief made off with 41 pieces of jewelry — including an amber amulet and a domed tourmaline cocktail ring, both of which Russell admired, and both of which were part of her minimal legacy from a grandmother with whom she wasn't close. "All burglaries are alike, but every burglary is uninsured in its own way," she quips.

Crosley is taken by surprise at how upset she is over this theft and the violation of her personal space. She comes to see it as a harbinger of the far more devastating sense of loss following Russell's death. It strikes her that, just as there are no "bereavement groups for stuff" — because "Grief is for people, not things" — there's no way "to game grief in advance."

Crosley can't get her beloved friend back, but as a sort of proxy, she becomes obsessed with tracking down and retrieving some of her stolen jewelry. These scenes recall her account in Look Alive Out There of her risky dealings with the shady character who held her up for ransom after stealing her website domain name and primary email address.

By wrangling her complicated friend onto the pages of this elegiac book, Crosley holds onto what she can. The result is a noteworthy addition to the literature of grief.

Grief Is for People is loosely structured on the stages of grief — denial, bargaining, anger, depression. Crosley chronicles her attempt to wrap her head around her losses. "People like Russell, and people like me now, we don't know where sadness belongs," she writes. LikeJoan Didion, she turns to literature for elucidation — William Styron, Kay Redfield Jamison, Albert Camus, George Sand, along with Didion. (She does not mention Sarah Manguso's The Guardians, another memoir about losing a close friend to suicide.)

By wrangling her complicated friend onto the pages of this elegiac book, Crosley holds onto what she can. The result is a noteworthy addition to the literature of grief.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.