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BOOK REVIEW

Witty takes on youth, travel, and city life

By Susan Grimm
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2010

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Sloane Crosley can be very funny. In “How Did You Get This Number,’’ her second book of humorous essays, she approaches the world as an alien planet, naming the absurd, the fantastic, and the grotesque as she encounters it.

In “Show Me on the Doll,’’ Crosley describes traveling alone to Lisbon in December. Why Lisbon? Because she can. Spinning a globe, she experiments with chance and the freedom of being an adult: “I stuck my finger on the spinning world to make it stop. It landed at the corner of 20°N and the Tropic of Cancer, smack in the middle of the Pacific. For the briefest of moments, I saw myself floating on a raft, gazing at the stars, using coconut shells for a bra. . . . Then I imagined becoming a member of that select club of people in human history who have resorted to drinking their own urine.’’ She gave the globe another spin.

In Lisbon, she drinks wine with clown apprentices and converses by stick figure sketch. In a later essay, she travels to Paris and stays at a hotel where the manager is protected by bulletproof glass: “There was a dried bar of used soap and a child’s dirty sock on the windowsill. We took photos of each other in chalk-outline formation, pretending to be dead on the floor. We slept with our passports in our underwear — a double score for any would-be rapist!’’

Interspersed with the travel essays are whacked-out memories of childhood pets and traumas and observations of New York life, the realm of her first book, “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,’’ which may be developed into a series by HBO. “It’s Always Home You Miss’’ is a meditation on the New York taxi cab — and the city, its smell, its anonymity, and the mind-set of residents: “The question is never ‘Should I be annoyed?’ but ‘How annoyed should I be?’ ’’

Crosley is engaging and energetic, often putting two strands of a story or two objects or two longings together and moving the essay along by bouncing back and forth between the two. Like any stand-up comic, she’s eager to conquer us with laughter and wry knowingness. She is a fountain of observations, apt metaphors, and escalating wit. But the very abundance of her humor sometimes calls for an edit, a segue, or a rearrangement.

In her closing and most successful essay, Crosley tells the story of a downward-spiraling love affair and how she furnished her studio apartment with a “falling off the back of a truck’’ discount. Rather than the pushed-against-the-wall extremity of some of her other pieces, here the bleak comedy arises from character and story, out of the familiar wasteland of sadness and desire.

In a publisher’s interview, Crosley notes, “Every piece of writing ever is about disappointment to some extent,’’ perfectly describing the stance that makes her comedic voice possible. Crosley sees clearly the absurdity of our lives, how we try to make sense of the world with the inadequate lessons of childhood.

In the opening essay, a quasi-pickpocket pursues her: “ ‘Hola, gata!’ He raised his voice. ‘Where you going?’ I had no idea. Oh, how you cut to the core of me, random Portuguese thief!’’ Crosley is a kind of anti-adult, refusing to buckle down, refusing to accept the way of the world, refusing to stop her bold mockery, from which she herself is not exempt.

Susan Grimm, a writer in Cleveland, can be reached at sjgrimm@gmail.com.

HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER

By Sloane Crosley

Riverhead, 274 pp., $25.95