The Little Engine That Couldn't
Jeff Nichols is a comedian. He is also a charter fisherman. And last, but not least, Nichols is a self-proclaimed “idoit.” In Trainwreck: My Life as an Idoit (misspelled by the author on purpose), Nichols finds laughter, along with a strong dose of self-deprecation, to be the best remedy for his learning disabilities.
Trainwreck: My Life as an Idoit was originally self-published, and was then purchased by an independent film company and made into a movie of the same name in 2007. After the movie, Simon and Schuster edited and re-released the book. For the new release, Trainwreck was given a few additional sections, including a prologue about the first version of the book and a chapter near the end about the making of the movie.
Trainwreck, which reads like short monologues split into groups by category, begins with a laundry list of Nichols’ quirks. He’s dyslexic and has difficulty reading and spelling, which I assume is why the title of the book is intentionally misspelled. He comes from a well-to-do WASP family. He’s chronically sloppy, a recovering alcoholic, and he suspects he has Tourette’s syndrome. After stating these disclaimers, the book begins in chronological order, starting with Nichols’ childhood. Each story in the book follows the same pattern: Nichols tries something new, Nichols messes it up (either on purpose, by accident, or a combination of both), and Nichols quits and moves on to something else, chalking his failure up to his learning disabilities.
As a child, Nichols is diagnosed with ADHD (although he takes no medication for it because he thinks he will become addicted to Ritalin) and dyslexia. Nichols also suspects he has Tourette’s syndrome, even though he has not had an official diagnosis, and has none of the best known Tourette’s symptoms like inappropriate, blurted speech or acting out in public, his desire to clap his hands at inappropriate times, and occasional rocking back and forth that may be a manifestation of the illness. “The only symptom of Tourette’s I have manifested so far is a slight motor twitch that becomes more pronounced when I am stressed,” Nichols says.
But although he is constantly worried and panicked about his physical appearance, sex life, and learning disabilities in Trainwreck, he also maintains a level of self-entitled arrogance that affects his ability to maintain friendships. Nichols comes from a wealthy family, and throughout the book, borrows money from his mother, whom he refers to exclusively as “Mommy.” Nichols describes biking through Europe after college with some friends from his fraternity. In a typical instance, they stop at a campsite: “As always,” he writes, “I volunteered to clean up knowing that I would manage to avoid it when the time came. I thought I would make up for it by buying them beers later or by picking up the tab at a nice restaurant using the ‘emergency-only’ credit card my parents had given me. But scrape hardened noodles from a pot? No way.” Nichols eventually leaves his friends because they get fed up with his slow pace and inability to help out. The author explains in his memoir that Attention Deficit Disorder is to blame for his messy tendencies, which also affects his ability to use a clothing hamper or throw away the trash in his jacket pockets.
After college, Nichols tries a multitude of careers, including housepainter, Broadway usher, dictionary salesman, substitute teacher, stand-up comedian, and fisherman. In each job, Nichols makes mistakes that get him into trouble, and he eventually quits or is fired. Curious, I checked out a few of Nichols’ old stand-up comedy videos online, one of which was filmed at a major venue in New York City in 2000. The book reproduces each joke in this particular video, almost word-for-word. This would not have bothered me so much if Trainwreck hadn’t repeated a few of these jokes two and three times throughout the text. I was, however, able to watch the way Nichols delivered his material. He told jokes almost as an attack, shooting insult after insult directly at himself.
Although at first I had trouble swallowing Nichols’ harsh combination of self-deprecation and ostentation, several stories in Trainwreck had me laughing. As a completely unprepared substitute elementary school teacher, Nichols resorts to doling out packages of M&Ms to children who guess a number he has written on the chalkboard. After failing to engage the children in this game, Nichols hurls a package of M&Ms as far away from the classroom door as possible, hoping a fight will buy him a few more minutes before the students get fed up and leave.
In my favorite story, which occurs near the end of the book, Nichols sneaks up to his stepfather’s vacation home in upstate New York. He plugs in a portable space heater next to the couch so he does not have to rack up the heating bill, which would make his mother and stepfather suspicious. Nichols falls asleep, and wakes to find the couch on fire. Instead of bringing the couch outside and calling the fire department, Nichols pours water on the couch cushion and leaves the house. That night, Nichols’ stepbrother calls to tell him the house had burned to the ground. Although this story is not told with the same humor as the other, more upbeat stories in the book, Nichols expresses what seems like real remorse about what has happened. For the first time in Trainwreck, I was hearing the words of an authentic, troubled man who had reached a crossroads in his life, instead of a stand-up comedian feeding me shtick. In the memoir’s turning point, Nichols, who has laughed off his life before this event, finally realizes the importance of taking responsibility for his own actions.
Nichols’s accident seems to change him, at least in small ways. He purchases a laundry hamper for his bedroom and puts his dirty clothes in it, rather than throwing them all over the floor. He becomes a charter fisherman and opens his own company. He finds a girlfriend who makes him want to wash the dishes before he goes to sleep. Although he may still sometimes make uninformed or hasty decisions, Jeff Nichols does not seem like an “idoit” to me. Through the course of Trainwreck, Nichols becomes acutely aware of each of his own shortcomings and takes the steps to fix them. Although his first reaction may be to goof off or to make a mess, writing Trainwreck has given Nichols a way to reorganize and re-imagine his life not only as a functioning human being in society, but as a capable, funny, and smart writer.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.