It’s probably safe to say that Marion Winik is a mess.
The former Austin Chronicle essayist gives plenty of reasons for us to think she has more than a few troubles in her latest book, “Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living.”
But Winik, who has become a popular NPR commentator as well as a well-known author of self-reflective “creative nonfiction,” infuses her writing with enough wit and poignancy to keep readers entertained.
The new collection of essays begins in 2008, with Winik’s estrangement from her second husband, Crispin, and her eventual move in 2009 from rural Pennsylvania to Baltimore in order to build a new life. In Baltimore, Winik is living with her young daughter, and she’s determined to pursue a new romance even though she’s a once-widowed, once-divorced single mother.
As Winik reveals over the next few chapters, she tries just about everything, including an ill-fated romantic rendezvous with Humberto, a Central American construction worker who’s prone to flirting with her while helping remodel the basement in her Baltimore home.
Soon afterward, Winik moves on to Internet dating. Her online profile name is “TripleEarth,” and she describes herself as “sassy, sensual, and smart,” seeking men 40-57. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “the forty- to fifty-seven-year-old age group seemed to be full of seventy-year-olds. Hair was rare. Guts were expansive. Complexions were pasty or suspiciously rosy, and spelling was surely a lost art.”
When online dating sites don’t work out, Winik moves on to Craigslist personals and actually finds an interesting character she calls Brett. At first, he seems like a dreamboat, but he eventually ends up in therapy. So does she.
Therapy doesn’t yield any breakthroughs, other than the realization that she apparently wants to date herself. “Unfortunately, still clinging to my multi-decade obsession with lost causes, I was not available,” Winik writes.
Winik, however, is undeterred, and she soon meets a flashy guy named J.J. at a happy hour. Winik describes him as “a tall African-American gentleman with short, graying hair and the build of a retired NFL tight end.” He’s suave, apparently well-to-do and ready for romance. He owns a vintage Corvette, a Bentley, a new SUV and a Harley-Davidson. But there are warning signs. (He was in prison for five years, after what he says was a wrongful conviction on circumstantial evidence in a murder-for-hire case.) And the sex isn’t great either. So after about three weeks, Winik’s “knight in shining bling” is gone from the scene.
Other men enter – and leave – Winik’s life just as quickly, and it’s something akin to a romantic train wreck. Yet, it’s hard not to keep on reading, in part because Winik is so thoroughly amusing about her travails.
She even maintains a sense of humor during a spell of bad health, or what she calls “the Summer of Pancytopenia and Splenomegaly.” While in the hospital for treatment, she gets an email from a local scientist who had been admiring the columns that she was writing for “Baltimore Fishbowl.” She dubs the emailer the Brainiac and agrees to meet him for a date once she’s out of the hospital.
Throughout the ups and downs, Winik gives off the sense that she’s a survivor, perhaps because she rarely takes herself too seriously. And she has apparently recovered from her hospitalization well enough to head out on a book tour. She’ll be stopping in her old hometown of Austin at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. She’ll also be at BookWoman, 5501 N. Lamar Blvd., at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Highs in the Low Fifties