If at Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny
By Zach Anner
Henry Holt and Co.
337 pages, $27
By Bruce Andriatch
The memoir genre deserves its own subgenre: the memoir that could have been good if it hadn’t been written too soon.
It’s a predictable consequence of the short-attention-span culture we have created, but too many people who have achieved not nearly enough are being convinced to tell their life stories as books when short stories or magazine articles would do just fine.
Add Buffalo-born Zach Anner, 31, and his cleverly titled “If At Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures with Disaster and Destiny” to that growing list.
Anner and his celebrity book-jacket endorsers – including Oprah Winfrey and Lena Dunham – want you to believe that his tale of achieving reality show “stardom” in the face of his cerebral palsy is worth 337 pages.
It’s not. If you sit down to write a book knowing that arguably the most interesting moment in your life to that point is winning a reality show, step away from the keyboard and give yourself a chance to achieve something more.
If you don’t remember Anner’s name, you might remember him as the former Kenmore West High School student who was the winner of the reality show contest Oprah’s OWN Channel sponsored called “Win Your OWN Show.” A video Anner created and submitted went viral and helped him win. The result was “Rollin’ With Zach,” a travel show that ran for six episodes on the network in 2011.
He now has a show called “Workout Wednesday” on YouTube that his publisher says has gotten 12 million hits.
That is about the extent of his fame, which is not enough to fill a memoir. So he fills it with stories that just are not all that compelling.
Combine that with a difficult truth: Anner understandably does not want to be pigeonholed as that disabled guy who got a TV show from Oprah. In the book, he writes about wishing that people could first see the person who happens to be sitting in the wheelchair, not the wheelchair that has a guy sitting in it. And yet as you read the book, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the main reason this book was written had more to do with his disability than his achievements.
A story about a person overcoming obstacles can be a great story. The fact that Anner even wrote a book is a great story, seeing as how his disability makes it impossible for him to type. But Anner is far more interested in displaying his self-deprecating wit – he calls cerebral palsy “the sexiest of the palsies” – than in a serious introspection about the difficulties he has endured. It is increasingly true about the premature memoir, the one penned by the author who wants to create or affirm a narrative rather than grapple with a deeper truth. That’s certainly his right, but it does not make for a very readable book.
To be fair, Anner’s story is more interesting than, say, the life story of the average person who won a season of “Survivor.” He has managed to find humor in his disability, whether in his misadventures with romance, attempting stand-up comedy or adjusting to an unpredictable gastrointestinal system – nicknamed “The Beast” – that asserts itself at the worst possible moments.
“No matter how kind and careful I tried to be to my digestive tract, its mood swings were violently erratic,” he writes. “I was living with my own private Grendel in Tummy Town, where fruits, vegetables, enchiladas, and ice cream could happily coexist, until one misplaced bread crumb or Skittle would summon The Beast and the whole town descended into chaos.”
Now that’s funny. Anner knows funny and he knows why funny has helped him get where he is today.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that a sense of humor is the only skill that allows you to turn sucking at life into a career,” he writes. “Even the most embarrassing mishap can be spun into comedic gold. Or, more appropriately, every pile of dog (excrement) you roll through can be used as fertilizer for a great story at a party.”
Maybe so. But a great party story does not necessarily make a great book.
Bruce Andriatch is the assistant managing editor for features at The Buffalo News.