Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Pop Culture

By Jessica Feinstein

Rarely can a first-time novelist churn out such an unexpected surprise. Rachel Gannelli, the main character in Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s New York-paced tale The Unexpected Salami, is the quintessential Generation X poster child–overeducated, smart-assed, neurotic as all hell, and overcome with ennui. Her story, rich with hilarious observations, begins in Melbourne, Australia, where her self-imposed exile is about to come to a hairy end.

After chucking her WASPy fiancé and his Hampton summer home for an adventure down under, Rachel has found herself sharing a scummy flat with an aging rock band, the Tall Poppies.

Featuring Phillip (the egomaniacal lead crooner), Stuart (the heroin-addicted drummer), and bass player Colin (cute enough to be Rachel’s lust interest of the moment), the Tall Poppies are over the hill by rock-‘n’-roll standards–in their early 30s. By the end of the first chapter, Stuart has been killed in the middle of a video shoot by mobsters looking for payment, and the Poppies are jettisoned to instant international fame. Rachel, at the urging of her Jewish mother, hightails it back home.

This unexpected turn of events brings our heroine back to her overprotective parents’ Manhattan digs. They’re wintering in Miami, so Rachel bounces from one lame temp job to another, wondering what could have been if she and Colin had been able to let their love flower. Then, one afternoon at her favorite deli, she runs into her dead roommate Stuart, very much alive and still very much an addict. She whisks him back to the apartment and enlists her artist brother and college friend in a Florence Nightingale do-it-yourself detox fiasco, which sounds revolting but turns into a screamingly funny Three Stooges-esque scene as they chain Stuart to the bedpost and watch him withdraw.

Meanwhile, Colin’s narration is interspersed throughout in perfect Australian lilt–Shapiro’s ear for accents and slang is so acute that Colin’s voice echoes while being read. “I woke up once more with a spanking headache. As per my usual cure, I reached for my fags.” Once Rachel discovered the scam Colin has concocted to get famous, she’s furious and writes him off as a twit. Yet Colin’s account of the action renders him sympathetic (as well as pathetic) enough that we root for a happy ending for these lost souls.

Shapiro’s writing is sarcastic, but peppered with truisms only an upper-crust socialite could know–the way the neighborhoods are divided in Manhattan by class, the private-school lingo and the acerbic portrayal of the preppie wardrobe. She makes Rachel half-Jewish and half Italian as she suffers through the post-college, pre-career blues, and through her wit she reveals that her search is for much more than a job or a boyfriend: “I lacked a belief system. Hebrew School Saturdays and Catechism Sundays had long ago canceled each other out. … Atheism, or whatever this was, was damn depressing.” Ah–there’s that ennui that we 20-somethings find so adorable.

Rachel is a complete, autonomous character, though she has obvious autobiographical origins. Shapiro did live in Australia with a band, she did marry the bass player, and she knows New York better than Woody Allen does. The humor of The Unexpected Salami is tinged with discussions à la Seinfeld and hysteria reminiscent of Absolutely Fabulous, two of Shapiro’s favorite television shows. If they’re your favorites, too, you’d best expect to laugh through this one.

Web extra to the September 3-9, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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