Michael Greenberg is a native New Yorker who was commissioned by London’s Times Literary Supplement to write columns of 1,200 words or so about . . . almost anything. (The editor’s instructions were: “Give it a sense of personal necessity, a sense of urgency. Otherwise, there are no restrictions.”) Beg, Borrow, Steal collects 45 of these pieces, which compose “an autobiography in installments.” We start with Greenberg’s father, the hardworking owner of a scrap-metal yard, who ridiculed his son’s literary ambitions: “Self-conscious about his lack of formal education, he took my bookishness as a personal affront. ‘Which do you think is worth more,’ he once asked me, ‘a commodity or some goddamn idea?’ ” Greenberg also writes of his earliest girlfriends, his children and the many odd jobs he held to try to finance the writing life. (His father gave him a chance to join the family business even after their violent altercations; Greenberg refused.) We’re also taken on wonderful tangents, like a piece about a friend of Greenberg’s son who gets a dream job working as a motorman in the subway. Evocative slides of New York life, these pieces do also add up to one man’s story. And the length constraint, which might sound limiting, is liberating — the pieces have a rare efficiency, packing a lot of plot and insight into small packages.
Beg, Borrow, Steal by Michael Greenberg
Other Press, 232 pp., $19.95