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Humor Came Her

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This week, Mariner Books comes out with Love Trouble, a compilation of Geng's collected and uncollected work, parts of which will be read aloud by her friends -- including Kincaid, Blount, Ian Frazier, and Fran Lebowitz -- on Thursday, May 13, at Rizzoli on West Broadway. The book reflects a wide range of Geng's interests and preoccupations: William Faulkner. Billy Wilder. The Mets. The mob. The Pentagon. But it also conceals as much as it reveals. Geng preferred other people's voices to her own and crawled into them with merciless precision, exploiting their styles for the tipsiest conceits: She used the voice of a rock critic to review tapes from the Nixon White House ("indictably undanceable") and the voice of a wine critic to review explosives ("boasting complex overtones of potassium nitrate"). She reimagined the NBC sitcom James at 16 as a series about Henry James as an angst-ridden teenager. In perhaps her most famous essay, "Love Trouble Is My Business," she crammed the words "Mr. Reagan" and "read Proust" into every single sentence.

"She was the conceptual opposite of a stand-up comic," says Marilyn Suzanne Miller, a pioneer writer for Saturday Night Live. "She was a lie-down comic. You had to lie down to read her stuff, because it wasn't short and it wasn't to the point. That was its beauty." And its burden: Geng can be so obscure it sometimes feels as if she's writing not for the reader's amusement but for her own. "Lots of times, what she writes is like a dog whistle," says Blount. "I can't quite hear it. I'm not that good a dog."

At the funeral, Blount read aloud from "Jim Baker's Bluejay Yarn," a Mark Twain story that Geng loved. It's about a blue jay that keeps dropping acorns through a knothole in the roof of an abandoned home -- dropping them, dropping them, not realizing the space below is too cavernous to be fathomed or filled.

At parties, Veronica Geng was the one leaning against the wall, tantalizingly dragging on a cigarette. She kept her friendships discrete, discussed her private life only obliquely, and preferred listening to talking. "I never knew anyone who could be silent in that way," says Frazier, who joined The New Yorker two years before Geng and quit two years after she left. "This stupid thing you just said would be sitting on a dais right in front of you."

Geng was born in Atlanta in 1941, the daughter of a career Army officer in the quartermaster corps. She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia and survived Catholic school by standing on chairs and entertaining her classmates with impressions of the nuns. Her father moved the family to Germany when she was a teenager, providing his daughter with enough fodder for a lifetime's worth of nutty asides. (Frazier's favorite: "Wiesbaden? Oh, we used to play them in basketball.") Geng moved back to attend the University of Pennsylvania, then headed to New York to be a writer.

These details are just about all anyone knows about Geng's family or early life. She almost never mentioned her mother, who died of breast cancer when Geng was a young woman, and she mentioned her father only occasionally, though enough to convey what a bullying and narrowly rational creature she considered him. She froze out her brother several years before she died. He was HIV-positive, having problems with substance abuse, and drifting in and out of trouble. His whereabouts today are unknown.

Singer thinks Geng's childhood is almost beside the point -- or at any rate a less interesting perspective from which to approach her than others -- and proposes an alternative. "People were very forgiving of Veronica," he notes. "You should figure out why."


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