There is indeed a sailboat on the dust jacket of John Grogan's LIFE IS LIKE A SAILBOAT. But look closely, dear reader, and you will note that the sailboat, far from battling ocean waves, is floating placidly in a domestic bathtub. That sets former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Grogan firmly in his proper context.
Grogan spent four years or so trolling the lanes and malls of suburban Philadelphia for newspaper columns. This book assembles 84 of them in no particular order. No dates of publication are provided, and there seems to be no overarching theme to unify them. They are just there, for the reader to sample at his leisure. This is a bag of journalistic potato chips, and it is indeed hard to resist the temptation to munch on "just one more" before returning to the real world.
Grogan levels his lance at some easy targets: highway litterers, telemarketers, racist bigots, cigarette smoke, television ads, and gun violence. He also likes to let his readers write pieces for him by simply quoting what they have said on some life-and-death issue like the misbehavior of pet dogs. And he is always careful to identify which Philadelphia suburb is home to whomever he quotes. It is not, however, necessary to be familiar with the geography of Great Philly to enjoy these pieces. Their themes are common to suburbia from coast to coast; all the reader needs do is substitute the name of some similar town from his own area and the fit is pretty much perfect.
Grogan is a graceful writer. He gets his points across crisply and effectively within the confines of the small newspaper space allotted to him (as he himself practiced that elusive art for 28 years, I know how difficult it can be. Wasn't it Pascal who once apologized to someone for having written such a long letter "because I did not have time to write you a short one"?).
My personal favorite among those 84 potato chips is the one about the five-year-old in South Philadelphia who wrote a Christmas letter to Santa, addressed it to the North Pole and stuck on a few "Christmassy" stickers in lieu of a stamp --- only to have the letter returned after the holiday as undeliverable for insufficient postage. Grogan, dogged investigative reporter that he is, asked someone at the post office for an explanation. The official felt that no Scrooge-ish postal employee was at fault, blaming instead a machine that automatically fingered the unstamped missive and ordered it returned to sender. The youngster's mistake was putting a return address on his letter. That malevolent machine, Grogan is happy to report, has not shaken the youngster's faith in Santa.
Grogan likes to visit odd but picturesque places, an old cemetery for example, and to seek out unusual characters who do interesting things like handcrafting furniture from undried wood. He touches glancingly on a few controversial topics, writing with sympathy, for example, about two gay men who want to marry. A couple of warm and fizzy columns are devoted to random acts of kindness experienced by his readers. Grogan is not afraid to express his own views, but he never lapses into self-important bombast or froth-at-the-mouth rage.
The big question in a reader's mind, of course, is: Just how is life like a sailboat? This idea comes in Grogan's folksy account of a youthful water outing with his father, who told him that there were lessons to be learned from their little expedition: Keep your hand on the tiller, small adjustments are needed to stay on course. Pick a clear destination and stick to it. Watch for submerged hazards. Anticipate the winds of change before they blow.
Grogan does not record any wisdom from his father about launching your sailboat in the family bathtub. That's one sure way to avoid submerged hazards and sudden shifts in the wind.
LIFE IS LIKE A SAILBOAT is a quick, enjoyable read.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com)