Samantha Irby, who may well be the most talented inappropriate woman in Chicago, sat against the window, facing the bar, an arm draped across a wooden booth, supremely confident. She delivered great line after great line, quip after quip. She referred somewhat jokingly to the Chicago publishers of her new book as "dirtbag hipsters in the finest sense," described her sex life so vividly that I found myself curling inward, explained so bluntly why white women make up a big percentage of her devoted readers that I wanted to evaporate. Basically, as I picked at sweet potato fries and listened, she was killing, and I was her audience.
"Oh, white women love me," she went on, "but usually their first reaction when they see me, because they only know me by the words on my blog, is astonishment — that I am large, that I am black, that I am older than they are. They're like, 'You speak my truth! You can't believe how much I love you. And … look at you.'"
She laughed loudly.
She sounded not unlike the often thoughtful, often horrifyingly graphic essays found in "Meaty," her engrossing, occasionally touching new quasi-autobiography. Indeed, you could hear in her voice the same free-flowing candor and unexpected sweetness that she's brought to the weekly posts on her wildly popular four-year-old blog, the excellent title of which can't be fully printed in this newspaper: B------ Gotta Eat.
"People like it because I talk to people the way people won't talk to people," she said. "I had dinner with my friend's mom the other night. We talked about finding a dude for her to sleep with. For real. My friend won't do that with her mom, but I will! Parents love me, and I love parents, probably because I didn't really have any. I'm kindred spirits with parents — we both want to wear soft shoes and sit in our pajamas."
Which is what you're wearing, I said.
"This?" she said. "This is a pajama hoodie thing. This is like … the 'Trayvon Collection'" —
I noticed the room grow suddenly uneasy and quiet. I turned in my seat, cringing. Every person in the bar of the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park was turned toward us, looking toward us — but not looking at us. Everyone was watching the TV perched a few feet above our heads. The president was delivering a speech on Syria.
I sank in my seat.
The only person in the room who had not gone quiet was Irby, who continued, cheerfully: "And these pants? Yoga pants! I swore off jeans for a long time! I hadn't worn pants with buttons in a while, but last week I wore jeans and I was like, who signed me up for buttons? Buttons are no fun. Give me waistbands!"
Samantha Irby often writes in all caps, speaks in all caps and seems to exist in all caps.
She is, after years as an online cult favorite and superstar of Chicago's live lit-reading scene, blowing up — relatively speaking. Her blog has developed thousands of rabid followers, some of whom feel so close to her that they send letters swearing to a palpable kinship and describe reading her blog long into the night ("I woke up my baby 4 times this morning from lol"). Each queasily honest post of Irby's — subjects of which range from her sex life to her weight to being rejected by her friend's babies — draws tens of thousands of readers, she said. And next month, Barnes & Noble plans to begin using "Meaty" as part of its Discover Great New Writers program, a sought-after distinction heavily lobbied for within the publishing world. "The thing is, we never pitched 'Meaty' to (the bookstore chain)," said Victor Giron, editor-in-chief of Chicago-based Curbside Splendor. Pre-orders on "Meaty," which doesn't come out until October, already have topped 2,000, a big number for a microscopic press. "That's a million times more interest than anything we've had," he said.
None of which seems at all surprising if you have ever seen Irby perform at Paper Machete or Funny Ha-Ha or any of the local reading series where she has become a regular. She is a natural. In fact, meet her and your immediate thought is: She's a star. Said Caitlin Pinsof, a fan who became a friend, "She's gold, just the easiest person to love." Said Ian Belknap, creator of the popular competitive reading series Write Club: "I was just with Samantha at a book party and it was insane. People were falling over themselves to attract her attention and impress her. And none of this is treated like a careerist thing. She takes it all with humor."
Actually, with so much dismissive, self-deprecating humor it's easy to overlook how smoothly her writing veers from profane to incisive to heartbreaking: A recent post about "Fifty Shades of Grey" began with the dirty parts, only to decide that the real heat derives from the sadomasochistic protagonist reading the Sunday newspaper and knowing that his lover likes pancakes — "Now this is some (expletive) romance," Irby writes.
"I have been a fan-bordering-on-groupie of Sam's since the sixth grade, when she started showing me manuscripts of what she was writing back then," said Anna Galland, executive director of the political advocacy group MoveOn.org. Galland and Irby, Evanston natives, attended Evanston Township High School together. "The crazy thing is, even back then she had the same charisma and voice she has now — this raw, personal recounting of the world around her, given by someone who has taken her share of hard knocks but channeled them into something accessible for everyone. I think she's become a wonderful cultural critic."
Irby — who describes herself as "an old 33" and, surprisingly, less Type A than Type D ("I could always go to sleep right now") — has a day job. For the past 11 years she's worked as a receptionist at an Evanston animal hospital. She likes the regularity and the health insurance, she says. She has Crohn's disease and arthritis in her joints. Her Roger Park apartment, she said, is $650 a month. And she likes it. She writes on a lousy, no-name laptop, the kind that big box stores offer as door-busters on Black Friday. And she likes it.
"When I was a kid, I had a really bad time," she explained. "I had a rough childhood. My parents both died six months apart when I was 18. It would have been tragic if it was an accident, but my father wasn't around really and my mother (who had MS) was in a nursing home for five years before she died. I bounced around from foster homes to living with sisters to being basically homeless. I lived with my dad for one year in high school and he could not handle a teenage daughter. We kind of toured the low-income parts of Evanston.
"So, I don't know what my life would have been like if I had a nice childhood or hadn't been sick all the time, but just having survived, once life has kicked the (expletive) out of you, everything else becomes gravy."
She settles back.