Until the foofaraw over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces dies down, memoirists can expect extra caution from freshly cynical readers questioning whether their books are actually true, or were written, in Frey's words, about someone "created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience." Maria Dahvana Headley's debut book The Year Of Yes certainly raises that question. It can be hard to fully buy its first-person presentation of a New York City full of creeps, freaks, perverts, and sexual harassers who invariably turn out to be benevolent, entertaining charmers and general dispensers of life lessons.
But to be fair, Headley is writing about a tumultuous year when she was 20, an age when the line between subjective and objective is generally an angsty blur. As a recent Idaho transplant and NYU playwright, she falls in and out of love (and beds) with abandon, alternately hating and adoring New York, and undergoing the kind of existential crisis that comes with being young, stressed, and single. To combat her loneliness—and the realization that her chosen brand of intellectual, artistic neurotics just didn't make good boyfriends—Headley made a Valentine's Day pledge: For one year, she'd broaden her horizons by dating everyone who asked her out, regardless of her own level of attraction or interest. The Year Of Yes doesn't spend nearly enough time on this fascinating premise—Headley glosses over swaths of outside-her-norm men in single paragraphs, then spends chapters wallowing in agonizing typical-men crushes, particularly on her roommate and a maybe-gay actor. Whatever her topic or goal is, she seems to lose it frequently.
But that gonzo desperation is part of what makes The Year Of Yes so lively, funny, and charming. Headley does dive into anecdotes about her weirder "year of yes" dates—a homeless guy who claimed to be Jimi Hendrix, a mentally addled 70-year-old who didn't speak English, an eye-licking French millionaire—and the more unlikely her stories get, the more entertaining they become. But even when she sticks to well-trodden themes of love, lust, and loneliness, she maintains a good-natured, bitterly absurdist sense of play, laughing at herself as much as calling for sympathy. Even at her angstiest and most self-absorbed, she's defiantly hilarious, and the possibilities of her magical-wonderland view of NYC seem endless. Maybe it's all just Frey-style "subjective reality," but it's energetic good fun dreaming along with her.