Henry Alford’s rags-to-Armani memoir turns on a catchy phrase: “Find the hole, fill the hole.” The erotic tip-cum-life motto is a cornerstone of his nascent acting career. Alford is multitalented but without a sense of his unique calling. In pursuit of that calling he tries his hand as a phone-sex operator, ballroom dancer, theater critic, and precious, pajama-clad guy out to make a name for himself. In the tradition of George Plimpton and David Sedaris, Alford becomes a participatory journalist, infiltrating various professions and reporting his findings. In the retelling, his escapades are often parodic and absurd. Animated by his svelte sense of humor, they lance the pretensions native to show business.
Incisive wit twinned with snappy prose makes for some maliciously funny vignettes. Alford highlights his own fecklessness in worlds where he obviously doesn’t belong: At a dance class, he (clumsy and inflexible) is asked to find a partner and “triple chasé sparkle sparkle” across the room before a group of lithe, experienced dancers. To minimize his embarrassment, he happily partners with a chubby, earthbound matron, who, at the last moment, ditches him, preferring to chasé alone. At the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he pairs with a minxy actress and insists they perform a ridiculously crude skit in which she puts on a sneaker and he bites her. In a room where John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, and Peter O’Toole greased their Shakespeare, Alford screams, “You bitch! That’s my sneaker.” As usual, he plays the absurd outsider, whose brief forays into alien territory yield comedy.
This ability to seize and capitalize on the ridiculous makes Alford’s writing enjoyable. But it also makes a number of his jokes bomb. And bomb badly: He auditions for roles in Noah and Behold the Lamb, two biblical shows set to run in an enormous theater in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. This is funny. But on his way home from the audition, he imagines himself in the play, deafened by a Heavenly song: “Everything’s Coming Up Moses.” Yuk-yuk, not funny. Often these asides are informed by a self-consciously silly ethic that rescues them from banality; often they are not.
Alford’s rise to the top reads like a series of good magazine pieces that resist compilation. Their stitching feels threadbare, particularly when he vaults from one chapter to the next with cliffhanger questions like “But would anybody ever pay me to find them?” However, taken on their own, these pieces are breezy and arch, funny and rife with the command of someone who has found his niche as commentator, voyeur, and, in truth, showman.