Tales from the Completist: How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gill
How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gill
How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else
By Michael Gill
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So let’s make no mistake, the only reason Michael Gill’s 2007 memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life is even readable in the first place at all is that he is so relentlessly hard on himself throughout; the very definition of a white upper-class corporate-executive douchebag, he plainly admits here that he was essentially a human monster for reacting to getting laid off in his fifties from his cushy ad-agency job (one he got in the early ’60s literally because drinking buddies at Yale pulled some strings for him) by having an affair behind his wife’s back, accidentally getting his mistress pregnant, then determining that he’s going to “do right” by the child, despite having a 100-percent track record of fucking up the relationships with the three existing grown children he already has, and oh yes, not actually having any health insurance and being essentially homeless.

That’s a lot to swallow in the first 20 pages of a supposed feel-good memoir; and to his credit, writing veteran Gill (son of famed New Yorker writer Brendan Gill) pulls it off, basically by being ceaselessly harsh and unusually clear-eyed about his “pre-barista” life as a neolib one-percenter, the same kind of brutal honesty that inspired him to take a coffee-slinging job at the age of 64 at a Starbucks near Harlem where he was the only white employee (after accidentally attending a hiring fair by the company at one of their Manhattan stores without realizing it, having a young manager ask him as a joke, “I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job, are you?” and he after a moment admitting with candor, “Actually, I am”).

It’s what tips this book over into minimal readability, his zeal to not cut himself any breaks for his entitled childhood, his handshake-based former career, and the cavalier way he used to treat everyone in life who wasn’t a senior corporate executive like him, best seen in his observations about how he himself immediately became invisible to his former co-workers, literally on the sidewalk sometimes when they would walk by him, the moment he put on a polo shirt and a green apron. Unfortunately, though, that still leaves the book with plenty of problems, among the more major being that he sometimes devotes entire chapters to nothing but a detailed, log-like, minute-by-minute breakdown of what a typical day at Starbucks is actually like for an employee, which is the literary equivalent of watching paint dry and had me skipping over huge portions of the manuscript out of pure tedium. (Also, Gill’s infinitely upbeat enthusiasm for the empty StarbucksSpeak handed down from faceless marketing employees at the corporate headquarters [“Partners!” “Guests!” “Venti!”] was enough to make me want to claw out my own eyeballs by about two-thirds of the way through.)

#MichaelGill's #HowStarbucksSavedMyLife is a troubling memoir you have to force yourself to like Click To Tweet

It all adds up to an admittedly interesting but still trouble-filled book, one you have to sort of force yourself to like despite the circumstances surrounding the true story, not because of them; and a tale that gets interrupted every time it starts getting good by another reminder of just what a inherent good ol’ boy in a good ol’ boy network Gill is in, despite him taking a slave-wage job in the service industry. (If you’re anything like me, you’ll throw your hands in the air in bitter frustration when learning on the last page that Gill managed to get this book optioned to Hollywood for a million dollars, precisely because of all his personal friends from his ad-agency days, and that it currently has Tom Hanks and Gun Van Sant attached to it.) An insightful book but not nearly as insightful as I had hoped it would be, your own mileage with it will profoundly vary based on who you are, your own age and race, and how much tolerance you have for SVP assholes who shrug their shoulders after a disaster and say, “Sowwwwy!”

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Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd