After transcending his big fat blurry paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle of grimy bonhomie in a spectacular burst of asceticism, Sam MacDonald's existence is once again chaotic. Only now, the chaos derives from twin toddler boys and a baby girl, instead of spontaneous trips to the woods because the cat found a linty tab of Ecstasy under the recliner.
MacDonald, 36, a writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh, chronicles his journey in his new book The Urban Hermit (St. Martin's Press). It's a 281-page peek into the mindset, bank book and cupboards of a man who lost the plot and found it again, and it's compulsively readable.
While prodigal sons returned from the brink make for popular fare these days, MacDonald denies that his book chronicles any kind of redemption. Yet Urban Hermit hews close to addiction narratives, with control and lack thereof looming large. And indeed -- both in the book and in person -- it sometimes feels as though the author is trying so hard to be the tough guy and take responsibility for his choices both poor and wise that he glosses over some of his most intriguing material.
On one level, no doubt, the story is one of good times. MacDonald's party days at Yale just never stopped after he graduated, in 1995. Even as his classmates attained dizzying status and success, MacDonald found himself and his cousin Skippy meandering through life and jobs, and quitting after he impressed anyone enough to get the inevitable promotions that a smart, affable guy who shows up on time attracts. "Two good-natured, booze-soaked idiots who love drinking and spending money and letting the dealer come over with the Ecstasy and cat tranquilizer when things got strange," he writes.
MacDonald had discovered his talent for booze toward the end of a mediocre football career in high school in central Pennsylvania. It carried through his days at Yale and kept on keeping on. Likewise, eating: "It's not like I didn't know I was fat. I just didn't care." He ballooned from a teen-age athlete into a guy with a waist that nearly exhausted even Wal-Mart's sartorial options.
He spent a few years glued to a Baltimore barstool and making it (just barely) working in computers, as a bouncer and other catch-as-catch-can jobs, including a starring role in a TV ad for his regular bar, Kisling's. (He was the big fat drunk guy.)
"I had a lot of fun when I was a big fat bastard," he says today. "Really, I didn't hurt anybody, I didn't do anything awful. I really did enjoy that life."
It couldn't last. A car repair and huge student loans caught up to -- and nearly leveled -- him. Faced with seemingly insurmountable debt and a whole lotta extra Sam to lug around, MacDonald was struck by an inspiration: lentils, the "poor man's meat."
"So I was a hundred and twenty pounds overweight and dead-ass broke on Easter Sunday in the year 2000 as I walked through the front door of my crappy Baltimore row house, began reading the preparation instructions on a bag of lentils, and started counting the days," he writes. "It was a strange and dangerous plan. A shitty plan, actually." Against the advice of his nutritionist cousin, MacDonald resigned himself to 800 calories a day -- mostly those lentils, shored up by horribly cheap canned tuna and boiled cabbage.
With no budget for such niceties as beer and shots, his social life withered. His "hermit" lifestyle included long, free strolls around the city to distract himself from the booze and friends he couldn't afford to see.
The program also wound up lasting a year, instead of the month he'd planned. Yet despite this and other evidence to the contrary, MacDonald takes pains to explain that -- whether he was behaving like Homer Simpson or punching more holes in his belt because he couldn't afford a new one -- he was always in control.
"My life was weird and messed-up because I made it that way. I don't think I was an addict. I made bad choices," he says in an interview.
It's not like he didn't occasionally backslide, during his year-long experiment, into a sea of beer and food. But the scenes in Urban Hermit when he does indulge are so fraught that they border on obsessive: When a bartender asks what he'll have before he decides to have his first drink in months, MacDonald writes that it's "like a prayer, a promise, and an indecent proposal, all mashed together and sung to a catchy little tune: 'Can I get you something to drink? Tra-la-la! Tra-la-la!'" And he gets wildly, blackout hammered.
"People said I was an alcoholic in the beginning and anorexic in the end. I think that's a cop-out," he says today. "That would be me blaming my life on something else."
Still, his diet, MacDonald agrees, was highly inadvisable: "I feel like people would die if they did it." And in Urban Hermit, MacDonald alarms his mother and his girlfriend-now-wife with his devotion to his scheme, and his thinness. "Control was a major part of it. I could stop any time I wanted," he says in an interview, before acknowledging his "classic addict language."
Perhaps aspects of MacDonald's scheme seem compulsive only because society's concept of "necessity" is so inflated: In The Urban Hermit, for instance, every single nickel is accounted for, in a way that seems alien in our credit culture.
Moreover, if this is compulsiveness, the upsides seem obvious: Over the course of his hermit year, MacDonald found his calling writing nonfiction; traveled the country on magazine assignments; squared off with hippies, editors and the specter of bored sobriety; and met his wife, who'd never noticed him at the newspaper where he was a reporter and she was an ad rep -- until he started writing about her hometown and lost a hundred pounds.
Today, however, what MacDonald seems to recall most is that he was hungry.
"I hate lentils," he says flatly on a recent warm December morning at his house in Bloomfield over the din of his twin sons peppering a guest with questions. His wife and baby daughter sit nearby. While his frame doesn't seem like it'll ever let him be emo-dude slim, MacDonald is now a fit guy. A peek into the refrigerator reveals chicken breasts, milk, Pedialyte ... not a lentil in sight. MacDonald says there's a bag hidden away in a cupboard somewhere.
MacDonald says that some advance readers (including some folks he describes in the book) found the story's tenor to be mean -- say, in the way that a hectoring and righteous ex-smoker can come off as mean, full of indignation that it's not so hard after all to leave your evil ways behind. Reading the book and enjoying yourself despite constantly cringing might suggest watching the edgier, more cruel British version of The Office.
And indeed, MacDonald refuses to see situations through a coddling and inoffensive lens. "Enjoy the custard pie, but you can't have six-pack abs. People aren't willing to make the tradeoff," he says. He's living between the book's two extremes now: "I feel like people can have some beers and the occasional custard pie and not weigh 240 pounds," he says. "I drank a case of Moosehead Light this weekend. It was on sale at Pistella's."
While MacDonald got the girl, and they now have a cute house and three adorable children, it's not a story than ends wrapped in a big bow. The book concludes with them losing everything in a fire, broke and at loose ends, still struggling. The book doesn't offer any pat answers, just a look at one man's flawed journey.