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Review | Samantha Irby is not quiet, never mind the title of her new book

Samantha Irby dedicates her new book to Zoloft. It’s a fitting tribute. In “Quietly Hostile,” the author-comedian delivers 17 essays that explore — with lacerating humor — some sensitive subjects, including her depression.

Irby has struggled with the illness for years; her last book, “Wow, No Thank You,” was dedicated to Wellbutrin. Over the course of all her essay collections (including “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” and “Meaty”), she has shared the experience with candor, often in the extreme. Both her parents died when Irby was 18. The little time she had with them wasn’t rosy. “This tells you everything you need to know about my father,” she writes. “He was bad at gambling and always on the run from the consequences of his actions.” Her mother had multiple sclerosis, and her condition worsened after an accident when Irby was 9 years old. “When I was an actual kid growing up on welfare with a sick mom and expired Tuna Helper from the dollar store, the future and its infinite possibilities stretched before me like a sumptuous buffet I couldn’t afford to go to.”

But Irby, 43, doesn’t wallow. She finds the funny in the terrible — and thankfully for us readers, takes pleasure in making us laugh, too. Expect hilarity while turning the pages of “Quietly Hostile,” a book that is anything but quiet, though maybe just a little hostile.

Liberal with exclamation marks (the woman loves them!!!!) and self-deprecation, Irby has a keen ability to root out the absurd in the mundanities of her existence and life in general, then mine that absurdity for laughs. She plumbs topics as varied as the Dave Matthews Band’s greatest romantic hits, lesbian nun pornography, getting high at night and thinking about whales, tips to look cool in front of teens, anaphylactic shock, a very bad dog, and a guide to bathroom etiquette that would make Emily Post rise from the grave, shudder at the repeated, graphic and colorful mentions of human waste, and die again from shame.

In “David Matthews’s Greatest Romantic Hits,” Irby pens a detailed list of 14 songs, each selection followed by the specific lyrics she finds most romantic in the chosen tune and a one- to four-paragraph explanation. And in “Chub Street Diet,” a play on the weekly “Grub Street Diet” food diaries written by celebrities and other notables for New York Magazine’s food blog, Irby records what she eats daily for six days. Atop the diary is a faux introduction from Grub Street editors: “Samantha Irby had the most boring week of all time because she doesn’t live in a culinarily adventurous town, and we told her we wouldn’t publish this if it was just detailed descriptions of every menu item at Olive Garden. Honestly, we aren’t sure why we even asked her to participate in this in the first place. … The eagerness to please was palpable. What a huge mistake.”

Irby’s slightly askew perspective allows for some interesting views, as in her essay about the days before the coronavirus. Accounts of life before covid are often gauzy, glorious remembrances of the quotidian rituals and routines we took for granted — subway commutes without worrying about infected air, laughing with pals without considering the trajectory of droplets. Or they’re wrenching recollections of what was lost: employment, housing, health, life itself.

Irby’s take is different. In “The Last Normal Day,” she wonders how to schlep a boatload of random impulse purchases (luxury candles, a megapack of paper towels, collagen powder, Tide pods, ugly sweaters panic-ordered to replace uglier sweaters) from corporate housing back to her Michigan home. She was in Chicago writing for the since-canceled Showtime series “Work in Progress.” She had not a single box, and the idea of several trips in an elevator potentially teeming with deadly germs filled her with dread. She figured out it, but the essay does end in a tragedy — involving, of all things, a corn dog.

Every swing can’t be a home run. As with any assortment of items — essays, chocolates, socks — some are more winning than others. “Superfan!!!!!!!,” Irby’s 30-plus-page essay on “Sex and the City,” is a lengthy compilation of what-ifs, detailing ways she might’ve changed several episodes of the iconic series. Irby did have a hand in the “Sex and the City” (SATC) reboot; she was a writer for “And Just Like That ….” But these suggested tweaks are beyond the pale: What if Charlotte married her vibrator in Season 1, Episode 9? What if Carrie started wearing flat shoes and simple outfits in Season 3, Episode 16? The essay is peppered with various asides: a defense of Charlotte, Irby’s favorite SATC boyfriends and her top-eight Carrie outfits. It is a laborious treatise that even a SATC fan (but maybe not a superfan) might find grueling.

But the beating heart of this book is Irby’s parents. “Is it bad that I don’t miss them?” Irby writes in an essay about family, later adding: “When I want to both feel sad and punish myself for not feeling sad, I’ll project an idealized version of my parents and bum myself out thinking about a life that never could have been. Brain, picture my mom, Grace, laughing carefree with no multiple sclerosis and Sam, with no wartime PTSD, or alcoholism, and not punching me in the face for washing the dishes wrong … in general, to me they represent two fleshy bullets dodged.”

Ouch. But as you read about these people, you absolutely see her point. That’s the thing about Irby: She takes readers in winding, surprising, emotionally vulnerable and strange directions, but you can ultimately see what she’s driving at. It all rings true — and it’s riotously funny, too.

Nneka McGuire, a former editor at the Lily, is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Vintage. 304 pp. Paperback, $17

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