April 27, 2006


When They Were 22: 100 Famous People at the Turning Point in Their Lives. By Brad Dunn. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

     Quick – pick a turning point in your life.  Marriage?  First child born? Graduated from college?  From high school?  Lost virginity?  Got first real job?  The answer will obviously be different for everyone.

     Well, then pick an age that was a turning point in your life.  16 (driving)…18 (voting)…21 (drinking and other signs of “official” adulthood)…30 (realization that you’re in the real world for good)?  Again, the answer will be highly personal.

     Brad Dunn, a speechwriter and journalist, has picked what he considers the age that marks a turning point for everyone – or a least for greater and lesser celebrities.  The age is 22, and When They Were 22 tells what happened at that age to 100 people whose names Dunn thinks you will recognize.

     Dunn has to stretch a bit to make 22 – which, after all, is an arbitrarily selected age – into a “turning point” for everyone.  For instance, when Malcolm Little turned 22 (in 1947), he “took the first step toward becoming Malcolm X.”  This sounds better than “he remained in prison.”  In contrast, Cassius Clay definitely had a major event at 22 (in 1964): he defeated Sonny Liston and, while still 22, adopted the name Muhammad Ali.

     The interest level of Dunn’s book depends on how much you care about the specific people he includes.  A few literary notables are here (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger), but Dunn’s list leans heavily toward flash-in-the-pan modern celebrities or near-celebrities (Tracy Chapman, David Hasselhoff, Andy Kaufman, Zadie Smith).  It seems fair to say that many people who want to know what Mr. T did at 22 in 1974 (became a bouncer) may also want to know about Linda Boreman at 22 in 1971 (she became Linda Lovelace and starred in Deep Throat).  But will the same people want to know about Eliot Ness at 22 in 1925 (he started taking night classes in criminology), or Franz Kafka at 22 in 1905 (he took a philosophy course on Schopenhauer)?

     To say that this book is a mixed bag is greatly understating the case.  Here you will find Ronald Reagan, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, and Monica Lewinsky, but neither Bill Clinton nor Hillary Rodham Clinton.  You’ll find Alice Walker and Andy Warhol, Howard Stern and Sharon Stone.  Diane Sawyer is here, but not Dan Rather.  Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Sissy Spacek are all in, but Bette Davis and Judy Garland are out.  Ralph Nader is here, but Ross Perot isn’t.  There is, in other words, little apparent rhyme or reason to the selection process for this book, and little cohesiveness to its presentation (the stories are simply told in alphabetical order, with occasional cross-references to similar elements in the life of someone else profiled here).  The result is part voyeurism, part celebrity gossip, part simply a lot of thrown-together anecdotes.  Be sure to read the table of contents before buying the book: you need to be interested in at least two-thirds of the people included to enjoy it.  Oh – and you need to buy into the underlying premise about the importance to one’s life of what happens at age 22.

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