'Born a Crime': Trevor Noah's cool and confident memoir of a challenging childhood
February 5, 2017 12:00 AM
"Born a Crime," by Trevor Noah.
By Will Ashton
As Jon Stewart’s replacement on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah is still finding his voice. He’s a cool, confident and boyishly charming late-show host, filled with compassionate insight and a unique perspective on infuriating current events, but the South African comedian lacks the clear tenacity, defiance and sheer indignation that made Mr. Stewart such a stalwart.
Time will treat him well, though. Mr. Noah only grows more dynamic by the week. But if cable television fails him, the world of literature will remain a firm ally. His extraordinarily heartfelt, compulsively enriching “Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood” is a hell of a memoir.
"BORN A CRIME: STORIES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN CHILDHOOD"
By Trevor Noah Spiegel & Grau ($28).
With his debut book, Mr. Noah produces a striking, evocative, constantly surprising, tremendously heartbreaking, persistently funny and absorbing true-life account, one that never fails to capture his clear-eyed conviction, echoing pathos, sharp perception and sense of humor.
Through accounts both hilarious and troubled, Mr. Noah explores his early childhood, awkward teenage development, impoverished upbringing and complicated father relationships with boldness and restraint. That the stories themselves are as eloquent, pensive, profound and sometimes downright miraculous as they are reads like an added bonus — although, in reality, these wrenching tales are paramount to its unwavering success.
Although Mr. Noah’s life story is beguiling, bewildering and typically demanding, to put it mildly, it’s also refreshingly honest, and constantly lacking signs of melancholy or self-pity. It’s rich in content and scarce in self-righteousness, allowing us to see how comedy didn’t merely keep his family life alive, but flourishing through great difficulties and stunning adversaries. It’s a celebrity autobiography like few others in that regard. It celebrates the humor and the tragedy in equal measures, never forgetting the line that draws them together.
“Born a Crime” is just as much the story of Mr. Noah’s mother as it is his own. Her life — more unbelievable than anything experienced by her son — is a dedication to Mr. Noah’s persistence and defined elegance. They are one in the same, and they’ve traveled far and overcome many obstacles. She believes Jesus deserves thanks; Mr. Noah believes the source is more earthbound. Whichever the case, they are stronger together and through one another. There’s not a page where Mr. Noah’s love and gratification can’t be felt. It’s a tribute as meaningful as it is beautiful. Together, the mother and son are one.
His mother’s influence is one of understanding, commitment and never-ending adoration and ridicule. Even if Mr. Noah’s journey is filled with doubtful scorn, his recollections are never less than empathetic and moving. He is the man he is today because the women who guided him made him. That’s something read and felt throughout this book and “The Daily Show” equally.
“Learn from your past and be better because of your past,” the mother tells an impressionable young Trevor. “But don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.” Indeed, although Mr. Noah’s past is filled with ongoing tribulations, the author never looks back in pity. Even regret is painted as a worthy sacrifice, a chance to grow into a better man.
Trevor Noah was “born a crime” because he was a mixed-race boy in an apartheid state. Perhaps it’s only fitting that this book should be so arresting. “Born a Crime” is learned and loved, elegant and empowering. It’s an astonishing nonfiction debut not to be matched soon. Trevor Noah is a rich storyteller, with only more to share. Let’s hope that more stories will end up on the page soon. Mr. Noah might be defined as “The Daily Show’s” new host, but his writing might cement his legacy.
Will Ashton is a freelance writer from Bethel Park.
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