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2005_11_arts_700book.jpgIt only took me two hours to read Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays, about the length of the Tony-award winning play he wrote and turned into the memoir. The success of the play, coupled with Crystal's brilliant sense of humor, prompted me to pick up the sort of book I wouldn't normally read - one with the author's photo featured prominently on the cover. Unlike other celebrity memoirs, though, Crystal's 700 Sundays isn't about his fame or fortune or the perils therein. 700 Sundays is about family. Heading to spend the holiday weekend with mine, I decided to give Crystal a chance to amuse and maybe even move me.

The title refers to the seven hundred Sundays that Crystal had his father in his life, until Jack Crystal died when Billy was fifteen. His father, who had a lifelong passion for jazz and ran a label and a store in Manhattan that put the shine on jazz's greatest stars, worked six days a week but spent Sundays with his three sons. As Crystal says in the foreword, "700 Sundays isn't a lot of time for a kid to spend with his father." Crystal writes about how his father inspired everything from his love of jazz and baseball to his career as a comedian. He writes about his mother, and how she went back to work at fifty after her husband collapsed of a heart attack in a bowling alley. He writes about his father's brothers, their laughter and big-hearted generosity as jazz producers and uncles. He writes one memorably hilarious chapter about his aunt Sheila, imagining a conversation between her and her best friend where she talks about her daughter's lesbian wedding. Crystal writes about family the way we all talk about family - with humor, affection, a little good-natured ribbing thrown in there.

Both the strength and the weakness of the book lie in the omnipresence of Crystal's voice. You cannot help but hear him delivering the lines in that wry Long Island accent he's managed to not entirely lose in his years in Hollywood. You cannot help but imagine his imitations of family members' voices and mannerisms. Everything you've seen Billy Crystal do on the screen gets transferred to the page. And the strength of Crystal's style is also the downfall of the book, because some of the jokes, the mannerisms, don't transfer at all. Or, rather, they do, but ingratiatingly so. You want to imagine Crystal saying the words, but seeing them in print falls almost embarrassingly short of his usually impeccable humor mark. The rimshot jokes that might have worked on stage ("recorded 'live' at the Troubador? Who's gonna buy 'Recorded Dead at the Troubador'"?) are deflated without Crystal's delivery. Hey, that one might be flat even with it.

It's easy to fault the book its failure as a crossover. Indeed, if I were feeling mean, I'd also fault the book its first half. Half the time, Crystal is openly bragging about his well-connected and well-loved family, without using them as a vehicle for his comic genius, so it reads more like a family Christmas letter. Crystal's funny bone starts to shine through in the second half, oddly enough, when he's writing about his father's sudden death and the repercussions. Here is where the comic timing saves the entire book, in that way that only a true comic can. Crystal writes with disarming honesty about the pain - the "boulder", he calls it - that he carried around like a separate being for his teens and early twenties. And smattered among the pain, he finds the funny. Joking about the speed necessitated by Jewish funeral rites, he says, "I had an uncle who was a narcoleptic, and he'd nod off and you'd hear digging. One summer they buried him five times." The heartbreak of seeing his father's car break down, of struggling to be the only man at home, he breaks up with wisecracks and affectionate jokes about how families deal with death.

The last three chapters, where Crystal reminisces about his father, and talks about what it took to get over the heartache, are astoundingly moving. He writes about breaking down in his basketball coach's office, tears streaming down his face "like they were escaping from prison." He writes about the first few years he acted, the joy and exhilaration it brought him after years of working hard to crack a smile. He ends the book talking about the stroke that took his mother, the "bank robbers" that broke into her brain and jumbled her memory. "So now," he writes, "I'm an orphan. Fifty-seven years old now and an orphan ... I don't know why I thought it'd be easier this time. I was fifteen the first time. Fifty-three the second. The tears taste the same. The boulder is just as big, just as heavy, the otherness just as enshrouding."

In the end, it's a book that's good to read around the holidays, or give as a gift under the tree. It's good to read, too, if you're a New Yorker (or as a gift to a native) - Crystal's down-to-earth adoration of his hometown shines through every street corner he remembers, every accent he lovingly caricatures. It's about family and loss, and growing up to be the sort of guy your parents always knew you could be. But, perhaps, if you've already seen Crystal's stage play, you were lucky to get the better version.