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Review: Sloane Crosley has a 'Number' of laughs

HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER, by Sloane Crosley. Riverhead, 274 pp., $25.95.

'There is only one answer to the question: Would you like to see a 3 a.m. performance of amateur Portuguese circus clowns?"

So begins the new collection of humorous essays from Sloane Crosley, author of the bestselling "I Was Told There Would Be Cake," which has the rare distinction, for a book of its genre, of having been bought for television by HBO. The mordant Crosley has been compared to David Sedaris, Fran Lebowitz, Sarah Vowell, Dorothy Parker and even Kingsley Amis. But do any of them have an HBO series?

Crosley's clever young Manhattanite shtick goes on the road here, with quirky observations filed from Lisbon, Alaska and Paris. Between voyages, she is back in her home borough buying illegal rugs and running into a childhood nemesis in the bathroom of a midtown Chinese restaurant. Though many of the essays are a bit long, Crosley keeps the charm, humor and intelligence dials on high, and strews little narrative mysteries like bread crumbs to keep things moving.

My favorite essay, "Off the Back of the Truck," starts with the lines, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it. This is the second most useful piece of romantic advice I have ever received."

Both this admonition and the first most useful, revealed a few pages later, are delivered by Crosley's mother in reference to jewelry in the Tiffany catalog. But the catalog is just a glittering prelude to an elegantly constructed essay. Crosley launches two complementary story lines about love and value. Each has a man at the center. The first is a dude named Daryl, whom she encounters in an upscale store "called something like Out of Your League or I Sleep in What You're Wearing." Daryl has an idea about how she can get the $4,000 rug she's admiring for $350 - and so begins a dalliance in black market shopping that becomes quite addictive.

The second story line features a fellow named Ben who is reading the Atlantic Monthly in a bar when she meets him, and this has instigated an unwanted conversation with the bartender. "You should've gone with Cat Fancy," she tells him.

"Well, now I don't need it," he says, putting the magazine away. "Now I have you."

My, my. How very Cary Grant of him. Though the author previews the catastrophe of this romance from the moment it begins, we are with her all the way. Particularly when, months later, she receives a call from an angry woman who has found Crosley's number, identified as "Doug," in her boyfriend's cell phone. And then comes the meticulously charted agony of getting over it.

While Crosley's friends believe the healing process can be reduced to a mathematical equation based on how long a couple was together, the author finds this facile formula insulting. She really hurts. A lot. As a result, the jokes in this essay are shot through with real emotion. Every time Crosley goes a little deeper than expected, she surprises us into not only laughing, but caring.

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