Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act

"My rubble and junk filled me with corrosive dismay; but I couldn't bring myself, couldn't bear, to make changes to them. I had boundary issues--with everything, material and emotional." Writer and performer Barry Yourgrau (Haunted Traveller) is the titular mess; his living space is only his worst symptom. Motivated by his girlfriend's ultimatum, he begins what would become a two-year project to clean out his apartment and write about the experience.

In his transient childhood, dominated by his anxious, narcissistic father, Yourgrau became possessive and private about his inner life and his material belongings. Later, he infused memorabilia with intense emotions. And like so many people, he kept junk because it "might still be useful someday... you never knew" or "it might be fixable--you never knew."

Mess is not a self-help book, but those who struggle with extreme clutter or know someone who does are likely to find fresh insights here. Yourgrau tries on most of the theories and treatments available. He interviews experts, researches hoarders, clutterers and collectors, and makes lively characters out of everyone in his life, approaching them and himself with fondness and keen perception. His prose can be awkward at times ("I chew on my porky baguette and his words."), but his blustering charm, self-awareness, anxieties and dramatizing, his many colorful stories and his gradual, jittering progress, make for a funny, affecting and mildly suspenseful read. In the end there is no miraculous transformation--Yourgrau cleans up his life while remaining very much himself. --Sara Catterall

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