R. Eric Thomas is a big personality, and he owns it: “I’m a lot without reason or provocation.” He likes exclamation points, and he’s fun, funny, vulnerable and one hell of a storyteller. Readers will find him a hoot to hang out with in his second book of essays, Congratulations, the Best is Over!: Essays. It’s an excellent follow-up to Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, which recounted his coming-of-age in Baltimore, education at Columbia and early career writing for Elle. Now a multitalented pop-culture guru, Thomas has published a YA novel, Kings of B’more, and written for the TV shows “Better Things” and “Dickinson.”
These latest essays chronicle his courtship and marriage to David Norse Thomas, a white Presbyterian minister who was raised in Oregon. Their dissimilar backgrounds provide tender comedy, as seen in the account of their engagement on top of an Oregon peak at sunset: Eric describes the mountain as “one that we walked up with our feet and bodies and such.” By the end of the expedition, he’s shivering uncontrollably, saying, “David, I think nature is trying to kill me!”
In the first half of the book, “Homecoming,” the couple move from Philadelphia back to Baltimore —which is problematic for Eric, since Baltimore “was where all the ghosts of the unhappy person I used to be still lived.” Eric’s discussions of his depression are frank and charismatic. “I feel like I’m talking about the inner workings of a stranger. The sadness is real and it is always around and it is not who I am.” Readers can feel his loneliness as he writes at his apartment desk, and his attempts to find friends and community are both touching and hilarious.
Engaging stories about neighbors, landscaping and a horde of very loud frogs ensue in the second half of the book, “Homegoing.” When the COVID-19 pandemic hits, Eric and his husband buy a house set on a half acre of land—which Eric poignantly connects to the failed promise of 40 acres and a mule to formerly enslaved Black people in 1865—out in northern Baltimore County. As Eric explains, “Apparently the key to getting me to consider the appeal of the suburbs is locking me in my city apartment for fifty-two days. On day fifty-three, suddenly I’m like, ‘You know what really rings my bells? A Nest camera, a cul-de-sac, and an HOA handbook full of microaggressions.’”
Thomas will keep you laughing, but underneath his mirth lies a wealth of thoughtful observations about his life, family, politics, pop culture and especially his marriage.