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Book Review: Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

Greenlights, the first book by Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, is filled with memorable vignettes from his 50-year life (most of which are hilarious), his poetry (entertaining), and bumper stickers (ok fine).


Who among us has not lived through this exact scene?

Summer party on a beach: the picturesque kind with teenagers, cheap beer, and a bonfire. I'm watching this boy ham it up for his audience as he summons up from the depths of his soul his best impression of David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused: "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." His eyes meet mine and I obviously don't yet understand irony.

As iconic as David Wooderson's character became for many of us, he almost didn't exist, at least not helmed by Matthew McConaughey. It took a chance encounter with the casting director in a bar and an unlikely shot given to him by the director, and was at the expense of a main character's screen time. In many ways, the story of David Wooderson is the origin of McConaughey as we know him, too: playfully intelligent, handsome in a stoned surfer kind of way, and far more carefree than the average Texan. Luck always seems to find him, or, as McConaughey explains, he's just good at finding green lights.

Greenlights, the first book by Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, is filled with memorable vignettes from his 50-year life (most of which are hilarious), his poetry (entertaining), and bumper stickers (ok fine). These are interspersed with life lessons that could resonate with many of us. For a first book, that's a lot.His publisher describes the book: “McConaughey has kept a diary for 35 of his 50 years, and recently worked up the courage to take those writings into solitary confinement and read through them. He found not only stories, questions, truths and affirmations, but also a reliable theme. Greenlights is an album and a record of what he has seen and learned along the way—‘my sights and seens, felts and figured-outs, cools and shamefuls'.”

My preferred way to go into memoirs is cold and, before reading this book, McConaughey was just another actor to me.  I had a cloudy memory about him playing the bongos naked. Otherwise, he was, as he so aptly puts it, "the shirtless rom-com guy." I had no idea what his childhood was like (definitely unique). I had no idea how he got his first part in Dazed and Confused and how his career evolved from that point (quickly). I would not have even considered reading Greenlights except that I had listened to him read a story in a meditation app, liked his voice, and was searching for something else he narrated on Audible to put myself to sleep at night during a bout of particularly bad insomnia. And that's how I found myself listening to McConaughey's distinctive voice late into the night.

As in every memoir, there are certain foundational stories that tell us what we need to know about a person's core instincts. McConaughey at his core is handsome, vain, and a bit wiley, and we see this early in his life. When Matthew McConaughey was 14, he starts using, a concoction called "oil of mink," touted as a miracle product for clear, glowing skin. What 14 year-old isn't desperate to get rid of pimples and have a bit more glow? After a week of applying the oil to his face religiously every night, he wakes up to more and more pimples every day. His mom, who is selling the stuff door-to-door, tells him to keep going—these pimples were just impurities leaving his skin. In two weeks, more pimples and more encouragement from dear old mom. After three weeks and with a face of full-blown acne, he sneaks off to a dermatologist who tells him the obvious for those of us not wishing for a miracle cure: oil of mink clogs your pores and is terrible for teenagers and he needs to switch to Accutane (isotretinoin), a medication used to treat acne, which will make his face scaly for months more.

His dad gets the idea that they should sue the oil of mink company for the emotional distress it caused the young Matthew. A lawyer agrees to take the case and thinks they can get a settlement of $50,000. A year or so goes by while the legal bureaucracy is at work, and the young McConaughey takes the stand to testify against the oil of mink company. All is going great during the testimony, McConaughey hitting question out of question out of the park—really hamming up his emotional distress from lack of girlfriends and embarrassment from a fafe full of zits. Then the defense attorney pulls out McConaughey's senior yearbook. Unfortunately, after a year of Accutane treatments, he had won "Most Handsome" that year. Hard to argue pain and suffering now. There goes that $50,000 settlement!

The high point of Greenlights is when he stops wanting to be "the shirtless rom-com guy" and decides to do something else with his life. First, he makes the decision to no longer star in romantic comedies but only in dramas and "serious films." But he still finds himself hitting the wall so many of us experience near the middle of our careers: the work he was doing was no longer a true expression of the life he was living. He wanted a bigger challenge. He wanted more from himself. He needed to take his own advice: "Be brave. Take the hill. But first answer the question, 'What is my hill?'" (Or, put the David Brooks way, he wanted his second mountain.)

This path led him to take more serious roles, including his Oscar-winning one for for Dallas Buyers Club. (Who can forget him beating his cocaine-fueled chest over a martini lunch with Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Wolf of Wall Street?) But it also led him to a lauded teaching career at the Moody College of Communication at his alma mater, the University of Texas - Austin.

After so many movies and so much personal evolution over 50 years, a memoir would be difficult to write without documentation. Luckily for his readers, McConaughey is an avid diary keeper. To give himself the time and space to go through his diaries, he took several solitary 52-day sojourns into the desert. He spent these days reading about his past and writing. He credits the solitude with his being able to finish his book. After you've won an Oscar and turned 50, what's left to do besides write a book in the desert? Seems reasonable.

Unless you are a movie buff (I am not) or a McConaughey fan (I don't think I am), you might not consider this book. I get it: there are plenty of other options, including some excellent recent memoirs. However, if you enjoy solid audiobook narration and want a light, funny, and at least partially relatable memoir, Greenlights could be your ticket to an enjoyable listen. Or at least a few funny bumper stickers.

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