Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett pens a memoir that's a great big grin winced out through gritted teeth.

One of those musicians whose work regularly graces critics' year-end polls, Everett records sometimes as E but more famously as head of the forward-looking alt-rock ensemble Eels. Normally that resume would be the loudest of warnings for readers to stay far away from this man's memoir. In defiance of expectations, however, it turns out to be a straightforward and resolutely unpretentious take on a life overflowing with gratuitous tragedy.

Graced with brooding, inattentive parents and a loving but terminally unhinged sister, all of whom were dead before he could enjoy middle age, Everett grew up in the D.C. suburbs working lousy jobs and wheel-spinning away his life. An impulsive cross-country road trip to Los Angeles and three further years of miserable employment followed. A couple lucky breaks later, he was recording an album, touring the world and calling the likes of Aimee Mann his friends.

This could have been just another self-indulgent musician's attempt to commit to prose some autobiographical songs. Instead, it's a harrowing mantra of loss and solitude, as depression and death dispose of one family member after another until Everett has nobody left but himself and the occasional crazy girlfriend. He delivers the bad news in exemplary prose, a calmly assured march of simple declarative sentences, scrubbed nearly clean of any artifice. This is entirely on purpose: "Out of respect for you, gentle reader," he writes, "I'm going to stick with the direct approach."

There are times when Everett's style can be too simple, leading some sections to sound more like a tour diary than a memoir. But his refusal to wallow in self-pity—or self-indulgent writing—is both refreshing and bracing.

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