TAMA Janowitz is visiting her elderly father. “Dad has made pancake mix and we are supposed to cook our own pancakes—he’s got a frying pan full of oil a couple of inches deep. I don’t want a deep-fried pancake. Tim and Willow don’t like pancakes … they don’t really eat breakfast.

‘Nobody wants pancakes?’ Dad’s pretty angry. He hasn’t smoked his morning bowl yet.”

This “father”, a psychotherapist, has smoked grass all day, every day since Tama was eight years old. She’s now approaching 60. An utter control freak, he drove away her mother, had sex with every woman he possibly could, including his patients, and dismissed the ones who tried to hang around as mentally unstable. By the time he scraped them off, they were. He constantly writes Tama hate letters and changes his mind about who to leave his money to every five or 10 minutes.

It’s funny, no? Your typical angry father, even when inhaling amounts of cannabis that would stun a mastodon, is still exactly that – a typical angry father. This family was the subject of Janowitz’s first novel, American Dad, which it now seems was only a prettied-up version of her almost unbelievably chaotic life.

Recently there have been several novels about the decay of New York City, among them Everyone is Watching by Megan Bradbury, and Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney. Both deal with the effect of the recent economic recessions on the city and its cultural institutions. Now it’s a desert populated by businessmen, a playground for the Trumpish rich, the artists kicked out.

Janowitz was one of them. She lost her foothold in Manhattan, despite having written many books that received a lot of notice. For a while in the 1980s her name was on everyone’s lips. Like Francoise Sagan, she epitomised the zeitgeist: she was a pal of Andy Warhol’s; she happened to attend the first ever gig by The Sex Pistols. Photographers queued up to snap her when she scowled. She recounts this with too much name-dropping, but one supposes she has a right. She was there.

She brings us down to earth pretty quickly in Scream: she moves to upstate New York in order to look after her mother, who’s going downhill fast. Phyllis Janowitz emerges as a real heroine – after leaving her husband and being kept in a kind of kennel at the bottom of his garden, she got herself together to such an extent that she pursued an advanced degree in poetry and, to her delight, taught literature for the rest of her working life (an excellent example of her poetry appears at the beginning of Scream).

Shortly after her daughter moves in she has to be put into care, and before she realises it Janowitz falls quickly through the styrofoam floor of upstate non-culture and plummets into the kind of financial, legal and family hell that is the stuff of reality TV or even worse. She’s way out of her element. “That supermarket got me so agitated that I was ready to kill … presumably the manager was severely mentally ill … Aisle 12 had beer. But aisle 3 had ‘cold beer’ and ‘imported beer’. Did a lot of customers come in and say: ‘Where can I find the cold beer that is not American?’”

Funny and appalling, to hear her tell it. But then Scream opens out into another kind of book altogether. The real privations and tribulations Janowitz describes among the people that are now her neighbours (and lovers) are more than a match for the anarchy of her own family, and this is down to the American economic disaster and the palpable lack of education.

She becomes a virtual member of the working class and her reportage from the front lines of Obamacare and doughnuts is striking: “They had the bleak haunted look of men who had never eaten anything outside of the hamburger, mayonnaise and Dorito food categories … These men, with their gnarled, gaunt faces and their wide, stark eyes, they were all as interesting to me – or more interesting! – than the ‘sculptors’ and ‘artists’ and ‘actors’ in New York hustling and jockeying for position and trying to impress you with what restaurant they had eaten at or who was showing their work or what movies they were going to be in.”

There was a prescient line in Janowitz’s best-known book, Slaves of New York: “I had never, in my wackiest dream, imagined that I would grow up to be a poor person.” In the end, Scream reminds you of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (one of her favourites). It’s a real blast, and could be the best political book on America published this election year.

Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction by Tama Janowitz is published by HarperCollins, priced £18.99