Detailed, freewheeling and very personal cultural essays from an admitted obsessive and an amiable and intelligent rambler.
For Heilbut (Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature, 1996, etc.), knowing too much can be a “supreme experience.” Indeed, “[f]or a great many of us, the outer reaches of fandom have become our most essential selves.” His own sources of obsession are gospel music (he’s a Grammy-winning producer on his own label), Thomas Mann and German exiles from Nazi Germany in America. Heilbut has written books on all three, and he returns to each in this collection. In the first and longest section, the author explores the gay subculture in gospel music, where “sissies” who were not welcome in society found a home in the church closet. He also traces the gospel roots of Aretha Franklin’s soul music. Switching gears, Heilbut writes about the impact of émigré Germans on American culture. He focuses on Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, with a beautiful tribute to Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, before digging into the history of the soap opera and neglected blues master Josh White. Like a true fan, Heilbut sees examples of his obsession in everything; an essay on male sopranos draws in Stephen Colbert, the intern from 30 Rock and the former lead singer of Faith No More. Heilbut is a discursive writer, often trailing numerous rabbits before circling back to the subject at hand, and his conversational style occasionally seems absent-minded.
A cook’s tour through the passions of an expert whose style is as eclectic as his subject matter.