A major progression finds an essayist outgrowing her self-indulgence.
On earlier book tours, Caldwell (Women, 2014, etc.) admits, she fortified her confidence by doing heroin before readings, and in the earlier pieces in her latest collection, she seems to revel in some of the less-prudent choices she has made over the years—e.g., binging on drugs, soliciting strange men for steak and bourbon on Craigslist, and taking advantage of her employer’s trust. “The cycle went like this: The worse my skin got, the more stressed I felt and the more heroin I would buy,” she writes. “The more heroin I snorted, the worse my skin would get and the more stressed I would become.” Throughout, the author’s confessionalism has an engagingly conversational tone, yet the shock-value solipsism gives way to a stylistic maturity in which the author seems to develop command over her material, resulting in a subtlety lacking in the earlier pieces of the book. Particularly moving is “The Music & the Boys,” in which bonding with male friends, even occasionally flirting with romance, helps her deal with her parents’ separation. “Maybe I didn’t think I had the right to admit I was sad,” she reflects on her younger self. Even better is “Maggie and Me: A Love Story,” about the friendship and mentoring Caldwell experienced with the late writer Maggie Estep and the depth of her loss. As the author deals with sexual fluidity and confusion (“The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard”), she addresses her developing sense of identity in a way that the younger writer never bothered. She ends the collection sleeping on the floor of Penn Station after an extended visit to Berlin. “I was almost home,” she writes. “I was getting closer to knowing what that meant.”
A transitional work that suggests Caldwell has even better books to come.