Novelist and cultural commentator Shields (the nonfictional Black Planet, 1999, etc.) explores “his own damned, doomed character” in this plum collection of vignettes.
What he’s trying to get at in these pages is the mystery of identity, cutting to the bone as he explores the “impulse to write autobiographically, to turn oneself into one's subject.” It's reflective work, and grueling, but Shields is comfortable in the world of words; he has “trouble living anywhere other than language,” believing like Rousseau that “perception is enhanced by temporal and psychic distance, that memory produces illuminations which observation didn't.” He is also acutely aware, as basketball coach Bobby Knight has said, that “all of us learn to write by the second grade, then most of us go on to other things.” These short bursts of self-revelation have both precise and riffing qualities: Shields will nimbly and coolly pick apart just how and why he botched a romance or manipulated his assistant editor on the high-school paper, then just as nimbly he'll encapsulate how his father helped shape his life: “to not accept accepted wisdom, to insist on my own angle, to view language as a playground, and a playground as bliss.” The monkey bars led him to sports, where he found refuge from his stutter and felt the joy of being alive. Then he stopped playing after an injury, “and I rarely if ever feel that joy anymore and it's my own damn fault and that's life.” His fallback is writing, and like one of his characters, “he wants gorgeous written language to be a revenge upon the Babel of his spoken language.” Shields makes it easy to identify with his confusions and screw-ups and ambivalences, but his insightfulness and careful consideration are his canny talent.
Gladdeningly inclusive, like a hug from Walt Whitman: declarative and fraught and good.