An assortment of musings, cultural critiques, and memoir.
In this zesty collection of 74 pieces—some merely paragraphs—revised from work of the last 35 years, essayist, fiction writer, and biographer (of J.D. Salinger) Shields (Writer-in-Residence/Univ. of Washington; How Literature Saved My Life, 2013, etc.) reflects on family, love, contemporary culture, and his sometimes-problematic connection to other people. “I’m drawn to affectless people whose emptiness is a frozen pond on which I excitedly skate,” he admits. And: “I have trouble reading books by people whose sensibility is wildly divergent from my own.” In five sections, Shields considers Men (mostly his father); Women (many about a college sweetheart); Athletes; Performers (Oprah, Adam Sandler, Bill Murray); and Alter Egos, a motley category that contains essays on Brown, which he attended in the 1970s; infamous memoirist James Frey; and Shields’ career as a school-age athlete. “From kindergarten to tenth grade all I really did was play sports, think about sports, dream about sports,” he writes. “The body in motion is, for me, the site of the most meaning.” Beset with a severe stutter, he hoped that excelling as an athlete would make others forgive him for his “disfluency.” He shared a love of sports with his father, who suffered fom bipolar disorder and occasionally disappeared from the family for treatment. In several essays, Shields examines his Jewishness: “self-consciousness, cleverness, involution, ambivalence, pride, shame.” And he shows a particular sense of humor: he quotes comedian Milton Berle “turning down a second drink at a Catholic charity event: ‘Jews don’t drink; it interferes with our suffering.’ ” Shields credits lifelong back pain with giving him “an invaluable education in the physical, the mortal, the ineradicable wound.” He sums up what he learned: “Pain is inevitable,” one doctor told him. “Suffering is optional.” Many essays end in such aphorisms, and “Life Story” consists entirely of declarations that read like bumper stickers.
Uneven but mostly sharp and appealing.