Grasping-at-straws anthology compiled by California novelist Sussman (On a Night Like This, 2004).
The problem with asking your contributors to turn “bad” behavior into a good story is that everybody has a different idea of what constitutes bad. Fortunately for Sussman, she managed to recruit 26 fine contemporary writers, from Ann Hood and Susan Straight to Daphne Merkin and Roxana Robinson. Most of them come through with substantive thoughts on the angel/whore dichotomy, though their first-person essays range wildly in tone, from poet Kim Addonizio’s sexual confessionals about a stoned one-night-stand at a writer’s conference (“Plan D”) to Elizabeth Benedict’s prissy contrast between her expressive self and her rigidly buttoned-up stepdaughter (“The Thrill of a Well-Placed ‘Fuck’ ”). Laura Lipmann takes the middle road in “Laura the Pest,” which chronicles a difficult time in her life when coworkers and friends kept their distance because “you could smell failure on me.” Several stories of the author’s fall from grace involve a grade-school crisis, as in Elizabeth Rosner’s account of her early determination never to stop asking questions (“Everything I Know about Being Bad I Learned in Hebrew School”) to Susan Cheever’s girlish 1959 misdemeanors at Masters School (“Alma Mater”) and Madeleine Blais’s discovery of “occasions of sin” at the Ursuline Academy (“The Beard”). In the hilarious “Author Questionnaire,” Kaui Hart Hemmings fantasizes about defending her imaginary book How to Party with an Infant to academic colleagues. M.J. Rose’s idea of being bad simply constitutes overhearing a salacious confession (“The Thrill of the Spill”). Two veteran authors do best of all here: Joyce Maynard rehashes her painful teenage affair with J.D. Salinger in “A Good Girl Goes Bad,” and Erica Jong argues that badness is still defined by men in “My Dirty Secret.”
First-rate execution by top-notch talent saves a shaky premise.