Meditations, appraisals, fictions and personal inquiries about sex, race, art and more from the longtime New Yorker staff writer and cultural critic.
In the Kirkus review of Als’ (The Women, 1996, etc.) first book, we praised the author for his “ability to combine extreme honesty with sharp critical discourse, his willingness to explore the shadows of complex lives, including his own, that challenge clichés about race and gender without ever sacrificing intellectual rigor.” His follow-up collection is less cohesive but proves to be equally daring and nearly as experimental as his audacious debut. Gathering his diverse subjects under the umbrella term “white girls,” which he applies equally to Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor, Als assembles something of a greatest hits of his own strengths, which are considerable. His longer essays are the most personal; “Tristes Tropiques,” an elegant recollection of friends and lovers in the age of AIDS, opens the book. Naturally, observations on culture rise to the top as well. “White Noise,” about rap icon Eminem, and “Michael,” about the elusive pop star, offer pointed insights into American culture’s obsession with image. Readers who only know Als’ work from his insightful magazine essays may be startled by his diversions from form here. When Als summarized his feelings on Gone with the Wind in the New Yorker in 2011, he was delicate. The essay with the same title here comments on a photography exhibition, asking, “So what can I tell you about a bunch of unfortunate niggers stupid enough to get caught and hanged in America, or am I supposed to say lynched?” Leapfrogging from straightforward journalism to fiction written in other personas, the author demonstrates a practiced combination of cultural perception, keen self-awareness and principled self-assurance.
Als’ work is so much more than simply writing about being black or gay or smart. It’s about being human.