The debut collection by an essayist who writes like a rattlesnake, his sentences coiled yet always ready to strike with venomous impact.
One gets the sense that Whiting Writers’ Award winner Daniels is belatedly coming into his own and exercising some distinct literary muscle. These essays are presented as—but not necessarily written like—letters from the author to himself, and they could pass as fragmentary notes for a memoir or another much longer and more unified work. Not that this slim volume of six pieces doesn’t work on its own; they have a cumulative power that can leave readers devastated. Though “Letter from Majorca,” about his seafaring experiences after he abruptly “quit the university after shouting at a student until she began to cry,” has earned distinction by inclusion in Best American Essays 2013, others are even stronger. Perhaps the best is “Letter from Kentucky,” which found Daniels returning home on a magazine assignment but realizing, “it’s an old story. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh: you go back to the place but the place isn’t there anymore.” His spare, elemental prose conjures old haunts, old hurts, and old friends who are dead or are in prison before he goes deeper into a meditation on his father, whose “aim was to protect me from the darkness all around us, using the darkness inside himself.” Following this is the extraordinary “Letter from Level Four,” in which the author meets a man who is plainly mad and does his best to avoid him but also sees himself in him. He reflects on his own “brief stay in the hospital,” where “all of this, they told me, was reality. There are no other worlds than this one. There isn’t even this one.”
An uncommonly auspicious debut.