A collection of essays from a new writer who spurns traditional narrative.
Twenty-six-year-old D’Agata writes with the verve of an enfant terrible. His essays range over subjects like Charles Johnson (head of the Flat Earth Society) to the many forgotten halls of fame across America (such as Big Daddy’s Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Ocala, Florida) to Henry Darger (an outsider artist who drew fantastical pictures of little girls). More like prose poems than essays, the seven pieces in this collection are composed mostly of lists, quotes, and paragraphs set apart from each other—and pages on which a single sentence is written. This unorthodox style sometimes engenders revelation, as when a seemingly inchoate mass of information on the Flat Earth Society, including some absorbing but possibly fictional interviews with Johnson, is suddenly linked to an excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. What at first seems like a mere depiction of Johnson’s eccentricity becomes a larger statement on rootlessness and marginality in America. For the most part, however, the author’s style grows tiresome. Perhaps it’s just too much work to read these essays, which include a five-page footnote listing the different kinds of barbed wire exhibited at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum of Freedom in Oklahoma City. D’Agata’s fascination with kitsch also grows old in short order. A cultural tourism is at work in the collection, the highbrow writer subtly mocking his hillbilly subject matter, whose supposed authenticity reveals essential truths about America. D’Agata’s perspective is too ironic for us to think he isn’t winking when he presents his outsiders on the page. It doesn’t help that the collection concludes with a pretentious series of notes explaining the literary allusions spread throughout the essays, as well as little bits of sensationalist biography (such as the author’s job at a sperm depository).
Full of promise but mired in problems, D’Agata doesn’t make the cut.