The well-known poet and memoirist presents the 16th installment in this flawless series.
Last year’s millennial edition may have been the best ever. Edited by Alan Lightman, it took a philosophical turn, pondering 21st-century issues of technology and dehumanization; particularly striking were Andrew Sullivan’s wrenching essay on hate crimes and Wendell Berry’s passionate case for small farms. Under Norris’s guidance, the new compendium is more literary, with an evident preference for creative nonfiction. Jeffrey Heiman’s “Vin Laforge,” about a little town in the Berkshires as seen through one old man’s memories, could as easily be called a short story—a sly essay of the kind Ring Lardner might have written. The same is true of Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Blue Machinery of Summer,” a Vietnam veteran’s reminiscences of the factory jobs he held upon his return from the war. Eight out of 26 pieces are from only two publications, The American Scholar and the perennially dominating New Yorker. One of the selections from the latter may be the best of the best: Marcus Laffey’s broodingly ironic essay on police work in the Bronx after midnight, “The Midnight Tour.” The star-author entry is also from the New Yorker, Stephen King’s “On Impact,” about the his accident while jogging (he was hit by a van) and difficult recovery. There’s some literary criticism—James Campbell’s entertaining snippet on Robert Louis Stevenson as a travel-writer—and a roundup of grief literature, including “The Work of Mourning,” Francine Du Plessix Gray’s meditation on the death of her father. Though William T. Vollman plays with form a bit (“Upside Down and Backward”), these are mostly traditional essays. In the current fashion, they shy away from grandiose pronouncements and booming conclusions.
But there’s no need to quibble. This is fine, fine reading.