Glimpses of a writer’s life through a miscellany of reviews, anecdotes, and musings.
In the title essay, fiction writer Gaitskill (The Mare, 2016, etc.) recalls teaching Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries” to an English class at Syracuse University. Living in an apartment in a run-down section of the city, struck by the contrast between her poor neighbors and affluent students, she thought about reading a passage from that story, spoken by a character who warns against complacency: “At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist” who deserve attention and care and that the good life may suddenly turn terribly bad. She never read the passage, deciding it was too simplistic, but the sentiment it expresses—a visceral sensitivity to the darkness of the human condition—underlies many of the strongest pieces in an up-and-down (mostly up) collection. In one essay she recalls the “desperate human confusion” that led to her becoming a born-again Christian at the age of 21; in another she struggles to understand what occurred in an experience she has described to herself as date rape. By far, the highlight of the collection is a long, haunting memoir, “Lost Cat,” which weaves together memories of her adopting, and losing, a skittish kitten; her father’s death; two children from a troubled home who visited with her and her husband from the Fresh Air Fund; and her ongoing relationship with one of them and his sister. The children were difficult and yet to Gaitskill seemed superior to her “not because of anything innate, but because of their exposure to brutal, impossibly complex social forces that they were made to negotiate every day of their lives.” Other essays offer details of the author’s own difficult youth: she ran away from home at 16 and spent years on the streets, at one point becoming a stripper. “I was promiscuous, even aggressively so,” she admits.
Gaitskill has not published a memoir, but this collection makes that prospect tantalizing.