An essayist focuses on family dynamics and the mortality that challenges us all.
Crenshaw (co-author: Text, Mind, and World: An Introduction to Literary Criticism, 2007) teaches writing at the university level, and the best of these essays, previously published in the Southwest Review, the Rumpus, and elsewhere, provide textbook examples of the craft. Perhaps the best is “Choke,” a series of sleight-of-hand fragments through which the author shows students (and readers) how to distinguish among “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This essay only meets one of those requirements.” As the narrative proceeds, hopscotching across chronology, it reveals Crenshaw’s responsibility in a different way than the matter-of-fact earlier passages had suggested, showing how “in court that would be a lie of omission. In an essay it’s called craft.” The author is a consummate craftsman, whether of concision (the two-page “Where We Are Going”) or in a longer illumination of the elliptical slipperiness of truth: “After the Ice,” which is likely about a murder in the family. A couple of the lesser pieces seem like writing exercises—e.g., about walls (“A Brief and Selected History of Man, Defined by a Few of the Walls He Has Built”) or food (“The Giving of Food”). Many of these essays focus on what it means to be a man from the perspective of someone who was raised in the South, served in the military, and drinks too much, but the title piece shows just how difficult it can be to sustain that hard-boiled persona. “When the shadows start to run together,” he writes, “we will regret the end of this day….We will think of all the time we have wasted, the savings accounts we haven’t yet started, the family members we haven’t visited in years.”
Most collections of previously published essays are necessarily uneven. This one is no exception, but the best pieces are worthy of inclusion in the Best American Essays series.