A collection of vivid, engaging profiles written over the past decade by New Yorker staff writer Orlean (The Orchid Thief, 1999).
What do a typical ten-year-old boy, Tonya Harding, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, Orlean’s hairdresser, and the king of the Ashanti people have in common? Nothing much, but you’ll find them all profiled here. After opening her collection with the cry that “people are so interesting,” the author proceeds to prove it, in a few hundred pages. Whether following the Jackson Southernaires on their extremely low-budget gospel singing tour, talking with one of California’s fussiest interior decorators, or tracing the career of a champion showdog, Orlean maintains an infectious energy and enthusiasm for her subjects, and backs it up with telling details and observations. Chief among the her talents is the ability to really hear her subjects, and then to simply get out of the way and let them speak for themselves. The patter of the ten-year-old boy evokes a classic scene of American boyhood, the pizza parlor with an arcade game that’s always in high demand. New York real-estate frenzy is neatly captured in the world-weary observations of a talented real-estate agent who knows what’s happening behind every building facade on a Manhattan block. The speech of the bullfighter of the titular essay says worlds about what life can be like after you’ve begun to fight bulls to earn your keep: “Sometimes after you’ve fought and killed the bull you feel as if you hadn’t done a thing all day.” Some essays work better than others, but in general the collection is marred only by a few too many run-on sentences and the occasional quick ending, giving the impression that the author was writing to hit a certain word-count.
Well-paced and good-humored: a page-turner.