Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
by Katha Pollitt
Hardcover (Random House)
You can’t open a publication these days without stumbling upon a personal essay. Unfortunately, the awkward confessions outnumber the moving ones, and the finely written are rare indeed.
However, in this jungle of self-revelation, there is a species of essay that manages to embody the necessary qualities, and in the past couple of years, Katha Pollitt’s imagination seems to have become its prime breeding ground.
Learning to Drive, her hilarious, elegant new collection of personal essays, gathers a handful of stories. If a book could contain awkward silences, this one could fill a cathedral with them.
Herein Pollitt admits to webstalking her ex-boyfriend, continuously failing her driver’s test and attending a Marxist study group only to spend most of her time procrastinating for the weekly reading.
Pollitt, an award-winning poet and columnist for the Nation, knows she can’t simply dump this information on the page and expect a reader’s natural sympathy to do the rest. Each exposition is a finely crafted piece of comic writing, with expert turns of phrase.
“Information was what I wanted from her,” she writes about befriending one of her boyfriend’s ex lovers, “the underside of the carpet I thought I had been standing on.” A narrative on feminism has this description of Iris Murdoch: “She looks a bit like an intelligent potato.”
This kind of wit is hard to come by, harder still in a writer so thoughtful. One almost wishes Pollitt didn’t have to go through such travails to deliver—but, selfishly, most readers should take this book and run.
The Worst Years of Your Life: Stories for the Geeked-Out, Angst-Ridden, Lust-Addled, and Deeply Misunderstood Adolescent in All of Us
by Mark Jude Poirier
Paperback (Simon & Schuster)
Here is the back-to-school gift no teenager would want to be seen carrying, but from which many could glean a great deal of solace. If only it weren’t so clearly intended for adults.
A great many of the writers Mark Jude Poirier calls upon deal with sex, which is ground zero of those awkward years. In Victor LaValle’s “Class Trip,” a teenager’s trip to Queens’ red-light district gets him robbed. Kevin Canty’s “Pretty Judy” depicts a teenage boy starting up a sexual relationship with his developmentally disabled neighbor.
There are some PG-rated pieces. Bullies appear and are dissected in memorable stories by Stanley Elkin and George Saunders. The unspeakable breach of class comes between two characters in Jim Shepard’s lovely and heartbreaking story, “Spending the Night with the Poor.”
The best stories in this book, however, seem to hover between two worlds—they carry a sense of adolescence’s moral instability and its rare moments of grace, as in Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s gorgeous tale, “At the Café Lovely,” a tale of two brothers growing up in Thailand’s prostitution-ridden slums.
“Accelerate,” the older says to the younger in the story’s thrilling conclusion, speaking a mantra which has powered kids out of this awkward period from Jack Kerouac onward. “This is a speedway, you know, not a slowdown.” If only we knew it were so back then.
Gold: A Novel
by Dan Rhodes
Dan Rhodes has told the story of a dog’s journey through Italy and spun 101 tales of love in 101 words. Now he has written a comic novel in which a lovelorn half-Japanese decorator spends her seaside vacation in Wales, painting rocks gold and downing pints with the locals. Rhodes is a stylish writer, and he nearly pulls this quirky conceit off—but unless readers have two hours to toss to the wind, Rhodes’ earlier work packs far more chuckles per pound.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.