Other People: Takes and Mistakes
By David Shields
369 pages, $28.96
David Shields, at 60, is one of America's most accomplished and best writers.
The trouble is that his books arrive in a vehemently, almost angrily unclassifiable form. As brilliant and joyously readable as they are, they evade all established ideas of literary genre.
For those with sluggish literary reflexes and narrow horizons, a book by Shields is liable to arrive with a built-in question: What the devil IS this book? And if the answer isn't forthcoming quickly and obviously enough, surely there's a conventional novel or biography or history or essay collection that might suggest itself as a more formally reassuring alternative.
In one sense, this is just a writer's catch-all miscellany. (Updike called his first one "Assorted Prose.") But just look at the rights page of this book where the Library of Congress has to figure out what the deuce they're putting on their shelves. In tiny type that seems to plead "please don't read this," it offers Philosophy, Biography, Autobiography, Personal Memoir, Literary Collection, Essays and American General to those who might crave an immediate answer to what's going on here.
It gets even trickier than that: The animating principal of the whole collection of short pieces is announced with both clarity and pure chutzpah by the book's long epigraph which is by Philip Roth. What Roth writes is that no matter how you "fight your superficiality, your shallowness" when you consider other people "you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank ... Since the same goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive; we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.
"But if you can do that, lucky you."
So that's what Shields tries to do in this collection of essays, criticism, profiles and short autobiographical pieces.
Some of us are old hands with Shields -- what with "War is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict," and "How Literature Saved My Life" and "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto" and "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead."
We're fine with a miscellaneous book of first-person "takes and mistakes" whose propensity for error is precisely wherein its profundity lay. But it's Shields' current bad luck that our political era has re-introduced all of us to the iron-clad necessity of knowing what's a fact and what's an "alternative fact" i.e. a lie or dangerous error.
This is an exciting book, nevertheless, no matter where you happen to fall into it. You could be reading a letter to his sportswriter father. Or this, about Buffalo-raised TV writer David Milch with whom he took a summer school course at Yale "to show [Shields] not only how to write but how to live."
Milch, in class, told one student -- "the son of a famous New Yorker writer" -- "whenever you're about to say something ... say the opposite of whatever you're thinking because whatever you think is always wrong."
Shields, who describes himself as the son of San Francisco "journalist/activists," calls the persona of Milch, the son of a wealthy and flamboyant surgeon, "the first and only Jewish amoralist" which is probably many miles more accurate than much of the saintly drivel that has found its way into any number of Milch profiles whenever one of his new series hits the air.
"What did I seek so earnestly from this mentor/tormentor, this charming bully, and why did he so steadfastly refuse to give it?" he asks about Milch after writing what seems to me -- an old friend and schoolmate of Milch -- the LEAST mistaken profile of Milch that I've ever read.
Go on to read about his mother, the classic Otto Preminger film noir "Laura" and an old lover who had gotten all of her ideas about sex from advice columns in women's magazine. (Moral, to Shields: "Humankind cannot bear very much reality.")
He's capable of writing fascinatingly about eyeglass frames in the same book as an exceptional essay about sports movies, a piece about basketball and tattoos, women's basketball player Loree Payne, baseball pitchers, Charles Barkley's brain, Oprah Winfrey, photographer Robert Capa, Adam Sandler's hannukah song, Bill Murray, character actor Bob Balaban, Kurt Cobain, "Stuttering John" Melendez, the English Department of Brown University and Howard Cosell.
In his certainty of getting other people wrong, David Shields is vastly more profound, entertaining, memorable and trustworthy than armies of writers whose presumptions of professional certitude and golden methodology are fatuous and mistaken to alarming degrees.
Nothing David Shields writes should be ignored. Sometimes, as here, he is to be read as intently as any writer around.
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of the Buffalo News.