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MISERY REIGNS IN WRITERS' CONFESSION SESSION

SURVIVAL STORIES:
Memoirs of Crisis
Edited by Kathryn Rhett
Doubleday
394 pages, $24.95

Pity novelist Thomas Mallon. He had "a happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer." A memoir written by poor happy Mallon just couldn't cut it in today's literary marketplace.

These days, "a happy childhood is hardly worth your while," according to Frank McCourt, whose own unhappy memoir, "Angela's Ashes," won the Pulitzer Prize.

Our confessional culture now demands misery-drenched no-holds-barred memoirs. In the past, a writer would usually transform experiences into a novel. James Joyce used his troubled adolescence as the basis for "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," as did Sylvia Plath in "The Bell Jar."

Novelization elevated the personal into the universal; it preserved the anonymity of family and friends. Today, tell-all memoirs that proudly air the family's dirty laundry for all to see are the fashion. It's easy for the good memoirs, the ones written with maturity and grace, to get lost in the trash heap.

The latest book from the memoir craze is "Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis," edited by Kathryn Rhett. "Survival Stories" is a collection of essay-length memoirs by authors as well-known as Isabel Allende and as obscure as Patton Hollow.

For the most part, the collection consists of sloppy, self-centered tirades resembling ramblings from a high school writing workshop. One such essay is Don L. Snyder's "Winter Work: The Diary of a Day Laborer." Snyder, a college professor, bemoans the fact that being laid off reduces him to working on a construction crew.

The essay is written on the conceit that the experience makes Snyder realize that such work is as important as his old job. But all the while he inserts subtle details that show how he strives to distance himself from blue-collar workers. He pretends to read Saul Bellow's "Herzog" in the unemployment line. He constantly mentions the workers' lack of college education. He finds it demeaning that he has to buy his shrimp and white wine with food stamps, earning the wrath of a former social colleague dressed "in a beautiful camel's hair coat."

Some of the essays are downright inscrutable. An excerpt from William Styron's much-praised memoir "Darkness Visible" reads like a piece of PBS pop psychology. Styron writes a lot about something called "the pathology of depression." As he explains, this is "not the familiar threshold of pain but a parallel phenomenon, and that is the probable inability of the psyche to absorb pain beyond predictable limits of time."

After a while, the sheer number of essays involving tragic deaths can numb the reader. Placed one after another, mediocre essays beginning with such sentences as "Bill, my younger brother, was murdered in 1979," and "At the morgue, the attendant showed us two Polaroids" lose impact.

A few mature memoirs are buried in this mire of self-indulgent whining and pop psychology wisdom. "Vital Signs," Natalie Kusz's account of a dog attack that left her with one eye and half a face, is poignant without resorting to self-pity.

Amazingly, Kusz can discover humor in her life. Years after the attack, she adopts a one-eyed fish. She reflects: "That's just one I need, a houseful of blind-sided pets. We could sit around and play Wink-um . . . and could make jokes about how it takes two of us to look both ways before crossing the street."

An excerpt of "Paula," Isabel Allende's letter to her comatose daughter, describes the hard life of Allende's family. What could be whining in the hands of another writer becomes poetry through Allende's use of language.

Allende writes: "My memory is like a Mexican mural in which all times are simultaneous: the ships of the Conquistadors in one corner and an Inquisitor torturing Indians in another, galloping Liberators with blood-soaked flags and the Aztecs' Plumed Serpent facing a crucified Christ, all encircled by the billowing smokestacks of the Industrial Age."

Despite the occasional treasure, most of the essays in "Survival Stories" may make you want to write your own memoir of crisis -- "How I Survived Survival Stories."

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