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Bubbling, but Not Bubbling Over : AGAINST JOIE DE VIVRE, Personal Essays, by Phillip Lopate , (Poseidon Press:$18.95; 331 pp.)

June 04, 1989|Ron Gottesman | Gottesman is a professor of English at the University of Southern California. and

Neither the title nor the sub-title of this collection is very helpful in conveying the nature of its contents. To be against "the knack of knowing how to live" (one of author Phillip Lopate's definitions), to be opposed to living with zestful pleasure, provides, to be sure, some sense of the sometimes curmudgeonly irony that is one of the stances assumed by the author, but it doesn't begin to account for the unpredictable shift of tone and mood that characterizes the best of the 19 pieces gathered here. Nor does it help much to characterize these pieces as personal essays, since as the author observes in "What Happened to the Personal Essay?," one of the most interesting of them: "The personal or familiar essay is a wonderfully tolerant form, able to accommodate rumination, memoir, anecdote, diatribe, scholarship, fantasy, and moral philosophy," and Lopate gives us examples of all of these and more.

Some, like "Shaving a Beard," "Art of the Creep," "Upstairs Neighbors," and "Reflections of Subletting," are short and humorous, more like material for shticks than the stuff of books. Others, like "Revisionist Nuptials," put their arm too familiarly around your shoulder and invite you to indulge yours and the author's cantankerousness and old-fashioned good sense. Here, for example, is a passage from the title essay reflecting on dinner parties: "What do people talk about at such gatherings? The latest movies, the priciness of things, word processors, restaurants, muggings and burglaries, private versus public schools, the fool in the White House (there have been so many fools in a row that this subject is getting tired), the undeserved reputations of certain better-known professionals in one's field, the fashions in investments, the investments in fashion. What is traded at the dinner-party table is, of course, class information. You will learn whether you are the avant-garde or rear guard of your social class, or, preferably, right in step." This is charming and chummy, but it lacks Thoreauvian indignation or Menckenian bite; it is merely glibly witty.

Several of these essays draw on the author's professional interests as a teacher and writer (of poetry, fiction, and criticism as well as of essays). "Chekhov for Children," an overly long account of staging "Uncle Vanya" with a dozen 10- to 12-year-olds will be of interest mainly to teachers and fascinating only to teachers of drama; "What Happened to the Personal Essay?" and "Waiting for the Book to Come Out" are, respectively, engaging popular scholarship and a ruefully precise account of the industrial and psychological processes involved in publishing books. One of the more appealing and impressive essays in the collection, "Houston Hide and Seek," is pretty much straight-ahead urban-cultural criticism made more effective by novelistic technique and personal anecdote; it is not, I think, a personal essay either in the tradition of Montaigne or of Bacon.

But the heart of the collection does consist of four genuinely personal essays, one appearing in each of the four sections of the book. These are: "Samson and Delilah and the Kids," "Anticipation of La Notte : The 'Heroic' Age of Moviegoing," "Carlos: Evening in the City of Friends," and "Suicide of a Schoolteacher." I don't have the space to do justice individually to these deeply meditative, self-investigative and self-revelatory reflections; but all of them, paradoxically, make definitively tentative inquiries into the painful process of making sense out of an anguished and sometimes self-destructive self. They share, that is, with the best examples of the personal essay tradition, that sense of the human spirit momentarily caught in the attempt (the essais ) to follow the rhythms of its protean nature.

In short, though one of the Lopates asserts: "I don't like the smell of depression (it has a smell, a very distinct one, something fetid, like morning odors), and I stay away from depressed characters whenever possible," the fact is that another of the Lopates is drawn to his own and other people's psychic soreness with all the inevitability of a tongue to a loose tooth. His major subject is, in fact, the mystery of human suffering and the struggle to keep from falling half in love with what Whitman called "the low and delicious word death."

It is this subject and the creation, in these four essays, of appropriate forms that constitute the backbone and circulatory system of what would otherwise be a butcher's bin of bones and blood. But these four are of sufficient heft and shape and power to give Lopate good reason to hope that he may one day shift categories from what he calls the Author Without Clout to that of a Nationally Recognized Name.

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