The most powerful piece is “The Defeated,” an essay by Jonny Steinberg. It describes the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, where a young white farmer was shot to death in 1999. The murder was the subject of a book that Steinberg published in 2002 about the country’s violent transition from apartheid to democracy. Returning to the province 11 years later, Steinberg interviews many of the blacks and whites associated with the crime — people who probably carried it out, people who profited from it, and people who will never recover from their loss. It’s a bracingly frank essay about the horrible legacy of racial politics and the bitter persistence of inequality.
Another highlight in this issue is “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” by David Gates. It’s an emotionally searing short story about a musician who asks the narrator to provide him with hospice care. (This is the title piece from a forthcoming collection to be published by Knopf, probably in early 2015. Gates tells me that the book will include a novella and 10 stories.)
In “Nudity,” Norman Rush offers a witty, ultimately poignant, memory of his adolescent sexuality. “I nursed a precocious rage at the stratagems society was employing to keep me from seeing naked woman,” he writes. “My pursuit of the unrestricted gaze met continuing obstacles.”
Edmund White’s “American Vogue” is a self-deprecating essay about the differences between France and the United States. This excerpt from his upcoming memoir, “Inside a Pearl” (Bloomsbury, Feb), begins in 1984: “Of course, I’d lied to the editors of Vogue and told them I spoke perfect French.” That fib leads to a nerve-racking assignment to interview the French film director Eric Rohmer. White carefully practiced and memorized his questions, but “I had to tape Rohmer’s answers since I had no idea what he was saying.” Despite some great comedy at his own expense, White concludes the piece with incisive criticism about the French obsession with novelty.
Among the more curious items in this issue is a series of gracious letters between Janet Malcolm and Marta Werner. Malcolm wanted a copy of Werner’s book “Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios” (1996) to cut up and create collages (Who knew Malcolm was into collages?). Unable to find Werner’s out-of-print book, she wrote to author, and the two women ended up exchanging notes about their work. Following their correspondence are reproductions of several of Malcolm’s collages, but unfortunately they’re printed here too small to have much impact, and the tiny lines of Dickinson’s verse are often illegible. (You can see the actual pieces at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York through Feb. 8.)