Up, Up and Away
George Plimpton's The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair and Other Excursions and Observations (Random House, $24.95) is being released a year after the author's death, and, like many other posthumous collections, it includes both very strong segments and weaker ones. A piece titled "How Failing at Exeter Made a Success Out of George Plimpton," for example, probably functioned better as an address to the students than it does on the page.
Plimpton was the editor of the Paris Review for 50 years, where he published some of the world's best-known writers, including William Styron, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino and Margaret Atwood. He was also known for his forays into participatory journalism, primarily in the world of sports. The persona he presents in these essays is learned, insouciant, elegant and -- in a gentlemanly sort of way -- sprightly. The writing has a lightness of touch and a determined distance from the grubbier aspects of life.
Where the style works, it works beautifully. The title essay tells the story of Larry Walters, who made headlines in 1982 when he took flight in a lawn chair lofted by helium-filled weather balloons and weighted with plastic bottles of water. He carried a BB gun with which to puncture the balloons and control his flight. After attracting the startled attention of a couple of pilots, Walters got tangled in some power lines and came to rest over a suburban house, as the householder gaped from a chaise by his backyard pool.
What appears to be simply a whimsical account of one man's eccentricity gains resonance when we learn that Walters, a Vietnam vet with inchoate longings involving God and the romantic film "Somewhere in Time," killed himself some years after his flight. With a touch of humor but not one extraneous word nor whisper of sentimentality, "The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair" communicates the unknowability of the human spirit.
In some cases, where an essay disappoints, it's because the tone is dated. It seems to me that "My Life With Playboy" would amuse only those who still find Hugh Hefner and his bunnies titillating, and something similar could be said of "The Playpen of the Damned," in which Plimpton interviews porn stars and directors as if they were genuine artists. People who find Hunter S. Thompson's stoned bad-boy antics amusing will no doubt find "Night of the Hunter" -- in which Thompson swats Johnny Depp over the head with a bag of popcorn -- hilarious. A glimpse into Jackie Onassis's plans for a children's party relies for its charm on a by no means universal fascination with the former first lady.
But there are riches too: "The Man Who Was Eaten Alive," another perfect example of the light comic essay, profiles filmmaker Alan Root, whose courage and tenacity are matched only by his unfortunate propensity for getting mauled by wild creatures and bombed by angry birds. A meditation on the meaning of the term "bon vivant" wears its erudition lightly as it romps through a catalogue of history's dandies. "My Last Cobra" is an extended yarn in which a small lie of Plimpton's grows and grows until it traps him.
Leaving His Mark
Alfred Van Cleef's The Lost Island: Alone Among the Fruitful and Multiplying, translated from the Dutch by S.J. Leinbach (Metropolitan, $24), is a highly impersonal personal memoir. Van Cleef includes a few confessional moments -- his life before he sought out the remote island of Amsterdam in the Indian Ocean was aimless, he smoked too much dope, he had a couple of failed relationships -- but although he goes to great pains and negotiates all kinds of bureaucratic blocks to get to Amsterdam, we never fully understand the reasons why. This book has none of the warmth and insight that characterize Alix Kates Shulman's memoir of solitude, Drinking the Rain.
Amsterdam, a far bleaker and more forbidding place than Shulman's retreat on Maine's Long Island, is home to around 30 men at a time: biologists, meteorologists, handymen. Van Cleef doesn't personalize the companions of his two-month stay, referring to them only by such nicknames as the American and the Ascetic.
Van Cleef keeps the focus on the island itself, and once you abandon the search for a human narrative, the book does offer pleasures, particularly in its descriptions of the local flora and fauna. Van Cleef tells us, for example, of the seals of Amsterdam, who were once driven almost to extinction and have now reclaimed their territory: the perennially pregnant females, the battles between high-ranking males, the mating acts that look like rapes and the "loser's beach" where defeated males crawl in misery. There's a story about a biologist who, determined to discover a new bird, had to prove that the Amsterdam albatross would not mate with the already known wandering albatross. When he succeeded in getting the bird listed in 1984, "nobody made a fuss about the Big Exception, a couple consisting of a female wandering albatross from Crozet and a male Amsterdam albatross that had been living on Amsterdam for twenty years and regularly produced bastard offspring."
The book's theme, if it has one, has something to do with the interaction between humankind and the wild. Fragments of history float into the text and disappear, unfinished, teasing the imagination. Even as humans made their irrevocable changes to the island's ecology, the island negated their presence. Previous inhabitants have left almost no traces -- a name carved in rock, a plaque affixed to a cliff from which a biologist once tumbled to his death.
In this context, Van Cleef feels an ironic interest in his own insignificance: "Because the history of the island was rewritten with every new expedition, I was just as much a part of it as any other inhabitant of the earth who had ever set foot there. Yet at the same time my presence seemed inherently meaningless: In a few years no one would be left on the island who knew me or even knew that I existed. It gave me an uneasy feeling; I always like to leave my mark on things."
En Route to Closure
Unable to deal with her feelings of anger and grief at her father's death, Kerry Egan undertook a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. In Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago (Doubleday, $22.95), she describes the process with humor and honesty, sharing her discoveries as she makes them so that the reader becomes a pilgrim too.
Egan's writing is not always entirely felicitous; some sentences are flat or awkward. Occasionally she seems to explain the obvious or belabor a point. But she is also kind, thoughtful and refreshingly unpretentious. Sometimes she and her companion, Alex, weary of trudging in the blazing sun, "cheat" by taking a train from one point to another. She reveals the ways in which her fears and weaknesses periodically drive the patient Alex to distraction. She gives us a snapshot of herself standing in a field, infuriated by the lack of shade, kicking at stalks of wheat and howling with rage.
Egan has a master's degree from Harvard Divinity School, and her historical and theological knowledge makes this book deeper and wider than the average memoir. She elucidates the historical meaning and significance of pilgrimage, tells interesting stories about the saints, considers what relics indicate about death and resurrection. She defines asceticism as an impulse that can be either life-affirming or narrowly self-absorbed, and she wonders if earthly beauty provides a link with God. Her insights continue to resonate for days after you've finished reading.
Jennifer Beth Cohen, a journalist, knows a lot about contemporary life in Russia as well as about Russian literature and history. But Lying Together: My Russian Affair (Univ. of Wisconsin, $22.95) focuses on a sad and bewildering love affair she had with Kevin, a fellow reporter whose cleverness and cynicism masked serious mental problems, with Moscow providing only a backdrop. A tale not of passion recollected in tranquility but emotion still raw enough to churn up the prose line, this isn't a book to read for aesthetic pleasure or profound insight, but it's likely to galvanize anyone who's ever been blindly in love. *
Juliet Wittman is the theater reviewer for Westword in Denver and a regular contributor to Book World.