Despite its title, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's latest book, "Off Center," is right on target, first page to last. It's a collection of what John Updike has called "picked-up pieces" -- book reviews, informal essays and interviews, all but one of them published in magazines. Harrison's topics range from Joan Didion to Billy Graham, from a comic view of hypochondria to a sensitive look at the moral complexities of abortion, and from her up-bringing as an "Italian working-class Shirley Temple from Bensonhurst" in Brooklyn to the profoundly unsettling games of truth and consequences she played in the early 1970s.
In lesser hands, collections of miscellaneous journalism often turn out haphazard and scattershot -- Euclid notwithstanding, a good bit less than the sum of their parts. But "Off Center" is unified, the work of a very tidy thinker. Whether the topic be racial violence in public schools, the political and artistic convictions of Jane Fonda or the elusive and ironical style of Dick Cavett, Harrison knows her own mind and expresses it with force and good humor.
There's a curious and appealing quality in Harrison's writing. She mixes personal confession with close observation of the life around her in such a way that by the time I was halfway through the book I felt I knew her, and that I was seeing the world through her eyes.
I know, for example, about her unsatisfactory marriage, about her divorce and about the nocturnal apprehensions and empty silences she felt when her children went to India to spend a year with their father. I know that her distaste for religious cults and their capacity to rob young people of autonomy and spontaneity grows out of her own adolescent experience as a Jehovah's Witness (a story she has already told at some length in "Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses," published in 1978). I know that when she was 11 she read about bone spurs on the heel in "Dr. Fishbein's Handy Home Medical Advisor," thought one of her own heels looked a bit spurred and leaped to the wild conclusion that in some mysterious way she had contracted a social disease. (Dr. Fishbein's book even managed to convince her on another occasion that she had prostate cancer!)
Harrison does not subscribe to the doctrine promulgated by contemporary pop psychology that the chief virtue is to be "accepting," the worst vice is to be "judgmental." To the contrary: "The judgements I make," she writes, "are the person I am."
That's a marvelous sentence and a succinct definition of the nature of moral experience. To refuse to make essential discriminations, to abdicate the responsibility of judgment, is to lessen one's being as a person.
True to her principles, Harrison delivers many a judgement in the course of "Off Center." She finds Joan Didion unappealing because her own "charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantle" nor to "someone who has chosen to burden her adopted daughter with the name Quintana Roo." She finds in Billy Graham an excessive love for the powerful of this earth, a deficient sense of tragedy. She would like to admire Jane Fonda, but somehow can't. And even in the 1970s she remained a child of the 1950s: "I'm still a closet Sinatra fan. I still think of Brando as the best actor in the world."
Me too. And "Off Center" now has me convinced. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison is one of the best writers we've got.