Concerning a collection of essays, there are two time-honored approaches. Because the essay is a compact form, the direct descendant of the personal letter (and therefore, it might be said, the father of the short story), the self-anthologist can either adopt the Emersonian approach or opt for the grab-bag method. In the former, the author treats his pieces as parts of a greater whole, rather as if they were chapters in a book, and deploys his thoughts and examples in such a way that certain themes will be defined, expanded, and go on to establish a family. In the latter, he simply lumps a number of occasional pieces together, organizes them as entertainingly as possible, and hopes that the breadth of his scholarship or the charm of his pen (or whatever) will prevent the reader from feeling as he is sitting through a movie with a slightly hallucinatory flicker.
In "The Fast Track," Nicholas Lemann (formerly of this newspaper and presently of Texas Monthly) falls somewhere between these two schools. The result is not an unpleasing one, but it has a few problems.
Most journalists have reasonably good eyes and ears: these come with the franchise, and journalists who fail to keep their wits about them are a little like alcoholic brain surgeons, for their careers are nasty, brutish and short. Lemann, however, is that rarer bird of the profession, interested in processes, in how things really work rather than in how they appear to work. Diligence and patience are necessary to this task and the gaudier of our brethren are seldom up to the task, including the personnel of the so-called investigative branch. It takes time to analyze even the simplest of human structures, especially the economic ones, which is one of the reasons the business pages of our great metropolitan dailies often read as if they were reporting events on Uranus: Economic man is a complex being, life is short and deadlines loom.
This very diligence and patience are Lemann's strong suits, and work is his subject. His head is remarkably clear, whether he is writing about a prosperous Dallas real estate man, the Houston medical center, the employe policies of the Exxon corporation, or the off-off-Broadway theater. He doesn't merely undertake to tell us what these things are in terms of raw statistics and whatnot; he attempts to tell us how they function in terms of the people involved, how a land deal is put together in Dallas' magic corridor, how medical superstardom and specialized research interact with money to the benefit (and detriment) of contemporary health care, how a law firm combines and how it comes apart, how an entrepreneur survives.
His thesis, if I have it right, is that the lust for cash is the least of the many fuels that propel the wheels of commerce; far more important is the desire to do something that one does well, to the point -- in the case of Houston's renowned Dr. DeBakey -- of egomaniacal obsession. In these pages one encounters craftsmen trying to live through their work.
And here we run into a little trouble. Each of these articles is just that -- an article, a bullet fired first at some editor and then at the reader, cramped by the confines of the magazines's news hole and moving with haste. Little apparent attempt has been made to rewrite them into a seamless web or to expand them beyond the tyranny of the original word count. What, for example, is the larger meaning of the various hustles of Sherwood Blout, the youthful real estate tycoon? What context is he functioning in, exactly, and how do his activities connect with the outer world of his city and the inner world of his self? What does the independent wildcatter, Jack G. Jones, do exactly, and what does the last piece in the book -- an excellent essay on provincial roots and the life of the mind -- have to do with anything else in the book?
"The Fast Track" has clarity and vigor, but it also has selective tunnel vision. Its unifying thesis alternately brightens and dims, and remains insufficiently explored. In all, it is a promising work that is neither one thing nor another, and its parts are greater than its whole. At the same time, there are some very well-done things here, and we shall doubtless be hearing more of Nicholoas Lemann in the future.