Putty in his hands

I read WILD recently, reading slowly to make it last. If you know me at all, you know that I’m the least likely reader living for first-person endurance tests.  This one’s a stubborn, wrong-headed solo trek along the treacherous Pacific Crest Trail by a 26-year old who seems not to have had as much as S’mores on a cookout before she set out.  And I’m not big on soul-shriving redemption either.

Then why?  Start here:

“It’s not very manly, the topic of weeping while reading. Yet for a book critic tears are an occupational hazard. Luckily, perhaps, books don’t make me cry very often — I’m a thrice-a-year man, at best. Turning pages, I’m practically Steve McQueen.

Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” however, pretty much obliterated me. I was reduced, during her book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism. I like to read in coffee shops, and I began to receive concerned glances from matronly women, the kind of looks that said, “Oh, honey.” It was a humiliation.”

This is that Steve McQueen.  

His name is Dwight Garner, you find him in the daily pages of the New York Times, and I’d follow him anywhere. I already have, to well beyond the Pacific Crest Trail.

The day before Christmas last year, he led the way to a gargantuan volume: 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, when, in a small, almost-hidden review on the Times’ back pages, he laid out where he thought he stood with the strip:

I’d had enough “Doonesbury” to last me, I thought, the same way I already had the right number of Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell records.

All three had said the funny and devastating things they were put on earth to say. Thanks, sincerely, for the memories.

So, we stood shoulder to shoulder on Mr. Trudeau’s offspring.  Then he went on to give Doonesbury its proper place in our lives and I had no choice but to find a way to buy the great honking collection, to lug it to where I could even open it flat — and slip back through every demented, wrong-headed, glorious decade. Again.

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Garner’s review of journalist and historian Gary Wills’s “pointillistic” memoir, Outside Looking In, sets up the New York Review of Books’ daunting reviewer for a one-two punch. When the second punch doesn’t come, you can almost feel his subject exhale with relief.

He’s become a publishing machine,  issuing a steady drip of erudite but remote volumes from the broad and rectangular plain of his parsonlike forehead.  Few of Mr. Wills’s recent books have warmed in your hands.  They’ve been easier to admire than to embrace.

The good news about Outside Looking In isthat it’s the most limber and humane book Mr. Wills has written in years.”

*                            *                   *  *

More than a year ago, when I was giddy over a particular Garner review and was running out of friends to punch in the upper arm to read just this much, I found a serious ally in the form of this heart-on-the sleeve appreciation of Garner in Slate magazine, by no less than Timothy Noah.

In addition to being foursquare, proper reporting, the who/what/when/where/whys/ all in place, plus a world of invaluable links, the final effect is a sort of Dwight Garner 451, as a wide-ranging swath of readers appears, each with a favorite, indelible Garner review.  And when Noah suggests that Dwight Garner’s work brings the same pleasure as John Leonard’s once did, he nailed it.

(Pace Leonard on CBS Sunday Morning, although you can now find Timothy Noah there, time to time. After his 12-years of writing and stewardship at Slate, Noah is now at The New Republic writing the hallmark TNR column, and while I know about moving on and up in journalism, I miss the hell out of him at Slate.)

*                      *                 *                     *

Faced with one of those ideas that strike editors from time to time when there’s no adult around, Garner was modest and game about giving his impressions of a ballet on a bookish subject: Anna Karenina.  It was an assignment made several thousand times harder after the Times’ dance critic, Alistair Macaulay, had loftily dismissed the ballet in his review a few days earlier.

Don’t for a moment think that Garner came to this exercise unarmed. He began with an appreciation of the idea itself, then wrote:

I’m a book critic, and not a complete idiot about dance. (I saw a Christopher Wheldon ballet. . .a few months ago that made me, and my 12-year-old daughter weep with pleasure.) But about classical dance I am comprehensively uneducated.

So, with his own shortcomings so disarmingly laid out, Garner could — and did — write winningly and on his own terms about this melange of literature and ballet, finishing this way:

“Vladimir Nabokov was right when he called Tolstoy’s prose “so tiger bright, so original and universal that it easily transcends the sermon.”  The Marinsky Ballet’s “Anna Karenina” is definitely not, as Mr. Macaulay pointed out, something you would call tiger bright.  But those trains, that snow, the flash of both Anna’s eyes and her red dress, these things I put in my readerly pocket like small valuable coins.”

*                            *                           *

Have to say, not everyone loves Dwight. The Olive Oil Times got pretty brassed off over what they felt was a flip and certainly not reverential review of Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity; on the current dangerous state of olive oil awareness in the U.S. It made them cross enough to create a mock-up of the New York Times on the O.O. Times’ website, with Garner’s blasphemy as its above-the-fold headlines and with pungency and vitriol beneath.

I’m afraid that in some quarters, scorn from the O.O.Times had just the opposite effect, speeding readers to the other Times website to find out just how in the dickens Garner had uncustomarily stepped, ummm, slipped in it.

Well, decide for yourself. But at this house, it seemed more a matter of Garner’s reaction to the author’s style, an absolute thing of wonder, than to Mueller’s  “provocative bits” of fact.

Actually, it’s when Dwight Garner is faced with the twee or the luminous that he’s the most dangerous. Wild could easily have crossed that line. Just now Oprah, having less on her plate than she’s used to, has revived her book club and made Wild her first new offering, explaining that she “was deeply opened and inspired by this book.”

The way Garner (presumably still intact) saw it, his cumulative tears were “partly a response to that too infrequent sight: that of a writer finding her voice and sustaining it, right in front of your eyes.”

Both responses are great good news for Cheryl Strayed, of course, Oprah’s the splashiest and most bankable. But never underestimate the seductiveness of being told that a writer is finding, and sustaining, her voice.