Life is full of disappointments, but those are most often balanced by moments that will be held close to the soul and then later in life dug up and examined like treasure. Jonathan Lethem seems to have a major excavation underway in The Disappointment Artist.
I want to start out by saying up front that this is not a collection of essays recommended for reading by teens or young adults, and therefore junior high and high school educators would not wish to incorporate this work into their curriculum. Its material would best be reserved for adults not so easily swayed by Lethem's waxing poetic for the American countercultures that embrace promiscuity, drugs, homosexuality, and bohemianism in general. Perhaps that is a bit prudish, but so be it. While these have made for a hefty trunk full of experiences for Lethem, they are not lifestyles I would encourage the youth of today to explore or embrace. Nor other adults, for that matter.
From the perspective of writing quality, save for the author's decision to incorporate a good deal of the offensive language which seems to pervade every pore of our society anymore, Lethem exhibits an insightful and personable style that will keep most readers engaged. Nonfiction essayists of this caliber are becoming fewer in number, or are seemingly not being published enough in lieu of the more trendy or trivialized subject matter. My only wish might be that authors today raise the bar on the standards by which they communicate their experiences and insights.
Of the whole collection, I found "Defending The Searchers," "The Disappointment Artist," "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn" and "The Bohemians" the most compelling works, for they engender a whole range of emotions from Lethem and do not require a specific knowledge of anything more than that which is common to nearly all humans: love, hate, joy, rage, encouragement, hopelessness, understanding, confusion, curiosity. Lethem's most intense introspective moments and his rich descriptives about the cultures in which he moved as a child, young man, and adult, are borne out in these.
The three essays "Identifying With Your Parents," "Two or Three Things I Dunno About Cassavetes" and "You Don't Know Dick" require a deeper understanding of writers of the past and of the professional illustrators and variations of comic books. Without some kind of basic knowledge, most readers will feel lost and will likely reap the sensation that the essay meanders along. It was a struggle to stay with them page after page, for I am not versed in the nuances of comic books, the writings of Philip K. Dick, or the films of John Cassavetes, and there is no interest - not even Lethem's essays could foster it - to familiarize myself with them.
As for the final essay, "The Beards," it seemed an awkward and disjointed thing.
Lethem's book is reminiscent of another I reviewed recently, Cutty, One Rock by August Kleinzahler. Had these two authors not been born a decade and a half part and in different parts of the continent, I would have sworn they were shadowing one another.