"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But you are here, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are a little fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either the Bimbo Box or the Lizard Lounge. It might all come a little clearer if you could dip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder." Thus Jay McInerney begins the section on Intoxication, one of sixteen subjects covered in The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, The Art of Writing and Everything Else in the World Since 1953.
It's an anthology that reads like a who's who of notable creative artists of our time, with works ranging from poetry to the interview format, essays and selected excerpts from novels. The writers include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, A.S. Byatt, Ezra Pound, Kurt Vonnegut on subjects from the profound to the trivial. The Paris Review has served up the magic of the printed word to erudite readers for half a century, and this book is a celebration of that singular accomplishment and a tribute to the wide ranging styles of its many remarkable contributors.
Following McInerney's segment on the experience of intoxication, for example, we are offered snippets of interviews on the same subject. William Burroughs is perhaps a preeminent authority on the ravages of hallucinatory exploration on the creative process. In response to the question "Why did you stop taking drugs?" in an interview for PR: "I was living in Tangier in 1957, and I had spent a month on a tiny room in the Casbah staring at the toe of my foot. The room had filled up with empty Eukodol cartons; I suddenly realized I was not doing anything. I was dying." John Irving on alcohol: "The irony is that drinking is especially dangerous to novelists; memory is vital to us...Drunks ramble. So do books by drunks." By contrast, Hunter S. Thompson, another spokesperson for the stoned generation, answering the PR's query, "Almost without exception writers we've interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs - or at least what they've done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What's your comment about this?" Thompson's succinct reply, "They lie."
Zelda Fitzgerald on Madness, in a letter to her husband: "Where are all my things? I used to always have dozens of things and now there doesn't seem to be any clothes or anything personal in my trunk...." Umberto Eco discourses in the section called Whimsy on "How to Travel with a Salmon" - "Now my publisher thinks I'm a chronic freeloader. The salmon is inedible. My children insist I cut down on my drinking." Jack Kerouac is true to form in Travels: "The thought of me lying there in a tent, and picking grapes in the cool California mornings after nights of guitar music and wine with dipped grapes, hit me right."
Ted Hughes on Love, describes his meeting and subsequent partnership with Sylvia Plath : "Our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive."
Octavio Paz on the art of poetry: "Each poem is different. Often the first line is a gift, I don't know if from the gods or from that mysterious faculty called inspiration."
This is the kind of book you can take with you on a journey and dip into as you fall asleep. No one section predominates. You can flip through, skip around, and please yourself - for please it will. It is a great bedside or bathroom read, and it never disappoints. There simply have to be snippets that already are or will become your favorites, new words from a cherished source or new sources entirely. Ambitiously covering "everything else in the world since 1953," the compendium could have contained 500 other works and been just as good. How to find a cross-section, how to choose the best - this is a heroic and worthy effort and will be a must read and a must own for lovers of The Paris Review, lovers of collected writings, lovers of contemporary letters, and those lucky enough to happen across the book on a long rainy afternoon.