The title of Portrait Inside My Headsuggests an intimate knowledge of Phillip Lopate. With this understanding, the reader must realize that such a title clearly reveals that these essays are subject to Lopate’s biases and opinions. That is true of their presentation and the selection of various topics. Each writing is inflected with Lopate’s distinction; they vary little in manner, but they retain Lopate’s wit and the accessibility of his writing style.
Lopate gives readers a similar warning in his aptly titled introduction, “In Defense of the Miscellaneous Essay Collection,” which an entertaining precursor to the rest of the book. In his introduction, Lopate says,
“ … the essay form is such that – unlike the poem and the short story – it does not readily permit of crystalline perfection … that’s why I love it so much. I am not a perfectionist, neither by temperament nor by prose style. I am drawn … to the unavoidable yet unapologetic unevenness of the miscellaneous essay collection.” Such statements evoke curiosity because it is rare to see an author defend their work in the publication itself. This sort of immediate defense intrigues readers who are given a preview of Lopate’s talent for descriptive language, and it will save time for readers who are not interested. Perhaps all authors should do this.
There is no better word than the one Lopate uses— “miscellaneous”—to describe the book’s arrangement. Even though the essay topics are seemingly random, they are categorized into four main sections that offer Lopate’s opinions regarding topics like family, religion, careers and sports, among many others. While memory distorts all narratives (especially these), Lopate demonstrates his honesty and desire for truth despite the confines of perception. He discusses his subjects with a forthright and amusing mix of wisdom and reflection while never seeming condescending to his reader.
Often, Lopate is remarkably funny in observing his foibles, society’s peculiarities, and the point at which the two intersect. This is especially true when he discusses sexuality with the candid absurdity that, as any intelligent person knows, the issue really requires. Humor is not the only tool at Lopate’s disposal. He is remarkably astute in his analysis of the relationship between cinema and literature and poignant when he reminisces about subjects like his friendship with filmmaker Warren Sonbert.
As entertaining as these essays are, the most fascinating section is “Literary Matters” in the book’s latter half. Here Lopate recounts his opinions on poetry and writing and provides opinions of various authors like Allen Ginsburg, Thomas Bernhard and Stendhal, among others. This section is likely the biggest draw of the book and was almost certainly clever marketing, as essay collections appeal primarily to academics and studious readers who expect opinionated critiques of their favorite art forms. Intentions aside, the essays in this section approach literature with skillful analysis and humorous respect.
One critical review on the back cover of Portrait Inside My Head compares Lopate to Montaigne. This is a somewhat brazen comparison, considering that even the most expert essay writer is hardly comparable to such a grand, historical figure; however, Lopate is most assuredly an expert. This comparison, though perhaps hyperbole (or even pandering), is a complement likely enjoyed by Lopate, who consistently references his admiration of Montaigne.
Such references become at times redundant as Lopate insists on telling the reader the same thing. For instance, he grew up in Brooklyn, something the reader will hear so repeatedly that they are likely to roll their eyes—similar to a youth forced to listen once too often to his rambling and pedantic grandfather. At times this is how Lopate seems, relying too heavily on overused material such as his childhood memories. This is likely fine when the reader sees these essays for the first time; however, it is unlikely that they are unique enough to warrant repeated readings. If these essays are read again, it would be for Lopate’s humorously urbane writing style, but humor becomes stale with time if the grander message behind it lacks depth.