Peter Kurth reviews 'Personals' by Thomas Beller

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Find something that matters to you and write about it." This was the only direction editor Thomas Beller gave the young writers whose work forms "Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of 20 Young Writers." Beller tells us that he found his brood "through talking to editors, professors, and agents, consulting some small magazines, and, of course, luck." The only thing the group has in common is that they are all in their 20s and they all respect the art of the personal essay. There is very little wildness and defiance in these pieces and no literary experimentation. If these represent the new generation, they are a calm, self-aware and universally thoughtful bunch.

Some of the writers in "Personals" have been published before; others have not. In the opening essay, "Twelfth Between A and B," Strawberry Saroyan writes about the stages of her simultaneous disillusionment with New York City and her family in California. Quang Bao remembers signs, portents, charlatans and failures among a Vietnamese refugee family in Texas in the beautiful "Fortune Trails." "The Limits of Austin City" takes novelist Ashley Warlick and her brother from Pennsylvania to Texas, "to a place neither of us had been before, a place of barbecue and music, Pearl beer, general lawlessness and trouble." Quite a few of the essays in "Personals" consider the effects of travel, migration and dislocation on their authors -- people who moved around a lot in childhood, young professionals looking for work, the occasional respite and sensation of going someplace completely different, as when Heather Chase remembers being a 12-year-old in Cameroon and finding that the very foreignness of the place suits the "attitude of detachment" she had already formed after a childhood of never living anywhere longer than a year.

"People talk a lot about the wonders of childhood," Chase writes, "its honesty, insight, frankness and innocence. They don't talk as much about the weakness, the vulnerability, the dependence, the ignorance. All children know this about themselves, and that's why they are easily frightened. I know I was. It is also why every child is eager to grow up, to become like adults. Only adults want to be children."

It would be a mistake to single out one of the writers in "Personals" as being better or more accomplished than the others. They're all authentically talented and write with skill. Particularly striking are the women's voices -- cool, frank, detached and completely lacking that kind of girlish rumination that always makes you think of Kristin in "I Remember Mama," writing by candlelight in the attic and chewing on the end of her pen. These girls have been out there, so in the contemporary understanding of "write what you know," they're in a position to go for the gold. Quite amazing is Caitlin O'Connor Creevy in "Clementine," the account of her pregnancy with a child she meant to give up but couldn't. Beller compares Creevy to Henry Miller in his introduction and he isn't far off. She manages to be salt-of-the-earth and richly inspiring at the same time, writing in absolutely straightforward, even deadpan terms while contemplating the permanent mysteries of the heart. And in "I Didn't Always Think They Were Assholes," her essay about her disastrous experiences as a founding director of a New York theater company, Carrie Luft is all crispness, comedy and clear-eyed vision. She gazes on the world, as all these writers do, fully formed in her sensibility.

By Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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