A Sprawling Post Of Middling Genius

This post allows me to engage in some old-fashion lit journalism, boosterism. I want to talk about Caitlin Flanagan's piece on Alec Baldwin. But I can't really do that without recommending Ian Parker's deeply-reported, and beautifully written profile of Baldwin as a companion.

Now on to to the Flanagan piece. When I was coming up, I can't tell you how many hack editors told me that young people should never write in the first person. I understand the argument--self-absorption and ego generally make for boring writing. But writers don't learn to use the first person by avoiding it. They don't find a voice without looking for one.

Anyway, I have a weird fetish for the piece that proceeds ordinarily along, and then suddenly drops the writer in as a character. I first thrilled at this a decade ago, back home, when my old friend Amanda Ripley did exactly that, while chasing a phantom across Capitol Hill.

There's a sense of shock when you see it done right--it's a kind of card trick pulled on the reader and our assumptions. We assume we're reading a piece of objective journalism. And then the writer does this reveal, and says "No, I'm human too. Here are the assumptions, I bring to bear, and here is what they may tell you."

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I think for those reasons the end of Flanagan's review is pretty incredible. She's making the argument that the relationship between a father and a daughter is, at its core, romantic. I don't think I buy it--but then I don't have a daughter, nor am I daughter. But me buying it or not is beside the point. What's cool is how she swings left and reveals her place in it all:

It used to take three buses to get from the Berkeley hills to the I. Magnin in San Francisco. You had to take the 7 to Palmer's Drugstore on Shattuck, the F across the bay to the city terminal, and then any Geary Street line to Union Square. It was a 14-mile journey that could easily take two hours, and my father and I undertook it each December with a combination of excitement and wariness, determined to bring home his annual Christmas gift to my mother, a quarter ounce of Arpège. We would stand on the plush gray carpeting of the perfume department for a long time, while slender, beautiful young women floated past. The saleslady would dot my own sturdy wrist with the potion, and still my father would stand there, tapping the edge of his American Express card on the glass counter over and over again in agony. We had taken three buses for the sole purpose of buying one thing, the price of which never changed, but every year I was never entirely sure he had it in him. And then--with a decisive nod--he would lay the card flat and push it toward the woman: "We'll take it."

My father was a college professor, and we lived frugally, but somehow--unlike all my friends in similar circumstances--we seemed always to be on the edge of financial ruin. Our blender was secondhand; our television, like our dryer, came from a "bargain" emporium down in Oakland that was of such dubious character that I now wonder if it was a fence for stolen goods; things around the house (like the upstairs porch that you were warned never, ever to set foot on) were in a permanent state of decay. Things worked until they broke, and then they were left that way--a broken space heater was still a space heater, after all. Who knew if our luck would change, and one day you'd be inspired to plug the thing in, and out would whir a blast of warm air?

And yet there we were, every year, buying one of the most expensive perfumes in the world from the best department store in California, and the reason had to do with the fact that deep within our family--the spark that had gotten it all started, turning one Flanagan into four and making a certain red-shingle house in North Berkeley an unparalleled trove of talked-out Chatty Cathy dolls and years-long quarrels, Julia Child soufflés and weekend benders--was a consuming passion.

Read the whole thing. It's worth the trip.