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Arts & Culture

'Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers' and 'Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension'

Two writers who mix reporting and the personal essay

Photo: Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro, License: N/A

Photo by Jaclyn Campanaro

Michael Heald

Photo: , License: N/A

Janet Malcolm


Memory’s autism is evident in much of Michael Heald’s new collection of essays, Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension (Perfect Day Publishing). This is fitting, since Heald runs Perfect Day Publishing, whose tagline is “If it’s not personal, we’re not interested.”

The title essay seems to start as a piece about Stephen Malkmus, the singer of the seminal 1990s band Pavement, but turns out to be a collage (much like Malcolm’s portrait of Salle in structure) of Heald’s 20s.

There is a certain kind of literature that sees 30 as old. Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” is the most successful example of this form of essay. With her usual cool eye, Didion looks back on innocence lost in New York, and it seems like that essay is the model for Heald’s work, so that his very title seems to allude to it – even if essays like the seemingly interminable college story “This Is Part of Something Bigger Called Small” read more like Bret Easton Ellis’ early books. Still, we do seem to finally know ourselves a little bit and to feel more comfortable in our own skin at 30 than we did at 20. Of course, the wisdom passes quickly, for we are soon faced with an entirely new set of problems.

Heald himself seems to realize this. In “It Should Be Mathematical,” the one truly brilliant piece in the book, he is able to blend reporting and the personal in a nearly flawless fashion. The piece is a sort of profile of the running couple Ian Dobson and Julia Lucas as they each tragically fail to make the Olympic team. Failure is always more interesting than success, and the fact that Heald (who comes from a family of runners) was beaten by Dobson back when they were in high school allows him to use the essay to examine his own life far more effectively than in the stories in which the autism of memory seems to distort it. Because of his knowledge of running, he is also able to describe the races – something I have never cared for – in a way that makes them exciting, like a non-gambler thrilled by Dostoevsky’s descriptions of roulette in The Gambler.

Several other stories focus on running, and it may be that there is something about distance running that is in the zeitgeist of the moment. Not only did terrorists decide a marathon was the important event to attack, but when they did, my mind immediately turned to Jamie Quatro’s brilliant collection I Want to Show You More (in the same way I thought of Don DeLillo’s Mao II on 9/11). While Quatro’s running stories are existential analogies of a sort, Heald’s are artistic ones. In Julia Lucas and Ian Dobson, he sees the image of creation: “That’s the thing that Julia did more than anyone else has done at the Trials so far – put herself out there. Just a little bit too far. Absolutely all in.”

It is unfair to compare anyone to Malcolm, perhaps, but in this one essay, Heald comes damn close. It’s clear, he has put himself out there and is absolutely all in.

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