David Shields makes it look easy—turning thoughts, experiences, attitudes, insights, personal history, wounds, slings, arrows, literary criticism, film criticism, and random reminiscences into compelling prose. Open the dictionary to a random page, throw a dart and give David Shields a prompt—you get the feeling he could riff off any random noun, verb or preposition. In “Other People: Takes & Mistakes,” which gathers a variety of previously published pieces and some fresh stuff too, Shields seems ravenous for topics. He’s a Pac Man Writer gobbling ghosts and monsters with an unwavering smile of his face.
Shields, the author of several novels and a host of non-fiction books, including the coauthoring of a biography of J.D. Salinger, is glib. And smart. And witty. And self-effacing. And insightful. And interesting. Other People is a keeper, a juicy mix tape. It’s funky and frank and, at times, tender and humane. Shields has the entries organized (okay, fine whatever) but you can dip in here, take a sample there. Some of the pieces are so rich (like the essay on Bill Murray) that you wonder how one person can find so much to write about another. Other offerings are mere morsels, poetic palate cleansers.
Like I said, there are sections. Men. Women. Athletes. Performers. Alter Egos. But David Shields is, naturally, omnipresent in all 70-plus of these wide-ranging entries. Shields will make you feel like you haven’t studied your heroes or really read that book, but his interests are unpretentious—sports, acting, sex, fiction, big ideas, little moments from childhood, personal humiliations.
He’s frequently funny. “Love Is Illusion” is a brisk three paragraphs that begins, “The most dramatic sexual experience of my life was a yearlong relationship with a woman whose entire philosophy, or at least bedroom behavior, was derived from the sex advice columns of racier women’s magazines … she applied lipstick and eye shadow in such a way to create the effect that she was in a perpetual state of arousal.”
Shields is not afraid to share his darkest thoughts, recount embarrassing moments, or (here and there) expose himself. From his brief essay about Tiger Wood: “My initial reaction when I saw on the web the report that Tiger Woods was seriously injured was What’s the matter with me that I hope he’s been paralyzed or killed? Jealousy. The much vaunted Schadenfreude. The green-eyed fairway. Tiger is extremely rich, famous (now infamous), semi-handsome (losing his hair), semi-black, the best golfer ever (was going to be), married to a supermodel (no longer, of course). I wanted him to taste life’s darkness. . . . I was disappointed that Tiger was O.K. (for the nonce). But, really, I think we all were.”
In “Information Sickness,” Shields documents his quirks and odd habits and yearnings and how his mind works. “My nightmares—and endless network of honeycombs, a thousand cracks in a desiccated lake—are always about the multiplying of chaos. Two questions constantly occur to me: What would this look like filmed? What would the sound track be? I grew up at a very busy intersection, and to me aesthetic bliss was hearing the sound of brakes screeching, then waiting for the sound of the crash.”
There are essays you can sink your teeth into (one about Charles Barkley) and others that seem like excuses to show his unpretentious touch with language. You know Shields cares about the flows and rhythms of the language as much as the content within.
“The sixties—which, as everybody knows, began in 1963 and ended in 1974—happened, like a sitcom, in the middle of my living room.
“I was president of the sixth grade of one of the most desegregated elementary schools in California, and when the BBC came to interview me, I spoke so passionately that they had to stop the film because the cameraman was crying.
“By the end of eighth grade it was a profound social embarrassment if you hadn’t ‘gotten married,’ which meant lost your virginity.”
This list of seemingly unrelated observations goes along. You think you’re missing something and then realize that Shields has pulled out his kaleidoscope, given it a shake. It’s an effective technique.
You get the feeling that if a thought crosses Shields’ brain, he’s going to spill it.
Shields’ blunt assessment of Charles Barkley is full of zingers. “He’s both truth-teller and scam artist, purveyor of old-school values with new-school style, a social conservative who throughout his playing career was a devotee of strip clubs, an antiauthority authoritarian, a rebel reactionary. After a difficult loss, he once said he felt like going home and beating his wife—the same woman he said made him cry every time they made love.”
In the end, Shields makes us understand why we all like Charles Barkley. “He’s alive, here, on this planet, right now. He’s a brilliant extemporizer, inside the moment, satyr-like, actively searching for the jugular of truth and—this is key to presenting moderation in an immoderate appetite—nearly always finding it in humor.”
Shields’ breakdown of Bill Murray’s essence is long. And detailed. And I couldn’t argue with one word but I had never stopped to think anything along these lines, either, trying to understand the layers of Murray’s charm. Shields notes that Murray “offers ways out, solutions of sorts, all of which amount to a delicate embrace of the real, a fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”
Between the essays of Barkley and Murray (can you imagine those two together?) that’s the essence of Shields, too. The “jugular of truth” mixed with “fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”
When he came through Denver recently for a book tour stop at The Tattered Cover, only a handful of people showed up. (What a crime!) Shields skipped any formal remarks and pulled the chairs around in a small circle, reading a few bits from Other People. He shot the breeze like he is one of us.
Previously reviewed: How Literature Saved My Life