It took a little longer than expected, but I finished the book this morning. Here are my impressions of some select profiles:
Favorite: “Shoot the Moon,” for the reasons described in last week’s post.
Least favorite: “After the Party,” also for the reasons described in last week’s post.
Funniest: This was a tough call. I really enjoyed three of the Talk of the Town pieces—compiled in the chapter “Short People”—”The Moon Trip,” “Fish Window,” and “Three Dimensional.” As much as I loved the detailed descriptions of the seafood sculptures (and the plastic, dry-ice exhalling Godzilla) in “Fish Window,” I laughed all the way through “Three Dimensional,” a profile of Jaleel White (aka Steve Urkel) that begins with the line “One of the things the new Steve Urkel doll says when you pull its voice cord is ‘Got any cheese?'” and gets better from there. It also sets a record for the most occurrences of the name “Urkel” in any article running just under two and a half pages. It’s a rule of comedy a writer friend of mine introduced me to—when you repeat something funny it gets funnier the second and third time, isn’t funny at all the fourth through seventh time, but then gets really funny from the eighth time on.
Best line: But as funny as “Three Dimensional” is, “The Moon Trip” has the best line of any chapter in the book:
The Moon Trip is not for sale. It is not a Simpsons T-shirt, a slap bracelet, a neon green ripstop-nylon hip pouch, a souvaki sandwich, a Dianetics handbook, a six-pack of tube socks, a neon pink terry-cloth-covered hairband, a pair of fake gold Cleopatra hoop earrings, a calzone, a recently boosted and repackaged cassette player, or fudge.
Saddest: When I picked up this book, I thought that at least one of the profiles would be tragic and I would be left feeling genuine sympathy for someone. That didn’t happen —this isn’t really that kind of book. The best I could muster was pity for the eponymous subject of “Tiffany.” I remember Tiffany—the cloying song, the mall tours, and the overall sense of a manufactured one-hit wonder. Knowing what happens next makes this portrait truly pitiful. Orlean introduces us to a naive and clueless Tiffany and her clichéd Svengali George Tobin. And though this profile was written at the brief zenith of Tiffany’s popularity, her imminent return to obscurity is foreshadowed throughout. Orlean sees it coming, and the fact that both Tiffany and Tobin are blissfully unaware of their impending doom makes their portrayals even more pathetic.
Most surprising: “Figures in a Mall.” I remember the whole Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan fiasco, and I have no need or desire to be reminded of it. But this article isn’t about Tonya Harding, it’s about Clackamas. Living only a couple of hours from the Portland Metro area myself, I found this profile of a community which “starts in the Great plains, skips over cities like Portland and Seattle, and then jumps up to Alaska” fascinating.
Most distressing: “La Matadora Revisa Su Maquillaje (The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup)”. The title is great—and the perfect choice for the collection as a whole— but even with the great writing I just can’t get past the barbarity of bullfighting.
Worst overall: “Non-stop.” The profile is nothing but a long quote by Peter Benfaremo, “The Lemon Ice King of Corona.” I get what Orlean was trying to convey here: the guy’s life is non-stop, his business is non-stop, and he talks non-stop. But she’s supposed to be a writer, not a walking tape recorder. The one good part? She didn’t put herself in the article for once.
Best overall: Tough call. There are so many worthwhile candidates—only a few of which I’ve had a chance to mention—but the one that stands out for me at the end is “A Gentle Reign.” Here’s a summary of the opening paragraph:
Kwabena Oppong, who is the king and ruler of the African Ashanti tribespeople living in the United States of America, has a throne in his living room . . . The American Ashanti king is elected every two years from the ranks of an Ashanti social and cultural organization called the Assanteman Association . . . Kwabena Oppong is the third king, he drives a cab.
In that one sentence—”Kwabena Oppong is the third king, he drives a cab”— the reader is introduced to a deeply humble man who throughout the ensuing portrait is shown to be the perfect choice to lead his people. In reality he’s the president of a club—the royal trappings are meant to provide a connection to the Ashanti culture back in Ghana and their “royally born, richly rewarded, divinely inspired” king who, unlike Oppong, reigns for life. You never learn much about the Ghanian king but you learn a lot about Oppong and why his fellow Ashanti hold him in such high regard. He’s a decent guy who cares deeply for his culture and his people, he’s always calm in the midst of sometimes angry disputes, and he never lets his authority go to his head.
Final take: After reading the second half, I’m sticking with my earlier impression. Orlean is an excellent writer who captures her subjects skillfully through description and dialogue, but she can’t keep herself out of her writing. A good lesson for an inexperienced profile writer—like myself—in what to do and what not to do.