'O the Clear Moment' by Ed McClanahan

ED MCCLANAHAN may be the most unlikely counterculture writer of them all. A Kentucky native, he went to Stanford University in 1962 as a Stegner Fellow, part of a class that included Ken Kesey, Tillie Olson, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He set his writing aside to be a Merry Prankster, finally publishing his first novel, "The Natural Man," in 1983.

Since then, he's published a handful of books -- the 1985 memoir "Famous People I Have Known," the 1996 novella collection "A Congress of Wonders" -- while taking on other sporadic projects, most notably the final issue of "Spit in the Ocean," a journal founded by Kesey, which McClanahan revived as a one-shot tribute after his friend's death in 2001. It's a career with no rhyme or reason, which is what makes it remarkable; in a culture given over to forward motion, McClanahan has made a life by standing still.

"O the Clear Moment" (Counterpoint: 184 pp., $23), McClanahan's fifth book, is a vivid expression of this aesthetic, an "implied autobiography" gathering nine essays that look back at various periods of his life. In the hilarious "Fondelle," he describes an encounter with a woman who ditches him (and her fiancé) in New Orleans; "Great Moments in Sports" recalls his finest high school experience, flinging "an egg through the wind-wing of a moving car." If there's a problem here, it's McClanahan's tendency to recycle his material: "Great Moments" and its sequel, "Another Great Moment in Sports," both appeared in his 1998 collection "My Vita, If You Will," while "And Then I Wrote . . . " is drawn in part from "Famous People I Have Known."

But if this is disappointing, it's consistent with the author's offhand approach to writing, which, he admits, is "just a slightly hyper attempt to capture your attention" -- a perfect encapsulation of what McClanahan's been up to all along.


David L. Ulin