“In 1976, at the age of twenty-four,” writes Alec Wilkinson, “I decided that I would try to become a writer, because things weren’t going so well for me as a rock-and-roll musician, and I thought that by being a writer I could get rich. Then I could go back to being a musician.” Everything that makes you laugh about this declaration is embedded in the no-fly zone between words. Read it a few times and even the word “decided” will make you laugh.
The sudden abundance of Wilkinson’s work -- a paperback edition of “My Mentor: A Young Writer’s Friendship with William Maxwell” (Mariner: 180 pp., $12) and “Mr. Apology,” a collection of essays he wrote for the New Yorker arranged in tres partes: profiles, some long, some Talk of the Town length; a few personal essays about his family and his friendship with Maxwell; and some of his more incandescent reporting on murders, suicide notes and the confessional phone line of a Mr. Allan Bridge (Mr. Apology) -- make this reader, frankly, nervous.
Wilkinson may be well known on the East Coast (though, to the best of my knowledge, his writing hasn’t made him rich) but the whole country doesn’t know about him (except for New Yorker subscribers), and, well, I’m concerned that he may die before we’ve had a chance to carry him around America on our shoulders.
I’m concerned that we won’t appreciate his dark and jaunty style, his eye for the margins that makes you believe that that’s where the real action is -- and, rock bottom, his gentleness in spite of all that irony. It is a style -- a phrase like “estimating eye,” or a description of a guy who, “in a hotel lobby ... is likely to pick up a newspaper and peer around the edge of it at the rest of the room"-- that stops a reader from moving too quickly. He is an antidote to infoholics.
Wilkinson also is the authentic ingredient in the writing of Dave Sedaris, David Foster Wallace and Geoff Dyer. He has Nicholson Baker’s heart and also a sense of context and history, even (dare I say it) what it means to be American -- qualities, such as moral uncertainty and humor and good manners, that are not in the limelight these days.
“Let’s say,” he writes by way of invitation, “we’re at a drag strip somewhere in the petroleum wilderness of the republic, watching funny cars, a peevish and irascible species of hot rod.”
When Wilkinson writes a profile, it’s often of, say, Elmore Leonard’s research assistant Gregg Sutter, or of Larry King aged 13 (“Zeke the Greek, the Mouthpiece,” as he was known to his friends). At a party in Manhattan, sure, he notices Mick Jagger, but he writes about the woman in charge of security for the event. His style is the precursor to reality TV (the only hopeful thing about it): When he interviews a math genius, he writes the way the kid talks when he describes an equation.
He is careful to hold his true loves at arm’s length: the Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, ice hockey; Wilkinson is not a groupie. But when he writes about his son Sam, who is “eccentric,” his rage and fury toward an educational system and a society that puts children in shackles are barely concealed beneath a thin veneer of my Manhattan grandmother’s thin-lipped politeness and sarcasm.
With this writer, we get the best of the patricians but we also get a man who has been analyzed; he is in our time but not of it; he can go deep but has boundaries (which is where the humor is so useful).
These qualities are nowhere more evident than in his writing about Maxwell, bits of which appear in “Mr. Apology,” the rest of which lies in its entirety in “My Mentor,” first published in hardcover in 2002.
“Style is character,” Wilkinson writes, explaining his desire to describe the man who, in many ways, replaced his father. “Over time we cannot help revealing ourselves to anyone who is paying close attention.” “Even on those occasions when he had no active hand in something I wrote, the choices I made, the way I approached a subject, the order in which I told what I knew, the attitude I adopted, were determined by his example and influence.”
If our generation has had anything good to add to literature, anything new and surprising, any evidence of evolution at all, it can be found here.