The Correspondence: Essays by JD Daniels, review by Bruce Jacobs
If you missed J.D. Daniels's crackerjack letters when they first appeared in the Paris Review, The Correspondence is your chance to catch up with this talented, funny, often dark master of the personal essay. Mostly nonfiction, the six pieces in this collection by the Whiting Prize-winning Daniels include experiences as diverse as training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, laboring as a deckhand on a Mediterranean ship out of Tunisia, kicking around his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and attending a group psychotherapy retreat. They paint a picture of a man who embraced the contrary, did more than his share of drugs and alcohol, stumbled in and out of college, handled marriage poorly, dabbled in therapy and wound up becoming a writer, despite some of the whiny, self-centered colleagues in his writing classes.
Fortunately, Daniels has managed this with a hearty, self-deprecating sense of humor and cutting insight into the world around him. For example, in "Letter from Cambridge," he impulsively signs up for jiu-jitsu classes where "Big Tony knocked me down and sat on my neck for two hours," and he immerses himself in Brazilian culture, including "the noir novel where people smoke cigarettes, talk about Roland Barthes, and now and then stick the handle of a hunting knife up somebody's behind." He gives up teaching ("I admitted how much I wanted to kill and eat the children who had been entrusted to my care."), and signs on as a deckhand with shipmates "burned brown and wrinkled by the sun... like a wallet someone had been sitting on for forty years." In the fictional "Letter from Level Four," the night parking lot clerk clearly has a bit of Daniels in him: "reading the book of Deuteronomy behind a cash register in a parking garage, drinking a six-pack and eating an onion sandwich in my studio apartment." Group therapy does little for Daniels's angst. He sums it up in "Letter from the Primal Horde" as having "your individual ego reduced to molten slag in the hell furnace of our collective unconscious."
Each letter in The Correspondence is a striking piece of prose with Daniels's sharp take on life nested inside humor and clever wordplay, but "Letter from Kentucky," about his return to his hometown, is perhaps his most sensitive, observant essay. It opens with a biblical begats list of his ancestors, touches harshly on his parents and the religion pounded into him, tastes the bars and alleys that shaped his youth, and captures the heart of the culture in drive-by panoramas: "I drove past Magic Vapor Shop and Tri-State Floors... Urban Creek Holiness Church... Jimbo's 4-Lane Tobacco and the Federal Correctional Institution." Daniels catches something true about every piece of the unsettled world. He could be talking about himself when he paraphrases Daniel Boone's response to the question of whether he felt lost when he stood at the Cumberland Gap looking out at Kentucky: "I can't say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days." These letters are brief, but they hit the mark with more than bewilderment and humor--they often nail the truth.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.