James Gibbons

  • Modern Lover

    The life of the unclassifiable writer, critic, and American philosophe Guy Davenport (1927–2005), spent largely as a university professor in Lexington, Kentucky, seems a cosmopolitan fantasy of how an intellectual might thrive in the provinces. “Living in Kentucky makes every other place delightful,” he once quipped, but Davenport’s isolation gave him the freedom to create prolifically—more than forty books spanning fiction, poetry, literary and art criticism, and translation—without the buzzings of the metropolis to distract him. His stories, published in collections from the ’70s to the ’90s,

  • American Imperiled

    So much of what we know about actor Henry Fonda derives from the authority of his body on-screen: a long, taut, calibrated instrument, most expressive when restrained—as it nearly always was. A lean six feet one, he had the height and physique of a movie aristocrat, but could play a proletarian or a president. Most of all, he always conveyed that, at heart, he was a homegrown American, Nebraska born, in touch with social proprieties but also with the urge to light out for the territory. He perfected an understated style that might be called precisionist, his performances akin to the sharp lines

  • Homage to the Rare

    “Sometimes, the shortest path between two points is serpentine,” writes Christopher Benfey, a professor and author of several studies of nineteenth-century literature and art, in this digressive mix of memoir, art criticism, and historical essay. It comprises autobiographical recollections, a coming to terms with his aging parents, and an account of his extended family that includes, on his father’s side, the artists Josef and Anni Albers. The book also considers what the North Carolina Piedmont has given to American culture, whether through brickwork and pottery, or the avant-garde

  • Into the Wild

    It’s best to read Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul slowly, warily even, because you’re never far from an unexpected swerve, a surprising shift of gears, or a disclosure of inconspicuous import. Not all these sly, oblique, yet affecting stories are set in the city, but the mode is always urban to the core—a crowding together of impressions and perceptions not necessarily in harmony, and just as likely to deepen ambiguity as to clarify. Take this portrait of an aggressive stranger on the subway who accosts a fellow New Yorker in “Silk, or the Woman with the Bike”: “To hear her speak, she was quite

  • Space Oddity

    Rick Moody’s latest novel is a riotous gloss on an already forgotten flourish of presidential theater: George W. Bush’s 2004 announcement that the United States would send a manned mission to Mars in the coming decades. Bush’s proposal recalled JFK’s optimistic—and fulfilled—moon-landing prediction but was transparently an election-year ploy as the war in Iraq soured; it betrayed an edginess about a new, non-American century of Chinese ascent and epochal domestic decline. Slyly taking Bush at his word, Moody imagines a 2025 NASA expedition to the Red Planet and conjures a not-so-distant future

  • Statue of Limitations

    When Harry Tichborne, at the outset of Laird Hunt’s elegant novel Ray of the Star, crosses the Atlantic for an extended stay in an unnamed city, his journey seems an appropriate migration. In his pairing of somber themes and fanciful ambience, Hunt shares little with his American contemporaries and displays a Continental sensibility that recalls the fabulism of Cees Nooteboom (The Following Story) and the antic charms of Éric Chevillard (On the Ceiling). Written as a series of single-sentence chapters, Hunt’s wave-upon-wave piling of clauses also brings to mind the style of José Saramago. Like

  • Clout of Africa

    “Treat Africa as if it were one country,” quips the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in “How to Write About Africa,” a barbed guide for Western authors who hope to address this misunderstood continent. “Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. . . . Keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.” First published in Granta in 2005, Wainaina’s satire lands its punch by gathering the tenacious clichés about Africa—the savage and noble-savage exotica still lodged in the Western imagination, the game-hunting landscapes that seem to autogenerate purple raptures, the liberal

  • Culture Crash

    Gary Indiana likes rummaging through the wreckage. He regularly signals as much: Recent essays were gathered last year in a collection titled Utopia’s Debris, and his 2003 novel, Do Everything in the Dark, opens with a section called “The Debris Field.” Later in that book, he coins an aperçu that encapsulates an entire philosophy: “Wherever people attempt life, debris piles up.” The emphasis on detritus suggests that everyone and everything has washed up as flotsam and jetsam on history’s far shore; vital unities are denied us, and we can only gaze back at those of the past. At best, “by


    Among the work of living artists, the oeuvre of Jasper Johns, or at least its first half, seems the least assailable of monuments. His breakthrough 1958 show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, featuring the iconic “Flag” paintings, resolved the impasse at which American painting found itself during Abstract Expressionism’s twilight stage; by reintroducing the image as well as the Duchampian readymade, and by creating works that emphasized flatness, Johns signaled the way toward both Pop art and Minimalism. The critically entrenched view of Johns imagines the artist as a crucial bridge


    Like the internal combustion engine and the Internet, the psychiatrist is one of those revolutionary inventions that no one embraces as an unalloyed gain for humanity. Psychiatry renders fatuous any attempt to imagine its absence from our world; even so, might not we be better off without it? Such a reflection is hardly the stuff of idle speculation for Charlie Weir, the therapist-protagonist of Patrick McGrath’s Trauma, who at one point voices the psychiatric “heresy” that “it is often by means of simple courage and a good woman that psychological problems are overcome, and without any help

  • Inner-City Muse

    Richard Price’s fictional North Jersey city of Dempsy has evolved, over the course of the novels Clockers (1992), Freedomland (1998), and Samaritan (2003), into a kind of Yoknapatawpha County of postindustrial blight. A vividly detailed mosaic of littered boulevards, dingy fast-food joints, and snake-pit housing projects, Dempsy is a jittery banlieue of not-so-benign neglect, a no-go zone for all but its mostly African-American residents, the police, and the customers who effortlessly cop drugs from the project kids without ever leaving their cars. Both “the city of my own imagination,” in

  • Booming Business

    Opening with a deadly explosion and culminating in a tense FBI raid to capture a homegrown terrorist in the mountains of northern Idaho, Susan Choi’s third novel, A Person of Interest, can readily be called cinematic—specifically, it reads as a blueprint for a Holly­wood thriller. It is, as they say in the trailers, “inspired by true events”: Choi has transmuted the case of the so-called Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, into the tale of the “Brain Bomber” and has kept close to the timeline and to many of the facts of Kaczynski’s story. Like Kaczynski, the Brain Bomber, abandoning a brilliantly

  • Wars We Have Seen

    Denis Johnson’s fiction is peopled with a lively and often lurid cast of junkies, strung-out crooks, and spiritually wounded drifters, so it’s not the first place you’d expect to find a fervent young patriot like William “Skip” Sands. During the lengthy Philippines-set prelude in Tree of Smoke, the author’s ambitious novel about the Vietnam War, we are told that the restless CIA operative considers “both the Agency and his country to be glorious”; unnerved by an exotic sunset over Manila Bay, he tastes “tears in his throat” at the sight of the Stars and Stripes fluttering above an American