Book Review: Essays from the Nick of Time

In his valedictory "Notebook" column for Harper's magazine, where many of the essays in Mark Slouka's new collection first appeared, Lewis Lapham characterized the essay as "a thinking out loud." That's an overly modest description of the invigorating pieces appearing in this volume. Slouka, who teaches at the University of Chicago, offers a dozen challenging meditations (several of which have been selected previously for inclusion in the Best American Essays series) located at what he calls "the intersection of memory and history and fiction."

The range of Slouka's interests is prodigious and the breadth of the territory covered here is impressive. There are intensely personal accounts, like "Blood on the Tracks," his investigation of an accident that killed a Connecticut mother and her four children after they abandoned a YMCA shelter and walked along the train tracks one night. "Tragedy carries farther in the charged air of the early twenty-first century; death speaks with a louder voice," he observes. In "Listening for Silence," he laments our aural overload, as in the midst of it "we sense a deeper isolation beneath the babble of voices, the poverty of our communications."

And yet Slouka's concerns transcend the purely personal, as reflected in the several essays that appear under the heading "Refutations." "One Year Later" is a biting indictment of the American exceptionalism and tribalism that blossomed in the aftermath of 9/11, most troubling to him "the eagerness with which some individuals appropriated the tragedy for themselves." In "Coda, a Quibble," he excoriates "not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it." "Democracy and Deference" critiques what he sees as Americans' unwarranted subservience to authority figures. Paradoxically, a group for which Slouka isn't likely to have much sympathy--members of the Tea Party--probably display better than anyone in public life the sheer contrariness he celebrates.

Slouka quotes Thoreau in his epigraph, and the New England iconoclast makes frequent guest appearances. From "Speak, Video!," in which Slouka laments the way "our free fall into the video age" has distorted the process of memory, to his paean to leisure, "Quitting the Paint Factory," the flinty spirit of Thoreau, "who itched a full century before everyone else began to scratch," looms large over these pages. No more so is that the case than in Slouka's impassioned plea for teaching the humanities for their own sake, not merely as instrumentalities to serve the demands of commerce, acknowledging Walden's "full frontal assault on the tenets of capitalism."

Every one of the essays in this collection is distinctive for its originality, its rigorous thinking and the clarity of its expression. "The market for reason is slipping fast. The currency of unreason and demagoguery is daily gathering strength," Slouka laments. Not if Mark Slouka, as he demonstrates persuasively here, has anything to say about it.--Harvey Freedenberg

Shelf Talker: In 12 penetrating pieces, novelist and essayist Mark Slouka offers his eloquent and perceptive take on aspects of contemporary American life.


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