In the spirit of posting some legitimate culturally-relevant content (something that's not been done around these parts for a long time), here's an unpublished book review I wrote about a year-and-a-half ago.Book Review: The Man In The Flying Lawn Chair, by George Plimpton
Writing about oneself might seem like the easiest thing in the world. And yet, any scribbler worth his or her byline will probably tell you otherwise, that "participatory journalism" is thorny business indeed.
Sure, it's all well and good to find an interesting real-life event or subject about which to discuss, and inserting your own voice into said happening or issue requires little more than a bit of journalistic moxie. But the trick is to retain a certain detachment – to describe the experience for an audience, without personalizing that experience to the point where it loses all significance for said audience.
Failure in this respect makes the final product little more than a personal diary entry. However, when done successfully, this manner of writing bridges the gap between description and interpretation like no other. Those who have done it well now rank among literature's greatest. Kerouac, Hemingway, and (when reasonably sober) Thompson can be said to have succeeded in this variety of non-fiction writing, but the grand master of them all is arguably George Plimpton.
A writer, editor, sporting enthusiast, bit-part actor, and all-around bon vivant, Plimpton passed away in late 2003 after spending more than half a century plying his craft. While books such as Paper Lion
and his "oral biography" of Truman Capote made him famous, and The Paris Review
will forever be his legacy, The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair
, which collects some of Plimpton's final "excursions and observations," is a fitting epitaph for the gangly New Englander who rarely shied away from a new adventure.
The anthology compiles 18 short works of journalism published in various sources between 1991 and 2004, and is by turns compelling, heartfelt, uproariously witty and occasionally contemplative. But the hallmark of Plimpton's writing here is his boundless curiosity, capacity for vivid description, and the swift, elegant prose that brings the author's subjects to life. Whether he is writing about amateur night at the Apollo Theatre, the Playboy mansion, or a pornography convention, Plimpton reveals not only an irresistible vitality, but also his infectious love of the written word.
Although some of the capers depicted in these pieces might seem somewhat less exciting than Plimpton's earlier escapades (for example, playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, or pitching to Willie Mays) the intriguing trade-off is the wonderful sense of melancholy reminiscence that underlies the best of the articles. These include the poignantly straightforward narration of the story after which this book was named, and an article detailing the exploits of a zoologist and his love for particularly vicious African wildlife.
In a particularly charming piece, the author recalls helping Jackie Kennedy throw a "pirate party" for her children, complete with a longboat and buried treasure: "Her enthusiasm, her childlike delight in all this, was irresistible. She wanted me to write a little story that she could read to the children – a story of how the treasure cam to be buried, and with hints of where the treasure might be found. Would I do this? Of course."
The book's final statement, a 2002 article called "Wish List," similarly evokes wonderful memories of the past, both recent and long ago, as Plimpton recounts some of his athletic aspirations by evoking great people and events.
"I'd like to have a snappy moniker," he writes. "Wolf or Moose, or something as memorable as Joltin' Joe or the Splinter… I'd like to arch into the water without making a splash, the wake of my passage down the lane as I do the butterfly washing over the lip of the pool. 'Is that Mark Spitz?'… And I wish I could throw a knuckleball. I'd like to have it come to me one afternoon, perhaps while I'm throwing the ball to my son, a ball without motion so that it ducks and dances."
This high standard of descriptive writing is maintained throughout The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair
, but it is the incredible depth of feeling that Plimpton has for his subjects that sets him apart. A lesser scribe may have indulged an impulse toward the farcically absurd when writing about attending a film premiere with Hunter S. Thompson, or indeed, in depicting the California man who tied weather balloons to a chair so he could find freedom above the clouds.
But Plimpton respects his subjects enough to tell their stories straight (though not without recognizing their inherent humour), and respects his readers enough to trust that we will treat those subjects just as he has done, with curiosity and compassion.