Sunday, January 11, 2009

Joseph Epstein's 'Fred Astair' - 'A bit of color at the throat'

"I have always thought,that if one wants to be a writer, he must first make himself incompetent in everything else." Joseph Epstein

"In his essays, Epstein possesses a wealth of apt, obscure and effortless knowledge. In person, he is a man of anecdotes: conversation with him invariably anchored here and there by winsome, real life accounts. Indeed it seems nearly every story in this new collection has behind it an anecdote of equal charm." Doug Wagner from his interview with Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein is arguably America's best essayist. The litany of Professor Epstein's essays is a trail of delight:

Divorced in America: Marriage in an age of possibility (1974)
Familiar Territory: Observations on American Life (1979)
Ambition: The Secret Passion (1980)
Middle of My Tether: Familiar Essays (1983)
Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985)
Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (1987)
Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1988)
A Line Out for a Walk: Familiar Essays (1991)
Pertinent Players: Essays on the Literary Life (1993)
With My Trousers Rolled: Familiar Essays (1995)
Life Sentences: Literary Essays (1997)
Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (1999, paperback 2007)
Snobbery: The American Version (2002)
Envy (2003)
Friendship: An Exposé (2006)
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide (2006)
In a Cardboard Belt!: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage (2007)
Fred Astaire (2008)

Fred Astair was a Christmas gift to me. It is an Apollonian dance, a hard-crafted drift of breeze made warm and wonderful by the magic of practiced attention to detail. In pointing to Fred Astair's imaginative dress habits, Joseph Epstein's prose hovers above the dusty floor's saw-dust words of lesser craftsmen attempting a similar literary two-step on the subject:

' Astair was also good at throwing together what might appear normally discordant colors but which on him worked well. Brown suede loafers, say, with a taupe blue double breasted suit. Or, a buff colored, slightly beaten up fedora with a tuxedo. A French semiologist could doubtless do a lengthy and jargon-laden study of the colors of his socks. The point is that he made the normally discordant seem not in the least discordant but instead interesting, striking. Elegant is as elegant does.

Lots of people think Astair's sometimes wearing a necktie in place of a belt a fine flamboyant touch, but I am not among them. I thought it went over the line of flair and into the land of fey. He didn't do badly, though, with colorful silk bandanna's tied loosely around his throat. In later life, he understood that a bit of color at the the throat, along with covering over the sagging skin at the neck, enlivens an older face. His pocket squares were never too showy. He looked good in bathrobes, too though on him they were elevated to dressing gowns' Epstein (40-41).

Joseph Epstein is the Fred Astair of the essay. Though Fred tapped, waltzed, fox-trotted, and, sadly, assented to boogaloo at the end of his long career, Joe Epstein river-dances an endless but controlled shower of sound and sense from the wealth of his experiences and insights.

Though a book for the Star-struck guzzler of Hollywood fabulae and fauna, it is more of a treat to the audience of discerning readers and deep drinkers of the Pyrian Spring. Aunt Myrt will love the stuff about the back-stage life and servings of 'dish,' but lovers of prose will delight to witness Joe Epstein's graceful glides through the pages.

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