Growing up, the writer Hilton Als spent his days “at the big lending library at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, reading books” and listening “to recordings by grand actors reading famous poetry, prose, and plays.” The power of his latest book, “White Girls,” a collection of essays that discusses A VARIETY OF THE FAMOUS AND TALENTED INCLUDING THE LIKES OF Eminem and Louise Brooks, makes it tempting to think of this anecdote as an origin myth, that these afternoons had the same alchemical effect as a radioactive spider bite.
While Als isn’t the kind of superhero who swings between skyscrapers (as far as we know), his writing is imbued with such preternatural insight and charm that it borders on the uncanny. He showcases his gifts in frequent essays in The New York Review of Books and theater reviews in The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer — outlets that first published many of the pieces in “White Girls,” which also features fictional and autobiographical vignettes and longer stories. Taken together, they offer a comprehensive and utterly lovely collection of one of the best writers around.
Als’s greatest gift as a critic is his generosity. While the assertions that he makes are frequently provocative (“Truman Capote became a woman in 1947.” ), they’re delivered with such panache and prove so accurate that the reader never chafes. He is able to assess whatever he chooses in a clear-eyed, interesting way, making incisive critiques and asserting generalities that never sound grandiose or unfounded like lesser critics (i.e. the rest of us) often do.
Like anyone else, Als apprehends the world through a very specific set of filters, which in his case are those of a black, gay, middle-age man who was raised in Brooklyn, stayed in Greater New York, and fell in young with a fascinating and worldly group of creative, sometimes historically important people. That this particular perspective is all but absent from critical discourse, contemporary and otherwise, almost goes without saying, but it has nothing and everything to do with the way Als writes about the world. Like Renata Adler, his forebear at The New Yorker, Als uses personal experience as a springboard to universality.
He addresses his singularity most thoroughly in “Tristes Tropiques,” the 84-page marvel that opens the book. The essay, a gorgeous and devastating elegy for the demise of his closest and longest friendship, also serves as a meditation on death, family, race, queerness, the mediasphere, and art. In it, Als begins to offer clues about those white girls for whom he named the collection.
Unlike Als and his former best friend, white women are “denied nothing most of their lives.” The bad ones went to “Brown or Yale or Berkeley or whatever” and subsequently abandoned feminism and humanism, getting their jollies instead from “their daughters’ aggression.” The good ones allow one to “live in the fairyland of possibility forever.” As it turns out, “white girl” is less a demographic than a slippery cultural distinction. Later on in the book, we learn that a man, too, can be one — men like Truman Capote and Michael Jackson, who transmogrify through sheer force of will.
Speaking of Jackson and Capote, Als’s essays about them are two of the collection’s best. The former locates Jackson in 1970s gay culture, reading his lyrics as a kind of lonely code. The latter characterizes Capote as a genius of cultural appropriation who “limit[s] . . . other women writers in their quest to be popular, admired, celebrated.”
But in a brilliant book of lovely writing, Als’s essay on Flannery O’Connor sticks out as the loveliest and most brilliant. Originally published in The New Yorker a decade ago, “This Lonesome Place” reveals how O’Connor’s characters were shaped by the South in which she lived, and how her “black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness,” but rather “living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world” — quite a feat for a woman whose time and circumstances would dictate something else altogether. But O’Connor — and Als, and all the best writers — have bigger spirits than that.Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson @gmail.com.