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Book Review

J.D. Daniels shares disturbing, original essays of a writer struggling to find a better way to live

J.D. Daniels explores his fascination with jiu-jitsu in “The Correspondence.”Ronen Zilberman/Associated Press/file

The first paragraph of “Letter From Cambridge,” the first piece in J.D. Daniels’s highly original and often disturbing book of essays, makes it immediately apparent that this is not a typical memoir/confessional.

The Cambridge author puts us on notice that in his highly earnest quest to learn truths about himself and the world in which he lives, he is prepared to risk everything — mentally, emotionally, and physically. “A couple years ago I joined one of those clubs where they teach you how to knock the [expletive] out of other people. The first lesson is how to get [it] knocked out of yourself. The first lesson is all there is. It lasts between eighty and a hundred years, depending on your initial [expletive] content.”

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Daniels tells in this first of six essays, delivered in the form of letters from various settings, including Greater Boston, of his experiences joining a Brazilian jiu-jitsu club. He is regularly pummeled at his gym, travels to Brazil to get pummeled by experts, and then travels home, where he becomes obsessed with all things Brazilian, with moving in and out of competitive weight classes, and with pummeling someone else for a change.

Yes, he finally wins a match and admits his deep satisfaction in breaking another opponent’s ribs. He also stinks, sweats too much, loses focus, and alienates his girlfriend. By the end of this first essay, fighting has become an indelible part of his life: “And then I did it all again, the way you find yourself eating dinner the next night; the way you have sex, if you do, again; the way too much to drink was barely enough. It didn’t end, it doesn’t end, and if I knew what to say next, this wouldn’t be the end.”

I was prepared to dismiss what I suspected might be a mix of macho posturing and self-conscious pratfalls, but Daniels changed my mind. As I moved on to the next few chapters, in which the Whiting Award winner discusses his life as a janitor, professor, exterminator, and a son, I found that his quest had a very different cast from that of other writers in his genre. Sure, he comes off alternately as hapless and helpless in these pieces, but I began to think of the letters as earnest quests by Daniels to discover whether there was something he could do to make himself happy, or at least happier.

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Daniels’s personal narrative differs from many of the recovering bad boy memoirs in that he has no interest in picking at the scabs of his past. He has no interest in entertaining the reader with vivid recollections of horrific behaviors and life circumstances in order to prove that whatever thoughts you may have about your own background or self-destructive behaviors his are 100 times worse. Sure, he’s a recovering alcoholic and, yes, his childhood experiences include attending a fringe evangelical church and living with a Vietnam vet father given to bursts of rage that would’ve unhinged anyone, but he doesn’t wallow in them. Instead, he pushes ahead in prose that is spare and sharp with explorations that take him to Sardinia to work as a deckhand on a boat, on a road trip to his home state of Kentucky, and, finally, to a group therapy retreat that leads to an abrupt and brutally honest conclusion.

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The difference between “The Correspondence’’ and most of its peers is the sincere attempts Daniels makes to find out whether there is some other way for him to exist, some way to break completely with the past, with his demons, and forge a new identity through new experiences. Daniels’s work is deceptive. On one hand, the book is short, simple, and easy to read in a single sitting. But then something smacks you in the back of the head as you walk away and realize with a jolt that what you just read is deep, dark, and complex. You read it again and realize that “The Correspondence’’ is raw, funny, and contains more moments of true pathos than any piece of personal nonfiction you will encounter in a long time to come.

THE CORRESPONDENCE

By J.D. Daniels

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pp., $20


Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in California.