David Searcy is a baby boomer in Texas, and his essays often turn on nostalgic subjects: old science-fiction TV, beloved old trucks and cars, old schools and wildlife haunts, old Texas folklore. But describing his collection "Shame and Wonder" this way doesn't get at what makes it so peculiar and lively. These pieces aren't rocking-chair reminiscences but attempts to make the familiar feel brand-new — like a down-home Roland Barthes, his quirky observations and sudden narrative turns remind us of the strangeness we miss every day.
In "Sexy Girls Near Dallas," for instance, he uses a website pop-up ad ("then this thing drops down like a spider on a string") to leapfrog into a consideration of distance and the fireworks stands in the Dallas of his childhood. A riff on the free toys that come in cereal boxes prompts a riff on "that something-out-of-nothing sort of power and unlikeliness" that defines childhood. Paper airplanes spark a discussion of the shock and power of a roller coaster. Nearly every essay goes somewhere unexpected, and yet they still feel coherent and sensible.
Usually, anyhow: Hard as I try, I can't see how a cereal prize "sounds like something ancient — having to do with gods at the harvest, meanings bright and terrible." But when he's more persuasive, his subjects take on odd, elegant resonances. In "The Hudson River School" he talks to a man who used a recording of his daughter's crying as an infant to lure and kill a coyote, and the piece reels in all the uncanny feelings of endangerment and violence that thrum under that act.
In "Nameless," he merges a story about a friend's artwork — hypersimplifed 17th-century emblems — with a story about an itinerant performer who died in the act, finding a sense of how much symbolism we use in our lives, the way the art and the performance evoke loss.
If Searcy's ramblings press against the very edge of disorder, he's cognizant of how tough his self-assigned task is. "How can I make this mean what it should?" is the opening line of "Nameless." Of late, "essay" has tended to mean a pat argument about current events or some personal purging. But Searcy has taken to heart its earliest meaning, derived from the French verb "to try." That means he fails on occasion. But not because he failed to do something original.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.