Post Road Magazine #22


Valerie Duff-Strautmann

As a former magazine subscriber (in a life before children), I had heard of Mark Slouka: he was a Harper's writer. His work, I imagined, would be insightful or clever. When I heard him read from his then-forthcoming manuscript last spring, I was, however, unprepared for his powerful and personal "Eclogue," which begins with "a small thing, really" — nesting phoebes and the cowbirds that supplant them. The essay then turns to having children. And to the death of all things. A small thing, really.

When Graywolf Press published Slouka's manuscript, I read the essays and watched the exquisite details bloom into macrocosm. In this book, he writes, as writers do (as many of the best writers do), alone, in nature; he steps back to reflect on current and critical matters of daily life, as most people in today's rush of information do not, and masters the quiet with a book both personal and profound.

When Slouka read from "Eclogue," I remember thinking "there it is" — I thought back to my first encounter with "One Year Later" (an essay about America's response to the year following 9-11), published in Harper's. What I meant was: there's that particular pleasure you get hearing someone read work that's beautiful and true. There's the something that irritates or hurts them, or keeps them up at night, and thank god they have the drive to speak and the skill to say it well.

In the book, he writes about the Western cult of busy-ness, the disappearance of silence, the modern world's preference for the technical over the human. There are pieces about how we live, how life shapes us, and what's left of art. At times, he calls the reader onto the carpet or calls him or her to action, and at the very least calls for reflection. Joan Didion does a similar thing in her essay "In the Realm of the Fisher King," from After Henry, a comparable book. In Didion's essay, she humorously describes the Reagans' trip to an Episcopal church in Middleburg, Virginia, chronicled by staff worker Michael Deaver. After describing the ridiculousness of the day, she goes on to make a larger point about the Reagan White House, the tunnel vision of the Reagans and the president's administration, which unfortunately renders him and his ilk absurd (or worse). Slouka has his eye on similar (particularly American) absurdity:

Some years ago at the University of California, San Diego, a young woman raised her hand in the middle of a seminar I was then teaching on the first century of Rome and the dawn of the Christian era. She seemed genuinely disturbed by something. "I know you're all going to think this is crazy," she said, "but I always thought Jesus was an American."

A lovely moment. What she had articulated, as succinctly as I had ever heard it articulated, was the spirit behind three and a half centuries of American history: America as an elect nation, the world-redeeming ark of Christ, chosen, above all the nations of the world, for a special dispensation. What she had expressed, with an almost poetic compaction, was what the cultural historian Sacvan Bercovitch had termed the core myth of America. Had John Winthrop been sitting at the table with us that foggy day in La Jolla, he would have understood what she was saying, and approved of it. As would Harriet Beecher Stowe. And Ronald Reagan. And, apparently, Attorney General John Ashcroft.

He rises to meet the absurdity, and there's a sort of stunned laughter at the revelation. The subtext was blind, but now I see threads through many an essay, on many a level.

Having resided on both coasts, as well as having been a visitor in his ancestral home of Prague, Slouka has a shrewd take on the American lifestyle. The image that stays with me most is in that first essay I encountered, in which he traveled to Prague shortly after the events of 9-11. In "One Year Later," he and his family happen upon the kostnice, the charnel house, when walking through some forests in Moravia:

"V Jicine jsou lepsi" — there are better ones in Jicin — said the youth, impatiently shuffling his feet. I had no doubt it was true.
We returned home on September 4, walked out into the humid air and familiar lingo of New York. A week later, the Old World, so to speak, came to us. The kostnice was here now.
In the months that followed, we erased it, carted it off in trucks. It had nothing to do with us. There was nothing to learn. We were still innocent, apart.

The book honors the old and new world, and the marriage of the political with the personal.

When I brought this book in as a rec for my book group, it was declined in favor of something less contentious (but luckily not of less quality — we settled on Pamuk's memoir); still, after I had passed the book around, one of my more politically-tuned, outspoken friends leaned in to me and suggested we vote again, since, she said, "this one is right up my alley." Slouka is looking for those willing to read and think, as he admits in his introduction: "Writers — unlike network anchorpersons or presidential speechwriters — are paid to stand outside the current and say what they see, and the readers worth having are those who appreciate the stance and the product." It's fine to go to someone else for nonfiction, someone who might not stretch so resolutely against the world that's pressing in. but in Essays From The Nick Of Timethere is courage and craft to take note of.

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