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For the Love of Words

Legendary lit mag celebrates its 50th anniversary

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Before we get into the how, the why and the recommendations, let's get to the point: If you love literature, buy the damn book. You can judge this book by its cover -- or its table of contents, anyway.The title may be clunky and you may or may not be an ardent reader of The Paris Review (chances are you aren't, since the literary quarterly has just 10,000 subscribers), but these and other issues matter little.

About that table of contents . . . short story master Raymond Carver's here. So, too, is David Foster Wallace, the prodigiously prolific young novelist. A guy named William Faulkner is thrown in, alongside Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, John Le Carre and Italo Calvino, to name but a few.

George Plimpton, himself no slouch when it comes to the written word, remains as the quarterly's founding editor. This anthology, issued in celebration of The Review's 50th anniversary, includes Plimpton's introductory essay on life in the literary publishing business.

Such a lengthy run, he writes, is "a rare thing indeed since literary magazines enjoy rather butterfly-like existences, fading when both the enthusiasm of their editors and the number of subscribers flag."

From there, fellow founder and novelist William Styron carries on, offering his mission statement from the first issue in 1953. "The Paris Review would strive to give predominant space to the fiction and poetry of both established and new writers, rather than to people who use words like Zeitgeist."

Organized by the subjects included in its cumbersome title, the anthology offers short stories, bits and pieces of novels and novellas, excerpts from its famed interview series, and dozens upon dozens of poems. As with any collection so large, there are ample hits and misses. With so much packed into a mere 752 pages (really), the reader is on to something (or someone) else before matters turn too tedious.

There is little mediocrity to be found, but it's best to dispatch with the bad news first. The worst interloper rears his ugly head in the form of the sex section. The main problem, ironically enough, is spelled out in an interview excerpt with Toni Morrison.

Why do writers have such a hard time writing about sex, she is asked. The answer: "After a while it becomes monotonous rather than arousing. Less is always better."

If only Rick Moody, S.X. Rosenstock and the rest had listened. John Updike's entry, "Two Cunts in Paris," proves as uninspired as its title. Along similar lines, Lucille Clifton's poetic paean to Lorena Bobbitt's snipping frenzy, included in the betrayal section rather than sex, is worthy of membership with the dubious achievements of Moody and the rest.

These missteps are minor when compared with the countless delights offered throughout the collection. Delights anticipated (the famous interview subjects and their insights) and unanticipated (short stories unearthed for the first time in many years) fill page after page.

Faulkner, interviewed in 1956, humorously tells of the artist's obsession: "If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate," the Mississippi bard says. "The "Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies."

Ramble on
Plimpton and his crew should be proudest of how many literary chances they've taken over the years, with much success. The depth and versatility prove staggering.

Here, in 1982, is Michael Cunningham's story of obsessive love, "Pearls," published in The Review 17 years before its author became a Pulitzer Prize-winner.

One of the most delightful tales comes from David Foster Wallace, whose "Little Expressionless Animals" manages to make a fictional snapshot of life behind-the-scenes at Jeopardy! both enchanting and enervating. Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak and Bert Convy, as well as TV baron Merv Griffin, provide comic relief amid a cast filled with emptiness.

A story from the early 1980s, "It's Six A.M., Do You Know Where You Are?," recalls not only the giddy rapacity of Reagan-era America, but also of Jay McInerney's once-blazing potential. When it comes to intoxication, John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp, lends his own sobering perspective.

Irving, in 1986, deftly punctured the Breathalyzer balloon of addiction-as-creative-stimulus theories long propagated by Hunter S. Thompson (also included) and others. His logic is so simple, and so neatly meted out, that it obliterates opinions to the contrary.

"The irony is that drinking is especially dangerous to novelists; memory is vital to us," Irving says. "I'm not so down on drinking from a moral point of view; but booze clearly is not good for writing or for driving cars. ... Drunks ramble; so do books by drunks."

Rambling, in the case of this anthology, proves a drunken pleasure in its own right. Which brings us to Babe Ruth, no stranger to the bottle, and baseball.

Our modern Mudville Nine comes to vivid life in T. Coraghessan Boyle's dead-on depiction of an aging big leaguer, "The Hector Quesadilla Story."

Written in 1984, Boyle's arch tale seems as effortlessly brilliant as Andruw Jones chasing down a long fly ball at the warning track. Never mind the crack of the bat for Hector, he's fighting the crack of his osteoporosis-addled bones, worn down by decades of diamond tortures.

Boyle's description: "He had shinsplints too, and corns and ingrown toenails and hemorrhoids. Demons drove burning spikes into his tailbone each time he bent to loosen his shoelaces, his limbs were skewed so awkwardly his elbows and knees might have been transposed and the once-proud knot of his frijole-fed belly had fallen like an avalanche." Resistance is futile. Much like the Texas Rangers.

Nearly every portion of the book reveals an eye on both contemporary and classic writers. The former include Ian McEwan, E.L. Doctorow, Wendy Wasserstein and Charles D'Ambrosio; Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Henry Miller and Gertrude Stein lead the latter category.

Elizabeth Hardwick provides the best overview of literary joy, one that provides an apt summary of sifting through just about any issue of The Paris Review: "The greatest gift is the passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination."

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