I’m not usually a big reader of essays (confession: I had to read this collection for my MA course) but ‘The Correspondence’ was a pleasant surprise. This is a brief book, only 126 generously spaced pages, and features six different letters. Quite dark in places, comic in others, I found myself drawn into Daniels’s frequently odd world.
‘Letter from Cambridge’ begins the collection, though potentially it is a bit of a red herring for the rest of the book, being my least favourite of the essays. It follows the author’s introduction to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, not a topic I am generally interested in (though Daniels did keep my attention) but also talks about his desire to become a writer:
I had always assumed that a writer had adventures and met other people, then told a story about what had happened, or else just made the whole thing up, or both. Now it looked like what a professional writer did was pontificate, you know, like the Pope, about social justice and foreign affairs and the Internet and the energy crisis. But I had formed myself on the Ruskin model. “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way”: thus John Ruskin, who was terrified of pubic hair.
There has been some discussion about this being an examination of masculinity; certainly there are few female characters. For me, I read it as a book about one man, JD Daniels. This book is mostly true, with some embellishments, but Daniels lays his issues out on the page. An alcoholic, suffering still with mental health issues, he’s not afraid to release this onto the page. In ‘Letter from Level Four’ he writes of his stay in hospital: I remember seeing a sign on the door to my floor that said LEVEL FOUR RISK OF AWOL and thinking, Christ, these people must be nuts.
‘Letter from Kentucky’ was my stand out essay of the collection, though ‘Level Four’ is up there also. ‘Kentucky’ turns into a reminiscence of childhood, examining the author’s relationship with his father, with whom he has had a tempestuous relationship. Daniels describes his drive through his home state, returning in order to write a magazine story but writing this letter instead.
More than any of the subject matter, it is the style of the writing that elevates this collection. There are lines that make you laugh out loud, followed by stark personal admissions. Sentences don’t always end up where you might expect. Even if you’re not usually one for memoir, this book is worth your time (and I guarantee it’s a quick read!).