Literary culture is supposed to be in decline, especially inside cash-strapped newsrooms. In recent years newspapers have been eliminating book sections and pink-slipping book critics left and right. But someone forgot to tell Dwight Garner. Two years ago Garner moved from the New York Times Book Review, where he was an editor (he also wrote its sprightly "Inside the [Bestseller] List" and the "Paper Cuts" blog), to the daily Times, where he joined book critics Michiko Kakutani (whom Ben Yagoda, in a 2006 Slate Culturebox, labeled"prim" and "schoolmarmish") and Janet Maslin (who was shifted to the books beat after she burned out on the movies beat). Instantly he breathed life into Times books coverage, stirring half-forgotten memories of the pleasure once derived from reading, in that same space, Anatole Broyard and John Leonard.
Garner's last two reviews were especially good. On Jan. 4, he published a deft takedown of Annie Proulx's new memoir, Bird Cloud. "Reading Ms. Proulx's prose," he wrote, "is like bouncing along rutted country roads in a pickup truck with no shock absorbers." He then offered an example that "made me put her book down and pace around for a while, vigorously rubbing my forehead":
I like a colorful, handily cluttered kitchen and Bird Cloud's cabinets and drawers in red, violet, aquamarine, burnt orange, cobalt, lime, brick, John Deere green and skipjack blue inspires stir-fries, osso buco, grilled prawns, Argentinean salads of butterhead lettuce, tomato, sweet onion, roast lamb with Greek cucumber and dill sauce, frittatas, rhubarb sauce with glasses of dry Riesling for the cook. You bet.
It's harder than you might think to produce good writing about bad writing. But what really distinguished Garner's pan was that he made visible to his reader his struggle to find something in the book he could like. He described an "angel on my right shoulder" who admired Proulx's early work and found Bird Cloud a "not uninteresting" book "about displacement and loss, about a late-life longing to carve out a place that's truly one's own." Then Garner described a "devil on my left shoulder" who judged Bird Cloud "shelter porn with a side of highbrow salsa."
A good critic will exercise his imagination to find value in a book before he delivers the death blow. If he doesn't, he's just a cheap-shot artist. Sometimes, though, a book is doomed from the start. That was clearly the case with The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide To Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman by Timothy Ferriss (a manic self-help guru not to be confused with the esteemed science writer Timothy Ferris). You might suppose that any volume with a title this preposterous wouldn't warrant reviewing, even if the author's previous book ranked No. 1 on the New York Times' advice-book list. You would suppose wrong. On Jan. 6 Garner used it as raw material for one of the funniest book reviews I've ever read.
Garner's method here was to alternate evidence of the author's grotesquely swollen ego ("I was able to facilitate orgasms in every woman who acted as a test subject") with critical judgments that simultaneously described Ferriss's tone and parodied it ("The vibe is: I'm Superbad, bro, and I have dimples. You're a mole person who, if you become an angel investor in my books, might someday touch the hem of my Speedo"). Then Garner pulled back and stated, in his own voice, that The 4-Hour Body
reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the Sky Mall catalog. Some of this junk might actually work, but you're going to be embarrassed doing it or admitting to your friends that you're trying it. This is a man who, after all, weighs his own feces, likes bloodletting as a life-extension strategy and aims a Philips goLite at his body in place of ingesting caffeine.
Did I say Garner's last two reviews—his first for the new year—were especially good? I'm now looking at the Times archive and realizing that's more like the last dozen. In a Dec. 23 review of 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, Garner admitted he got tired of Garry Trudeau's creations and stopped reading them in the 1990s. Later he found, when he tried to catch up, that "it was like entering a Trollope novel in midstream." The new anthology, however, allowed him to experience "a kind of welling up, a cumulative appreciation of how much squalling life Mr. Trudeau has squeezed into these strips. It's as if someone had carved one of John Updike's 'Rabbit' novels onto a few thousand grains of rice." I love the progression of those two sentences. First Garner expresses his appreciation, on an emotional level, of Doonesbury's satisfying messiness. Then he describes Trudeau's exquisite craft with quick, sharp strokes that approximate the cartoonist's own visual style.
When I mentioned recently to my father, a devoted Times reader, that I'd been enjoying Garner's reviews, he immediately nodded in agreement and cited the lede to Garner's Dec. 21 review of Laura Redniss' Radioactive, a graphic novel about Marie and Pierre Curie: "Negative reviews of poetry books are famously rare; takedowns of graphic novels and book-length comics are scarcer still." Garner went on to write that graphic novels retain, "like Drew Barrymore and certain indie bands, a quirky and semi-adorable glow" and that criticizing them is "not unlike chucking a sackful of baby pandas into a river." This is an example of how Garner will sometimes step on a well-turned sentence by piling on additional well-turned sentences that belabor the point and display too many of the critic's own peacock feathers. It's a common tic in journalism, one I probably wouldn't notice if the quality of Garner's writing weren't so high to begin with.
Checking in with various friends and colleagues, all of them journalists, I find that my admiration for Garner is widely shared. "Isn't it amazing," observed one, "how a voice can really jump off the page." Another praised him as both "takedown artist" (but "the complete opposite of a sourpuss") and "a great enthusiast" whose pieces, "even when the knives are out … remind you yet again of what amazing things words can do. Kind of our Randall Jarrell." Another urged me to retrieve the lead to Garner's Sept. 30 review of a nonfiction book about a lampshade made of human skin, possibly in a Nazi concentration camp: "The first thing you'll want to do with a copy of The Lampshade, Mark Jacobson's new book, is to remove its dust jacket, fold it neatly, and shove it as far down into your trash can as it will go. You'll feel better almost instantly." Another remembered this generous Feb. 2, 2010 rave: "I put down Rebecca Skloot's first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, more than once. Ten times, probably. Once to poke the fire. Once to silence a pinging BlackBerry. And eight times to chase my wife and assorted visitors around the house, to tell them I was holding one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I've read in a very long time." He was right. Skloot's book is totally, utterly compelling (and captured the Lacks family, whom I interviewed 15 years ago, with a level of precision and empathy that I probably wouldn't have matched even if my editors at the Wall Street Journal had not nixed the project on the idiotic grounds that Rolling Stone and Jet had profiled the Lackses years before. But enough about me).
One friend directed me to no fewer than four fondly remembered reviews by Garner, but a deadline loomed and I had to stop somewhere.
Journalists are not known to be terribly generous souls. They love slipping a knife into the back, especially of somebody that others praise, especially if it's a fellow journalist, and most especially if it's a fellow journalist who's ascended the exalted heights of the New York Times. But not one of the dozen or so people I consulted, most of them within the highly contentious offices of Slate, where interoffice e-mail is often borderline nasty, disputed my thesis that Garner is a highly gifted critic and an absolute pleasure to read. That makes me think my judgment is correct, and should be stated out loud.