Penguin Books/2020/97 pp./10.95
Reviewed by Katy Yocom / March 2021
At less than 100 pages, this slim volume of essays describes an arc from March 29, 2020, two weeks into the national lockdown, when then-president Trump plaintively said, “I wish we could have our old life back,” to May 31, in the first days of protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Between those moments, examined respectively in the essays “The American Exception” and “Contempt as a Virus,” come Smith’s forays into subject matter from the personal to the global.
Given the tsunami-like effect of the virus on New York in the spring, it’s no wonder Smith finds herself grappling with the purpose of life and meaning of death in a deeply unequal America. Some of the essays give us Smith, the sharp cultural observer. Some give us Smith, the New Yorker—scared, anxious, about to flee the city as the pandemic bears down in that dreadful, death-filled April.
Other essays balance the philosophical and the wry. In “Something to Do,” Smith observes “this new liberty and/or captivity” when everyone is deprived of either companionship or solitude, when many find themselves with nothing to do except, perhaps, bake banana bread. “Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something,’” Smith writes, “. . . I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.”
The essays that linger longest are portraits of people, mostly New Yorkers, whose lives intersect with Smith’s. Compiled in a section titled “Screengrabs,” some of these snapshots capture the moments when Smith, preparing to leave the city with her family, takes one last walk to the ATM, one last trip outside with the dog before loading her into the rental car. In the sketches of neighborhood denizens she encounters, there is a sense of elegy, edged with fear.
The last essay, “Intimations,” is an annotated list of people in Smith’s life who have bestowed gifts upon her. Deeply personal, it serves as a centering conclusion to a collection written in a fractured, terrorizing time, as if Smith is reminding herself of her anchors. The list of twenty-five loved ones concludes with a twenty-sixth item, labeled “Contingency,” by which Smith means circumstance. It’s an apt conclusion to a book written in the midst of a plague, when the difference between life and death has much—but not everything—to do with the luck of one’s birth.
All of the author’s royalties for this collection will go to charity. The edition reviewed here benefits The Equal Justice Initiative and The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.
Katy Yocom is author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, First Horizon Award, and other prizes. Her words have appeared in LitHub, Salon.com, Terrain.org, Necessary Fiction, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), and elsewhere. She serves as associate editor of Good River Review and associate director of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Find her online at katyyocom.com.