Reading Gerard's well-crafted first essay collection is like spending time with an easygoing yet erudite uncle, with whom you're happy to sit around on the front porch on "lazy afternoons…drinking beers and " on all manner of personal and historical oddments and occurrences. The book ranges widely in subject matter, the devastation visited upon the North Carolina coast by Hurricane Fran in 1996 to an investigation into whether or not a North Carolina man who died in 1846 really was, as he intermittently claimed to be, the exiled favorite general of Napoleon Bonaparte. As regards the latter, Gerard (Secret Soldiers) doesn't commit to either side; rather he uses it as an opportunity to meditate on the idea of being an imposter, and why so many people fall for them: "Maybe it just makes a better story somehow. Maybe in one sense we are all imposters, wishing for a more glamorous backstory to our lives than the one we have." He demonstrates some unique linguistic brilliance, painting vivid, pullulating scenes of "summer skies choked with thunderheads" and "golden afternoon light cooled by the deep verdure of swaying evergreen trees." However, when this sort of thing goes on for too long, the proceedings can get tedious. But Gerard has a mostly sharp instinct for when to take his leave, and he mostly does so at the right time to leave his reader looking forward to the next visit. (Mar.)
Mannered essays, written to the academic creative-nonfiction formula, on hurricanes, spirits, death and other such weighty matters. The formula: Start with a brief declaration; hint that the writer knows something the reader doesn't; punctuate with a few one-sentence paragraphs, hortatory or expository; layer on a blend of arresting statistics and mundane observations. Thus, writes Gerard (Creative Writing/Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington; Creative Nonfiction, 2004, etc.): "What they don't tell you about hurricanes is the uncertainty"; "Her name is Maria"; "Some stories do not have an obvious, coherent narrative." These are three representative opening sentences, all of which lead to tales about the capriciousness, sorrow and violence of life. Death is a constant, as are observations that death is just plain unfair; constant, too, are notes on the manifold ways in which people get caught up in events, yielding those hortatory and I-know-something-you-don't turns--e.g., "Let me tell you about the daughter of another soldier…There is no need for you to know her name." The best pieces in the book--and there are several very good ones here--are simple shaggy-dog stories involving government plots and ghosts, the sorts of things you might tell with cigars and scotch around a fire. The worst are workshop-esque exercises in philosophizing. One essay opens, for instance, with a yarn about James Dickey's saying over lunch that "after the age of forty a man is responsible for his face," an apercu that Dickey stole from George Orwell. That observation, repeated in a couple of variations, is really just an in-passing setup for a piece on scars, mortality and aging that struggles to get out from under its own commonplaceness. A mixed bag, with a fine piece about baseball at the apex but with otherwise too few memorable moments.