This month's River Styx at Duff's Reading Series offering features the one-two punch of a highly esteemed essayist and the writer of one of the funniest novels in recent memory.
Joseph Epstein journeys south from his post at Northwestern University to pontificate at the Central West End pub. He has written a host of essay collections, but it's a safe bet his fans don't care what subject he chooses to ponder in print. What hooks the reader is his style, a folksy-yet-intellectual rambling. Epstein can start with the seed of something that intrigues him, then record the careful, tangential thoughts that flow forth. The result is a casually paced journey through the essayist's chain of reasoning, gentle questioning and experience that invariably ends after about 20 pages.
He has written on divorce, ambition, great teachers, napping and the human anatomy. In particular, his collections of essays about the lives of famous authors will satisfy omnivorous readers. In a 1991 piece on E.B. White, Epstein dissects the perfect marriage of White and Harold Ross at the infancy of the New Yorker and disturbingly reveals White's overpowering demon of self-hatred.
Epstein is an academic, and the occasional note of ivory-tower snobbery comes through in his work. (After serving as editor of the American Scholar for nearly 20 years, it could not be otherwise.) For example, the self-deprecating jibes in his latest collection, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, usually come across as false modesty.
Epstein likens the essay to an adult forced to sit at the kids' table -- prose, he moans, gets to sit with the grownups, but essays are traditionally considered second-class. He has certainly done his part to undermine that perception.
Local boy David Carkeet has experimented with mystery and juvenile fiction but hit the jackpot with his 1980 novel The Greatest Slump of All Time. The UM-St. Louis English professor crafted one of the funniest novels you're likely to read, about a pro-baseball team, every one of whose starting nine is suffering from a different form of depression.