The Correspondence by JD Daniels

 the first three pages of The Correspondence, a tightly written, often brilliant, occasionally exasperating collection of essays by the American writer JD Daniels, we are treated to a jockstrap, some football players, a gymnasium, pool playing, a toilet, a street fight, and the phrase “Big Tony knocked me down and sat on my neck.” Cigars, booze and drugs are soon to follow, along with a page-long list of books the author has read, a dig at “professional writers” and their penchant for pontificating, and a lament at having a piece spiked at the London Review of Books.

These details come from “Letter from Cambridge”, an essay ostensibly about the author’s experiences training for, and competing in, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It seems to satisfy the promise of the book’s PR and blurbs, which would have it reinventing masculinity or some such nonsense; and it doesn’t bode well for the rest, which I fully expected to hate.

But The Correspondence defied my expectations. I should probably have known; even these opening pages, misguided or not, are alive with deft asides and daring intuitive leaps. Daniels is a very good writer, and once it’s through with its twitchy throat-clearing, The Correspondence reveals itself to be a very good book.

The collection’s title refers to its organising principle, the familiar notion of essays as dispatches from somewhere; a couple of these pieces really do function as travelogues, but the book also embraces, fairly successfully, the idea of the past as a destination, and the self as correspondent. Raised by a drunk, tortured by mental and physical ailments and haunted by career and relationship disasters, Daniels dramatises his suffering and failure with blackly comic verve. “Letter from Majorca” gives us a sea voyage repurposed as a cleansing of body and soul, and populated by damaged loners whose misery shines light on the author’s. (One sailor, asked for an example of the memory loss he complains of, says that “in the army he had once carried a dead man on his back for two days and now he couldn’t remember the man’s name”.)

In “Letter from Kentucky”, the first really fine essay, Daniels transforms a doomed magazine assignment about his own home state into an unexpected – even to him – profile of his father, which then itself defies expectations. “Where has this nice old man,” he writes, bewildered, “hidden the menacing ogre of my childhood?”

“Letter from Level Four” begins as a deadpan profile of a crazy acquaintance, but soon pivots to the author’s own precarious hold on sanity: “Edgar, in the dairy aisle, saw me seeing him and he winced, he froze, he was afraid even to wave – or was it my own fear it seemed I saw myself seeing in him?”

ReviewRob CvrsiniComment