Book review: Shame and Wonder by David Searcy

Shame and Wonder
Shame and Wonder
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This set of essays isn’t an easy read, but it is a satisfying one, writes Roger Cox

Shame and Wonder by David Searcy | William Heinemann, 230pp, £16.99

Towards the end of this sometimes bewildering, sometimes brilliant collection of essays by the extravagantly tangential Texan writer David Searcy, there is one that serves as such a perfect metaphor for his way of writing and thinking that it’s hard to believe he didn’t mean for it to be read as such. The essay is called “Paper Airplane Fundamentals” and in it Searcy compares the design of the “traditional pointy delta” paper plane that most people are familiar with to a design he and his childhood friend Vernon Grissom used to make in the 1960s – a design they subsequently started flying from the top of the Southland Life building in Dallas, then, at 42 stories, the tallest skyscraper in the city. Pointy deltas, observes Searcy, are “for distance, not duration. They will generally go where thrown. They’re not expected to escape, to sail away.” By contrast, the planes Searcy and his friend made, with a wingspan wider than their length and more weight concentrated in the nose, were designed for duration of flight rather than distance. The pair came to refer to this design as “the standard model”. Once launched from the top of the Southland Life tower, the standard model planes were unpredictable: they might get “sucked straight down the side of the building” but they might also “dip and flutter, stabilize and curl into the upward circulation, rise and rise so high that, were you on the ground, you would have lost [them].”

Searcy’s essays are a lot like that, not just because of their unpredictability, but also because they often tread a fine line between success and failure, and because you can’t let your concentration lapse for a moment or you’ll lose track of them. They’re not easy reading – far from it – but if you’re prepared to hang on as Searcy’s train of thought rattles through some wild and apparently pointless diversions, you will be rewarded with the kind of unexpected insights that a mere pointy delta writer could never hope to achieve.

In “The Hudson River School,” for example, the story of how a West Texas rancher once used a recording of a baby crying to lure a coyote out into the open so he could shoot it morphs into a meditation on the emptiness of West Texas itself (“how the world must look when you’re not looking”) which in turn leads to a consideration of the how all this emptiness fed into the Puritans’ sense of good and evil when they first arrived in the New World. Reflecting on the oldest surviving house in the US, Searcy writes “I like to imagine the Jethro Coffin House brand-new... the tiny trepidatious windows peeking out upon the dark.” How much can that single, brilliant image tell us about the national character of the United States? Discuss.

Searcy is clearly well aware that he’s asking his readers to undertake some pretty strenuous mental gymnastics: in “Love in Space” he prefaces one particularly ambitious mental leap with an apologetic “bear with me here” and later wonders aloud “why should I be telling you this?” And in this particular essay, I’m afraid, I’m not convinced that the various digressions on rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, Sir Wallace Budge’s translation of The Book of the Dead and the strange phenomenon of cattle-feeders that look like modernist sculptures really coalesce in a particularly meaningful way. But then, I guess if you want to read stuff that makes sense all the time you can go and find yourself a pointy delta writer. There’s no shortage of those. n