Edward Hoagland, in the introduction to Best American Essays 1999, describes the essay as "a kind of public letter."
"You multiply yourself as a writer, gaining height as though jumping on a trampoline, if you can catch the gist of what other people have also been feeling and clarify it for them. ... [An essay] can be serendipitous or domestic, satire or testimony, tongue-in-cheek or a wail of grief."
Every year, the editors of this series cull essays from magazines and literary journals and choose the "best" for this collection. Some years, the collection is more cerebral and literary than others; some years, it reflects more the vain absurdities of the popular culture. This year's volume ventures into the cosmic with contemplative views on religious experience by series favorites Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard and Cynthia Ozick, offering grist for the more ethereal intellectual mill, but really soars in the entries that attempt to describe familiar contemporary phenomenon of a more nitty-gritty nature.
The strongest essay of the book is a long confessional from Charles Bowden, "Torch Song," first published in Harper's. A journalist, in the early '80s, Bowden insinuated himself onto the city desk of a Tucson newspaper as a crime reporter, agreeing to cover the most grisly sex crimes, and eventually became completely obsessed with the job and all it implied. As he explores crime scenes, attends funerals and delves deep into the seamy underside of rape, pornography and sex-related murders, Bowden speaks in an urgent whisper, asking the reader not to turn away from the familiar impulses that color those acts.
Bowden comforts himself, and his confessors, with desperate, compulsive sex. He becomes expert at getting people to talk to him about the unthinkable. He cranks out story after unspeakable story, until one day, when he is asked to track down the mother of an escaped rapist, he refuses to write the story. That night, he quits for good, but what he has learned does not leave him. "So what am I?" he asks.
"A man who has visited a country where impulses we all feel become horrible things. A man who can bury such knowledge but not disown it, and a man who can no longer so glibly talk of perverts or rapists or cretins or scum. A man who knows there is a line, within each of us that we cannot accurately define, that shifts with the hour and the mood but is still real. And if we cross that line we betray ourselves and everyone else and become outcasts from our own souls."
Bowden's essay and a handful of others carry us past our comfortable selves, bouncing higher and higher on that trampoline, offering us glimpses into what we have not seen, but instinctively know.
Best American Essays 1999 edited and with an introduction by Edward Hoagland (Houghton Mifflin Company: New York) $13/paperback