A while ago--AWP 2009--A and I talked about this author, Poe Ballantine. I'd read him once (Best American Essays 2006) and that essay, the title essay of the collection 501 Minute to Christ, really entertained and inspired. I finally found his book at the book conference and asked A if he'd ever read him, he hadn't, and so he told me to "essaydaily" him. Verb form. So here I am, months later, doing that.
The collection was published by Hawthorne Books of Portland (isbn 9780976631194), is Ballantine's 4th book (2 novels, 2 essay collections), and the 11 essays read quickly. Ballantine is a quirky, non-writing program (college dropout, no less) writer in the vain of Kerouac (kerou-wacky) in that much of the material comes from his wanderings across America (there are some Greyhound essays, certainly) and Bukowski in that a lot the rest of his writing comes from real work experience in labor jobs (cooking, boat refurbishing, etc). Often the secondary characters are very animated and strange, as one could imagine on the Greyhound circuit.
Perhaps what I liked most about these essays was the fact that Ballantine is always at the center of the essay, but sort of in this slanted, off-handed perspective. His essays go places, a lot of forward movement. Which I appreciate. He doesn't take too much time interrogating the interior. He sets off on adventures and then figures it out as he goes.
I could see these essays being useful to writers (and students of writing) in that the prose is straightforward yet skilled and the content is a dirty romanticism. They seem to answer that often-tossed-about question, "What's better for my writing: The MFA or Vagabonding?" (Answer: either/or/neither; it depends.)
They fit best in the "Personal Essay" niche of nonfiction writing--I don't find them lyrical or form-driven or natural world bent. Most of these essays were published in The Sun in Ballantine's mid-40s even though he'd been writing for years and years before. I could see The Sun advocating a spiritual or humane worldview from these pieces.
I think my favorites were "World of Trouble" (perhaps my favorite writing on Katrina I've read so far), "My Pink Tombstone" (golden retriever as McGuffin), "Methamphetimine for Dummies" (best Meth writing yet?), title essay, and "Blessed Meadows for Minor Poets" (Ballantine's account of a disastrous relationship with his first major editor/agent after being published in Best American Short Stories 1998 and failing to finish his sold story collection). I skimmed only two (the essay on meeting his wife, the one on plotting to punch John Irving/Norman Mailer in the face). It's a solid collection.