Mary Gaitskill’s first collection of essays, “Somebody With a Little Hammer,” may be uneven. But it’s also indispensable. Its strongest entries — a mini-memoir about a lost cat, a meditation on the troubled life of porn star Linda Lovelace — match the prowess of Gaitskill’s best fiction by paying intelligent attention to every stubborn strand in her wayward subjects’ existences.
Gaitskill knows how complex and perverse human reactions to any affair of the heart — or the flesh — can be. She has a gift for traversing taboo territory with a subtlety that’s sometimes downright Jamesian, even if the shenanigans that catch her eye would have shocked the Old Master out of his wits.
“Lost Cat,” at 50 pages, is the longest piece in the book, and its centerpiece. On its surface, it recounts the excessive efforts Gaitskill and her husband, Peter Trachtenberg, made to find their 7-month-old tabby (“a little gangster in a zoot suit”), which went missing in the college town where they live. But “Lost Cat” also delves into Gaitskill’s family history, including the woes of her “crazy, compulsive” father who, by the time he was 10, had lost both his parents and, in a coup de grâce, his dog. Gaitskill and Trachtenberg’s hosting of three inner-city children through the Fresh Air Fund (the clear basis for Gaitskill’s most recent novel, “The Mare”) supplies the other key narrative thread.
Cat, dog, parents, children — all are in play, as Gaitskill asks, “Which deaths are tragic and which are not? Who decides what is big and what is little?”
She’s keenly aware that there are losses so huge you can’t afford to feel them — traumas that only hit home after some seemingly smaller loss undoes you. (“Not even a dog?” she imagines her father asking after his parents’ deaths. “I can’t even have a dog?”)
She knows that the anxieties brought on by having a cat missing pale beside the abuses and obstacles facing the Brooklyn youngsters she and her husband host in their home. Still, those anxieties have her tied up in knots.
“False feeling is so blended with real feeling in human life,” she observes, “I wonder if anyone can always tell them apart, or know when one may be hiding in the other.”
“Icon,” her essay on “Deep Throat” star and later anti-porn crusader Lovelace, is just as finely shaded. In a coolly analytic way, Gaitskill brings her own background as a teenage runaway, sexual risk taker, and rape victim into the picture as she weighs Lovelace’s claims of being raped on-screen.
“Imagine projecting and being projected into the world, on a massive scale, as someone who has no complex emotions, who is all persona, in this case a persona that is all about having one particular kind of sex with whomever,” Gaitskill muses. “Because people liked the persona, it must’ve felt good at first; hell, it must’ve felt great. But some of the worst things in the world feel that way. At first.”
Slippery turns of mind like that make “Hammer” essential reading. The book also offers accounts of Gaitskill’s brief tenure as a born-again Christian reading the Book of Revelation for the first time (“I couldn’t help but think it was awfully harsh”) and a visit she made to St. Petersburg, where an accidental blow to her head landed her in the hospital and triggered unsettling memories of her San Francisco strip-club past.
“Leave the Woman Alone!” is a nicely barbed take on why the wives of adulterous politicians sometimes come in for as much grief as their husbands. “The Trouble with Following the Rules” is a canny meditation on date rape, victim culture, and personal responsibility.
Where Gaitskill doesn’t shine so brightly is in the numerous book reviews included. The writing isn’t at fault, even if Gaitskill’s close focus on complexities of tone can sometimes lead her to omit any mention of what a book is actually trying to do. But reviews, especially of titles with topical concerns, are intrinsically ephemeral. Does anyone still know who Amy Fisher is?
A few pieces let Gaitskill unleash her wicked sense of humor. It’s a treat to hear she finds Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” “truly sick and dark — and in case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.”
Still, the more substantial essays, where Gaitskill draws on her personal experience to crack the veneers of the social codes and sexual ambiguities we all navigate, are the gold here.
SOMEBODY WITH A LITTLE HAMMER
By Mary Gaitskill
Pantheon, 272 pp., $25.95
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.