McSweeney's/Believer Books, April 2012. 256 pp.
Magic Hour: The brief periods of dawn and dusk that allow enough time for shooting, but also create some striking effects on film.
– The Complete Film Dictionary
This little epigram sits atop Tom Bissell's second essay in this collection, "Escanaba's Magic Hour: Movies, Robot Deer, and the American Small Town." A very funny essay about a film crew that comes to Bissell's hometown to shoot a movie starring Jeff Daniels, the piece reveals a great deal about the way Bissell thinks about things and how he came to do so. In the essay, the author stands forward as a small-town boy who's proud of his origins and proud of it. He surprises himself with his own loyalty, and reveals the insider/outsider stance that makes his observations unique, charming, and meaningful.
Many of these essays, written from Bissell's twenty-fifth year (when he worked as an assistant editor) to his thirty-seventh (by which time he was as an assistant professor), contain various disclaimers. Not really a journalist, not a nonfiction reader until his twenties, not a football player, not a novelist, Bissell whittles himself to a nub by the end of the collection — like Benjamin Button zooming toward innocence — and like an announcer introducing a bigger act, he bows out the back door of almost every essay. Think about the brilliance of this strategy: If you are a professional (I can hear him saying, no, no, not a professional!) noticer of culture (most especially, literary culture), doesn't it behoove you to remain as invisible as possible? The last thing that three-ring circus needs is another front and center ego!
And the older he gets, the more modest his point of view. In the first essay, Bissell writes in sweeping terms about the bigs of American literature — Melville, Whitman and Dickinson, "American literature's most influential troika." The last essay concerns a visit with the writer Jim Harrison, an old friend of his father's. (Harrison, I can say from experience, is the kind of writer who makes an indelible impression on an interviewer. One's appetite — for life, for food, for literature — improves.) Bissell gracefully captures the extent to which Harrison shows American readers the distance between the beauty of the place we live and the tawdriness we have allowed into our lives.
Indeed, many of these essays contain that pressure: the failure of true literary talent to make it through the publishing machine; the increasing gap between the language that readers and real people speak and the language of bureaucrats and media-monkeys. "I realize, then," he writes in "Escanaba's Magic Hour," "that this film is not intended for these men. Or for Escanaba. Or for any small town. It is meant, instead, for that know-nothing American monstrosity, the target audience." Bissell reluctantly reveals this and other fissures in this American life. He isn't chortling. He isn't preaching. He's just a writer.