“IT IS A QUESTIONABLE PROJECT to analyze a writer’s personality based on the fiction he has written,” writes Mary Gaitskill, deep into an appreciation of Nabokov’s letters to his wife, Véra, in Somebody with a Little Hammer, her first book of nonfiction. Most fiction writers (readers, too!) would agree, but it is understandable that Gaitskill might be unreasonably invested in making this argument. Elsewhere in the collection, in a review of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, she tosses out a teasing aside: “in case you don’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.”

For any serious reader of her work, fictional or otherwise, it should be obvious that Gaitskill is neither one nor the other — that she is, in fact, a voice of reason and sanity, of piercing intelligence and generous humanity. Here she is even lighthearted, finding humor and delight in material that might make a more conventional critic uncomfortable, and therefore, perhaps, a bit judge-y. Gaitskill is, for instance, enchanted by a collection of explicitly “dirty” fetish photographs. “For those who share [the artist’s] enthusiasms, this book must be especially terrific. But you don’t need to be a foot freak; this book would please anyone with a sense of humor and eros.” This is written, with the nonchalance of the deeply cool, in response to pictures of body parts far more pornographic than feet. But does this make her sick — to applaud a kinky image? No. It makes her worth reading: why else read criticism, in the end, if not to have one’s mind opened, and to be guided toward art that one might not discover on one’s own?

I place emphasis on criticism because so much of Somebody with a Little Hammer does the same. Though subtitled “Essays,” easily two-thirds of the contents of the book are confined to previously published reviews — Gaitskill’s response to art across a vast spectrum of what I might call “taste” but in fact might be considered cultural relevance. In these pages, you’ll find her take on Updike and Dickens (she’ll send you racing back, with new intelligence and insight, to read again yourself) — but also her ruminations on a 23-year-old novel by Nicholson Baker and a somewhat obscure ’80s pop song. These latter pieces, and others, were originally written long ago, causing the reader to question the reason for putting such work in front of us now. Do I quibble? A bit. But Gaitskill’s responses are so deeply intelligent, so idiosyncratic yet insightful — can I be blamed for wishing she would turn her gaze to more timely subjects? This is not to say any of this work is without merit, but rather to admit, quickly and sheepishly (even peevishly) that I felt a bit the cherry-picker before a bowl of melon-heavy fruit salad. Ripe melon, luscious melon, even, but the book’s first two pieces set the reader’s expectations for cherries.

The first, “A Lot of Exploding Heads” — which might be loosely considered a review, subtitled, as it is, “On Reading the Book of Revelation,” begins in memoir mode. Not about Bible study: rather, it’s about Gaitskill’s response to the Bible at 21, as a newly born-again Christian. Turns out her young self was pretty wised-up to God’s inflexibility, to the Bible’s “refusal to brook complexity.” Granted, this is Gaitskill writing 20 years later, but her youthful observations make clear she was a born literary critic:

Revelation is the most cinematic and surreal part of the Bible — it’s a little like a horror movie, which is probably why it was relatively easy for a modern teenager to take in: There’re a lot of explosions. […] I couldn’t help but think it was awfully harsh. Malignant sores, scorpions, fire, men “gnawing their tongues” with pain — I knew people were horrible, but even in my youth I could also see that most people did the best they could. Even as angry and fearful and disappointed as I was, I knew I wouldn’t torture people like that, and I didn’t see how I could be kinder than God.

That’s not to say Gaitskill is self-righteous. In fact, it’s clear that reading the Book of Revelation had her questioning herself as much as God:

I would walk out into the streets, amid the big buildings in which commerce ground forward, and I would feel the violence, the lies, the grotesque pride, the filth, pitching and heaving under the semblance of order. The air would crackle with the unacknowledged brutality of life, and I would feel acutely all the small, stupid betrayals I committed daily, both against myself and others.

That’s how the best of these essays work: as a clanging, double-bell-alarm-clock wake-up call for those of us who have ceased to notice or question or understand our own experiences, who have, indeed, failed to recognize what we are doing to ourselves by wandering through life in a self-imposed fog. Gaitskill leads by example, stalking her various incarnations over a lifetime and cracking herself open — then inviting us to peek inside. In doing so, she positions herself as the book’s protagonist: as somebody with a little hammer, conking her numb self on the head. But she doesn’t stop at simply rousing herself from complacency; in piece after piece, she hammers away at her rigid beliefs, sentimental attachments, and conveniently faulty memory. It’s a rounder, more complete reading of her title’s origin story: Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” which, in the title essay about the short distance between happiness and obliviousness, Gaitskill describes teaching. She claims that it

expresses an old idea, now very much out of fashion: […] At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws.

Gaitskill encountered another little hammer, or rather an enormous one — a stone bridge that bashes her in the head — some years back while boating in Russia. She explores the incident in “The Bridge,” the aftermath of which dredges up a long-repressed memory of a former co-worker (they were strippers together, long ago, in an unnamed American town). This is an awakening of a different sort, brought on by actual head trauma, but fits neatly into the thematic terrain of the book. Well into an examined life, Gaitskill is nonetheless an amnesiac when it comes to this acquaintance and what happened to her. Only in the aftermath of being “hit in the head by a bridge” does she remember — and understand the girl’s awful fate:

she was rising to meet me, one eye alive, the other not. Her name was Valeria and the memory of her came with a terrible feeling. […] From a distance the dull eyes and mouth, even the obese white flesh seemed to know something not sayable in words. Something I was about to know for the rest of my life and be unable to say. It would be terrible, but I must accept it because Valeria had.

Head in the sand, meet hammer.

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Much will be made of “Lost Cat,” the standout piece in the book, for both its length and emotional heft. While Gaitskill’s style is not confessional, “Lost Cat” is the collection’s most personal of essays. In it, Gaitskill plumbs the limits of maternal love, even, or perhaps especially when one is not exactly, technically, a mother. The relationships she describes begin, on her side, with love: for a stray cat she adopts, and two troubled kids she will not — cannot — ever adopt. For their part, the cat, Gattino, and the kids, Cesar and Natalia, approach Gaitskill with indifference at best, and at worst, hostility. In her dealings with the children, Gaitskill displays patience, generosity, and inventiveness. She takes them to shows and helps with their homework — even over the phone when they’re not visiting. But with her own difficult youth behind her, she cops to feelings of love that sound less unconditional than unrequited:

Deeper than my encouraging, ideal words is my experience of the closed door and the desperate insistence that it open — emotional absence, followed by a compulsive reaction that becomes its own kind of absence. Even if they don’t identify it, I’m sure the children feel it.

Eventually, even Gattino absents himself. When he goes missing, Gaitskill embarks on a search that escalates, over months, into a full-blown obsession. While she doesn’t shy away from describing the desperation and hysteria of her behavior during this period, she tempers it with memories of her father — both his last years and his young life — that allow her to reframe her understanding of him and of their relationship. Even so, the cat remains unfound, the children remain troubled, and Gaitskill acknowledges that she herself remains a complicated person in relation to other people:

What I experienced too often, inside myself or with another, was a half-conscious, fast-moving blur of real and false, playfulness and anguish, ardent affection and its utter lack. […] it was as if I were stumbling, with another person or alone, through a labyrinth of conflicting impulses and complex, overlaid patterns, trying to find a way to meet, or to avoid meeting, both at the same time. In spite of everything, sometimes I did meet with people, and lovingly. I met my husband in that way almost by accident. And sometimes, after ten years, he and I nonetheless find ourselves wandering apart and alone.

Compelling as Gaitskill’s cultural criticism may be, this is the essay that made me wish for more like it.

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I can’t go without at least a mention of “Victims and Losers, a Love Story: Thoughts on the Movie Secretary.” Readers are always curious to learn from an author how badly, and how exactly, Hollywood has misinterpreted her work. But at the outset, Gaitskill admits that the story “Secretary” is “an almost impossible story to make a movie of.” So the thrill of this essay is that, as she describes all the ways this was borne out, we’re given the opportunity to hear her interpretation of her own story. This, at last, is Gaitskill on Gaitskill, telling us what’s what with Debby, her self-described “naïve young masochist.” As though cozying up for a one-on-one seminar, Gaitskill pulls back the curtain to reveal more of Debby than a big screen ever could. For me, she’s always been a character begging less for a spanking than an explanation. While Gaitskill says of the story’s conclusion, “Whether or not this is a terrible ending is unclear even to me,” Debby herself was written with intention and rigorous psychological insight. Yet her complexity never made the journey from page to screen — even her name was diminished for the film: Debby became Lee! — and, in keeping with the oversimplification of a formula Hollywood product, Gaitskill breaks down the difference in black and white:

In the movie, the heroine awakens to her masochistic sexuality and lives happily ever after. In the story, the heroine awakens to her masochistic sexuality and learns a hard truth: that she is a small, fallible container for a primary force beyond her understanding.

Yet somehow the lobotomization of her story doesn’t enrage the author. Rather than taking it personally, Gaitskill takes the long view, acknowledging that her characters, however unusual, deserve the same Hollywood treatment any other population might receive:

In spite of all this, I understand why people liked the film. In a perfect world, sweet, understanding sadists would meet and marry sweet, understanding masochists and go on to have hot, conflict-free fun in perpetuity. […] If falsely positive movies can be made about everybody else, why not make them about sadomasochists, who are surely an underserved population in this regard?

While her generosity and good humor are on display throughout, Gaitskill can also be cranky in the best way, scolding both low art (fairly) and critics of low art who would judge it unfairly. She challenges, for example, “the relentless snideness” of a writer who published a whole book about coming to terms with his hatred for Celine Dion — not just her music but even her emotional body language during a segment about the victims of Hurricane Katrina on Larry King. Gaitskill insists:

Dion’s response wasn’t only moral; it showed a sort of biologically based empathy that understands the physical vulnerability of humans in the world. News flash: Real humans […] are awkward and dumb and wave their arms around if they get upset enough […] We are so […] ridiculously uncool that whole cultures and subcultures, whole personalities even, have been built to hide our ridiculousness from ourselves.

But here comes Somebody with a Little Hammer, Mary Gaitskill, to demolish not just anyone who would deny us our frailties, but the defenses we ourselves construct to keep our humanity hidden away in the dark. To recognize darkness is not the same thing as being dark. To call out that darkness — to see it, and name it, and insist on the outrage of it — requires a vigilant respect for love and light. Though Gaitskill would never say it that way. She’s way too cool.

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Sariah Dorbin’s short stories have appeared in the Antioch Review and the Bellevue Literary Review, and anthologized in The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and works as a creative director for a Los Angeles advertising agency.