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In essays on matters literary, social, cultural, and personal, Mary Gaitskill explores date rape and political adultery, the transcendentalism of the Talking Heads, the melancholy of Björk, and the playfulness of artist Laurel Nakadate. She celebrates the clownish grandiosity and the poetry of Norman Mailer’s long career and maps the sociosexual cataclysm embodied by porn star Linda Lovelace. Witty, wide-ranging, tender, and beautiful, Somebody with a Little Hammer displays the same heat-seeking, revelatory understanding for which Gaitskill’s writing has always been known.
This collection of essays spanning two decades has the same fearless curiosity about the human psyche that Gaitskill (The Mare) exhibits in her fiction, along with the same unerring precision of prose. The broad range of her reviews, which cover art and literature from the Book of Revelations to Gone Girl, are united by her demand for complexity, her fascination with "enchantment and cruelty" (the title for her piece on J.M. Barrie), and her disdain for sentimental complacency. Early reflections tease and knead language into towering baroque shapes, but essays such as "The Bridge," on her visit to Saint Petersburg, and the astonishing "Lost Cat," on losing her pet, Gattino, settle down to the work of attentive, metaphor-rich descriptions. In later essays, Gaitskill's dryness veers toward the acerbic, shearing through the reductive and the bowdlerized. Even those essays which start with the broadest of subjects myth, religion, literature repeatedly turn inward, drawn by Gaitskill's interest in complicated inner landscapes, her favorite theme of "the innately mixed, sometimes debased nature of human love," and her unyielding "moral empathy" for the perversity of the human condition. The surprising, nimble prose alone is a delight, and the pages burst with insight and a candid, unflinching self-assessment sure to thrill Gaitskill's existing fans and win her new ones.