Colm Toibim , Scribners, $26.00
If Hell exists, there is a special place there for critics and reviewers who write that a collection of essays or stories or in fact of anything is “uneven.” Clearly the author or editor or compiler believed there was an overriding, cohering theme, or concept to the book and I bet that she/he actually took a great deal longer to think about and arrange the works exactly so in a particular sequence. A lot longer than the lazy reviewer apparently did to bother to figure out what that sequence was and why it was important. Colm Toibin’s collection of essays about writers sidesteps that by making its concept immediately available in its subtitle just so no one can miss it: “Writers and Their Families;” it is against this idea, among other things, that the critic ought to judge its contents.
It’s not the tightest of concepts, and Toibin doesn’t always work it out that well. Furthermore, his editor and publisher did him no favor with that title, which smacks of the trendiest Boerum Hill authorettes. It’s false advertising. There are no new ways to kill your mother inside this book -- sorry. Nor old ones made new and prosecution-proof either. None of the writers herein actually did kill their mothers although many would have liked to. Actually, fathers are more often targeted than mothers, and reading some of these essays, believe me, you will be, as I was, rooting for the son for to get out the ax.
John Butler Yeats, father of poet William Butler and artist Jack Yeats looms high on the list. A man of Cyclopean ego, he became a painter when one son succeeded in that field, and then switched to being a poet and playwright when son Willy succeeded in that area. Worse yet, he insisted that his famous son read, comment upon, correct and then agent his plays around Ireland, while he lazed about in New York City saloons being semi-famous. Homicidally annoying! No wonder Yeats eventually gave up on the Irish and married an Englishwoman named George. I might have myself.