Magic Hours, Tom Bissell’s recent collection of non-fiction, surveys his magazine writing over the last decade or so. It is a genre, he informs us in the Author’s Note, he fell into more or less accidentally; it is also the genre for which he has become best known.
“Earlier in my career, I was neurotic enough to let this bother me,” he admits. “When I started out as a writer, I regarded fiction—novels, especially—as the supreme achievement of the human imagination. While I still hold fiction in very high regard, and continue to write it, I no longer believe in genre chauvinism. Life is difficult enough.”
Such allusion to personal hardship is reassuring given what comes next: fourteen essays, originally published in the likes of Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, that range in subject from the German filmmaker Werner Herzog to Polish literary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski to video games, sitcoms, and cult film. The essays are ferociously intelligent, nearly evangelical in their belief in culture, and, as with any great artwork, appear to have come easy.
Reading Magic Hours was an at once exhilarating and strangely nostalgic experience for me. Like Bissell, I moved to New York in my early twenties; like him, I held undefined, somewhat conflicted notions about becoming a writer; like him, I loved fiction. But, unlike Bissell, who claims to have largely ignored magazine journalism before deigning to write it, I was enamored with the reportage of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and David Foster Wallace. In my early twenties, wading into the snake pits of politics, sports, and popular film in holy pursuit of literature seemed like an endeavor worth aspiring to.
The first essay in Magic Hours appeared in the Boston Review when Bissell was only twenty five. That’s younger than I am now, but older than when I made my own first attempts at literary journalism. Recently graduated from college and massively unaware of how I was going to make my living—reading and marking up literary essays didn’t, it turn out, pay particularly well—I decided to take the Chinatown bus from New York, where I graduated, to Washington D.C., where Barack Obama was about to be inaugurated president.
Jouncing and lurching to D.C., I couldn’t help but feel like a writer on assignment. A few months earlier, I had written a personal essay about Obama’s candidacy tracing my own experience with race as a child in Seattle. I sent the article off to a local arts monthly, which promptly published it. Over the next few weeks, I watched the article race around the Internet. Someone from the Obama campaign even contacted the paper. At the absurdly young age of 22, I felt for the first time that “my work as a writer,” as Bissell describes an analogous, if much more impressive experience, “was greater than my computer, my bedroom, my mind.”
In truth, however, no assignment had been forthcoming. My editor at the arts monthly agreed to “take a look” at whatever I managed to produce, but made no promises. Unfazed, I spent the weekend interviewing people selling souvenirs, making notes about attendees, and attempting to document my own internal response to the spectacle. If the first piece had been almost willfully naïve (“Call Me Naive: A Love Letter,” I had called it), the second, I thought, would serve as a dramatic counterweight. There was much sadness about the crowd; I felt, a sense of cultural dislocation and despair badly masked by the enthusiasm of the festivities. We had elected a biracial president, yes. But we were still the same.
The Brooklyn publication turned this second submission down. They didn’t even bother to respond, in fact, until a couple of weeks later. The editor was terse, his tone coolly dismissive. At the time, I was in the process of moving out my New York apartment and relocating to Mexico, of all places, where I had lined up a short-term work exchange. Slightly crushed by the dismissal, I forgot, temporarily, that I had ever wanted to write about culture, and turned my attention back to writing fiction and poetry.
Reading Magic Hours, I was reminded of this early ambition. The book is a tour de force of erudition. Its vocabulary alone reflects a very serious man. Toward the end of an essay about television show creator Chuck Lorre, for example, Bissell emerges with the following insight: “It may be the sitcom’s consistent avoidance of any final, dramatic catharsis is its accidental strength. If so, that would make this least lifelike form of entertainment the most comfortingly similar to real life.” It is a startling moment. Where some of us may have been tempted to write the sitcom off as mindlessness for morons—or, if we ourselves succumb, to redeem it as temporary relief from the rigors of an intellectual life—Bissell, in this case, at least, is more democratic, and wiser.
If there is an aspect to Bissell’s character that I do not particularly admire, however, after reading Magic Hours, it is his almost bellicose intellectual elitism that feels familiar from my time in New York. Indeed, it is part of the reason why I ultimately left. I did not grow up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, like Bissell did, but in Seattle, a significant cultural center in its own right. Yet I, too, felt conflict about coming of age as a writer in New York. Entering “that world”—the world of urbane, globe-trotting, cultural sophisticates—felt to me like an abandonment of the community that had raised me, which was comparatively parochial and non-literary, and which I loved.
I eventually made my choice, moving back to the Northwest, where I continued to write stories, poems, and occasional reviews. Finishing Magic Hours, though, I couldn’t help but feel some measure of regret. Regret that I have not read more over, with greater seriousness. Regret that I have not been harder on myself. Regret that I ever left New York.
The last essay of the book finds Bissell living in Portland, Oregon, and doing what is perhaps his best work: the profile of fellow Upper Peninsula native and American national treasure, Jim Harrison. So I guess he left, too.