Hilton Als is a theater critic for The New Yorker, but the two books he has written are not simply, or even primarily, works of criticism. His characteristic form is a kind of essay in which biography, memoir, and literary criticism flow into one another as if it were perfectly natural that they should. The pieces in his new book are about Truman Capote, Louise Brooks, Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor, among others, and leading the collection is an eighty-four-page personal essay about a romantic friendship that has shaped the last thirty years of Als’s own life and work.
In all of his essays, the life gets as much scrutiny as the work, with an eye to one particular question: How do artists come alive to their ambitions and then proceed to realize them? How does the work get made?
Sometimes it doesn’t. Als’s first book, The Women (1996), is about three people who, out of some combination of necessity and temperament, channeled most of their artistic impulses into the creation of their lives rather than their work. He writes about Dorothy Dean, the black Radcliffe and Harvard graduate whose primary career was social: she was a hostess and “unofficial mascot” to many members of New York’s gay, white male cultural elite of the 1960s and 1970s; and Owen Dodson, his mentor and lover, a playwright who was a minor figure in the Harlem Renaissance but, by the time Als met him, “preferred literary society to writing.”
But Als’s most remarkable subject in The Women is his mother, who emigrated from Barbados to New York at seventeen, worked as a housekeeper, a hairdresser, and an assistant at a nursery school, and raised “six children whom she cared for, more often than not lovingly, though she remained unconvinced that having children was the solution to the issue of isolation.” His mother had a thirty-year-long relationship with a man, Als’s father, whom she refused to marry. “She is so interesting to me—as a kind of living literature. I still envy her allure.”
Alluring is just what she is in this essay: her free and frequent exercise of skepticism, her refusal of euphemism and sanctimony on subjects such as marriage and children, her sensibility regarding books and movies, her support of Als’s childhood ambition to be a writer—all of these are part of her glamour, and part of the strange and original glamour of Als’s world on the page.
Perhaps Als and his siblings were a kind of living literature to their mother too; Als writes that one of her reasons for having children was “her curiosity about how lives get lived.” But she herself did not write. When the relationship with his father ended, she became depressed and was often bed-ridden with a series of maladies whose main physical cause was diabetes. “I think my mother’s long and public …