David Kirby is a poet, literature professor, journalist, and cultural critic. He’s a professional writer who both makes art and contemplates what art means in society. That is to say, Kirby is a smart guy who knows a whole lot about a bunch of stuff, particularly Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, and the like. Ultra-Talk is a collection of 16 free-associative, brilliant, mostly entertaining and often garrulous essays.
Reading these essays is very much like spending a long weekend with a blabbermouth friend who is way smarter than you. While you learn tons, there are times when the learning is tedious. Still, like that clever friend, Kirby earns enough affection along the way to excuse his indulgences. Ultra-Talk succeeds primarily when it allows Kirby the lit professor to do his thing most directly; explaining Shakespeare, Whitman, Dante, or Dickinson, for example, without a jot of literary jargon and with a generous sense of how these denizens of the canon relate to everyday life. Kirby’s more daring topics of discussion, striptease and Johnny Cash, for example, read more as stunts.
The book begins with an introduction that attempts to provide a theoretical umbrella for such a wide-ranging collection. Kirby intends to write about “colossal cultural phenomena of all kinds” but only those that pass a test of greatness adapted from Goethe and Count Giacomo Leopardi. The phenomena must have been accepted by both the intellectual elite and by the general public. Quickly enough, however, it becomes clear that Kirby has simply written about whatever topics have struck his fancy, including NASCAR, reality television, pull quotes in book reviews, and going to see art films in Paris. In an attempt to make a mere essay collection into a cogent work of philosophy, Kirby shows a dash of intellectual sloppiness that the essays themselves keenly avoid.
The introduction is more honest in stating that it operates in a “post-theory age” where “we benefit from what theory has taught us but don’t rely on jargon and rigid argument anymore.” Kirby utterly avoids the stilted jargon and usage of literary theory without abandoning the smarts, dualisms, and nuances that might be gleaned from, say, deconstruction. And these college-course types of insights are always backed up by a scholar’s bread and butter: research. Kirby deftly presents the reader with the history and intellectual framework that makes his discussions cogent and compelling. For example, his marvelous essay on Walt Whitman places the poet in the company of Euripides and Bob Dylan, arguing that Whitman sits cleanly in the “dithyrambic” tradition while still being a product of what Greil Marcus dubbed “the old, weird America”. Kirby digs into the necessary books and makes the arcane terms of literature simple and obvious.
In too many other essays, however, Kirby courts his reader with personal anecdotes that flop. The book cloys most severely when Kirby writes with a combination of awe and pride about his and his wife’s time living in Italy or France. The problem here is that Kirby seems unaware of how pretentious and yet how commonplace it is to be blown away by Tuscany. The book’s first essay, “I Shot A Man In Corleone”, which combines a discussion of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison with a Godfather tinged travelogue of Italy, sets this unfortunate tone. It’s not that your fascinating friend’s photos from his Italian vacation aren’t somewhat interesting, but hearing him boast about being a professor over there is not as good as just, well, listening to Johnny Cash.
Kirby is defter when combining a personal tale with his subject in “I Brake For Richard Petty”, a look at NASCAR through the outsider eyes of an academic. Kirby and a bunch of his college professor buddies rent an RV to go down to the Talladega Super speedway for a big race. For these guys, this is journalistic tourism, like sending a US family of five from suburban New Jersey into the jungle on a safari to see exotic creatures. Kirby makes much of his provisioning the RV with food, (energy bars, spaghetti, some chicken, beer!), and then proceeds to discover, with apparent astonishment, that folks on the infield are friendly or that not everyone flying a confederate flag wants to lynch black folks.
Despite ardent attempts to seem non-judgmental and to appear as a “regular guy”, Kirby’s “I’d rather be in Tuscany” nature can’t help but leap out. When commenting on the culinary habits in the infield, Kirby writes, “I never heard the words ‘mesclun’ or ‘coulis’ even once during my time in the pits.” Therefore, Kirby’s astonishment and star-struck pride that surges when Richard Petty talks to him for a minute seems that much more odd. One wonders whether Kirby offered Petty a salad or if Petty just thought to himself,” Hey, maybe not loving arugula is OK after all!”
While Kirby can barely go a page without mentioning his heroes Shakespeare, Whitman, and Dante, it is notable that the lone contemporary author he mentions is one whose work is eerily similar to these essays. A short piece on the practice of pulling out-of-context quotes from book reviews begins with an inaccurate quotation from Kirby’s review of Oblivion, a short story collection by David Foster Wallace. Kirby notes that his review of the book was largely positive. Wallace is also a novelist and essayist and his essays are often long fish-out-of-water explorations of cultural phenomena. Wallace goes to a lobster festival. Wallace attends a porn convention. Wallace goes on a luxury cruise. In other cases, Wallace writes about a dictionary of usage, (In Ultra-talk Kirby writes about the Oxford English Dictionary), or Wallace writes about Kafka.
My point is not that Kirby has ripped off Wallace. It is that Wallace’s combination of personal anecdote, literary deconstruction, and pop-culture contextualizing is the most relevant comparison to Kirby who is likely well aware of this. And, at least for this reader, Kirby is the lesser writer. Wallace pokes at his subjects with a consciousness that he is, and is often embarrassed to be, an outsider. Kirby tries to pass as a cool insider who smokes cigars and drinks beer, though his distaste for a can of Bud emanates from every mesclun-loving sentence. In Wallace’s essays, his hyper-self-awareness reinforces his erudite speculations on the nature of otherwise ordinary events and phenomena. In Ultra-talk, Kirby reaches conclusions about the ordinary that may be revelations only to himself because he does not normally engage in ordinary life.
The best example of this weakness is “Poetry, Television, And The World Wide Web”, in which Kirby writes about his son’s victorious turn as a “house guest” on the reality show Big Brother 2. The son, by design, becomes the bad guy of the show, and Kirby begins receiving negative, upsetting emails about his parenting skills. “What surprised me about these people was their naïveté. Don’t they understand this is all an act?” Kirby wonders. The reader is surprised, of course, at Kirby’s naïveté. Doesn’t he understand that the appeal of reality TV is rooting for or against the characters as if they were real?
Wallace, I feel certain, would see that Kirby’s son and the son’s fans/detractors were playing the same game. They are playing the very game that Shakespeare, his actors and audiences played. Allowing fiction to be both utterly real and utterly fake at the same time. For Kirby, however, this is the realm of The Globe but not of Survivor, which is why he ends the essay by glibly stating: “Ours is a country of many freedoms. The greatest of these is the freedom to be dumb.”
That said, there are places where Ultra-talk manages to blend high culture and low culture with canny fun. “Why Does It Always Have To Be A Boy Baby?” begins with Kirby teaching art history in Florence, (where else?), but develops into a provocative argument about the value of religion that darts and jukes around the usual points. In this essay he links Jung to the bestselling Left Behind novels. Kirby never gets cute here. He isn’t afraid to come off as scholarly, and he doesn’t affect being a common man. When he states that “maybe the best thing the irreligious can do is be religious” at the end of the essay, you truly understand what this apparent contradiction is all about.
Ultra-talk suggests that David Kirby is a brilliant guy and a super-interesting English professor. He puts a little bit of Dave Barry into your Harold Bloom, and that’s a good thing. In a classroom or across a coffee table, the guy must be irresistible. But, though these essays can sparkle, they also glint with a self-satisfying smirk in places. Your mileage may vary, but you’ll learn plenty along the way.