Based on the same premise as Stud Terkel's magnum opus, "Working" that there is something to be learned from the way Americans spend their time "The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady, and the All-Night Swimmer" is about how Americans play. It's an odd little book, a treasure-trove of hobbies, collections, and other passionate pursuits, examples of single-mindedness that should delight even the most dispassionate dilettante.
With 40 anecdotal chapters featuring American collectors, travelers, thrill-seekers (monomaniacs all), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Sheehan and former Washingtonian magazine editor Howard Means have made sure that there is something for everyone in this book. And I mean everyone. The chances of a reader not coming upon something near and dear are next to nil. For instance, if you salivate about eating at the best restaurant in New Orleans known only to the city's natives, you'll find it here. If you're a lover of spy novels, how about a recommendation straight from a CIA "old boy" himself? And if you've ever been curious about how race horses are handicapped, you'll learn firsthand from Kim Eisler, inventor of Eisler's Empirical System.
For those more inclined toward conquest, there's Gig Gwin, who's traveled to every country on the planet. And you won't find too many like Jim Dreyer, who's swum across all the Great Lakes except Superior. (Give him time, he's working on it.) There's Peter Holden, who's eaten in 10,509 of the 12,804 McDonald's restaurants nationwide and lived to tell about it. You name the hobbyists, they're in the book: kite flyers, wood sculptors, stamp collectors, genealogists, garage-sale junkies, world champion Tiddly Winkers, Gore Vidal lovers, and daredevil skiers.
Caveat emptor: The wacky and weird can sometimes slip into mere tedium. For example, you might find yourself reading about the lady who collects marbles and who occasionally waxes philosophic "I sometimes think about where I would roll if I were a marble. I'd like to roll into some of the famous art museums in Europe when there aren't a lot of people around, and just be able to sit down and look at what's on the walls." Marbles?
Or the letter writer who has assiduously chronicled his daily life for the last umpteen years, to wit: "12/2/97: I've decided that I want to make an uncooked fruitcake. I almost know how. It'll go in the freezer. I remember Aunt Lily put icing on hers. She cut pieces like I do the fruitcakes from Georgia. Before those fruitcakes I wouldn't touch one.... I waited too long to send this letter." Fruitcake?
And if you've ever been interested in how to play Sheepshead: "While it can be played two-, three-, four-, five-, six-, or seven-handed, five-handed is the most popular version. Each of the five players is dealt six cards. Two cards are left in the 'blind.' The person seated on the dealer's left has the first chance to pick the blind, and is therefore called the picker. If no one picks, the blind becomes the leaster. Forget the leaster, at least for now." Probably good advice.
By daring to be dull, the authors prove that they're not afraid to reveal the whole truth. What they are afraid to reveal, however, is any verdict on American culture. Studs Terkel learned a lot, and so did we. Red-faced and cantankerous after hundreds of interviews and years of research, Terkel lamented that his book about work was also necessarily "about violence to the spirit as well as the body ... about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations."
Unfortunately, Sheehan and Means don't provide the kind of analysis their extraordinary survey should inspire. Instead, all they offer is this mealy-mouthed appraisal: "A passionate pursuit is a window into a life's history into the deep roots and complicated forces that propel us to devote so much of our time to something that might seem trivial or narrow to others."
They certainly open a window on the "trivial" and "narrow," but they keep the shades drawn on the "deep roots and complicated forces."
Richard Horan's most recent novel is "Goose Music" (Steerforth Press).