People who know so much

The odd terrain of the insatiable and their hobbies

Regular readers of The New Yorker will have no trouble identifying the byline of Mark Singer. He's the man who for decades (beginning in 1974, when he was 24) has taken them on any number of interior journeys.

Over the years Singer has written about worm farmers, snowmobilers, Civil War reenactors, obituary writers, skinnydippers, and cockfighters. His profiles of characters most of us probably don't run into every day - from a man who repairs zippers to one who claims he sold marijuana to Dan Quayle - have long held a special place in the affections and collective memory of his magazine's readers.

Singer's new book will prove no exception. "Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed" is a compilation of human profiles he's written for The New Yorker. They are observations of men and women - although mostly men, as it happens - whose lives are built around some type of singular obsession.

They include a group of Texans in search of the skull of Pancho Villa; a Japanese-American family who combine science, art, and ritual in a single-minded pursuit of the best possible farm produce; and Donald Trump (obsession: himself).

Most of the pieces read like crosses between anthropological studies and journeys through unusual interior terrain, with Singer serving as a bemused but (largely) compassionate tour guide.

Any reader hoping to see Singer poke fun at what might seem the more vulnerable of the characters he covers will be disappointed.

The verbal sketches he draws are vivid and deft but rarely unkind. For the most part he seems respectful of this group who have found such original ways to assign meaning to their lives.

To an insatiable book collector he ascribes "a nimble verbal manner, a cheerful seen-it-all-but-show-me-some-more bluntness, infused with a nasal Yonkers inflection, and a look that would have engaged Daumier - elfin, slightly paunchy, bemused."

As he leaves this character, Singer tells the reader, "His eyebrows were arched, he was nodding thoughtfully and smiling faintly. He seemed no happier than usual, but terrifically happy just the same."

As for a man devoted to the collection of Tom Mix memorabilia, Singer describes him responding with dignity to a woman trying to sell him a saddle with dubious connections to Mix, "I am [a collector], Madam. But I'm not a nut."

Perhaps the only subject who comes in for uncharacteristic harshness is Trump. The description of his hair - "its gravity-defying ducktails and dry pompadour, its telltale absence of gray" - is nothing compared with Singer's ultimate suggestion that the Donald has "an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul."

Fellow writers may enjoy Singer's book as a tribute to profile-writing as high art, but most will also struggle not to envy the access and travel budget he seems to accept so casually.

("I was invited to go to Tokyo with [the Chino family]," he writes of the Japanese-American farm family he covers - and of course he goes. "During the ride from Cipriani to the [Venice film] festival site, the mood aboard [Martin] Scorsese's water taxi was subdued," he confides to the reader in a profile of the filmmaker).

Singer's collection of profiles constitutes a voyage worth taking. Readers who embark will savor many of the same pleasures served up by The New Yorker itself: intelligent and humorous delivery, a willingness to linger over detail, detours to some off-the-map destinations, and just plain good writing.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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