THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1994 Edited by Tracy Kidder Series Edited by Robert Atwan; Houghton Mifflin; 321 pp., $24.95 cloth $11.95 paper.
REASONABLE CREATURES: ESSAYS ON WOMEN AND FEMINISM By Katha Pollitt; Alfred A. Knopf,; 186 pp., $22.
THE PRIMARY COLORS: THREE ESSAYS By Alexander Theroux; Henry Holt,; 268 pp., $17.95.
MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE, the essayist par excellence, virtually originated the form of short nonfiction prose pieces that afforded him the flexibility to express his thoughts on an infinite variety of subjects.
The essay, by definition and etymology, is open-ended: a foray, an exploration, a try. It is distinguished from other kinds of nonfiction by being more personal: Not that all essayists necessarily deal with deeply private experiences (though they may), but rather that, whatever the topic, the essayist almost always presents his or her particular point of view.
The 21 previously published essays featured in this year's volume of "The Best American Essays" series were chosen by guest editor Tracy Kidder, himself a prize-winning nonfiction author, from a pool of some 200 possibilities he received from the series' general editor Robert Atwan.
The selections range from intensely autobiographical works like Lucy Grealy's account of her facial disfigurement to thoughtful meditations on public issues like James McPherson's examination of the civil rights movement, "Ivy Day in the Empty Room"; from "on-the-road" reportage, like Ted Conover's account of "Trucking Through the AIDS Belt" in East Africa to lightweight parodies like Ian Frazier's "The Frankest Interview Yet," a spoof of kiss-and-tell journalism.
I confess to harboring an innate suspicion of anything calling itself "the best," and would certainly concede that an editor's choices are largely a matter of personal taste. I found myself not too surprised at just how mixed this mixed bag proved to be.
IT is hard to imagine how someone who must have appreciated the intelligence of McPherson's discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could possibly have been impressed by Andre Dubus III's obtuse reminiscence of what an endearing adolescent buddy, a now-notorious wife-beater, once was to him.
Counterbalancing this, somewhat, are psychologist Lauren Slater's moving account of her work with a hostile patient afraid to drop his guard and Vicki Hearne's vindication of an orangutan trainer unfairly accused of mistreating his animals.
But how could the editor who picked out Adam Gopnick's diverting yet ultimately serious essay on modern art, which discusses sophisticated issues in a way that effortlessly clarifies without condescending, have also selected Louise Erdrich's pedestrian "Skunk Dreams"? Darcy Frey's long article on inner-city basketball players and S. Oso's account of working as a parking-lot attendant probably represent obligatory bows to the so-called underclass: it's a pity both essays are so …