Uncontrollable performers, hundred-year-old authors, writers mistaken for terrorists, here are a dozen of the best profiles and portraits published this year—not including our own. Cough, cough: Father Gregory Boyle, Whitey Bulger, Maria Elena Durazo, the Golden State Killer.
“Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie“
Stephen Rodrick, New York Times Magazine (January 10)
This exceptional dispatch from the set of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons might make for its own fascinating film given the depictions of Lohan’s antics which were by turns predictable, bewildering, and terrifyingly canny.
“Remembering Sol Yurick“
Samuel Fromartz, The Nation (January 16)
An incisive reminiscence of author Sol Yurick, who passed away at the beginning of this year. Best known for his novel The Warriors (see Walter Hill’s 1979 film adaptation), Yurick’s “writing—and thinking—was at times akin to free-jazz improvisation, the Ornette Coleman of the non-fiction essay.”
“The Old Man at Burning Man“
Wells Tower, GQ (February)
The author of the story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned concocts a powerful synthesis of two overworked genres—the father-son bonding tale and the pilgrimage to Burning Man—in his story of an excursion with his 69-year-old “constitutionally incapable of being embarrassed” father to Black Rock City.
“Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling“
Ted Gioia, The Atlantic (March 26)
Gioia looks back at the mind of psychological warfare specialist Paul Linebarger, who was possibly the subject (as “Kirk Allen”) of a chapter in Robert Lindner’s famous study The Fifty-Minute Hour. Under the name Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger also penned science-fiction stories that Gioia describes this way: “Think of his mental universe as a kind of Twilight Zone where even Rod Serling gets freaked out.”
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Bookforum (June/July/August)
In his review of Cotton Tenants, the never-before-published magazine-article precursor to James Agee and Walker Evans’s “monument of regional fetishism” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the perceptive Pulphead author offers a portrait of Agee as a young man, angelic observer, New Journalist avant la lettre, and an artist at once of and beyond his time.
“On the Thomas Pynchon Trail“
Boris Kachka, New York (August 25)
For all of Kachka’s assiduous research into the life of this most mysterious of contemporary novelists on the eve of the publication of his new novel, Bleeding Edge, what is just as fascinating as any of the potential revelations is how elusive Pynchon remains.
“Life As A Terrorist”
William T. Vollmann, Harper’s (September)
After obtaining his FBI file, the intrepid novelist is confronted by his own reflection in a cracked governmental mirror, discovering that the analysts he dubs “the Unamericans” who compiled his file were not only subject to peculiar and amusing inaccuracies and speculations but anointed him “Unabomber Suspect S-2047.” (Behind a paywall)
“Stories We’re Told“
Howard Hampton, Film Comment (September/October)
“Movies are fabrications I’ve always tended to take very personally,” writes Hampton, who tells the story of his father (also named Howard Hampton), a tall tale-telling stuntman and Hollywood bit player. It’s also the story of how this future cultural critic became besotted by the movies.
“Why is Albert Camus Still a Stranger in His Native Algeria?“
Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian (October)
On the centennial of Camus’s birth, Hammer sets out to make the case that it was Algiers and not Paris that was most formative for the author. His investigation brings the philosophical together with geographical, the literary with the political, the estranged with the patriotic.
“If He Hollers Let Him Go“
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The Believer (October)
Ten years after Dave Chappelle’s retreat from comedy, Ghansah travels to Chappelle’s home of Yellow Springs, Ohio, talks to Chappelle’s mother and Negritude scholar Yvonne Seon, and delves deeply into the comedian’s personal history as well as the history of comedy.
“Love in the Gardens“
Zadie Smith, New York Review of Books (November 7)
In this recollection of walking through Italian gardens with her father Harvey, the essayist and author of White Teeth and NW muses on the Grand Tour, being a daughter, finding one’s way through a city and a life, and how the gardens into which they wander preserve and organize not just nature but also memory.
“Long Way Home“
Rosanne Cash, Oxford American (November)
One woman’s journey through life in Tennessee, punctuated by songs written along the way, and her reflections on her “dad” (aka Johnny Cash), including a visit to Sun Records where she wonders as her son stands beside a picture of her father: “If my dad, the twenty-three-year-old new father, nervous as a cat at his first recording session in that very room, could have imagined his thirteen-year-old grandson standing there next to him, gazing around with the confidence of a child who doesn’t yet feel the weight of his own family history, would the world have stopped spinning for a moment to let him take it in?”