Keith Moon is not one of my favorite people. But James Wood is, so when I borrowed from the library his new book, The Fun Stuff and Other Essays, thinking it was essays of literary criticism, which it is, mostly, I read the first essay in the book, the title essay, even though it's about Keith Moon. If you had asked me a week ago who he was I might possibly have been able to bring up "a rock musician," but I might not. What instrument he played and for what group - blank.
Wood explains his fascination with the drummer, Keith Moon, as his adolescent rebellion against classical music. Wood was a student and chorister at Durham Cathedral and studied piano and trumpet along with the usual musicology and harmony and such. But he wanted to play the drums and he was just in time to catch Keith Moon and The Who at their best. And apparently their best was very good indeed. Moon, Wikipedia tells us, was voted in 2011, 35 years after his death, the second best drummer of all time by the readership of Rolling Stone magazine. (I wonder who was # 1.)
Uninterested as I am in rock music and Keith Moon, I read every page of this essay eagerly. Wood, like John McPhee, has a knack of making almost anything interesting, and his admiration for Moon makes me think I should look up a Who CD at the library and listen for the things Wood talks about. Apparently Moon was the quintessential out-of-control musician. "It is hard," Wood says, "not to think of Keith Moon's life as a 'perpetual happening'; a gaudy, precarious, self-destructing art installation whose gallery placard simply reads: 'The Rock and Roll Life: Late Twentieth Century.'"
Wood goes on to discuss Marilyn Robinson's books and in particular, Home. He analyzes Cormac McCarthy's The Road. He explires the work of Ian McEwan. And he speaks with authority about some authors of whom I have not heard: Aleksander Hemon, Lydia Davis, Geoff Dyer, Ismail Kadare.
The essays about authors with whom I'm familiar were first rate: Paul Auster, Richard Yates, W G Sebald, Tolstoy. Particularly crisp and insightful are his comments about Robert Alter's translation of the Pentateuch, the work of George Orwell, the novels of Thomas Hardy, and the criticism of Edmund Wilson. He describes the writing of the last as "... marked by its eighteenth century robustness, by its glinting, pugnacious clarity, by its need to turn analysis into narrative, by its exhaustive and sometimes exhausting scholarship, and by the tense, prosaic music of its sentences." Whew!
Most of these essays were published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books between 2004 and 2011.