The brilliant Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and the wonderful and memorable The Library Book, here reprises some of her profiles originally printed in The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Outside.
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People is notable in that, although Orlean indeed profiles a handful of well-known, or at least known, subjects (designer Bill Blass, Hollywood agent Sue Mengers [“As she tells it, Hollywood is a club that she loves to belong to, yet you can tell she never felt she really belonged. For a while, people appreciated her usefulness, which is not the same as belonging, although for a stretch it can look the same.], teen pop star Tiffany), most of her essays focus on everyday folk.
It began when The New Yorker assigned her to profile wildly popular Macaulay Culkin, and she pitched the idea of instead finding a typical ten-year old who didn’t have “an agent, a manager, or a chauffeur.” The result, “The American Male, Age Ten, ” is a delight. Here is her bull’s eye assessment of her subject, Colin: “The collision in his mind of what he understands, what he hears, what he figures out, what popular culture pours into him, what he knows, what he pretends to know, and what he imagines makes an interesting mess. The mess often has the form of what he will probably think like when he is a grown man, but the content of what he is like as a little boy.”
Orlean’s essay on Tonya Harding barely includes the ice skater; she is tangential to the story. In “Figures In a Mall,” Orlean focuses on the town, several miles outside of Portand, Oregon, where Harding lives, and how it shows us how she became who she is, and the members of her fan club who support their local hero. That the story all takes place just before Harding was implicated in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan adds a large dose of poignancy.
Other extraordinary ordinary people include a family of sisters from New Hampshire who make terrible rock music and the family in which they are raised; a New York City real estate agent who specializes in high end apartments; a group of long-time gospel singers who travel unluxuriously all over the country sharing their gift; a talented, highly rated high school basketball player who doesn’t let fame go to his head; a small town newspaper reporter who captures a place in which nothing happens but where everything happens; a young clown who revels in entertaining countless children at several parties every week; Orlean’s own hairdresser, whose shop is a bevy of fleeting conversation, both profound and inane; a trio of Bulgarian sisters who become top rated tennis players; and of course the eponymous bullfighter, the first woman to be certified in Spain. In the last, Orlean ably treads the fine line between appreciation of tradition with revulsion at the end result.
These stories were originally published between 1988 and 2001. Some of the technology that Orlean references is amusingly out of date, but the humanity she shares with us is not. The profiles are not biographies, they are snapshots of a certain moment in a person’s life. Each portrait, in different ways, is engaging and brilliant, witty and funny, heartwarming and insightful. By implication, Orlean underscores the importance of each of us, even in small ways, to the world.
And isn’t this the best cover ever?