Mary Gaitskill’s book of essays includes a review of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, a huge favorite of millions of readers (but not me). It’s the reason I picked up Gaitskill’s new book, just to read that one essay and get her opinion of Flynn’s best-selling thriller. Of her many comments, one perfectly describes Gone Girl as “a masterpiece of cuckoo clockwork.” But it’s the other essays in Somebody With a Little Hammer that swept me into love of Gaitskill’s work, notably for the writing style, clarity of complex topics and engaging insights. She sees beneath the veil of easy labels for people and social controversies. She peels down to that core of truth to see something new.

Here’s an example. She writes about Linda Lovelace, the star of the 1972 porn flick Deep Throat who became a controversial pop-culture icon. Known as a nice girl who rose to celebrity status due to the movie’s wide media attention, Lovelace capitalized on the fame, hobnobbing with the famous Hollywood crowd. Then, in 1980, she published a tell-all autobiography (Ordeal) that Gaitskill describes as “utterly incongruous with how Lovelace initially presented herself.” Lovelace became an anti-porn activist, censuring her abusive husband as well as the industry that made her famous. Many labeled her a victim; many others a liar.

Gaitskill saw Deep Throat close to the time she also saw the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is what I love about Gaitskill – she finds a connection in these two movies that have nothing in common, bringing Joan and Linda together in a way that expands thinking beyond the given framework. She shakes up the easy pathway of thought and diverts down the more interesting road, which herein finds a profound and compelling figure in Lovelace.

Other topics in Mary Gaitskill’s essay collection include a memoir about losing her cat, which also tells a story of racism and class privilege; a story about a time she was teaching Anton Chekhov at Syracuse University, which questions why the homeless are invisible to her students, exploring “the comfortable and the wretched” existing together in neighborhoods; and a story about date rape and personal responsibility, which includes a her own experience with sexual violence. There are 31 essays in the collection, and many are reviews of books and movies.

When reading collected essays, I don’t feel I have to read all of them. I select the ones with topics that interest me. Of the several I read in Somebody With a Little Hammer, I loved each of them, with all that Gaitskill gave me to think about, with her great insight and life experiences. She writes with such wisdom that you can’t help but come away changed, or at least challenged, in your thinking, such as when she writes this in the Anton Chekhov essay: “…no matter what we literally see, on television or in life, we nonetheless will ourselves not to see what we don’t wish to see – or to feel.”

Mary Gaitskill is also an accomplished novelist. Her most recent novel is Mare.

Here’s a fictional crime story with vague whiffs of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (Kansas + farm family + murder).

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

The strength of Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s new novel, lies in the “who could’ve dunnit” intrigue that keeps us guessing ’til the surprising but bit-of-a-stretch ending.

Its weakness lies in protagonist Libby Day’s angry, sarcastic, resentful, foul-mouthed and mistrusting voice that comes across as “worked” by the author.

Libby was seven when her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered in their Kansas farm house one January night. She gave the convicting testimony that imprisoned her teen-aged brother, Ben, for the crime.

It’s 25 years later and a fan club obsessed with famous crimes taps Libby for information about her family’s murder, a.k.a. “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” After the club accepts her money-for-information proposal, Libby agrees to talk with brother Ben, her father, Ben’s girlfriend and others connected to the crime and report back.

The club members believe Ben is innocent. Memories of that horrible night are Libby’s “dark places.”

I became impatient with the dead narrative zones in the book’s mid-section – places where actions and conversations stagnate forward movement – but it’s Libby’s cocky, miserable attitude that keeps this crime novel from being a winner. It takes up a lot of emotional space in the book and becomes, at times, inflated prose that competes with Flynn’s otherwise good storytelling.

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