Maile Meloy for Geoffrey Wolff’s A Day at the Beach
There are a handful of books that might have made me a better person and a better writer, and Geoffrey Wolff’s A Day at the Beach is at the top of the list. An essay collection and a memoir, it’s a model of both. If you loved The Duke of Deception, there’s more of Geoffrey’s con artist father here, and if you haven’t read it yet, order that one, too. They’re two of my favorite books to give away, and A Day at the Beach now has a bonus track, the brilliant “Heavy Lifting,” about a summer he spent with his teenage brother Toby.
Wolff’s essays are musical and funny and unflinchingly frank, especially when they’re about lies and self-deception. They’re about reading, writing, drinking, and sailing, about falling in love and falling out of friendship. They’re about trying to be a good brother and son, and about learning, in the aftermath, to be a good husband and father. “The Great Santa” alone would be worth reading this book, for the account of a series of Christmases that swung wildly between privilege and want, and the available joys of each.
But every essay here is just as wonderful. “Apprentice,” about becoming a writer, is one I think about all the time. Wolff’s description of the competing storytellers in the marketplace in Marrakesh, alongside the jugglers and snake-charmers, is the best comment on the writing life that I know: “The storyteller begins his tale. When he gets to a good place in the story, he stops. He passes a hat. If listeners like what they have heard, and want to hear more, they give. If coins are put in the hat—a sufficiency of love, let’s say—the storyteller continues. If coins are not put in the hat, the storyteller returns to his tale’s beginning, and tries again. It’s a graphic situation—no?—literary criticism in action: coined hat or hat uncoined. And when he begins anew? What then? What if his listeners wander off? Well, then he tries another line of work, an easier racket, tooting at cobras, eating fire, shutting up.”
Wolff is one of the all-time great storytellers, and it’s our excellent fortune that A Day at the Beach is back in print—hat coined—and the stories can go on.