Thesis: the essay is the widest fattest most generous open glorious honest endlessly expandable form of committing prose not only because it cheerfully steals and hones all the other tools and talents of all other forms of art, and not only because it is admirably and brilliantly closest to not only the speaking voice but the maundering shambling shuffling nutty wandering salty singing voices in our heads, but also because it is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement, without the filters and mannered disguises and stiff dignity of fiction and poetry and journalism, respectively.
Let me give you an example right off the bat. Just riffing for a moment with the typewriter, borrowing a small son and dragooning him into burbling over this way and banging with one finger, we get ffff and rrrrr and bmbmbm, which immediately sound jazzy to me, and send me off thinking about the gleaming glimmering horns in the velvet dark of the jazz club in New York that my sister took me into when I [End Page 11] was a teenager, and thinking about the jazzy phonemes my kids started off language with when they were little and spent a lot of time humming consonantal bursts and vowelacious arias, and thinking about how maybe typewriters remember what you type with them, maybe they actually steer you in certain directions for their own devious entertainment, and this sets me thinking about my dad teaching me to type with two furious fingers on his old tall black steel typewriter, and the sheaves of love poems he typed to my mom in blazing dripping afternoons in Manila just before he was sure he was about to die in the invasion of Japan. So here, in the space of two minutes, we have leapt from jazz to jazzy infants to intelligent typewriters to a lanky young sergeant hammering words onto infinitesimally thin sheets of onionskin paper as parakeets and bulbuls yammered outside in the dense heat, words he thought for sure would be his last, words he desperately wanted to get down before he never saw the girl with the hair to her waist and that irresistible overbite ever again. I mean, there, in two minutes, are a whole bunch of essay starts. Is there any other form that can go so fast and piercingly and honestly and nattily, cutting holes in your heart along the way?
Or here's another example. My grandfather John Francis Clancey, who was raised in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, not far from where we sit today, had a heart attack on the train one day, and I always wanted to try to write about that, and I tried to write it as fiction, but fiction was too mannered and arty and remote for me somehow, so finally I tried to write it like it really and truly happened, and I couldn't write it as straight reportage because it sounded too flat and confessional, but thank God Plutarch invented the essay, because I could come at it in an essay, like this:
". . . a savage raging pain explodes in his chest so suddenly and cruelly that it knocks him to his knees and only by shooting his arms out blindly and landing on his hands does he avoid smashing his face [End Page 12] on the floor o god o god he he thinks faintly from far far away he can't breathe uh uh uh uh uh uh gasping uh uh uh uh but desperately raggedly he gains a half a breath uh uh uh and gulping uh uh a whole one uh uh then another uh and greedily aah he fills aaah his lungs as deeply as he can aaaah he would eat all the air in the world if he could aaaaah he would suck it dry the blessed air aaaaah and somehow the friendly air aaaaah forces the fire in his chest down aaahh and the rage retreats snarling aaaaah and he kneels there aaaah breathing aaah his shoulders shaking aah his knees throbbing ah his sweat dripping freely to the...