Seeing mystery in the ordinary

Monday Book Reviews

August 19, 1991|By Ann Egerton

ORDINARY MYSTERIES: More Chronicles of Life, Love and Laughter. By Stephen J. Vicchio. Wakefield Editions. 245 pages. $17.95.

IN ONE of the essays in this collection, Stephen Vicchio explains what he tries to do when he writes. Whether he's writing for radio or print, he says, he tries to "tell good stories -- tales about small events and those that often overwhelm the most thoughtful of us."

In "Ordinary Mysteries," Vicchio, who teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame, largely succeeds in telling good stories, especially when they're not about himself.

"Ordinary Mysteries," so called because Vicchio claims that the angle of observation can make the ordinary become mysterious, is his second book of essays. Many were published, between 1987 and 1990, in The Evening Sun, Cadenza and the Maryland Poetry Review. Others were read on WJHU, Johns Hopkins University's public radio station in Baltimore. Unfortunately, we are told when each essay was published, but not where.

Vicchio is adept at making the ordinary mysterious, whether he's writing of modern versions of favorite toys, of political scandals or of the deterioration of his old neighborhood. He often demonstrates how modern marketing tends to ruin things that were perfectly good in the past. Mr. Potato Head, for example, is now a lump of ugly molded plastic with designated holes for the features; how, he asks, can that still be called Mr. Potato Head? On the Marion Barry drama, Vicchio concludes that no matter the verdict, "one thing is clear: the plague will remain." And his old neighborhood in Baltimore is "dying of a thousand disappointments."

In the front of the book, a quotation by Goethe, "mysteries are not necessarily miracles," sets an elegiac tone for much of the collection. Indeed, while several of Vicchio's essays sparkle with wit and fun, and while many contain genuinely funny phrases and passages -- "A Proper Guest List" and "Giving Christ a Bad Name," for instance -- a tone of sadness dominates. We perceive rain in the city as "an inconvenience that we don't (yet) control;" in looking at a photograph of himself as a little boy, he is both the "dead and the bereaved."

Some essays are tied together by the writer's preoccupation with time and its (usually) deleterious effects. He writes of time as measured by the visits of the 17-year cicadas, as measured by football (quarters) as compared with baseball (pitchers' duels and rain delays). The second half of this century is a "period of unparalleled evil," and one of its elements is the "loss of our ability to know a bad person when we see one."

The last essay, fittingly, is on seeing time, as measured by a face, a newspaper, a literary masterpiece. We learn that when he wrote this essay in December 1989, Vicchio was approaching his 40th birthday. "In this year," he says, "I will keep a close watch on the heavens, I will keep track of the changing faces of the stars so that I might better see time."

When Vicchio writes of such non-Vicchio things as the dropping of the second A-bomb on Nagasaki or Klaus Barbie, he is far more interesting and fresh. His vast reading enables him to conjure up just the right phrase for one situation, or his insight and care enable him to create just the right phrase for another. His is a mind equally comfortable with St. Thomas Aquinas and Roger Angell, Plato and Pogo, Montaigne and the machinations of Edwin Meese. The description of his three-week bus trip is sharp, as are his pieces on the quirks of the English language.

Vicchio is a writer with a gift for imagery: "The sea sounded like eternity," "This is the stillest of nights -- starless and bible-black." He is too skillful and solidly educated to need to concentrate so heavily on Stephen J. Vicchio.

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Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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