Fulghum's essays are corny but comforting

October 20, 1991|By Ann Egerton




Robert Fulghum.


244 pages. $19.

While reading "Uh-Oh," one may be tempted to mutter "Oh dear," and wish for an editor. In this, his third book of essays, Robert Fulghum again has produced an uneven batch of observations on the vicissitudes of contemporary morals and manners, ergo the title. "Work-in-progress about life-in-progress is what my writing is about," he says, and adds that Montaigne is his model, which is admirable except that he then refers to the 16th century writer as Mike. His calculated, avuncular style often rolls around in this kind of inappropriate and off-putting intimacy.

His tone also is sometimes smug and omniscient, such as in his description of being in a grocery store in Pocatello, Idaho, and having a sudden sense of the connectedness and scope of things -- that is, of workers to food production and distribution to consumption, and so forth. Mr. Fulghum had an epiphany of sorts and thinks that's unusual in these hard-edged times. But his epiphany is a variation of the "we are just a grain of sand in the universe" theory that most of us figure out in college, if not in high school, and while it's a nice thought and important to see the big picture, Mr.Fulghum's presentation seems a bit labored and banal.

He is occasionally guilty of writing what I call the gloppy sentence -- for example, "I went out for a walk . . . to check and see if someone had remembered to turn the Milky Way on and the wind off." Or: "Once you know where the roller coaster is going, are you still in for the ride?" Mr. Fulghum should restrain himself from writing cute.

Nevertheless, as in his first two collections, he comes up with some gems, including good stories on himself. He tells a delightful tale about officiating over the scattering of a man's ashes out of a plane (during his earliest days as a Unitarian minister), and about the bride who had the hiccups during her wedding.

Two other stories -- one about a dog named Gyda who created a bond within Mr. Fulghum's community, and another wise one about children and egg-throwing and their ultimate connections

to violence -- are touching and memorable. He also delineates two useful tests. One is to identify the seriousness of a problem: "A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump; one should learn the difference." The other is his Formula for Marriage Testing, a little long to relate here but equally sensible and appealing.

Mr. Fulghum's efforts at telling stories in "Uh-Oh," as in his first two collections -- "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" and "It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It" -- are far more successful than his attempts at being a philosopher. Of the three, his second book perhaps was his crispest, most satisfying work and the least prone to self-congratulations.

Mr. Fulghum clearly has found a niche. His first two were best sellers, and he certainly understands the importance and art of marketing. He is appearing in 10 cities to promote his book, which, like the other two, has been published in 25 languages. A cassette of "Uh-Oh" already is out. His observations seem to be a welcome comfort food for many of us all over this tattered world.

Ms Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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