Mamet's restraint makes essays gripping

December 17, 1992|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

This third collection of essays by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet reveals his bleak and tumultuous home life as a child, but, more important, it exhibits a confidence, optimism and resilience that carried him to far better times. Mr. Mamet gets the description of life with his mother and stepfather out of the way early in the book. In matter-of-fact, reportorial style, he describes their careless cruelty toward him and his sister. The deadpan telling adds a chill to the tale.

But then Mr. Mamet shifts into a lighter gear and relates happier vignettes of a boyhood in Chicago, and then life as a young actor/writer self-consciously playing the romantic role of a young artiste in New York and in the province of Quebec. He tells a story of misunderstanding and youthful anticipation resulting in pained false gratitude when his father presented him with a watch before college graduation while David had expected a convertible. It is a poignant, humorous tale of crossed expectations between generations.

Mr. Mamet shares various adventures (on shooting, canoeing at camp, being an activist during the '60s) and writes of these and other disparate topics with a natural elegance and a detachment that seems to be of an earlier, less self-absorbed generation. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is content to set the scene (even one in which his stepfather threw his sister against a wall) and not interpret it -- or, worse, tell us his feelings. This kind of writing takes restraint and confidence.

On the other hand, he gives his unvarnished opinion on such contemporary plagues as English food and unsolicited music in malls, restaurants and airports. And he describes, with self-deprecating humor, his home decor, both during the '60s and today, and on being a participant at the Cannes Film Festival. He writes: "Dealing with critical reception is a bit . . . difficult -- I think that critics are generally a bunch of unfortunates, and should be ashamed of themselves. Now, does that mean that I am philosophically immune to the desire for their praise? You may already have guessed the answer, which is no."

Mr. Mamet's style is often, without parody, Hemingwayesque; there is a lean, masculine quality to his essays, in which he hammers out the sentences in clear, measured prose. The following paragraph is typical: "Ken had a furniture store. He bought and restored and sold Grand Rapids oak. He was a

superior craftsman, and he had good taste in what he bought. He was also a good companion, and I spent many hours on my way back from the gym hanging out with Ken and playing gin. He was the worst gin player I have ever met . . ."

I wish he had dated his essays, but his strength as a writer and the apparent strength of his character make this collection a delight.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions."

Author: David Mamet.

Publisher: Turtle Bay Books.

Length, price: 157 pages, $20.

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