Thoughtful essays imbued with a kind of reverence

Monday Book Review

March 22, 1993|By Stephen Vicchio

ALEMBICS. BALTIMORE SKETCHES. Etc. By Rene J. Muller Icarus Books. 70 pages. $8.95.

DOROTHY Parker once remarked that one ought to show off when reviewing a bad book. Rene Muller's "Alembics" is a good book, and Miss Parker has left us no instructions on how to behave under these circumstances.

Mr. Muller's title is taken from a poem by Elliot Coleman, the former head of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. The book is also dedicated to Coleman, a clever and exceedingly gentle man who single-handedly made more people in this town feel like writers than any other person I know.

Mr. Muller's obvious love for Coleman might have made me, if I were honest about it, predisposed to writing a favorable review of "Alembics." Russell Baker once said of Coleman that he was so kind to his students that he always managed to find a small pulse, down by the ankle, of even the most comatose examples of student writing.

Affection for Coleman is a sure sign of good taste, so I was leery of writing this review, worrying that I might like the book for the wrong reasons.

After reading the first few short pieces of this collection of 24 essays, I was relieved. I like this book for the right reasons, and there are many. The occasional pieces of this 70-page volume are, at times, so well crafted, so sensitive and so imbued with the marriage of wisdom and style that Mr. Muller did not need Elliot Coleman to introduce him around to the rest of us.

We have heard since the turn of the century how the essay is dead. By now it is clear that these Chicken Littles have been clucking wolf. Writers from E.B. White to Annie Dillard have given evidence that we need not call the undertaker just yet. In its own little way, Mr. Muller's "Alembics" adds evidence that good occasional writing has not disappeared locally (though I fear for The Evening Sun, the publisher of so much of it over the past 14 years).

Some of the pieces here are short character sketches. There's one about a man selling newspapers on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, and there's an insightful glimpse of a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon before the revisionist historians gave him a good make-over.

Others are lighter pieces, the products of serendipity and a keen eye: a nocturnal roofscape, a field at the corner of Canterbury and University Parkway, a walk through Guilford, people-watching at a Stoneleigh pool. (Many of the essays were published originally on this page.)

At times the book is exceedingly wise. Mr. Muller's description of depression, his common-sense approach to alcoholism and his observations about the darker side of Division I lacrosse are three good cases in point.

At other times, we see Mr. Muller inching out on a precarious philosophical limb or two: an essay on John Hinckley and the insanity defense, for example. If he fails to persuade me in this piece, it is not because of his lack of thoughtfulness, but rather it is the weight of 2,500 years of philosophical speculation about free will and determinism, a tangled and weighty issue that cracks even the sturdiest of limbs on which philosophers or psychotherapists find uncomfortable sitting room. (An adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Mr. Muller has a doctorate in chemistry from Johns Hopkins and a master's in psychology from Duquesne University.)

In all these essays, Mr. Muller approaches the subjects of his musings with a kind of reverence. He is thoughtful throughout, without wearing his erudition on his sleeve. And Mr. Muller is a man of passion, a rare commodity these days.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. His latest collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," was published by Wakefield Editions.

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