Robert Fulghum has done it again -- set this writer's teeth on edge. His smug, self-conscious -- no, self-congratulatory -- manner as he pontificates on the ambiguities of life and on his own fantasies, drives me to put fists in my pocket one more time.
To promote the publication of this fourth collection of essays, he'll be visiting 22 cities in the fall. The sly devil is raising funds for specific causes (Special Olympics in Baltimore on Oct. 30), so now we can feel guilty for not buying his book at $19 a pop, plus posters and audiocassettes.
The genesis of the tour is explained in the last piece of the collection. Mr. Fulghum tells a story about a cellist in Sarajevo who played on a street corner for 22 days, braving mortar fire in the war-torn city. Other musicians gradually joined him; the story was picked up and replicated in Seattle and elsewhere, thereby inspiring Mr. Fulghum to perform in 22 cities for his book-promotion-cum-good-works tour. Give the man credit; he knows marketing.
Mr. Fulghum does tell some good tales. The one about the man with Alzheimer's disease whose family presents him with repeated Christmases on request is poignant. A teaching experiment in which he had high school seniors play musical chairs is a splendid hands-on demonstration of diminishing resources, with interesting political ramifications: "Is it always to be a winners-losers world, or can we keep everyone in the game?"
His description of creative thinking in chess and other arenas is nice, but dangerously cocksure and knowing, a repeated flaw of Mr. Fulghum. His boycotting of Christmas and other big occasions is for all the right reasons, but it's oh, so visible; (one wonders if he boycotts April 15, too.)
Then he muses on learning to tell tales the way he imagines a "geezer" would, and it's a bit silly. Then he, a former minister, says, "Don't know nothing about religion," and he, a former teacher, writes deliberately ungrammatical sentences in an ersatz Will Rogers style, and the reader winces.
The Fulghum tone has a contrived and rustic arrogance; this is most apparent in his tale of conducting the Minnesota Chamber Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Mr. Fulghum is not Walter Mitty, because Mitty's grandiose dreams were just that. He's not George Plimpton either, because when Mr. Plimpton's quixotic (mostly athletic) performances failed, he didn't take anyone else down with him.
Mr. Fulghum not only took up the time of the orchestra for rehearsals, but on the third and final day of the concert decided he couldn't conduct again and called the regular conductor on stage. He reports that he got a standing ovation for his decision (make anything of that you want) and, knowing no German, sang with the chorus. Sheesh.
Mr. Fulghum tells good, sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes sage stories; the trouble is that his sagacity is laid on with a trowel, as if the reader is a little dim. He needs a lighter, more ironic touch with less preaching and less talking down to the reader -- hangovers from earlier careers, one suspects.
His essays on tools, on a man's wallet as "talismanic scrapbook," and on the ape and the naked lady are convoluted and labored, and, once again, he hovers too close to center stage.
The extraordinary success of his books -- "Uh-Oh," "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" and "It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It" -- suggests that the wit and wisdom of Robert Fulghum are welcome comfort in an increasingly sleazy and violent society. The question, as he wavers between incisive storytelling and heavy-handed enlightenment, is whether this deliberately rural and wholesome voice can be worthy of so many readers' high regard. Maybe, maybe not.
Title: "Maybe, Maybe Not: Second Thoughts From a Secret Life"
Author: Robert Fulghum
Publisher: Villard Books
Length, price: 321 pages, $19