cover image Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of 20 Young Writers

Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of 20 Young Writers

. Mariner Books, $13 (284pp) ISBN 978-0-395-85796-0

There are more nightmares than dreams animating this rangy, rich collection of self-portraits by emerging writers mostly under 30. That isn't surprising, given the edgy realism that Beller (Seduction Theory) seems to prefer. In the introduction, he writes that, rather than imposing some single overarching theme or heavy-handed generalization on his peers, he simply asked each writer to ""find something that matters to you and write a story about it."" The results are uneven, but often trenchant. Set against backdrops as varied as old-money New York, the rural Midwest, Vietnam and Cambodia, the pieces are shot through with similar themes: relationships that crash and burn, unexpected pregnancies, addiction to drugs and other forms of self-destruction, lives in emotional and geographical transit. Some essays are clever and sharply told, such as Meghan Daum's story of a romantic fling that begins in cyberspace and turns crushingly banal in real life; Scott Heim's Midnight Cowboy-like odyssey from small-town Kansas to New York hustler bars; Daniel Pinchbeck's account of dropping out of Wesleyan--a kind of anti-liberal arts J'accuse; and Brady Udall's hilarious look at childhood fibs. Elsewhere, the burden of self-definition yields earnest mini-life summaries and the occasional cliche--phrases like ""learning process"" stand out like half-eaten Big Macs. If they are not consistently perceptive, these writers do manage to condense large, unresolved questions of identity, place and memory into engaging short takes, offering a coherent portrait of life after college and a roster of some writers to watch. (July)