cover image Portable People

Portable People

Paul West, Author British American Publishing $10.95 (346p) ISBN 978-0-945167-35-8

In this compendium of short, intimate portraits of well-known figures in the arts, science, politics and sports, West ( Lord Byron's Doctor ) uses his immense knowledge of his subjects to paint pictures that are extraordinarily imaginative, yet strangely true. Many of these sketches are told in the first person, as if West has elicited a confession or final statement from these overachievers. Virginia Woolf, about to kill herself in the River Ouse, is a case in point: ``I am going to flush myself away, an Ophelia of the middle class. Suttee voce.'' There's also George Gershwin deriving inspiration from transportation: ``So I gotta take the train, see, I heard the rhythm of the rails--the word said riddem --and it is all there anyway, that long, dizzy ascent on the clarinet included.'' Although many of these pieces are fascinating for the little-known tidbits they impart and for the considerable craft of West's wordplay, some assume too much about their subjects, coming off as pretentious (``Beckett in the Fields Above Avignon'') or silly (``Helen Keller Holding Mark Twain''). Others profiled include Emily Bronte, Josef Goebbels, Chris Evert and the Shah of Iran. The sketches appeared previously in the Paris Review , Harper's , the Washington Post and the New York Times , among other publications. (Dec.)