cover image A Wild, Rank Place

A Wild, Rank Place

David Gessner. University Press of New England, $35 (149pp) ISBN 978-0-87451-802-3

With his father dying of cancer and having just been pronounced clean of the disease himself, Gessner moved from Colorado to his family's summer home on Cape Cod. On the warp and woof of death, he weaves a wonderful tapestry depicting his literary ancestors and the chill magnetism of the famous Massachusetts peninsula. In evoking the clipped character of Cape people and environment, Gessner is sure-footed and witty. In ""The Stinkhorn"" (after a mushroom resembling a phallus), he ties the story of his survivable testicular cancer to that of his father's lethal bladder disease, enlarging the combined narrative to contain the mud and mushrooms that reconnect him to his animal side and linking himself to the ambivalence of ""Thoreau the crude versus Thoreau the prude."" For 32-year-old Gessner, ""Cancer is closing in like the tide,"" but the art in his life still levitates him. He laces his book with the names and legacies of his literary creditors-Emerson, William Carlos Williams, Edward Abbey, Keats, Whitman, Samuel Johnson, Montaigne: ""They drive me on."" Having faced his father's extinction and his own, Gessner realizes that he is like humanity at large: we ""get to the brink of extinction and then cram for the final exam of survival, pulling an all-nighter trying to save eternity."" That all-nighter is what is reflected in this rich and enlivening read. Although by the end, he is sick of following Thoreau, he has learned the crucial lessons of reducing his needs and finding his own path, one that he knows will finally lead him, like his father, back to Cape Cod. (Apr.)