Essays aren't my thing. Not usually. I've read a good essay now and then, but an entire collection of essays, especially a rather lengthy one, rarely breaks my top 100 most desired reads. But I was enticed by the pretty cover and the hype, so I decided to give Michael Paterniti's collection, Love and Other Ways of Dying, a try. I'm glad I did.
Paterniti begins with a quote from Steinbeck. Not just any quote, but the dedication Steinbeck included with his manuscript of East of Eden that he sent to friend and editor, Pascal Covici. This was also the epigraph used in East of Eden itself. In case you didn’t know, East of Eden, is the greatest book ever written; it’s a fact. The quote was a bold move, but it really encapsulates what Love and Other Ways of Dying is.
The essays in this collection are selected from among the best Paterniti's written over his long career. They span decades and many walks of life. From childhood baseball heroes to a Ukrainian giant, from the busy kitchen of the most imaginative restaurant in the world to the fields of a downed airliner, Paterniti clears a path around the world and makes it sound easy.
Not only does the travel seem effortless, but so does Paterniti's prose. He weaves sentences gorgeously. Such vibrant prose is not easy for a fiction writer, but it seems that taking a factual story and uncovering the beauty of it would be so much more difficult. Which brings me to the one thing that left me uncomfortable about Love and Other Ways of Dying: how true are some of these stories; how much of Paterniti's prying to discover the heart of the story left those behind heartbroken? Undoubtedly, the author works very hard for his stories. He gets confessions that I imagine required a great deal of confidence (or imagination). While reading the story of competing motels in Dodge City, Kansas, a story about unabashed racism that mentions specific individuals and motels, I was curious if the people and businesses truly existed. They do. Further research led me to Dodge City's shocked response and the reactions of those mentioned in the story, including the victim of the racism who herself felt saddened by Paterniti's portrayal of her. I couldn’t shake this feeling of how much was too much when it comes to a story. Brand a story as fiction, and as long as you don’t make it too obvious, you can say what you want. Sell it as fact, use actual names and events, and one must consider the consequences. Certain stories left me uneasy. Others left me inspired. All but one or two left me with strong feelings.
Love and Other Ways of Dying didn’t only tug at my heart, it stimulated my mind. Nearly every essay sent me to Google. My search history is full of names, places, and events. Paterniti successfully found the most unbelievable stories, made them sound even more unbelievable; yet, search after search proved that the subjects were indeed fact. I learned so much. It was this attainment of knowledge that really earned this book the highest rating.
Which bring us back to Steinbeck. Paterniti’s essays have a strangely similar feel and beauty to Steinbeck’s many stories. There’s the same pushing of emotional boundaries that some find manipulative, others find powerful. The subjects are just as unbelievable. The difference is found in the fact that Steinbeck’s unbelievable supposedly-true stories (eg, the itinerant Shakespearean actor in Dakota [Travels with Charley], the bluff of a small, unarmed troop that resulted in the capture of an army twice its size [Once There Was a War]) are likely tall-tales that mirror our hopes and entertain us. Paterniti’s stories, largely factual and certainly capable of stimulating the reader’s wonder, often leave behind a sense of sadness. There are exceptions; some really big exceptions, like the story of the heroes of Air Florida Flight 90. Largely these essays are meant to inspire awe, not hope. Love and Other Ways of Dying is educational, fascinating, and filled with beautiful words; the only things it might be missing are hope and compassion.