by Sean Wilsey
Geographically, More Curious, a collection of journalist/editor/author Sean Wilsey’s most vital essays, takes readers on a trip across the nation that goes from the tiny town of Marfa, Texas, to great New York City restaurants and down to the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. However, the relevance of these collected pieces resides not on the diversity of the spaces presented but in the way Wilsey dissects our country and its people with surgical precision regardless of where he is. These essays, which are revised and often expanded versions of pieces originally published in venues like Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s, and GQ, bring together the best of what the author has done in the last decade and a half, and they offer an entertaining, honest, and sharp look at the strangeness, diversity, beauty, and absurdity of contemporary America.
What Wilsey brings to the table is special because he mixes the opportunities granted to him by a successful career as a freelance journalist with a vibrant, seemingly insatiable curiosity, great writing chops, and a knack for turning research into enjoyable prose. While many nonfiction writers tend to focus on a specific area of expertise, More Curious deals with a plethora of themes, places, people, moods, and times, but always thought the lens of the author’s experiences. In a way, the Wilsey’s awareness and positionality are as important to his work as the research he does, but his presence in the texts is enriching, never dull, and rarely self-centered. It also leads to a collection that is truly diverse and unafraid to explore a variety of spaces, feelings, individuals, and ideas. For example, “No Work for Me,” the second essay in the book, drops readers head first into the emotionally gritty days following the collapse of the World Trade Center. The writing is heartfelt and the piece, originally published in 2002, ends with a powerful line. The following essay, “Using So Little,” changes the mood drastically and deals with the author’s past and his love for skateboarding something he writes about brilliantly in two essays:
Skateboarding is feeling that every flight of stairs is nagging you, begging you to boneless, or ollie over, or railslide down it. Skateboarding is looking into toilet bowls and fantasizing about shrinking down and skating them. It is using the word transitions to refer to curved areas between horizontal and vertical. It is an apocryphal mention in Thrasher of three skyscrapers in Manhattan with transitioned bases (Forty-seventh and Third Avenue; Forty-ninth and Third Avenue; and Ninety-sixth and Columbus)—designed by a skateboarding architect.
The range of topics in More Curious makes it one of those rare nonfiction books that truly contain something for everyone. Besides the aftermath of 9/11, and an exploration of the weird, artsy enclave that is Marfa that incudes hanging out with David Foster Wallace, and skateboarding, Wilsey tackles America’s relationship with soccer and the World Cup, a drive from West Texas to New York, and a long piece on restaurateur Danny Meyer. The cohesive elements of the collection are superb writing and Wilsey’s curiosity, which leads him to conduct research into bizarre areas, including the number of rats living in New York. Also, there’s enough analysis and introspection in most of the pieces to give readers a good sense of the author’s philosophies, and the way he goes about it makes for great reading:
You can’t con your way to a higher place. Only a higher station. The con man does not have an eye on the long term. The long con is only so long. The length of life. Heaven or enlightenment or the weary soul’s deserved rest: non-con-to-able destinations. Though what’s life after life after life getting conned? History. The things we pump and burn.
Perhaps the most compelling proof that this is an outstanding collection is the fact that Wilsey was able to hold my attention and keep me reading even when the weakest essay rolled around. “The Objects of my Obsession” is about buying designer appliances at a discount by keeping an eye on Craigslist and haggling with sellers. Compared to the rest of the pieces here, this one held no interest for me simply because the brand stamped on the toilet is not something broke grad students often think about. However, despite my lack of concern with the topic being discussed, I kept reading because the author’s storytelling skills and humor make everything he writes an enjoyable read.
Sean Wilsey has the ability to infect readers with his curiosity and the writing chops to pull off making whatever his current obsession is a topic worth reading about. More Curious is a testament to this, and it’s also a funny, touching, and smart look at the core of Americana.