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Sunday, November 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spotlight

Lesser-Known Essayists Add Spice To Collection

Special To The Seattle Times

----------------------------------------------------------------- "The Best American Essays 1997" Edited by Ian Frazier Houghton Mifflin, $27/$13 -----------------------------------------------------------------

It's not the usual suspects in this year's "Best American Essays" collection. Sure, Cynthia Ozick makes another appearance with an evocative piece on her parents' Depression-era drugstore, and Gay Talese is back with a somewhat flat account of a comic meeting between Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

But for the most part, guest editor Ian Frazier has gone out of his way to select lesser-known writers rather than trotting out the perennial rogue's gallery of John Updike, Stanley Elkin and James A. McPherson. In fact, to my mind, the best essay here was written by a woman who didn't begin writing until 1994 - just shy of her 60th birthday.

Frazier, a humorist and former New Yorker staffer, gravitates toward the comic, with some mixed results. The title alone of Joy Williams' essay "The Case Against Babies" draws you in - how could anyone be against babies? - but her cynicism is overripe and off-putting. Roy Blount Jr. tosses some soft Southern barbs at Northeasterners and their predictable sensibilities, but he is most interesting in the pricklier matter of race.

"For some years now," writes Blount, "drastically bad race relations have been cropping up mostly outside the South, and I want to see some Northern white people sweat."

Family is an unintentional theme here. Debra Dickerson's 16-year-old nephew was shot and paralyzed in a senseless drive-by shooting, and she rails against the "non-job-having, middle-of-the-day malt-liquor-drinking, crotch-clutching, loud-talking brother" who could commit such a crime - serving up the rawest of punch lines in the end.

And I love the way Naton Leslie's essay about his father's storytelling keeps stringing us along, filling us in on railroad work in the 1930s, and Pennsylvania hunting, and tree-topping, before finally finishing the father's story - which turns out to be much less interesting than the digressions that led up to it.

But it's Lukie Chapman Reilly's "My Father" that really blew me away. Reilly has been a painter, dress designer and gallery operator; only recently, approaching 60, did she take up writing. From her first sentence, "I have no recollection of a time when I was not afraid of my father," she is unblinkingly honest.

Reilly's father was a journalist who loved good food and too much drink, who hobnobbed with the powerful and famous. He was an aficionado of art and jazz and the blues (Leadbelly came over to their house when Reilly was young). But he was also tyrannical, overcritical, and her fear of him extended to his cancer-ridden, nursing-home days - even, remarkably, into his death. She's afraid of death, she suggests, because she might have to meet her father there.

"My Father" originally appeared in Under the Sun, a new literary journal out of Tennessee, and if there's any fault in this collection it's that not enough of the 24 essays were plucked from such obscurity. Fully one-third first appeared in either The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine. Surely we can get out of the Big Apple a little more often.

Erik Lundegaard is a Seattle writer and bookstore worker.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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