SEAN WILSEY'S 2005 memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, is an account of a privileged young man with a dysfunctional home life, and the absurd behavior of his high-society parents. You'd be forgiven for turning your nose up—we've heard enough of these stories, surely? Aren't there more interesting problems in the world? But Wilsey's memoir is proof positive that good sentences can elevate any subject matter—and Wilsey writes very good sentences. The first lines of Glory still rattle in my head: "In the beginning we were happy. And we were always excessive. So in the beginning we were happy to excess."
More Curious, released this summer from McSweeney's (where Wilsey is editor-at-large) collects essays Wilsey wrote for GQ, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and other outlets from 1998 to 2014. Unsurprisingly, the collection offers many sentences to admire. If you'd asked me before I cracked More Curious if I needed to read another essay about 9/11, I would've assured you that I did not—yet Wilsey's "No Work for Me," originally published in 2002, is 21 perfect pages.
Wilsey writes about volunteering at a support center for families who lost loved ones at the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, where more than 600 people died in the attacks. "Sad people were arriving in numbers that would soon overwhelm the shrinks," he writes. "The sad people were black, white, Irish, Latin American, English, South Asian, East Asian. But they all looked the same. All of them looked like they never again wanted to see pain inflicted on anyone."
He describes each person who comes through the doors, paying attention to the details: what they're wearing, how their hair is styled. And he describes his own fumbling, insufficient attempts to help these "slow and gentle" people who are foggy with grief for their friends and family. Wilsey's account is grounded in the specifics of what he witnessed on Monday, September 17, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, but the feelings he captures, the care and confusion and fragility, will be recognizable to anyone who's experienced loss.
It's not all massive national tragedies, of course: Wilsey writes about skateboarding and parenting, road trips and rats. Sometimes he's funny and self-deprecating and sometimes he's somber; sometimes his scope is as sweeping as our country, and other times it's as narrow as Buzz Aldrin's taste in wristwatches. There's one through-line from beginning to end, though: those careful, thoughtful, perfect sentences.