Before & After: Stories From New York
Edited by Thomas Beller
(Norton)

The short essays that make up this book are drawn from Thomas Beller's website, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Beller is the author of The Sleepover Artist, editor and cofounder of Open City Magazine, and a New Yorker. Beller's neighborhood is New York.

There's a long list of contributors. The work is divided into two sections, written either before or after September 11th. Well known authors are in the mix, like Michael Cunningham, Phillip Lopate, Jeanette Winterson (a NY visitor), and Beller himself. Others are unknown, or delivered through pseudonyms as contributors to the site. It's a wonderful idea, this documenting of individual lives through written snapshots. At times, the essays are gorgeous, alternately sad and funny. In one of the most beautiful, though tragic, "Witnessing," Debra Fontaine describes watching people jump to their death from the World Trade Center buildings.

She writes, "A co-worker said, Don't look, how can anyone watch this? But I ask, how could you not? How could you not watch these poor kinsmen, who unknowingly woke up damned that clear, beautiful yesterday morning, just hours away from a direction that no one could imagine, faced with an impossible final decision/fate: stay and burn...or...jump and fly? Fly through a scorched sky engulfed in flames and smoke, debris and bodies...into a clear and cool, inviting blue sky with papers, papers languidly floating everywhere, a macabre ticker tape parade."

Of the "Before" collection, the most engaging are often set in the relatively distant past of the '60s, written in rushed recollection of amphetamine driven, sleepless times. Susan Connell-Mettauer writes, "At dawn, the hostile spit and manly vroom of ten engines would have woken me up if I had ever slept...I tie-dyed my plundered satin shirts from midnight to 4 am. Joined by invisible threads of amphetamine, we ground our teeth and chewed our respective cud into the early morning, courtesy of John the acting student and the white piles of crystal meth he doled out so generously."

Less successful are the overly precious, indulgent bits, some from the lush era of a clean NY and thriving economy just before September 11th. Jeanette Winterson's confessional meditation on buying fancy socks is particularly shallow, and sad in the wrong sort of way. Better are the more complex and compressed works, and there are many in this richly human collection.