The early writers of epistolary fiction saw something in the letter that many of us who still write letters intuitively accept: that few forms besides the diary and the guttural yell lend themselves so readily to lapel-grabbing declarations of despair, vulnerability, and murderous rage—all private extremes in no short supply these last months. But the key innovation of those early writers was to compose seemingly candid letters intended for an audience of more than just the addressee.
That the canon of epistolary fiction is so male-dominated makes a certain sense when one considers, among other things, how much intimacy male self-expression stereotypically requires—since authenticity can only manifest itself as a confession to another, the explanation might go. This may also explain the magnetism of the letter form for a writer like J.D. Daniels, whose excellent debut collection, The Correspondence, consists of six “letters” that plumb macho themes all too accustomed to being listed as such. (In describing the book, one can hardly refrain from the tired, book-jacket-ready coupling of “masculinity and violence,” which is by now enough to make any reader tap the mat.) But the letters that make up The Correspondence are, like most letters, about much and little, limited only by the associations the writer chooses to indulge: teaching, deciding not to teach, drinking, not drinking, self-hatred, self-love, friendship, and rivalry. Daniels moves so nimbly between topics and episodes that only athletic metaphors come to mind.
Four of the chapters “were written as essays and should be read as such,” and the remaining two “were written as short stories and do not describe real people or events.” The essays are the standouts, and all of them begin like conversations, even if his interlocutor’s identity is unclear—for he writes as though he were at once baring and introducing himself, at once close friend and hostile stranger. He opens “Letter from Kentucky” in the manner of many memoirists, presuming the reader’s unfamiliarity with a biography that he’s primed to recite: “I was born in Kentucky and lived there for the better part of three decades.” He describes his relationship with his father, a bitter, somehow sympathetic military vet, and writes of when “I dared my father to cut my hair, and he picked me up by my throat and smashed me against the wall.” His father continues in more or less this brutal fashion for the rest of the paragraph, and Daniels renders his behavior as if proffering a dark, rarely seen chapter from a secret history. But he then switches into a mode of cold summary, writing, “That is the second time I saw my father cry. The third time is private.” He leaves the reader surprised to learn that the bracing story from which she’s still reeling is public (even though, by virtue of its inclusion in a book, the story of course is), and that he will not grant the reader access to the “private.” Daniels is strategically confessional, and manages to do so in a way less frustrating than intriguing.
He sheds inhibition both to appear candid and to provoke. The opening essay, “Letter from Cambridge,” traces his early-thirties decision to become an amateur fighter; having reached an intimidating competency, he writes, “I took eight weeks off to squat and deadlift heavy and eat everything that wasn’t nailed down, and I gained thirty-five pounds and had to buy new pants. Then I went back to sparring and I broke a guy’s ribs. That was nice.” He dares you to call him boorish, although he’s already effectively done that for you. Winning disapprobation is so easy as to be uninteresting, he seems to say. It’s an unfair match.
Accordingly, Daniels is far more interested in what fighting can tell him about himself. While he refuses to let the reader forget the literal experience of fighting, he nonetheless ensures that fighting’s relationship to writing—be it symbolic, antipodal, or parallel, an extension of the words’ rhyme—is not lost on the reader. A loudspeaker announcement at one of his tournaments nicely captures the brute, intellectually neutral physicality of his rough hobby, while mirroring its similarities to his primary art: “All submission techniques are legal, including heel hooks, knee locks, neck cranks, guillotine chokes, et cetera… No elbows or forearm strikes, no butting with the head, no knees to the head, no hand strikes, no kicks.” If one can find here, in the grim visual of a “neck crank,” a respite from anything resembling a literary life, then one can just as easily find, in such rule-bound chaos, a clunky but serviceable analogy for writing. Writing is, after all, another domain in which Daniels aspires to create discomfort for another person whose status quavers between adversary and intimate; however, his vivid descriptions of fighting—of getting his spine “uproot[ed] […] the way you pull a weed out of your garden”—are what assert the no-contest supremacy of writing.
His explicit reflections on both the endeavor of writing and the identity of “the writer” are ultimately the book’s most exciting. The final essay, “Letter from the Primal Horde,” covers his brief time at a “group conference,” a sort of misfit gathering of those who seem at once devoted to self-help and utterly helpless—like an inpatient group therapy for those who don’t have a condition worthy of institutionalization. Daniels introduces himself to the group by way of his vocation: “‘I’m a writer,’ I said. It is almost always an error to admit this, and possibly an error ever to say or to write anything at all.” The begrudging quality of his admission suggests that his being a writer is not altogether voluntary—for a vocation calls, one does not call it. Everyone regards the man of letters warily, not least the man himself, for whom Daniels reserves an almost gleeful contempt.
He then notes, “Many people hate writers. As the judge snarled at Brodsky, ‘Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?’” By imputing hatred of the writer not to himself but to others, he reveals its august lineage; indeed, it belongs to a long tradition of savaging and suppressing writers whose very existence threatens those whom the good would, with reason, like to threaten. Through the antipathy he endures, the writer receives a confirmation that his work is not trivial. Daniels’s self-hatred, then, at once denigrates and ennobles its object. Mercifully, his self-hatred is speedily dispatched. He recognizes its tiresomeness and, in so doing, the reader’s desire to get onto better things.
On the maritime journey that comprises “Letter from Majorca,” a brooding, amateur Daniels is referred to by one of the sailors as a sailor himself. Daniels reflects, “It wasn’t true that I was a sailor but it was true that a task helped me to focus on something other than my constant boring suffering, something to do with the jib roller, it’s all a blur.” What he lacks in concrete detail he makes up for in sharp, never-indulgent language. The comedy of his own displeasure, which he has been called to render, has never been more necessary.