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A READING LIFE

Picking out larger lessons in the small, odd details

I once thought it would be a good idea to make a living by writing little essays about odd or unnoticed people, places, or things. Before I was faced with the difficulty of getting these would-be gems published -- to say nothing of making a living from the supposed proceeds -- certain truths became evident. First, it emerged that I am not the sort of person who can hang around odd places or strike up conversations with anyone I might find there. Second, after excruciating sorties into the wide world, I found that, when I tried to write about it, I gravitated, as surely as the pig to his wallow, to great ponderings on the mystery of life. What I had thought would come sparkling forth from my pen to drench the page in celebratory aperçu was just twaddle.

Five assorted masters of what I had in mind are Joseph Roth, A. J. Liebling, Ian Frazier, Susan Orlean, and the young Charles Dickens of ''Sketches by Boz" (Penguin Classics, paperback, $15). All have their weaknesses, of course: Roth is sometimes too much the semiotician; Liebling, too cavalier with the facts; Frazier, too dutiful toward them; Orlean, a little full of herself; and Dickens -- well, I do not like to say one word against him for he is my favorite writer of all time. The pieces that make up ''Sketches by Boz" were first published in newspapers and do show flashes of the great genius to come (as we say in the world of letters). But they also show their author's unfortunate weaknesses, including his maudlin treatment of the deaths of young persons. These fatalities are usually brought about by a literary form of consumption whose progress is an ethereal fading away.

One of the best pieces, ''Our Next-Door Neighbour," ends with just such a death, a tragic business that sits oddly indeed with the sketch's beginning, a wonderful tribute to and taxonomy of door knockers, and a lament for their replacement by the doorbell. Like the other sketches, this one shows the preoccupations that eventually became constituent of Dickens's inimitable vision. Throughout the book, we find the surrealistic torque, the anthropomorphizing of material things and whimsical fascination with clothes and their wearers, the festive appreciation of food and drink, and the great and palpable joy in observing ordinary people at play.

My favorite of all the sketches is ''The River," a splendidly funny account of summer outings on the Thames that includes a description of the doings aboard an excursion boat: ''Old women who have brought large wicker hand-baskets with them, set seriously to work at the demolition of heavy sandwiches, and pass round a wine-glass, which is frequently replenished from a flat bottle like a stomach-warmer, with considerable glee: handing it first to the gentleman in the foraging-cap, who plays the harp -- partly as an expression of satisfaction with his previous exertions, and partly to induce him to play 'Dumbledumdeary,' for 'Alick' to dance to; which being done, Alick, who is a damp earthy child in red worsted socks, takes certain small jumps upon the deck, to the unspeakable satisfaction of his family circle."

The quality of the sketches is, to put it charitably, extremely uneven, but that is of the essence of such collections. There never has been, I think, a compilation of republished pieces that did not contain at least one, and usually far more, that were pretty awful. Such clunkers do, at least, increase our regard for their more accomplished companions, and such, indeed, is the case with both Hank Stuever's ''Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere" (Picador, paperback, $14) and Michael Perry's ''Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets and Gatemouth's Gator" (Perennial, paperback, $13.95). Stuever's weakness is for the quirky conceit and Perry's for my old friend, the mystery of life, and each has written a few pieces that made me weary because of this. Still, while I doubt either would care, both writers may be said to be up to much the same thing as Dickens was in his ''Sketches," recording the way people live as stories, paying special attention to eccentric detail.

Stuever writes about big-box stores, decaying suburbs, strip malls, and all that makes up ''the great American noplace" that he calls ''Elsewhere." Here are found such unacknowledged underpinnings of our way of life as the self-storage depot, locus of ''the weird and sometimes emotional business of leasing space to a world with extra junk and nowhere to put it." Here, too, are the flotsam and jetsam left by outmoded lifestyles: a water-bed store, for instance, on junky Route 1 in College Park, Md. (a haunted one, as it happens, which would have pleased Dickens mightily). He gives us a paean to the plastic chair and another to Kmart. He reports on every stage of a full-bore wedding and a house-makeover reality TV show. He visits a cut-rate funeral parlor in Austin, Texas, and a campground outside Albuquerque, and also delivers himself of various impressions on the tragic phenomenon of millennial America: September 11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and Chandra Levy. Suffused with an air of loss and hectic despair, these pieces capture the spirit of these latter days, including its relentless movement toward bathos.

Perry is more down-to-earth than Stuever, at least in the sense that, as a Wisconsin farmer's son, he has spent stretches of his life engaged with manure. Nonetheless, he appreciates the American fantastic -- of which manure surfing is surely one manifestation -- and pays tribute to it in the best of these pieces. He introduces us to the neighbor who built his own airplane and writes rhapsodically on such roadside colossuses as the 9,000-pound prairie chicken that lures -- it is hoped -- people to Rothsay, Minn., and the 50-foot Jolly Green Giant who presides over Blue Earth, Minn. He is also a great and eloquent fan of the water tower and the 18-wheeler. As Dickens delighted in miniatures, so he delights in big stuff -- though not the Brobdingnagian houses that now plague the land. But the biggest object in these pieces is the smallest and certainly the most gruesome: a kidney stone. It is his kidney stone, in fact, whose agonizing journey to the outside world (to reveal itself to be the size of a chokecherry pit) he recounts most wonderfully. ''Where I used to tolerate tales of childbirth with a sort of deferential politeness," he writes, ''I now find myself nodding in solidarity."

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@earthlink.net.

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