Book Review

Essays find delight in unconventional characters

Pagan Kennedy's subjects include a political activist and a young singer-songwriter. Pagan Kennedy's subjects include a political activist and a young singer-songwriter.
By Kevin O'Kelly
November 1, 2008
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By Pagan Kennedy
Santa Fe Writer's Project, 247 pp., paperback, $14

To listen to the speeches during the final weeks of the presidential campaign, it would seem that we're not so much a nation of individuals as of categories: "the middle class," "the left-wing media," "working people," and, of course, "hockey moms." Speechwriters prefer to ignore the simple truth that many people don't fit into the tidy classifications beloved by politicians, sociologists, and journalists. And it's many of those same people who give American life a distinctive spark and promise.

We like to think of ourselves as a land of 9-to-5 workers who go home to houses on leafy streets, but we're often at our best as a nation of tinkerers, crackpots, and visionaries, people happily immune to common sense - the sort who found communes, invent flying machines, or go live in the woods by Walden Pond.

In "The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories," Pagan Kennedy takes us into the lives and minds of such people. Some of them are scientists, using their knowledge and inventiveness to change lives in the developing world.

Dr. Gordon Sato is a 76-year-old cell biologist who's trying to transform the deserts of the Eritrean coast by planting mango trees. Amy Smith is an MIT instructor who leads her students to create inexpensive technologies affordable in places like Haiti and Botswana (her own inventions include medical incubators that don't require electricity and a motorized grain mill that costs one-fourth the price of previous models).

Others are simply people who aren't following anything resembling the high-school-college-job path - and probably shouldn't be.

Kennedy, a contributor to the Globe's Ideas section, profiles Conor Oberst, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter of exceptional power and intensity, and ponders the possibility that he could be the Bob Dylan of the 9/11 generation. She also writes about Vermin Supreme, a political activist who embodies the absurdity and viciousness of contemporary American politics. During the 2004 election, he publicly asked for John Kerry's position on mandatory tooth brushing; in the '80s, he supposedly bit Jesse Jackson.

What these different strands of the book have in common is Kennedy's gift at exploring the personal, at striking the emotional notes that humanize a genius, making someone doing the exceptional seem approachable. Even in her essay on Vermin Supreme - whose inner life Kennedy found inaccessible - she found a way to bond with her readers (or with this reader, at least) by using him as a starting point for a sad meditation on the farcical aspects of our national politics.

The book concludes with a selection of personal essays that illustrate the roots of Kennedy's interest in the unconventional. She's someone whose very life seems out of joint with the patterns and rhythms of society. Whether she's writing about having a relationship for which there simply is no 21st-century term, or spending the Christmas season arranging her father's funeral, you can see why she's drawn to people who fall through the categorical cracks.

For those who have read Kennedy's book-length nonfiction, the pieces in "Dangerous Joy" will lack much of the depth they have come to expect from her, but this shortcoming is inevitable, given that many of these pieces were originally written for magazines or newspapers. Nevertheless, this anthology offers surprises and delights.

You'll learn what people are doing in a building that stores 3,000 human brains, read about a parrot throwing a hissy fit, and learn the importance of having a boot on your head.

Full critical disclosure: While I've described this book as being about American visionaries, the title character, Alex Comfort, the author of that '70s American touchstone "The Joy of Sex," was actually a Brit. "The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex," like everything else even remotely interesting, isn't that easy to classify.

Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at



Santa Fe Writer's Project,

247 pp., paperback, $14

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