"Talk Stories," by Jamaica Kincaid. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 247 pages. $23.
Jamaica Kincaid, then a staff writer for the New Yorker and assigned to its "Talk of the Town" section, attended a lunch-eon for aspiring novelists at the Overseas Press Club in February 1979. She might have been there for personal edification -- Kincaid has published five books of fiction, some of them critically acclaimed, since her New Yorker days -- but she might have seen the conference as just another source of fodder for a "Talk" story. We don't know what drew her there.
But we know this: Kincaid's notes of the conference, distilled into a quintessentially concise and wry New Yorker item called "The World of Letters," reflected this bit of wisdom from the assembled publishing experts: "If you have been a nonfiction writer and want to be a fiction writer, that can be very frightening. Journalists are afraid of length; that may be why it is hard for them to write fiction."
That was likely Jamaica Kincaid having a little laugh, or sneer. She was 30 when she reported that, and, as her New Yorker colleagues would attest, afraid of nothing, and certainly not afraid to make the step -- indeed, the leap -- from the short, stylized nonfiction of William Shawn's magazine to the vivid and harrowing novels, set in her native West Indies, that she has produced since 1984.
Readers who know Kincaid only as a fiction writer will find rich delight in this collection of vignettes and musings by a young woman, who was born in the tropical poverty of Antigua, set loose to observe and chronicle the rich, the famous and the odd of the Empire City, when Ed Koch was its mayor.
For about a decade, starting in the mid-1970s, Kincaid hunted up material for "Talk of the Town" by attending fashion shows, crashing glittery show-business parties and bringing her keen eye for the peculiar and the ironic to Broadway publicity stunts, movie openings, the world of popular music and political ribbon-cuttings.
Though Kincaid's prose was obviously forged by Shawn to New Yorker style, her voice rings clear. Longtime readers of the New Yorker, in its excellence before the Tina Brown era, will probably remember when Kincaid's unique perspective first emerged in "Talk," though her pieces were unsigned. That she was not of the generation of staff writers who were largely male, white and Ivy League must have been instantly clear. Some of her "Talk" pieces were written in first person and acknowleged her West Indian roots. Some had a fresh feminist edge. Many noted, with a sense of discovery and irony, what was considered young and hip and trendy in the Manhattan that Kincaid probed for the magazine.
All that is celebrated here. Yes, Jamaica K. was a good and interesting and new voice in the New Yorker of the 1970s and early 1980s. But what is most impressive, what endures, is the form of the "Talk" stories -- the simple, almost cryptic, but deceivingly illuminative prose; short pieces that are trenchant, whimsical, sardonic, odd and perhaps more profound in a matter of inches than most journalism offered by the yard. These are little pieces of literature, amusing and insightful dispatches from a young woman on the run through New York, on her way back to Antigua.
Dan Rodricks' column first appeared in The Evening Sun in 1979. His "This Just In" column has been published three days a week in The Sun since 1993. He was host of "Rodricks for Breakfast" on WMAR-TV from 1995 until 1999. A collection of his columns, "Mencken Doesn't Live Here Anymore," was published in 1989 and in 1998 he wrote "Baltimore: Charm City."