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Soft Maniacs
by Maggie Estep

Simon & Schuster • 224 pages • $21 • September 1999

Reviewed by Andrew Vachss

When you think about it, the whole idea of "reviewing" books is stupid. There are thousands of books published every month. A select few (and I mean just that...they are selected) actually get reviewed. And those "reviews" aren't exactly the literary equivalent of Consumer Reports, OK?

For openers, there are no objective criteria involved in book reviewing. The process essentially consists of the reviewer telling the rest of the world what he or she "likes," and then scouring the book for sufficient out–of–context quotes to "prove" his or her point.

Professional writing (or music, or art, or...) is not the "meritocracy" so beloved of those who believe their opinions should be the shepherd's crook, guiding the flock. That's just one piece of nonsense piled on top of another. And it's a steaming pile, if you get my drift.

The essential conceit behind the whole concept is that the sheep will be so in awe of the shepherd's insightful, articulate opinions that they will do what sheep do: go where they're herded. Or, the alternative: The sheep are too lazy to make up their own minds.

Soft Maniacs by Maggie EstepThe book I'm reviewing here is Soft Maniacs, a collection of interwoven stories by Maggie Estep. If you want my opinion, Maggie's got the magic. This is an amazing, astounding piece of work (but, then again, so is Maggie). The book is loaded with colossal feats, performed casually. The mastery of "voice," the narrative force, the interstitial tissue between the stories, the sex–as–communication thematically played out from subtle to pile–driver, the gut level understanding conveyed so powerfully that it evokes something ever rarer than genuine praise: empathy. Ah, it'll blow you away.

But why should you take my word for it? Especially after all the mean things I've just said about the sacred world of criticism? Some of you know I mean what I say and I say what I mean: Just open it, at random, and read five pages. Any five pages. Fair enough? If that doesn't get the job done for you, stick it back in the shelves. My best guess is that a couple of things will happen: You'll snatch the book and take it home; and you'll decide maybe I should be a literary critic after all.

© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.

Now a lawyer representing youth exclusively, Andrew Vachss is one of today's preeminent crime writers. His own collection of short stories, Everybody Pays (Vintage), will be released in September. He has known Maggie Estep for most of the decade, both of them sharing a particular fondness for OTBs nationwide.


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