Overachievers won't relate. But for the rest of us, here's a genial exploration of defeat in its many guises.
This slender volume's inhabitants are not unmotivated slackers. These folks aimed high and fell hard. Young finalists in the National Spelling Bee, mowed down by words like "pemphigoid" and "cispontine"; vanquished inventors of perpetual-motion machines; a comic troupe member who but for a "tiny fulcrum of circumstance" could have ended up a TV star instead of a professional mud eater.
Some, like René Fonck, literally couldn't get off the ground. The French aviator might have beaten Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic had he not dispensed with annoying aircraft stress tests and overloaded his plane with a celebratory dinner for six, to be eaten in Paris.
Steinberg, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, invests his tales of bad timing, unfortunate decisions and tumbles into obscurity with such buoyant cheer, it's enough to give failure a good name. And while his biographical asides slow things down, he never completely loses his wonderment at "the thorny, tangled nature of failure, the way it can uplift while it destroys...the siren beauty of ruin." So, Neil, here's hoping you don't make any best-seller lists. (Doubleday, $17.50)