Picks and Pans Review: The Boys I Didn't Kiss

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Kathleen Rockwell Lawrence

Whatever else one can say about the author of this essay collection, it must be said that she writes with—how's this for an old-fangled word—humanity.

Lawrence writes of attending a Vietnam veterans parade in Manhattan, haunted by the image of her brother, the brother who was never the same after Vietnam, who drowned in the Hudson River a few years after his return home. Lawrence writes of a man she sees on the subway on the way to the parade: "His hair was carefully parted and combed down.... His tie was too wide and so were his lapels. Traces of grime were evident on the raised weave of his pale synthetic suit. It was years old, that suit, Years out of style. It might have been his job-hunting suit when he first came back.

"He saw me and smiled tentatively, but then not at all. Our eyes kept meeting. He knew me and I knew him. We were going to the same place. I wanted to move my hand down until it touched his. I wanted to lean against the pole and reach for him and hold my brother."

Lawrence is at her most compelling and, it seems, most comfortable and convincing, when writing about her family: lighting with her six sisters for underpants; coping with the fact that her product-of-two-lapsed-Catholics daughter believes herself to be Jewish; trying to explain the homeless problem to that daughter. " 'What is a bum, Mom? I mean, how do you know?' my daughter asks that night. She needs an explanation for the people that she sees on the streets. She has to know why. She has to find out about human misery. It is all around her.... I try to explain why. Some of them can't think right. Some of them can hurt people. All of them are hungry. I do not tell her that there are children among them."

Too much of the collection, parts of which appeared in such magazines as Glamour and Woman's Day, is not up to the standards set by those familial pieces. Some (a section on my-first-novel-is-about-to-be-published angst) are self-indulgent, some (about surrogate mothers, abortions and condoms) seem ham-handed. Some, notably essays on Cabbage Patch Dolls, male Playboy Bunnies and cellulite, are dated. Indeed, Lawrence includes work whose prefaces acknowledge that the piece is dated but she decided to put it in anyway, or this piece was not used by the magazine it was written for, but she's including it anyway.

Would that Lawrence had been as discriminating about the pieces she chose to include as she was about the boys she chose to kiss. (British American, $17.95)

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