Picks and Pans Review: Crabcakes
Unlike so many recent memoir writers who look back in spectacular anguish, McPherson, a 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner for his story collection Elbow Room and a teacher at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, offers a narrative propelled more by reflection than revelation.
Crabcakes interweaves two plots. In the first, set in Baltimore, McPherson explores the bond that had developed between him and his recently deceased tenant, a devout, elderly woman he had deliberately undercharged. The second plot unfolds through a series of letters received and sent over a nearly 25-year spiritual crisis, during which McPherson wanders through teaching jobs from New Haven to Iowa City. Much of the book is crafted as an apology McPherson addresses to some Japanese friends he once rudely abandoned at a dinner engagement. Within that effort (and the numerous digressions along the way) he puzzles a lot about the ties that keep us human in a technological world of increasing moral and emotional detachment. The result is a thoughtful argument for valuing the rituals that sustain communities.
Crabcakes (the title is McPherson's nod to his favorite Baltimore memory) is whimsically analytical and full of wry social observations. Its stylized prose—shifting in perspective and drawing on a mix of Buddhist sayings, excerpts from history books and biblical allusions—can be daunting. This challenging work is astutely titled: To depleted souls, Crabcakes makes for a tasty read. (Simon & Schuster, $23)