Which is why I'm so fascinated with Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed. In nine amply reported profiles originally published throughout the 1990s, Mark Singer, who's mused for the New Yorker for over 30 years, dials into sharp focus some extraordinarily focused individuals -- from the unknown (the retiree curator of a Tom Mix museum in Hershey, Pa.) to the mega-huge (Donald Trump, here portrayed like an overconfident kid playing Monopoly). In each piece, he manages to pry his subjects' fa & ccedil;ade apart and expose the curious gears and levers within.
Take Ricky Jay, for example. You might know the baggy-eyed actor from films like The Spanish Prisoner and Boogie Nights, but you probably didn't know that he's a highly respected authority on the history and literature of magic, and perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist in the world. If it had just been a play-by-play account of some of Jay's more sensational tricks and stunts (including piercing a watermelon rind with a thrown playing card), the essay would have been gripping enough. But Singer digs a little deeper, revealing a man who can count cards like a calculator, but who gets lost in his own neighborhood. Jay can expound on centuries-old freak shows, but he has also left home without his pants. "Basically," a fellow magician is quoted as saying, "Ricky remembers nothing that happened after 1900."
Singer's ear for the killer quote and his careful, thorough use of details bring each story alive, especially in profiles of lesser-known characters, as in his profile of a family of Japanese-Americans who run the most highly respected vegetable stand in the country. Makes you scratch your head.
By contrast, "Trump Solo," while a wholly illuminating portrait of the real estate tycoon, gets swamped by acquisitions and mergers. The same goes for "The Man Who Forgets Nothing," about Martin Scorsese's encyclopedic knowledge of film. Singer's characterization of the famed film director is captivating, but Scorsese is well-worn territory, and lots of people are obsessed with movies.
When the subjects are a bunch of Texans bent on finding Pancho Villa's skull, though, Singer really shines.