One of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, "The Summer Day," ends with the lines, "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?" It's something we all think about from time to time -- at 3 am when sleep eludes us, after a particularly rough week at work, when someone we love dies. But for the most part, we're too caught up in schlepping ourselves through the day to consider that essential, vital question.
San Francisco writer Po Bronson spent several years traveling across the United States, asking strangers that "ultimate question." The result is a strangely cohesive collection of 55 individual interviews, rounded out with Bronson's small digital camera studies of his subjects. A bond trader who gave it all up to pursue writing, Bronson has enjoyed a certain degree of success in his chosen field. He's on the editorial board of Zoetrope and is on the board of directors for Constortium Books, and he's written two novels as well as the bestselling nonfiction book The Nudist on the Late Shift. Clearly, Po -- with his rock-climber good looks and this new book in big stacks at all the bookstores -- is doing all right. But he also doesn't hesitate to share his weaknesses -- an early divorce and a job that once had him crying every night in the arms of his girlfriend.
Bronson turns out to be vital to this book. Rather than just let his subjects tell their stories, he interacts -- cajoling, questioning, challenging and even judging a few of them. His sharp journalist's eye is trained to find the idiosyncrasies in a guy whose dream job lies in the golf club prototype under his bed, or the college guidance counselor who has never had any job but this one.
The narratives read like compelling short stories, but if this book has one overriding strength, it's that it doesn't do the hard work for the reader. It's not a sampler of different jobs, nor is it a "how to" manual for all of us who might be asking ourselves what to do with our own lives. Rather, it's a reminder that sooner or later this "ultimate question" wants to be answered, and also, that as much as we resist it, nobody can answer that question better than we can.
Publication date: 04/17/03