Review: Jacob M. Appel on Tyler C. Gore’s My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments

Digression has been recognized as a distinct talent since at least the twilight of the Roman Republic when Cicero served up tangents in defense of Sestius. Sterne hailed digressions as “the sunshine” of literature; Bradbury praised them as “the soul of wit.” From Dante and Milton to Murakami and Nicholson Baker, the art of meandering off-topic (without losing the focus of the reader) has carved out a curious niche as the wayward stepchild of literary devices. Detour is to philosophical prose what the appendix is to the gut—not a vestigial outcropping, as once believed, but a storehouse of beneficial fodder. So it is fitting that essayist Tyler C. Gore, our nation’s preeminent literary digresser, has devoted the better part of his sharp-eyed and often hilarious first collection to a study of the appendix, provocatively called “Appendix,” that is a series of intellectual forays centered only loosely upon that underappreciated vermiform organ.

Gore reveals his intentions up front: “Appendix-related events will be happening. I promise … And sure, we could get there faster, but I’ve always thought that if it’s just about making time, rushing toward the destination, then where’s the trip?” Instead, he announces, “We’re taking the life-affirming scenic route all the way.” That scenic route, as it turns out, begins with a discourse on a holiday ski outing that Gore chooses not to attend, explores the dangers of feline pancreatitis and the relationship of New York City political elites to blizzards, and concludes with subjective observations regarding the youth and physical appearances of hospital employees. Spoiler alert: Gore does eventually have an appendectomy, and “Appendix” is actually a very insightful (if offbeat) narrative of illness and recovery, but his surgery seems secondary to his musings on mortality, narcotics, and the geography of Brooklyn.

What lurks at the heart of “Appendix”—and the collection’s other eleven essays, a number of which have been honored as notable by The Best American Essays series—is Gore’s inimitable eye for the humor in life’s minor futilities. He is the Thoreau of not-so-quiet desperation, the Woody Allen of minor disappointments, a writer who anticipates epic tragedy in a broken door latch or a Christmas gift. (“Santa Claus,” Gore notes, “is vaguely pedophiliac.”) Yet he is aware of his own absurdity in a way Allen is not. Take, for instance, Gore’s initial reaction to his cat’s digestive ills: “I was a little worried about the puke because it is my nature to worry but not very worried because I know it is my nature to worry.” Gore is a self-professed coward, a man who’d “never get to experience all the kinky sexual stuff” he’d hoped to, a middle-aged curmudgeon whose idea of a “thrill” is “to rattle over the Brooklyn Bridge in an ambulance” and whose “normal life … largely consisted of bad habits and complaining.” Yet he does have his transcendent moments: his devotion to both his beleaguered wife, a hospital administrator, and to his rescued street cat, Luna, reveal Gore to be a man as lovable as he is eccentric. More important, as a literary companion, he is immensely entertaining.

The other essays in My Life of Crime are somewhat lighter in spirit than “Appendix,” but none-the-less filled with unmistakably Gorian antics and musings. In the title essay, Gore orders multiple pizzas from different pizzerias to his neighbor’s home, the kind of prank in which many suburban teenagers (yours truly included) indulged in the era before caller ID. Alas, Gore does this in his late 20s, long after caller ID is a business staple, and finds himself in a bluffing game with a pizza man impersonating a police officer. “Jury Duty,” not surprisingly, sees him not called to serve on a jury, but rather to wait for the summons that never came in “time that took on an almost palpable quality, like a thick, gooey sauce.” In “A Day at the Beach,” Gore takes a stroll fully clothed along a nude beach, trying to assume a “cheerful indifference” to his surroundings. Unfortunately, he observes, “affecting all this nonchalance made it difficult to leer, which is what I really wanted to do.” And, of course, as in “Appendix,” digressions abound. If they ever recast the roles of Stadler and Waldorf, the two old men who heckle from the balcony on The Muppet Show, Gore should definitely audition. But I digress …

Tyler C. Gore is, above all else, a man strikingly behind his time. In “Appendix,” he laments that a “whole generation was slipping away … and taking with them the last living memories of automats and dance cards and triple-featured matinees, radio serials and vacuum tubes and television antennas, live operators and party lines, telegrams and handwritten letters ….” Even though Gore is only on the cusp of fifty as he writes these lines, one senses he is a man who sees fifty as the new eighty. He writes, “So that’s pretty much how the whole mortality business was shaping up by the time I was in my late forties. In middle age, you start to see it all with frightening clarity, the beautiful idiocy of your wastrel youth and the shape of things to come.” Lest one doubt his commitment to Spenglerian decay, he adds, “entropy creeps through every unpatched crevice in the ceiling … stealthily gnawing away at the foundations of the world, tearing apart all the fine things we have labored to build in our short tenure on earth.”

Fortunately, Gore sees the levity in this decline. Even if the center cannot hold and things fall apart—Gore has an affinity for Yeats—the cat must still be coaxed into taking his Xanax. In “a universe that bends inexorably toward irony,” My Life of Crime manages to capture that irony with refreshingly idiosyncratic wit and charm. Life may be serious, but Tyler C. Gore is exceedingly funny, and the combination is well worth a detour through his self-styled “criminal” mind.

My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments, by Tyler C. Gore. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, September 2022. 292 pages. $21.95, paper.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of twenty volumes of fiction and nonfiction including, most recently, Shaving With Occam (Press Americana). He practices medicine in New York City.

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