J.D. Daniels’s debut essay and short story collection, The Correspondence, is so good, so clean and incisive, with such taut, muscular prose, that I’m already dreading the number of terrible imitations it will undoubtedly generate in MFA programs across America in the coming year. Daniels writes the kind of terse, macho, vaguely Hemingway-influenced essays that are irresistible to the GuysInYourMFA of the world — the difference being that Daniels can actually pull it off.
To be clear: Daniels pulls off an essay about how he got good at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That’s a topic that should by all rights be insufferable, but in Daniels’s hands it becomes a compelling exploration of his own sadomasochistic drives and their relationships with his newfound sobriety and struggling writing career (with digressions into the history of Brazilian novels).
“Fighting was an adequate substitute for writing,” Daniels explains. “I was ruining big chances left and right, and it was nobody’s fault but mine, and I was twenty-eight years old, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one, and soon all I wanted to do was beat the shit of out somebody.”
The carefully contained frustration in that sentence, and the way it mounts slowly after every comma, until it explodes out in the breathless rush of beat the shit out of somebody is typical of Daniels’s prose. It’s paced and structured with precise deliberation; it suggests roughness, but at the same time it’s been polished to diamond sharpness.
That’s part of what keeps his essays from descending into self-indulgent dude-lit — that, and the genuine thoughtfulness that prevents him from lingering on how cool it is that jiu-jitsu is violent and macho, and leads him instead to explore why the violence and machismo is so appealing.
But the thoughtfulness that elevates his essays is not as fully realized in Daniels’s short stories. “Letter from Devil’s Tower,” about a married van driver having a last affair with an old girlfriend, is so flat that it dies on the page. The problem is that it’s told from a third-person objective perspective, so it loses the interiority that was so compelling in the essays. Instead of a protagonist who reflects on his own psychology, we’re given a protagonist who does not react as other characters tell him what they think about his psychology, and the projection breaks the intimacy of Daniels’s prose.
The Correspondence clocks in at a slim 126 pages long, and “Letter from Devil’s Tower” takes up 14 of those pages. That’s more than 10 percent of the book spent on a dud of piece — but the remaining 89 percent is so smart and elegantly written that it’s still well worth your time. Daniels is an essayist worth keeping an eye on.