Junk Shop Window: Essays on Myth, Life, and Literature
- By James J. Patterson
- Alan Squire Publishing
- 230 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
- July 7, 2023
A personable narrator guides this winning collection.
“You have experienced this: suddenly someone steps out of a crowd, out of nowhere, and gives you an unsolicited piece of information, or advice, or an idea, then he or she slips away. It’s over so fast you just pause momentarily. If you remember the event at all, you may even think you dreamed it.”
These lines from James J. Patterson’s Junk Shop Window hold the heart of this charming gathering of 15 pieces. Patterson’s essays often radiate from an encounter — if not entirely chance, then one necessary in the moment. Faced with a wall of science-fiction tomes and a desire to escape his own ailments by reading otherworldly literature, he gets book suggestions from a stranger; a dog he shares glances with while traveling in England reads his mind and answers him in kind; a stranger stops him on the street in Atlanta to tell him Ronald Reagan has died, and the two consider the late president’s not-so-great legacy.
Elsewhere, World War I vets share stories with Patterson in a vacation community, and a young man seated at the bar next to him in Nantucket tells him that he must read Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl G. Jung.
Hermes, Patterson calls these folks, after the divine messenger from Greek mythology. Really, though, it’s Patterson who is the Hermes of this collection. He sidles up to us, uses amusing anecdotes and an engaging voice to lure us in, and tells us of his travels and encounters and the discoveries he’s made during and because of them. This Hermes, for the most part, speaks of joy and beauty, of snow-blanketed evenings and coffee-glowing mornings. When giving advice to a friend in his 50s who wonders if it’s too late to start keeping a journal, Patterson encourages him to do so, and to proceed with gusto and goodness:
“Above all, don’t bitch, include sights, sounds, and the other senses…someday, someone might read it…Keep whomever that might be in mind. Be nice to them.”
While, to a decades-long journal writer like me, this advice comes off as a bit saccharin and sanitized, Patterson’s process of relating his stories and ideas follows these rules. There are many, many moments of vivid sensory perceptions here, and the author’s compassion for and interest in others fills the pages.
The book’s subtitle, Essays on Myth, Life, and Literature, sounds a bit scholarly. Most of these offerings are anything but. They’re riffs, the best might be called, which perhaps isn’t surprising given one of Patterson’s past lives was as part of a folk duo, the Pheromones, whose songs were funny but stinging takes on contemporary life, culture, and politics. His love of literature (Henry Miller most of all) is evident throughout the book, and Hermes’ regular visitations speak to mythology.
Still, the best of the bunch are the riffs — Patterson’s capturing of humorous, remarkable, and poignant moments. An example is from “Hermes at the Kakistocracy Hotel,” when that stranger, who is Black, tells Patterson, who is white, of Reagan’s death:
“We continue on for a bit in silence, our hands on each other’s shoulders, like brothers, actually, the silence revealing a thousand cuts each.
“‘They said he didn’t remember being president,’ the man said as we continued on down the street. We stopped and looked at the sky.
The title Junk Shop Window is meant to imply a gathering of a variety of things, a sort of dusty and intriguing hodgepodge. To me, though, that hodgepodge creates a bit of an imbalance. In at least two pieces, Patterson the man is absent, while Patterson the reader/critic/commentator takes over to review Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal and to discuss Moby-Dick. These essays speak to Patterson’s obsessions and passions, but his charming persona, so present elsewhere, is conspicuous in its absence. The effect is something drier and less propelled by story and personality.
Overall, though, Junk Shop Window is rich with joie de vivre. After a number of hours spent wandering Nantucket, the author stops on the back steps of the place he’s staying and takes stock of his day:
“I thought about the frosty ghostlike couple from the museum, the band I had heard, harpoons, and listened to the quiet whispers of wind singing quietly all around me. I could taste the big wide ocean just beyond the rooftops. Then I crept back into the house. All was quiet.”
James J. Patterson, in his role as Hermes, is a pleasing and amiable messenger.
Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Tucson.