The Journals of Spalding Gray edited by Nell Casey; Knopf, 340 pages ($28.95). It's a scandal what Puritan America has made of the simplicity and straightforwardness of the first-person singular pronoun. We've turned public brandishing of it into a hopeless social gaffe and a clear-cut symptom of psychological dysfunction. We've created whole professions and schools for them -- classic journalism for one -- where offhand use of a first-person pronoun virtually has to be accompanied by a manifesto and a note from your doctor.
But then we live too in a world full of hopeless dullards who can transform a simple "I" tale or observation into something as dry, tedious and unpalatable as a string of ill-presented statistics. Usually, the ones most insistent on boring you with first-person inanities are the loudest decrying the egotism of either using too many "I's" for comfort (their major complaint, of course, is that the world isn't sufficiently interested in them).
And all that is one huge reason why Spalding Gray became one of the unlikeliest of American cultural heroes in the '80s. He was, in many ways, the most strikingly far-fetched in a wave of dramatic monologuists who would take the stage alone and use his God-given first-person pronoun to tell stories, make observations and confront the world.
A terrible automobile crash in 2001 left him brain-damaged, and after much depression, he killed himself eight years ago this month.
Here, raw, is material from the life that gave us "Terrors of Pleasure," "Sex and Death to Age 14," "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Monster in a Box." In 1969, he wants something more than people making films because "they are so gassed by life that all they feel they can do (perhaps to keep from going mad) is to record it." At the end, in something now thought of as his final tape, he tells his wife and sons that the people locked up in institutions are the ones either afraid to end their lives or incapable of imagining how to do it.
Which, tragically, didn't include Spalding Gray.
-- Jeff Simon