By Karinya Funsett
Character Studies, By Mark Singer, Houghton Mifflin $26
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 1, 2005
There are some truly fascinating people roaming this world who we would never know if it weren't for Mark Singer. His latest book, "Character Studies: Encounters with the Curiously Obsessed," pulls together in-depth profiles of nine eccentric and noteworthy individuals. While some lived in relative obscurity until Singer's journalistic light was turned on them, others (namely Donald Trump) have made their fortune by exploiting their over-the-top personalities. In both cases, Singer brings to the reader thoughtful portraits of enchanting characters.
Singer's character studies have all previously appeared in The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1974. With original publication dates ranging from 1989 to 2001, this collection represents the best examples of Singer's characteristic intimate style of journalism from the last decade and a half.
His writing is seamless as he pulls together interview quotes from the subjects themselves (when available - the subject of a 1999 profile has been dead since 1996), secondary sources (friends, family and contemporaries of the subjects) and his own careful observations. The result is that Singer is able to present a balanced view of each character, never sensationalizing or vilifying the subject for added effect.
Singer's commitment to presenting an accurate picture of his subject is never tested more than it is with "the Donald." It would be easy to spend pages taking cheap shots at Mr. Trump's hairstyle or to just sit back and let the egotistical tycoon boast of his achievements (he claims to own much of New York City).
Instead, Singer limits the coif comments to one, and fact-checks Trump's overstated claims of wealth or city ownership. The reader is introduced to a man who realizes that his love of Jean Claude Van Damme movies is laughable, but who sees nothing at all wrong with having solid gold seat belt clasps on his private Boeing 727.
The profile I found the most interesting was of an aloof sleight-of-hand artist named Ricky Jay. Jay's incredible passion for what he does draws in the unsuspecting reader. Considered by serious practitioners of magic as the greatest living illusionist and scholar on the art, Jay's story is one of a quiet man with a deep-seeded obsession and love for what he does. A scholar and book collector himself, Jay has written his own books on interesting characters in entertainment history - living skeletons, armless violinists and illiterate savants (books which I now feel determined to track down and read for myself).
By the end of Jay's profile, I'd learned to look at "card tricks" as a fine art and had developed a strong feeling of disdain toward David Copperfield for robbing the craft of its integrity.
Other profile subjects include a Tom Mix devotee whose mission in retirement is to preserve the legend of the cowboy screen star, a farm in California where a Japanese family has used its traditional work ethic and love for exotic vegetables to create a roadside culinary mecca, and a look into the never-ending depths of Martin Scorsese's cinematic mind.
Readers who appreciate thoughtful writing and genuinely intriguing characters will enjoy every moment of this quick-reading book. Singer's profiles are entertaining while providing lessons in humanity, and his crisp writing allows the characters to speak for themselves. As Jay says, "I don't know who else waxes poetic about the virtues of skeleton men, fasting imposters and cannonball catchers. And, to be honest, I don't really care. I just think they're wonderful. I really do."