Reviewed by Tony Kapolka
Weather is the go-to topic for making small talk. Avoid religion and politics; talk about the weather. Nobody causes it, and we’ll all have to deal. Will Dowd, smartly, works through his self-professed ‘writer’s block’ by writing essays about the weather in his book of essays Areas of Fog (Etruscan Press, November 2017). Like real small talk, his comments rarely threaten. He’ll engage and entertain a wide audience.
With three or four essays per month (Dowd works through the seasons by calendar month writing with a dedicated precision of a professional), the entirety of New England weather is contemplated. Dowd develops a sort-of grammar for his entries. Start with a fact, relate that to the weather, draw in personal experience, expand to connect interesting trivia, do some meta-word-play from that content, ask some rhetorical questions, posit personal opinion. Of course, I’m oversimplifying and it would be unfair to claim him so completely formulaic, but there is a comfortable sameness of voice that does more to hold his opus together than any particular theme, weather included.
The connections he draws to artists, writers, and poets, by means of detailed trivia and pertinent quotation makes his book enjoyable; he namedrops and tells us things we don’t know about our heroes. That’s just fun to read. Dowd uses weather as an effective springboard to many quick bites. Puffers on the back of his book describe his prose with superlatives: dancing with “a poetic rhythm”; “sparkling”; “phrases so well turned you’ll want to read them aloud to somebody.” Indeed, I did, not just for his lyric, but also for the details he imparted. Who knew Nixon had prepared a eulogy in case Armstrong and Aldrin had been lost? For Dowd, weather is not restricted to the terrestrial. In that essay he muses over the supermoon.
And pressed by heat and humidity, he does stray once into religion, if only to beat a bit on the Puritans. “I always think of them around this time of year when we’re in the throes of late-summer mugginess. I imagine them bundled up in their corsets and petticoats and capes and linen caps, and I wonder how they clung to sanity.” Probably safe small talk, since we haven’t much seen one outside of the Scarlet Letter. Or Cotton Mather and the witch trials. Few would draw a straight line to the Presbyterians, and Dowd stays strictly in the 17th century.
In the author’s acknowledgements, Dowd calls attention to a website and podcast where his earlier draft had appeared. Although his original work has been taken down from thedrunkenodyssey.com, little on the internet is ever truly deleted, and I could pull up many of his original essays from the Internet Archive. Any student of creative nonfiction would enjoy seeing the revisions Dowd made; Etruscan Press’ publication is subtler and stronger. His words are enough, but the many photographs his original posts included, providing testimony of the truth in his writing, were captivating. You can argue the rights of the author, but my gratitude is to The Drunken Odyssey for not having a restrictive robots.txt to constrain their archive.
Can I complain about anything here? Dowd’s essays are like that eclectic, interesting fellow you invite to a party and just listen to. Nothing not to like. Only one joke, his Vladimir Nabokov paragraph, fell flat for me. Otherwise, his small talk was engrossing.