Could Seymour Krim make a comeback? Could a little-known holdover from the beat generation, a writer who died nearly 30 years ago, have something new to say to the iPhone generation? Not likely, but for my money the collection of essays in Missing a Beat felt among the most present discussions of celebrity, ambition, envy, doubt, and optimism in modern America that I have read recently.
Krim comes across in this collection as a disappointed striver. A writer who came up through the beat generation and kept plugging through the era of New Journalism, but never quite found that pearl Kerouac had promised: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything.” He is constantly in the shadow of more famous friends — recounted most directly in “Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head!” — and frustrated in his efforts to achieve the kind of fame/notoriety or the wild adventures everyone around him seemed to be having. But Missing a Beat isn't merely a collection of regrets. What makes Krim's writing meaningful is the way he interrogates his own sense of failure. Why is it that he has to measure himself by Mailer’s fame? What is wrong with being a struggling artist? Isn’t that what he had wanted? How should he measure his own success?
In essays like “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” Krim reckons as much with his own expectations and faults as he does with the terms of success society has handed him. Krim recounts how limitless possibilities have led him to chase dream after dream without settling into one place or occupation. He writes about a quiet movement of dreamers like him who have missed out on the middle class comforts of a stable career path — a savings account, a house, a family, a title, a legacy — and must sate themselves on the hope for something new and better tomorrow.
“I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I'm as open to every wild possibility I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat.”
Krim wrote “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” when he was 51 years old — that’s better than 20 years my senior — and I’m not sure if I should be comforted or very, very worried about that fact. What Krim saw as a freak community of dreamers is just reality for many of us today for whom “careers” at one company have gone the way of the Studebaker. He seems to warn of a future where unfavorable comparisons to the financial success of peers is constant, a future that's easy to imagine as I scroll the vacation photos of my friends on Instagram.
In fact much of Krim's writing seems eerily suited to the social media landscape, despite preceding it by decades, a fact I think that makes it only more applicable. Too many writers get hung up on the latest app or feature, sure that society will be redeemed or destroyed by a new filter on Snapchat. Social media may highlight our insecurities, but Krim reminds us that these have been around long before we ever started carrying them around in our pockets.
“You may sometimes think everyone lives in the crotch of the pleasure principle these days except you, but you have company, friend. … It is still your work or role that finally gives you your definition in our society, and the thousands upon thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls.”
“For my Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" is a standout, but the same themes carry through many of his essays including “Making It!” and “The American Novel Made Me” without becoming repetitive. Each essay seems to come from a different angle: lack of direction, envy, and ambition, respectively. The writing itself crackles throughout with the energy of the beat generation. He writes in long sentences, each with several parenthetical phrases and catalogs that go to ten items or longer. He deploys slang but sparingly and to good effect. The descriptions are grounded in real sensations using onomatopoeia and analogies to the items and people around him instead of reaching for more academic language (like onomatopoeia). His essays seem always anchored in place, even as zooms out for a wider view, the world is recognizably his.
Missing a Beat is a good read for anyone a few years out of school who is starting to rethink their career choices and sometimes Googles “how to work abroad” while at work.