Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Sideways Review: The Two Sides of Albert Goldbarth

John Proctor


Albert Goldbarth’s

“Everybody’s Nickname”

The Best American Essays



~5th in a series



In the first paragraph of her essay “Elements of the Wind,” published in Fourth Genre, Donna Steiner begins by saying:

I am not a fan of those who say, “There are two types of people…”

She continues by listing examples of common dichotomies and calls “this inclination to divide humanity into two clear-cut groups limiting, naïve, absurd.” Steiner then gives her own meta-dichotomy:

So perhaps I am saying that there are two types of people: those who divide other people into simplistic groups, and those who do not.

Albert Goldbarth is both of those people.

I’ve now read two Goldbarth essays, “Everybody’s Nickname” from The Best American Essays 2008 and the book-length Griffin, and while their topics are different, they’re essentially about the same thing—bifurcation.

The dualistic topics of “Everybody’s Nickname,” all bound loosely around the idea of codependent halves, include:

  • Those 2-for-1 pulp sci-fi novels of the 60s, the ones with two front covers
  • Ginsberg and Burroughs
  • A vicious statutory rape/murder in Wichita and a doomed adolescent romance Goldbarth had with Ava “Gaea” Edelman.

I’m not really sure what the title means.

Griffin’s binary structure is perhaps even trickier than “Everybody’s Nickname.” To begin with, it’s actually two essays—“Roman Erotic Poetry” and “Wuramon,” both previously published in periodicals independent of each other—that are only tangentially related thematically and share no common characters or concrete images. The loose connection they share is that they both contextualize human conflict as the (possibly vain) struggle to reconcile our dual nature, hence the griffin metaphor (although only the first essay uses the griffin explicitly).

“Roman Erotic Poetry,” Griffin’s first half, commingles the breakups and possible hookups of Goldbarth’s close friends with, among many things, the dirty poetry of the ancient poet Catullus, philosophical musings on the institution of marriage, Bruce lyrics, and of course the griffin legend. “Wuramon” loosely continues examining our binary nature, connecting a couple dealing with cancer; the wuramon, an ancient spirit-ship; and copious lists of meteorological, etymological, historical phenomena—all touched on with a child’s joy in stretching the borders he’s created to their near-breaking point.

The true binary opposition at work in Griffin and “Everybody’s Nickname” and the tension that drives both, then, lies between the limitless possibility of human experience and the limited nature of language in capturing and expressing this experience. Allowing free rein to thought, as Goldbarth does, is, perhaps, an escape from the boundaries imposed by his medium – a chase after the thoughts that will escape into the ether if they don’t cross the boundary, as Lou Reed said, between thought and expression.


John Proctor, who can also be found at Numéro Cinq, is reading one volume of The Best American Essays a month for the next two years. One of his favorite words is multifarious.

More of John Proctor’s BAE reviews.

The Best American Essays 2008
Adam Gopnik, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin

Goldbarth, Albert. Griffin. Ithaca, New York: Essay Press, 2007.

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