If you’re not familiar with Jon Mooallem’s writing, his new book of essays, Serious Face, is calling your name. Mooallem (This Is Chance!) has been writing for The New York Times Magazine for more than 15 years, and his latest book rounds up 11 of his best pieces from those years, plus one more written in 2022, into a transporting series of deep dives into surprising characters and situations.
Mooallem excels at writing about everything from climate change-fueled natural disasters to eccentric individuals. In “The Precise Center of a Dream,” for example, readers meet a man named Jacques-André Istel, who happens to be the father of modern skydiving and who created his own town (Felicity, California) in the middle of the desert. Mooallem’s observations can be beautifully delicate; about Felicity, he writes, “It was as if the entire town had sprouted from some preverbal place in his imagination—some need for beauty and meaning.” From that quirky end of the spectrum, Mooallem’s range as a writer stretches all the way across to quieter, more poignant essays like “A House at the End of the World,” his portrait of noted hospice worker B.J. Miller of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and of a 27-year-old man who died from mesothelioma under Miller’s care.
Mooallem can also be deeply personal. The title essay describes his uncanny resemblance to the Spanish bullfighter Manolete, who was hugely famous not only for his bullfighting skills but also for being ugly. “Why These Instead of Others?” is his completely captivating, edge-of-your-seat account of a remote kayaking trip he took with two friends at age 23 to Glacier Bay, Alaska—and the life-and-death rescue that ensued. His writing is equally riveting in “We Have Fire Everywhere,” about a group of people’s narrow escape from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, in 2018. Mooallem typically lets his subjects speak for themselves and isn’t one to make many pronouncements, but here he writes, “It was all more evidence that the natural world was warping, outpacing our capacity to prepare for, or even conceive of, the magnitude of disaster that such a disordered earth can produce.”
Like the very best essay collections, Serious Face takes readers to unexpected places, exploring a meaningful mix of joy, tragedy and downright absurdity. The subjects vary widely, but Mooallem is such a gifted storyteller that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about; readers like myself will be ready to follow.