Sterling Memorial Library looks like a Gothic cathedral. It has the vaulted ceiling, the stained-glass windows, and the secret garden. Yet this library, Richard Selzer says, “is chock full of loonies, of whom I am one.” A former surgeon and professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine, Selzer has enjoyed critical success as an author as well: so much that last year, Abaton, the literary journal of Des Moines University, began awarding the Selzer Prize for Writing. His new book, Diary, consisting of excerpts from his own diary spanning sixteen years, several states and countries, and endless, random interactions with the possibly (and the certainly) insane, begins roughly where his previous autobiography, Down from Troy, ends.
“Dick” is a self-aware, local celebrity in and around Yale who assumes that his world is full of crazy people. One day he writes that he “[met] loony N. in the library. He was looking even more haunted, gaunt, and tormented than usual.” Barely ten pages in, F.Q., another anonymous character, has “indentified three of the six” members who unconsciously belong to Selzer’s “Ministry of Loonies.”
A later entry describes Selzer as “having all sorts of loony problems,” including with “a forty-seven-year-old Chinese-Canadian psychotic” who believes he has “a keen romantic interest” in her. “M.,” as he calls his would-be lover, is manic-depressive and “seething with passion” for him. She sends him daily e-mails, some of which “average seven thousand words,” and calls the library looking for him” until he requests that she only contact him once a month. This request, of course, only increases her passion—and her emails.
One is not quite sure at first whether the people Selzer describes as “loonies” are actually crazy or not, especially after he describes himself coming home from the grocery store with “a length of turkey sausage, a pineapple, a frozen octopus, six large beets, and four artichokes” –especially after he decides, “About the octopus, I refuse to be modest…Even the creature would have been delighted to offer himself for such a feast.”
He treats everyone—“normal” people, the mentally handicapped, and himself—with the same direct tone, openly admitting to enjoying shocking people. It is clear he likes to tease his readers with uncertainty. “Why did I give [M.] my e-mail address?” he asks, making us question why he then continues the correspondence, which includes phone calls and visits. Eventually he assures us that “clothing dislikes [him]” and when dressed he resembles “fossils of feathered dinosaurs…bones, beak, and feathers in need of arrangement.” We might wonder if his feathers are not more like M.’s than the normal bird’s.