IT'S NOT NECESSARILY interesting to accompany someone on a journey of self-discovery, emphasis on the self. Page through Personals: Dreams and Nightmares from the Lives of 20 Young Writers, an anthology of autobiographical essays, and you'll find yourself plunked down in a sea of me, my, and I's. But get past a few clunkers (these include the inevitable "I secretly snorted heroin until I became an addict" story as well as editor Thomas Beller's own contribution, "Portrait of the Bagel as a Young Man," which relives his four-month stint slumming at an hourly wage job), and you'll discover some fine young writers.
The best essays here admit to some confusion. In "Dropping Out," Daniel Pinchbeck wonders why more people don't admit that a four-year liberal arts college serves the same function as a country club. After partaking in an all-campus Zonker Harris Day, demonstrations at the "wimminist house," and trips to the local thrift store to purchase more "ironic bowling shirts," Pinchbeck finds himself feeling increasingly absurd. He recalls a class where the professor would often show up late to class, refusing to speak or respond to students, explaining afterward that he had been trying to help them escape their "bondage." This same professor, writes Pinchbeck, said "that we should grade ourselves, as it was impossible for him to say how much we understood about Zen. I gave myself an A, but on my transcript I learned that Stone had dropped me to a B."
Author Carrie Luft writes about how her enthusiasm to start a theater company with fellow students ran dry. "I didn't always think they were assholes," laments Luft, repeating the essay's title. "I suppose it takes one to know one, or work shoulder-to-shoulder with several of them for nearly four years without knowing. Was I an asshole or a rube? I still don't know and the uncertainty scares me."
Other compelling essays include Quang Bao's "Fortune Trails," which describes in a roundabout way his family's adaptation from Saigon to Sugarland, Texas, and Brady Udall's "Confessions of a Liar," chronicling the collapse of his lying days after moving to a small Mormon town populated almost entirely by blood relatives.
If there are a few self-indulgent essays that drone on about life as a world-wearied twentysomething New Yorker (and all the annoying ones seem to be set in New York City), well then so be it. As Ms. Luft sagely notes, "Perhaps at 40 or 50, 'vision' might have less to do with asserting identity and more to do with interpreting an art form, if the art form and willing artists still exist."