Among dubiously impressive kid stunts, British playwright Simon Gray (Butley) may have won out through sheer effort, becoming “a heavy smoker” by age seven. Fifty-nine years later, his friends dying of cancer and emphysema, the three-pack-a-day man feels an erotic ardor for the ones that got away: “There are still moments now,” he writes in The Smoking Diaries, “when I catch more than a memory of the first suckings-in, the slow leakings-out when the smoke seems to fill the nostril with far more than the experience of itself, and I regret the hundreds and hundreds or thousands of cigarettes that I inhaled and exhaled without noticing.” Well, better to have loved.
A brilliant, nattering catalog of self-doubt and moldering memories set against the twilight monotony of local bistros and stodgy beach resorts, Diaries subverts the predictable storytelling arc that plagues so many memoirs. Yet its apparent haphazard form remains psychologically sound and graciously unaffected. Gray introduces his 60-odd section-breaks out of weariness or whim (“On the Internet at Last!”) and favors the em dash over the period. Obligatory personal history gives way in the mental drift: It’s a fine mind to be privy to that loves Steven Seagal as a man’s man—not only for his actions but also for his “large, child-bearing hips, and the circle of fat around his stomach that suggest he’s in touch with the chocolate and milkshake child within.”