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American Eccentrics

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By David Isay

and Harvey Wang

W. W. Norton & Co.

216 pp., $25

Eccentricity, whatever you might hear to the contrary, is not the exclusive province of the English. Being English myself, I find it refreshing to come across a book about "Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes" - the subtitle of "Holding On" by David Isay and Harvey Wang (photographer). It is an all-American book of profiles and interviews, and it illustrates, often touchingly, that no-one is an oddball to themselves. Eccentricity is in the eye of the beholder.

"Some people think I'm a little crazy," says Charlie DeLeo.

DeLeo, Isay writes, "is the Statue of Liberty's caretaker.... since the early seventies [he] has been known as 'the keeper of the flame....' "

"It's a feeling of peace and solitude up here," DeLeo muses. "I like to sing songs up here (not when people are around - I got a horrible voice). I like to pray for America and for other countries.... I compose poems up here too." And he adds: "I don't look at it as me being a little crazy. I'm a true caretaker."

Arguably DeLeo is a deal saner and centered than most of us.

One of my brothers once called me eccentric. He did not mean it very seriously, I think. Possibly my interest in modern art stimulated his comment - to him an offbeat thing. So I investigated the word, and what sticks in mind is the image, among various orbital definitions of the word, of a wheel whose center is not exactly in the middle.

If that is what eccentric means, then I do not own to it. Nor does it apply to the characters in Isay's book.

They seem, in fact, to have found their centers - however oddball they might seem to the timidly conventional.

I prefer a pottery analogy. We have a few pots at home here which, in their firing, or perhaps even in their making on the wheel, settled into a very slightly off-center stance. They balance. But their almost tentative pulling away from the expected concentricity gives them great character. They are different.


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