"I don't recommend the writing life," declares Poe Ballantine. "At least, not the one where you move around a lot, live alone and work odd jobs." That life is the subject of Ballantine's new collection of essays, 501 Minutes to Christ , published by Portland's Hawthorne Books. This author, whose name alone carries the whiff of literary destiny, drifts through the bus stations and motels of America in search of work and inspiration, summing up his pathetic ambition thusly: "I boarded a train called the Romantic Debauchery in the mistaken assumption that it would somehow get me to my destination quicker than the ones marked Hard Work and Paying Attention." Ballantine is nothing if not self-aware, and it will be up to the individual reader whether this is enough to make bearable his depressive, low-rent wanderings of the body and spirit.

He is a cynic, but a ruefully sympathetic one, too compassionate to mine his fellow lost souls for cheap laughs. His work is most moving when he identifies this compassion in himself and others, and imparts it to the reader. On a bus ride through Texas, a delusional mother throws a paranoid fit over the people "taking infrared pictures of her baby," and when she finally disembarks, Ballantine observes the passengers' communal reaction: first easy, derisive joking at the woman's expense, followed by a silent guilt and sorrow. Ballantine's deep-dish people-watching lends lively variety to his morose interior funk, as he slogs through a series of often ill-conceived personal odysseys: attend a fancy dinner beyond his means, find yet another cheap place to stay, publicly punch a more famous writer in the face, build relationships. The latter effort yields a haunting drug-addict romance titled "Methamphetamine for Dummies," along with the less tragic story of Ballantine courting his young Mexican bride-to-be, which makes for a shrewd study in cultural alienation.

Predictably enough, Ballantine's essay about the trials of his first big publishing contract is rather dry, but the rest of the pieces are full of touching insight and wit that fans of Garrison Keillor will love. Ballantine is perhaps most fun when playing philosopher, as in the essay "God's Day." Here he struggles to do a good deed with a $20 bill: "It's harder than you might think in small-town America to casually run across people in need. I walked around with increasing consternation and gloom."


Hawthorne Books celebrates the release of

501 Minutes to Christ

with a book launch party and reading from Poe Ballantine at Mississippi Pizza, 3552 N Mississippi Ave., 888-4480. 7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 7. Free. Ballantine also reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1668. 7:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 8. Free. He will appear at the Wordstock Festival at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 5 pm Saturday, Nov. 10. $5. Visit wordstock.org for details.