Monday, December 31, 2012

A time for toasts

To mix the proper spirit to carry us into New Year's, I turn first to the old standby, Anthony Powell. Every year around this time I find the opening sentence of this passage from The Acceptance World running through my head:
It was that prolonged, flat, cheerless week that follows Christmas. My own existence seemed infinitely stagnant, relieved only by work on another book. Those interminable latter days of the dying year create an interval, as it were, of moral suspension: one form of life already passed away before another has had time to assert some new, endemic characteristic. Imminent change of direction is for some reason often foreshadowed by such colourless patches of time.
E. B. White, late in life, was even more bleak about the winding down of the year. In a letter sent to friends in early January 1984, White called Christmas and New Year's "the two long loneliest holiday weekends of the year." But he had a way to get past their air of, in Powell's terms, "moral suspension":
The year is only a few days old but I am already in my thoughts careening toward summer and fall, awaiting the day when I can boost my canoe on top of the car and set out for the lake.
Anyone viewing straight-on the snowbanks of a New England January is likely to look to spring, and then on to summer, but it takes a special temperament to already be thinking, mere days into January, of the gentle, wistful wane into autumn.

Ah, but if you're going out tonight, let Amor Towles remind you that that the martini is the only drink, and should be treated as such:
Casper placed a napkin on top of a silver shaker and rattled it good. Then he carefully began to pour. First, he filled my glass to the brim. The liquor was so cold and pure it gave the impression of being more translucent than water. Next he filled Eve's glass. When he began filling Tinker's, the flow of alcohol from the shaker slowed noticeably. And then trickled. For a moment it seemed as if there wasn't going to be enough. But the gin kept trickling and the surface kept rising until with the very last drop Tinker's martini reached the brim. It was the sort of precision that gave one confidence.
And, should you down too many martinis, I'll supply you, from Dawn Powell's diary entry of October 28, 1939, with this unimpeachable defense:
Coby, drunk, tie awry, coat half wrong-side out, hair tousled, inspires a "Good God!" from group. Why? he wants to know. "Go to a mirror," they suggest. "Just take a look at yourself." He shakes his head complacently. "I look alright," he says. "My genitals are covered, aren't they?"
Happy New Year, folks.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Reading Steerforth over at The Age of Uncertainty on the unpleasures of bookselling as the holiday sand drips through the hourglass of advent is sufficient to remind me to be grateful that I'm not working today, my days of shooing customers out the door just as the reindeer are touching down long over.

But before I turn out the lights on this little shop for the holidays, I've got a couple of modest gifts to distribute. First, this account of holiday skulduggery, from Anthony Powell's journal for Christmas Eve of 1987:
My tenant Adrian Andrews recently reported theft of a black ewe (only one in his flock), saying sheep-lifting by no means uncommon in this neighborhood. Today he arrived on doorstep (having grown beard so that I did not recognize him). . . . I remarked the black ewe had reappeared. He said police found her dumped in garden over Cranmore way. Like living in Wild West.
I don't think rocketlass and I are likely to get up to any sheep-lifting over Christmas, but if we do, we'll surely have the sense to stick to the white sheep, rendering our crime less likely to be detected. Good god, have these crooks never read any Holmes?

The party Dawn Powell (no relation to Anthony) attended on Christmas Day, 1932, and recorded in her journal may have been more civilized than sheep-lifting, but it was perhaps in some ways just as unbuttoned:
To a party at Cheryl's. Decided to do a rowdy modernist version of Aristophanes' "The Knights," which Cheryl was eager about--have hecklers, stooges, big placards through the house, "The Theater is Propaganda" across the curtain. Have the senate in back of house, sausages rushed through audience, passed-out Cleon and Sausage-Seller have fight of swear words across audience. Dress in stylized Greek costume, shirts, etc Have scenes described in play actually take place either by marionettes or by movies, have music, have people sell things between acts like a burlesque show.
As entertaining as that sounds, knowing my temperament I'd more often than not instead plump for a day like Thoreau's Christmas eve of 1856:
To Walden and Baker Farm with Ricketson, it still snowing a little.

It was very pleasant walking thus before the storm was over, in the soft, subdued light.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Enjoy the "soft, subdued light" of the ebbing of the year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The fun of contingent stuff, or, Looking around in the corners of Why Does the World Exist?

{If I may ask a favor: this post has been receiving an unusual amount of traffic, but I can't figure out where it's coming from. We're not talking "praised by the Queen in her Christmas speech" kind of numbers, but still a noticeable spike. If you were sent here by a link or a reference, and you've got a minute to drop a note about it in the comments, my curiosity and I would greatly appreciate it.} If you've been following me on Twitter the past couple of days, you've already realized that I've been enjoying Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?, a philosophical and scientific investigation into the question posed by its title. The fact that I read it at all beyond the first pages is a mark of its quality, as that's a question that has never interested me much--in philosophy, I've always been content to stop at Spinoza, with his elegant and logical positing of all things as part of one single, unitary substance. To try to get much beyond that has always seemed impossible, as it requires asking our perceptions and logic to move beyond every single one of the conditions that created them.

Yet Holt, as he travels the world interviewing philosophers and scientists, pitting their theories against one another and punching holes in their logic, makes the whole drama of inquiries into existence seem vibrant and important. Plenty of reviews out there cover the content of Holt's investigations, so what I'll share instead are some of the plethora of details, asides, and throwaway moments that help keep the book from ever seeming aridly intellectual.

There are the occasional snatches of entertaining non-philosophical dialogue, like this exchange with John Leslie:
"Of all the contemporary philosophers I've been reading,"I told him, "you've got to be the wittiest."

"You're very kind," he said. Then he added, "But I'm not sure that's much of a compliment."
Then there's the night when Holt is wandering the streets of Paris, having earlier happened across Karl Lagerfeld (with "one of his muses," who was wearing black lipstick). He passes Descartes' tomb and reminds us that not all of Descartes lives there: "The whereabouts of his skull and right forefinger is a mystery." A similar bit of utterly inessential but satisfying detail that Holt includes is this sighting in Oxford:
A woman cyclist passed me on the road, with a log and some tree branches strapped to her bike, reminding me of the log lady from "Twin Peaks."
A book whose primary concern is the existence or non-existence of the world ought to include some of the contingent nonsense that makes the universe worth bothering with in the first place, shouldn't it?

Probably the best set-piece of character and description in the book is Holt's visit to the home of Oxford philosopher David Deutsch. When Holt calls Deutsch to ask for an appointment, the response is not good:
I had reviewed Deutsche's book years ago in the Wall Street Journal--favorably, as I dimly recalled. Surely, I thought, he would be willing to talk to an admirer such as myself, especially one who had taken the trouble to come all the way to Oxford. So I e-mailed him, introducing myself and mentioning the nice review I had given his book in the United States more than a decade ago.

"I just checked on Google," Deutsch e-mailed me back. "Arrogant in tone and marred by leaps of logic--is that the one?"

Oh, dear. My memory seemed to have played me false. I googled the review myself. The full sentence he had quoted read, "Arrogant in tone and marred by leaps of logic, his book nonetheless bristles with subversive insights about virtual reality, time and time travel, mathematical certainty, and free will." That didn't sound so bad. In the review I had also called Deutsch "mad, bad, and dangerous to know"--a description originally applied to Lord Byron. E-mailing him again, I pointed out that this was meant, in a somewhat jocular vein, as a compliment.

"In my opinion Byron was literally mad, bad, and dangerous to know, not least because he was a willfully careless thinker," Deutsch replied.
Deutsch may be the first person in history to hold Byron's sloppy thinking as his most damning fault.

Deutsch does eventually relent, inviting Holt to his home:
After a few moments the door was opened by an improbably boyish-looking fellow with large mole-like eyes, rather transparent skin, and shoulder-length, albinoid hair. Behind him, I could see great moldering heaps of papers, broken tennis rackets, and other detritus. I knew that Deutsch was famous for, as one science journalist put it, "setting international standards in slovenliness," but these looked more like experiments in indoor composting.
Inside, Holt finds on the sofa
an attractive young woman with strawberry-blonde hair--she looked almost like a teenager--eating a plate of macaroni and cheese.
Introduced in cursory fashion as Lulie, she sits in silence, eating macaroni, while Deutsch raves about the nature of reality, a 1960s youth culture movie–style riposte to any sustained toying with the idea of nullity.

Oh, and throughout the book there is much drinking--including gin, whole bottles of wine, whiskey, splits of champagne--though enough of it takes the form of tea or coffee that at one point Holt raises a lament to the heavens:
Why did everyone but me seem to find caffeinated beverages more conducive than alcohol to pondering the mystery of existence?
I have to agree. Coffee suits for facing the morning, tea suffices for facing the afternoon, but only gin suffices for facing the infinite.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Working fast food

I wrote a bit on Monday about Antoine Wilson's novel Panorama City, and while I praised Wilson's eye for detail and care for his characters, as well as his nicely turned sentences, I don't think I made clear just how funny the book is. So today I'll share two passages that made me laugh, both from fairly early in the novel, when Oppen Porter has just taken a job in a fast food place.

On his first day, he meets Roger, his manager, and his new colleagues:
Roger had a bushy mustache, an unruly mustache, and he wore his shirt unbuttoned one button too far, which showed off his rough throat and dry Adam's apple, and where you would expect a hairy chest was a mysteriously hairless expanse, which my fellow employees spent much time speculating about. One the first day I was introduced to Melissa, who was round and black and a mother of two, Francis, who had thick glasses and was going to become a filmmaker, Ho, who was a refugee, and Wexler, who talked about cars and nothing else. Whenever Roger told my fellow employees to do something, they always said his name twice, after which he'd threaten to make them call him Doctor Macarona, he wasn't actually a doctor, but he was way the hell ahead of the rest of us in the school of life, his words, and we couldn't call him bachelor because he was married and we couldn't call him master, because Melissa was black and what kind of message would that send, his question.
Before he can start working, Porter is required to watch a training video, one that presents "two separate realities, two alternate universes," one a terrible restaurant and one a successful one. The key to the successful restaurant? That one follows "the fast-food place's five-point system, which was illustrated by a gold cartoon star, five points for five points, each one glinting as it was listed off":
One, smile even if you feel bad. When people smile back you will feel better. Two, do what you can to make others feel important, especially if they are angry about something. Three, take pride in your work. Four, the company, I'm not going to name it, is a great big family. Five, the customer is always right.
In other words, the sort of points that sound fine in the boardroom but rarely survive the grease-laden transition to the fry station.

But Porter, inclined to assume sincerity, takes the five points to heart and attempts to put them in practice with his coworker Ho:
Ho did not smile, not in the least. So I smiled at him the broadest smile I could, and to make him feel important I said thatI hoped to someday learn a few of the many skills he obviously possessed in the kitchen, and to make him feel like family I called him brother. When Roger came in, finally, a half hour later, the first thing he asked was what I had said to Ho. I repeated exactly what I'd said. Roger said that I had disturbed Ho. I explained that I was using techniques I'd learned in the video. Roger said that the only reason he'd shown me the video was so I could sign a paper saying I'd seen the video. . . . Roger said that I was now one of the troops. I thought it was interesting that he called us troops and said so. He said we were at war. I had no idea. I asked him with who? He said the customer.
You know, how I one in a while mention that there are things I miss about being a bookseller? Well, there's nothing I miss about my time in fast food. (Except the free bagels. And the fact that since I was the trainer of new employees, I could have them make whatever sandwich I wanted to eat. And the ten-gallon barrel of pickles. Okay, so maybe fast food wasn't so bad after all?)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Panorama City

Oppen Porter, the narrator and protagonist of Antoine Wilson's Panorama City calls himself a "slow absorber," which is as good a way as any of describing his limited mental ability. Though Wilson doesn't ever have him offer a name for or diagnosis of his condition, he's clearly developmentally disabled in some way. And what Wilson aims to do with him in the novel ought not to work. Telling a story from the point of view of a character of limited cognitive ability who is essentially innocent and well-meaning . . . well, it smacks of Rain Man, or any of countless other works that turn their characters into nothing more than a tool for helping us understand ourselves.

Wilson saves Panorama City from that fate by actually making it Porter's story, and clearly being more interested in him and his experience than in having him enlighten those around him or help us understand our own lives. This is Porter's book, the story of his life laid down on audiotape for his unborn son, and his voice and perspective carry it. In addition, Wilson sets him in a world of Portisean strangeness, surrounded by people who, though they instantly spot Porter's limitations, can't see a bit of their own failings and monomanias. The result is funny, engaging, and even, by the end, surprisingly moving.

The following passage displays both qualities, while also giving a glimpse of Wilson's way with sentences and description. Porter has just boarded an intercity bus, and because he's tall the driver has suggested he sit in the front row. But a "scrawny old man" is taking up both seats:
He had the look, I don't know how else to put it, his face looked like that of a newly hatched crocodile. His eyes were alive and penetrating at the same time, and his mouth seemed wider and flatter than most, he didn't have much in the way of lips, his mouth was like a straight line across his whole face, and yet you couldn't shake the sense that he was, at the very corners, smiling. Papers were spread all over the seat beside him, a disorganized pile of sketches and notes and diagrams. I had no way of knowing where he had boarded, but judging from the pleasure the bus driver took in asking him to collect his papers and make room for me he had been making a mess of his papers for many miles. He managed to stuff into what he called his briefcase, which was actually a flat cardboard box, he stuffed into the box the whole pile of papers that had been the mess on my seat, somehow that briefcase was bigger on the inside than on the outside, and then he asked the bus driver if he was happy now. The driver stated that he was.
That passage also shows another way that Wilson avoids potential pitfalls with Porter: he doesn't make him falsely naive about human relations, doesn't take advantage of his disability for the sake of cheap situational irony. Porter may not be brilliant, but he's not blind to what the people around him are doing and thinking; his failures are not so much ones of perception or ignorance as of trust and kindness.

I mentioned Charles Portis earlier, as there are characters and situations--and even simple descriptions, like this one--
Nick's hair was slicked back and he had a goatee, or part of a goatee, on the point of his chin and a tiny mouth compared to the rest of his face, it was fascinating to watch him eat pizza with it.
--that call him instantly to mind. But the greater influence on the book feels like Nicholson Baker: Porter's descriptions offer a similar attention to, and surprising but apt similes for, small physical details. Examples abound throughout the book, but the point where I actually put it down and e-mailed Ed Park with joy was this paragraph:
When I reached the grocery store parking lot, I returned the cart to an area about halfway in, where carts are supposed to be returned. I pushed the cart into the back of a long line of carts, the cart in front obliged by lifting its hinged back panel, one fit into the other, and the lonely cart I'd found became one with the others, returned to where it could fulfill its purpose.
The movement from attention to detail to the granting of agency to the inanimate--"the cart obliged"--is quintessential Baker, a moment that feels less like simple description and more like an ethical stance, a statement that things, have purposes and can be made (and used) well or ill. The same, Porter would likely say, is true of people.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A not quite SFW post on adjectives

I'll admit to being hesitant about posting this--though, really, what ground has any blogger who has used the term "grandmotherfucker" (In context! In its vampirism-causing context!) to stand on? And it's Friday, and my brain feels as if it's been microwaved, on the gentle but thorough magneto-massage setting, by the unrelenting past month or so of work . . . so here goes.

I should say at the start that it's hideously unfair to do what I'm about to do to Marco Roth's intelligent, richly self-analytic, impressive memoir The Scientists (2012). It's wrong to reduce it to a single question about a misplaced adjective--and by doing so, I really don't intend to belittle the book. It's a good book, and it deserves praise and readers.

But I've not been able to get this one little word out of my head since I read it a week ago. I'll give you the whole paragraph; let's see if you spot it:
From a hands-on perspective, my teenage sexual orientation had been neither home nor hetero but auto, from which, I supposed, one could plausibly conclude that my favorite sexual organ must be the penis. Yet it was plain to me that I wasn't interested in anyone's penis but my own, and my imagination liked to pretend I was actually stroking the fine long breasts of some eagerly glimpsed girl, or that my hand had somehow found its way between her stockinged thighs, which rubbed together as she walked away from me down the block.
Did you spot it?

"Long"? "Long"? Our breast-obsessed society has, post-Hefner, given us countless words to describe breasts, almost as many as Edmund Wilson collected for drunkenness: round, full, perky, high, pendulous, etc. But "long"? Has anyone ever before praised breasts as "long"? That would be like, I don't know, hailing a man's abs as "wide," or his . . . well, it's Friday and I must away.

Enjoy the weekend, folks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Poet's Pub

Eric Linklater's comic novel Poet's Pub (1929) was one of the ten books selected by Alan Lane to comprise the first list published under the Penguin Books imprint. At first blush, you'd think that would make it odd that the novel is so little-known now--but, as Nancy Pearl points out in her introduction to last year's Penguin reissue, Lane's was a strange list, setting such lasting titles as A Farewell to Arms, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Dorothy L. Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club alongside such long-forgotten books as Andre Maurois's biography of Shelley, a memoir by playwright Beverley Nichols, and novels by Compton Mackenzie, Mary Webb, E. H. Young, and Susan Ertz, none of whom is likely to be familiar to contemporary readers.

I don't know about the works of the other forgotten writers on that initial list, but Pearl is right that Poet's Pub deserves to be remembered. It's endlessly quotable, as I attempted to prove on Twitter all last week:
From boyhood he had met trouble with taciturnity.

. . .

She inclined to low life and regretted that she knew so little about it.

. . .

She talked as a hound runs, by scent; though the fox that she followed changed into a bird and a water-beast and a dining-room table at will.

. . .

First novels are generally undigestible, like a soul and kidney pie that has been baking ever since adolescence.

. . .

He remembered that he had not long ago boasted of being democratic, and decided that he could be cosmopolitan as well.

. . .

Poets are really the most practical people on earth so long as they're allowed to do what they like. It's only when they're driven along uncongenial paths that they become woolly and distrait.

. . .

It's time that acrimony and bad taste came back to our criticism. Robust vilification is the proper meat for poets.

. . .

To keep a crime story from the newspapers would seem to a good American worse than keeping vitamins from a child.

. . .

When a bourgeois code comes between life and death, it's going to get squeezed out of shape.

. . .

"My first husband was a Cossack," she replied in a tone of definite rebuke.
If those aren't enough to convince you to give this book a try, well, I'm not sure we can be friends. But I'll keep trying! Take this, from a small-time con man's rambling, self-justifying account of his history of illicit impersonations of literary figures:
Mr. Wesson stopped the car, and contorting his features in a peculiar way, said to Joan: "Imagine that my head is bald and my eyebrows very bushy. Now, who do you think I am?"

"Bernard Shaw," Joan hazarded foolishly.

"Nonsense," said Mr. Wesson. "I was Rudyard Kipling. Now I am Bernard Shaw." And he assumed the expression of a milk-fed satyr.

"Of course," said Joan, "I would recognize you anywhere."

"Naturally I require a beard to complete the resemblance, just as I needed thicker eyebrows and a shaved head to become Mr. Kipling's double. Now who is this, do you think?"

Mr. Wesson blew and puffed out his cheeks till his face was all red and swollen, and in a rarefied, high-piping voice recited:
"They bred like birds in English woods,
They rooted like the rose,
When Alfred came to Athelney
To hide him from their bows."
"G. K. Chesterton!" said Joan.

Mr. Wesson smiled in a superior manner and restarted the car. "You see," he said, "that I have some qualifications for my self-invented profession."
Now you're convinced, and we can resume our friendship, surely?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sibling rivalry

I'm traveling for work this week, so posting will be more of the quote-and-run variety than the usual longform, print-and-bind-that-brilliance-and-be-sure-to-put-a-copy-in-the-next-Voyager-as-an-example-of-the-best-humanity-has-to-offer sort that you're used to in this space.

Today, I offer an example of why I love writers' letters. Oh, sure, barring Byron, you go to a writer's letters to learn more about the work, or his literary opinions, or her relationships with other writers. But while you're there, you're so often offered a bonus: ordinary scenes from everyday life observed and recorded memorably. Like this, found in the brand-new volume of William Styron's letters, from the closing of a letter to Robert Penn Warren of November 11, 1966, right after Styron's wife had given birth to a new daughter:
Our new offspring is just beautiful, and Tommy is meaner than hell about her. On the first day after she was born, when his grandmother called up to ask what he wanted her to bring him, he said quite slowly and deliberately, ‘Some wire . . . and some . . . batteries . . . and some nails . . . and some heavy weights.’ I really think he was building an electric chair for the baby in the cellar.
In a footnote, the editor cites a Styron quote found in James L. W. West's biography that reassures us that Styron's supposition was incorrect: in reality, said Styron,
after a long and sinister silence, he emerged with a wondrous artifact: a wooden bird with metal wings, a gift for Alexandra.
Had the boy emerged with an electric chair, would Styron ever have been able to shake the suspicion that he'd been cuckolded by Charles Addams?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Erich Kastner will not apologize for pulling no punches!

The recent NYRB Classics edition of Erich Kastner's corrosive, depressing novel of the excesses of late Weimar Germany, Going to the Dogs (1931), includes a preface that Kastner wrote for a 1950 edition of the book. Judging by the tone of the preface, the intervening years--marked, of course, by the war--had done nothing to dim his satiric fury at what he saw as the rampant moral failures of the era, moral failures that had, he clearly suggests, opened the door to the Nazis. After arguing that charges of immorality were in fact perfectly wrong--that the book makes no sense if it's not fundamentally a moral book--he closes with a ringing defense of moralists that remains powerful sixty years later:
The present book which depicts life as it was in the big city, is no poetic photograph album, but a satire. It does not describe what things were like; it exaggerates them. The moralist holds up not a mirror, but a distorting mirror to his age. Caricature, a legitimate artistic mode, is the furthest he can go. If that doesn't help nothing will. It is not unusual that nothing should help, nor was it then. But it would be unusual if the moralist were to be discouraged by this fact. His traditional task is the defence of lost causes. He fulfils it as best he may. His motto today is as it has always been: to fight on notwithstanding!
Am I right in thinking that this defense would apply to satirists as well? What are satirists, after all, if not bitter moralists fighting in the last trench?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Aspiration, reading, the 1950s, and the death of Dave Brubeck

I go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field twenty-five or so times every summer. I always carry my shoulder bag, it's always full of books, and approximately every other time a member of the security staff riffles through it he'll jokingly say something like, "Now don't be doing your homework in there!"


When we had our condo on the market for a while a few years back, we pulled the books off our dozen bookcases and boxed them up at the behest of our realtor. He explained that, like any superfluous furniture or decorations, the books would be too distracting, drawing the attention of prospective buyers who should, instead, be thinking about how nice their stuff would look in the space.


I suspect, though, books are more than distracting to the average prospective buyer--that they're actually a bit deflating, unsettling. All serious readers have had guests ask the incredulous (and well-meaning but completely uncomprehending) question, "Have you really read all these?" For someone who's not a reader, I suspect that the sight of so many books calls forth memories of school, and pressure. Like the security guard, they associate them with homework. Not, our realtor would surely point out, what you'd think of as a buying mood.


Longtime readers will already know the pithiest description of the problem of books for the unbookish, from Anthony Powell's The Valley of Bones:
Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
It's not exactly like what I imagine it must be to have true religious belief and try to convince others of its value, but I suspect it's at least distant kin.


In Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1953), a sci-fi novel set in a future where citizens are known as "consumers" and advertising rules the world, an ad man who has wormed his way into a conservationist conspiracy finds himself unexpectedly in a conspirator's personal library:
I was conscious of Herrera's eyes on me, and I don't think I showed any of what I felt. I even stayed with him for an hour or so, while he devoured a wormy copy of something called Moby-Dick and I glanced through half a dozen ancient magazines. Some of those remembered classics went a long way toward easing my conscience--there was actually an early "Do You Make These Common Mistakes in English?" and a very fine "Not a Cough in a Carload" that would have looked well on the wall of my office. . . . But I could not relax in the presence of so many books without a word of advertising in them. I am not a prude about solitary pleasures when they serve a useful purpose. But my tolerance has limits.

In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, Anne Applebaum notes that in the wave of arrests that followed the Soviet entrance into Hungary at the end of World War II, significant numbers of people were arrested simply because they owned books.


I'm listening to Dave Brubeck tonight. He died today, a day short of his 92nd birthday. One of his earliest, most successful albums was named Jazz Goes to College (1953).


The linking of jazz and college--and the intellectually and culturally aspirational quality of that linkage--seems inescapably tied to that era, the postwar years and especially the 1950s. This was the period that saw Sinatra graduate from bowling over teens to singing for adults, when Nat King Cole could host a TV show, when a generation of veterans was emerging from college--courtesy of the GI Bill, which also send Brubeck to college--and finally, dammit, getting to truly begin their adult lives. Brute force had been turned back, and the years ahead would be the realm of the educated, the civilized, the cultured and calm. Adlai Stevenson was a presidential candidate, for God's sake.


The 1950s were the time of The Mentor Philosophers. Of, for better or worse, Hugh Hefner's certainty that mixing smart fiction with the naked ladies would lessen the shame. Of, probably for worse, the birth of Reader's Digest condensed books. Of, definitely for worse, Immanuel Velikovsky as a best-seller. Books, and by extension ideas, were still seen as essential parts of the cultured life--and the cultured life was seen as an essential part of the adult life.


In Frank: The Voice (2010), James Kaplan writes about Frank Sinatra's voracious reading at the start of the 1950s, as his career and marriage had both just crashed and burned. Frank, writes Kaplan,
kept reading. His nose was always in some tome or other, especially when he was flying (which was often). And there were a lot of good books to read in late 1951. There was John Hersey's Hiroshima and The Diary of Anne Frank and John Gunther's big book about the United States and Churchill's and Eisenhower's memoirs and Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and The Caine Mutiny. Then somebody gave him a great big doorstop of a novel called From Here to Eternity, James Jones's scathing postwar portrait of the prewar U.S. Army. Once Frank started reading it, he couldn't put it down.
Sinatra, Kaplan explains, became obsessed with the character of Maggio--and with the idea that he should play him in the soon-to-be-cast film version:
Now he was spending sleepless nights worrying about his career, taking downers and uppers, reading obsessively at From Here to Eternity, dog-earing pages, marking up the Maggio sections.
Frank Sinatra, an ill-educated hard worker from Hoboken, was obsessed with James Jones and his 864-page novel.


From Here to Eternity holds up remarkably well, I think--far better than Robert Gottlieb suggests in his recent New York Review of Books essay about Jones. Jones's language can at times be overly (and ineffectively) arty, but there's never a sense that he's pulling his punches or dumbing things down. It was a serious reckoning with what we'd just learned from sending millions of young men through the machine designed to produce warriors--and it was an instant best-seller. And a favorite of Frank.


Frank wasn't alone, of course. Marilyn Monroe, for example, was also a reader. The volume of her notes, letters, and other occasional jottings that was published a few years ago established that the photos of her reading Ulysses and Leaves of Grass weren't fakes--like Frank, she was committed to the idea of improving her intellect, and doing so through books.


I've quoted the following passage from Rex Stout's "Fourth of July Picnic" (1958) before, but it's apt. It's a description by Nero Wolfe's right-hand man, Archie Goodwin, of their ace operative Saul Panzer's apartment:
Saul Panzer, below average in size but miles above it in savvy, lived alone on the top floor--living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bath--of a remodeled house on Thirty-eighth Street between Lexington and Third. The living room was big, lighted with two floor lamps and two table lamps, even at seven o'clock of a July evening, because the blinds were drawn. One wall had windows, another was solid with books, and the other two had pictures and shelves that were cluttered with everything from chunks of minerals to walrus tusks. In the far corner was a grand piano.
Bookshelves. A piano. In the apartment of a private detective. Oh, 1958.


There's a serious risk of sounding like an under-forty Andy Rooney in saying this, but I'll go ahead: it's nearly inconceivable that major stars would strive so openly today, right? The culture has changed; books have been dislodged. Philosophy and novels are for undergrads of questionable hygiene rather than for the shelves of the den. Other things distract our magpie gaze; sophistication--called by other names--uses other measurements.


I'm an unashamedly casual jazz fans. I love Sinatra and a large group of vocal jazz (and pop) singers, but my knowledge of actual jazz beyond that, while not nothing, is fairly limited, not ranging much beyond what, speaking as I did earlier of Playboy, that magazine recommended as a method oh so long ago: get an album by Miles Davis, then one by each of his sidemen, then one by each of their sidemen, ad infinitum. I can listen to Bill Evans for days, and lament my own inability.

But what jazz unquestionably was, when I first dove in as a rural sixteen-year-old with eyes set far away, was aspirational and intellectual. It was part of what it might mean to go to college, to live in a city, to change and grow beyond what the limits of my tiny town would allow. And Dave Brubeck was a big part of that. For a precocious sixteen-year-old there's still nothing quite like working out the insane time signatures of the songs on Take Five. Jazz said elsewhere, and knowledge, and adult life.


Any time I write about the past, I want to be clear that I wouldn't want to live there. To brutalize Faulkner's lines, the golden age isn't over; it wasn't even golden. One reason people have long admired Dave Brubeck is that he ran an integrated band--and threatened, seriously, to cancel concerts when venues complained. The very fact that he had to take that stand should be enough to convince us that the 1950s were no golden age. But for those of us who love books, who work and live with books, there's unquestionably an aspect of it to pine for, a largely lost mainstream that, after an inconceivably destructive world war, was looking for answers--and thought they might be found in books.


When we took our condo off the market, we had friends over, poured some martinis, and with the assistance of both reshelved the books until 2 in the morning. We only reassembled ten of our twelve bookcases, however. My new piano needed the rest of the space.



Rest in peace, Mr. Brubeck.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Young Man with a Horn

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The best thing about the NYRB Classics book club--aside, that is, from knowing that once a month I'll get an NYRB Classic in the mail--is that the books they send aren't always ones I would have bought. I buy a lot of NYRB Classics, to the point that our house currently has twelve feet of shelf space dedicated to the series, but even so I don't come close to bringing home their entire list. Yet their editorial judgement is so reliable that I know I'm missing good books--and the book club offers a small step toward preventing that.

The best example thus far is Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn (1938), which I was quoting on Twitter all morning. Had I seen it in the store, I would have passed it right by, assuming it would be yet another cliched jazz novel about a talented but tormented soul . . . well, I'll just let Gary Giddens tell it:
The Jazz Novel, especially as produced by white writers, was not simply a novel set in the jazz world. It became associated with a rote cycle of banalities centered on a doomed, misunderstood genius, white or black; a wise black mentor or worshipful white acolyte; competing women (nice and marriageable versus evil and sexy); and friends who try in vain to impede his tragic demise. The hero is usually fixated on hitting a fatal high note, consumes alcohol or drugs, and is given to shuffling alone in the rain.
That's from Giddens's afterword, and it pretty much nails it. Nails, that is, what ails your typical jazz novel--none of which is a problem in Young Man with a Horn. Some of the elements are there: a drink-sodden hero, well-meaning friends, a high note. But none of them feels wrong, none feels unearned or overly demonstrative. Instead, what Baker gives us is a story of obsession that we can believe in, a man who only really comes alive when playing music and is essentially unfitted for the world in every other regard. As Baker offers brief, disconnected scenes from her trumpet player's life, some important, some not, she weaves what Giddens describes as a "sustained elegy," making us mourn his clearly inevitable demise because she makes us believe in his genius--and, more important his, bone-deep love of the music.

So if you're looking for a holiday gift for a reading friend that's on the cheap side, grab Young Man with a Horn. Or if you're up for spending more, plump for a six-month book club subscription. Maybe your friend will lend them all to you after he's done reading.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Best head buyer for the Invisible Library: Robert Bolano

When I was an undergraduate, Mark Strand spoke to one of my classes. The class was for undergraduate fiction and poetry writing majors, and it was intended to give us a sense of what the actual post-collegiate landscape looked like for a writer today. Did it achieve that? Well, I graduated, worked in a bookstore, and eventually and haphazardly moved into publishing . . . so maybe?

Anyway, the reason I remember Strand's visit is because he talked about little but the personalities of other poets he knew--and, more specifically, about their cooking. Seriously. He didn't do this in a name-dropping way; if you're Mark Strand talking to undergraduates, the gravity of your own name suffices. Rather, he simply talked, personably and casually, about what the poets he knew were like as people, and what it was like to sit down with them to dinner. It was strange, unexpected, and close to wonderful.

That class came to mind this week as I was reading the newly published unfinished novel by Roberto Bolano, Woes of the True Policeman. Like nearly all Bolano, it's an odd book, melding styles of narration and interests and emphases into a whole that never quite coheres but convinces despite (or perhaps even because of) the lack of coherence. The book brings back a character from 2666, fading literature professor Oscar Amalfitano, and the chapter that reminded me of Strand is titled "Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet." A taste:
Happiest: Garcia Lorca

Most tormented: Celan. Or Trakl, according to others, though there are some who claim that the honors go to the Latin American poets killed in the insurrections of the '60s and '70s. And there are those who say: Hart Crane.

. . . .

Best deathbed companion: Ernesto Cardenal

Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, Jose Emilio Pacheco

Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra. Others: Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder.

Most clearsighted: Martin Adan.

Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olson.*

Most desirable as a literature professor, though only in short bursts: Ezra Pound.

Most desirable as a literature professor for all eternity: Borges.
Such fun, no? And a reminder that, for all the horror and violence in his books, Bolano had a playful sense of humor. If we'd read all his books before The Savage Detectives burst on the English-language scene, which most of us hadn't, we might not have been so surprised by the deliberately dumb jokes of its final pages. And Bolano also had the teenage boy's love of lists and pointless argument, seen here and in the lists and lists of poets and bullfighters in The Savage Detectives.

Those qualities also come through in his essays, which tend to be much closer to provocations than they are arguments. The one collection that's been published in English, Between Parentheses, is full of statements about writers and books being the best or the worst or the only, the kind of thing we say to friends when we're flushed with enthusiasm and caught up in the experience of first encountering a new writer. To take just a few, here he is, for example, on Latin America itself:
We have the worst politicians in the world, the worst capitalists in the world, the worst writers in the world.
Or on Jose Donoso:
To say that he's the best Chilean novelist of the century is to insult him.
And on and on. Bolano's essays are great fun, but they don't leave you feeling you've been given new insight into their subjects. Even the epigrammatic, elliptical work of Viktor Shklovsky, for example, takes you much deeper into the books he's writing about; you leave off Shklovsky feeling like your relationship with the authors he examines has been changed, fundamentally and forever.

Bolano does, however, do one crucial thing in his nonfiction and in the times when his fiction sidles into literary arguments and game-playing: he points you towards the library and gives you a solid push.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Perhaps there's a reason Wolfe stays in his brownstone after all

From Rex Stout's The Black Mountain (1954):
"I thought you was a private eye."

"I don't like the way you say it, but I am. Also I am an accountant, an amanuensis, and a cocklebur. Eight to five you never heard the word amanuensis and you never saw a cocklebur."
If you've encountered Nero Wolfe before, I don't need to tell you that that's his right hand man, Archie Goodwin, mouthing off there. It's perfect Archie: quick, cocky, and a bit goofy.

Sadly, that's one of the few bits of prime Archie in The Black Mountain--which is the main reason it's the first disappointing Wolfe story I've read. The book starts promisingly, with the murder of one of Wolfe's few real friends, chef and restaurateur Marko Vukcic, a crime so shocking and close to Wolfe's heart as to compel him to leave the brownstone and travel all the way back to his boyhood home of Yugoslavia in search of Vukcic's killer. That ought to make for a fascinating story, showing us Wolfe well outside his carefully controlled environment, but it never quite works, in large part because the language barrier reduces poor Archie to a pair of uncomprehending ears and a gun hand. He relates Wolfe's various foreign-language conversations (which, he explains, Wolfe translated for him later) in real time, but while that enables the story to clip along, it doesn't enable Archie to play his usual wisecracking, hunch-following role. And the unmoored, unusually mobile Wolfe is less jarring, and less interesting, than expected: we too quickly become used to the idea of Wolfe hiking the mountains of Montenegro, and neither the spectacle nor the insight into character that we might have hoped for ever quite comes off.

It's a mark of Stout's achievement in this series that I was completely surprised to find my self not enjoying The Black Mountain, as no one could reasonably expect that an 87-book series wouldn't include at least one fizzle. More important, it would be churlish to complain of that fact--I'll still gladly take up the next invitation I get to the doings at West 35th Street.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Seven years

Being as it's generally taken as a sign that you're out of your first youth when you begin to scant your birthdays, I suppose the fact that the seventh anniversary of this blog slipped past without my noticing earlier this month is a signal: middle age, surely, has arrived for IBRL, and I therefore should probably keep a weather eye out for midlife crises and hints of senescence.

With the period of seven years in mind, I turned to Isaac D'Israeli and the Curiosities of Literature. Surely he wouldn't mind if I took a passage completely out of context and applied an account of a young boy to a blog instead, one that could be described as
a child of [my] misfortunes, . . born in trouble, and a stranger to domestic endearments.
Oh, but that's not simply unfair to D'Israeli, but to IBRL, too: it's far from one of misfortune's many children--rather, its parents are enthusiasm and obsession, and though that pair could often be excused for looking askance at their offspring, I like to think that in this case they're at least not embarrassed.

If that passage isn't quite suitable, even when repurposed, then how about this one, from D'Israeli's later (and, one assumes, less successful) work, The Literary Character, Illustrated by the History of Men of Genius, Drawn from Their Own Feelings and Confessions. The quotation is attributed to Boccaccio, praising himself as a prodigy while watering the grounds of his Decameron with modesty:
Before seven years of age, when as yet I had met with no stories, was without a master and hardly knew my letters, I had a natural talent for fiction, and produced some little tales.
There's been precious little fiction on this blog, but I do like the idea that seven years is the point at which one can say that he's begun to know some stories. In the Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton points out that, for a scholar, seven years is essentially nothing:
Most other Trades and Professions, after seven years' Prenticeship, are enabled by their craft to live of themselves. . . . only scholars, methinks, are most uncertain, unrespected, subject to all casualties and hazards.
Since I'm ripping quotations out at their roots and appropriating them inappropriately, I'll close with a few lines found in Holbrook Jackson's wonderfully strange and deliberately Burton-like Anatomy of Bibliomania. Nineteenth-century English scholar and librarian Henry Bradshaw, Jackson writes, donated his "famous collection of Irish books" to the Cambridge University library in gratitude for, Bradshaw explained,
the liberal manner in which the University enabled him for more than seven years to pursue the studies which he had most at heart.
Bradshaw's situation, of course, differed from mine in many ways, but the one that is perhaps the most salient is his gratitude that during that time  "no report during that time was ever demanded of him." No one, mind you, has been demanding the casual, modest, often silly reports I've been making here for seven years, but I've enjoyed writing them and hope you've enjoyed reading them. Thanks for taking the time to stop by over the years..

Friday, November 16, 2012

Returning to the old home place

I mentioned over the summer that one of the transformations on the road from childhood to adult life for me has been the elevation of Thanksgiving over Christmas. As a child, Thanksgiving was dull, whereas Christmas was a whole month of cheer capped by a day of absurd bounty.

Then, in 1996 when I was twenty-two, I was living in London in November, working in a bookstore, and I had to work on Thanksgiving. In the store, it was simply one more day along the march to Christmas--a march that for retail clerks at times feels just slightly less horrible than Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. And while my girlfriend and I had a pleasant dinner with fellow ex-pats, it was nothing like a real Thanksgiving. Can you have Thanksgiving properly with no one under 80 at the table? It seemed wrong then, and it would still seem wrong now.

So as Thanksgiving week slips up on us, bringing in its train the carnival of pell-mell nonsense that is the holiday shopping season in America, you could do far worse than to steal away and spend some quiet time with new books from Richard Russo and Wendell Berry.

Russo's Elsewhere is a memoir, primarily about his difficult, charismatic, problematic, possibly mentally ill mother--and the difficulty of figuring out, managing, and, eventually coming to terms with our earliest, most unguarded relationships. Russo is a man who left his hometown physically, but has never been able to shake it in his writing. (The one book in which he tried hardest to do so, Bridge of Sighs, is easily his weakest, its portrait of an American painter in Venice largely unconvincing.) Elsewhere could easily read like a final betrayal, a laying bare of secrets, doubts, and failures that his mother would never have acknowledged, much less wanted publicly aired. But it doesn't. Instead it is suffused with love, the sort of real love that enables us to overcome frustration, irritation, even the occasional twinge of instantly denied hate. And it reveals a real awareness of and sympathy for his mother's difficult position as a single parent in 1950s America. Take this analysis of her much-bruited independence, for example:
Except she wasn't, not really, and sometimes that terrible truth would punch through the defenses she'd erected and fortified at such a high personal cost. To her credit, she almost never shared her doubts, her temporary losses of faith, with me, her principal audience. She kept the narrative of our lives consistent and intact. We, the two of us, were all we needed. As long as we had each other, we'd be fine. For my part I never let on that I suspected the truth: that, yes, she had a good job, but that as a woman she was still paid less than men with the same duties. They had families to support, she was told, as if she didn't. By the time she paid for her ride to and from work and the clothes she needed to look the part there, she could have done almost as well working in Gloversville. Yes, she paid her rent faithfully, but at Gloversville, not Schenectady, prices, and my grandparents, though they never said so, could have charged anybody else more. And what would it have cost if she'd had to pay someone to look after me while she worked, a job my grandmother did, lovingly, for free?
In that passage, which comes early in the book, we begin to get hints of the layers upon layers of experience, interpretation, and emotion that Russo will unpeel in the book. As I read, I kept thinking of a lyric from a Tracey Thorn song, "This is just my heart laid bare." Russo, one of our greatest novelists, has bared his heart, and the result is compulsive, moving reading.

I alternated reading Elsewhere, chapter by chapter, with reading stories in Wendell Berry's new collection, A Place in Time. Berry has been writing about the same small patch of ground in northern Kentucky--a town and its people that he calls the Port William membership--for more than fifty years now, and every time he adds chapters our long-lensed image of his characters grows richer. Most of my reading of Berry occurred in a binge right before I started this blog, so I've not written much about him, but he's a writer I treasure like few others, funny and serious at the same time, and always, always deeply humane. Berry writes about people and the land, and the way that farming--and, by necessary extension--rural small-town life, changed inexorably with the rapid growth of mechanization after World War II. So he is writing about loss, fundamentally, but also about memory, and stories, and what makes a place and a people. One reason I find Berry's work so compelling is that growing up in a small town in rural Illinois, just north of the Kentucky border, through the tail end of the transformation (and, fundamentally, losses) that he describes: when I was a kid, Main Street in our town had a toy store, two men's clothing stores, a women's clothing store, a jeweler, a card shop, and more. But a K-Mart had recently opened, a Wal-Mart was on the way, and the last vestiges of a small-town, farm-town life that stretched back more than a century were fading. By the time I left in 1992, it was all gone.

Berry, who as a young man left and then returned to his rural Kentucky birthplace, can occasionally be didactic in his evangelizing for the local, the small, the sustainable. But those moments are overwhelmed by the beauty of the larger web he weaves, a tapestry of interlocking families, friends, and rivals stretching from before the Civil War to the present. Every story he writes--and, remarkably, every story he's written since his first book, when he was only twenty-six--is shot through with an awareness of time and loss, and of the importance, to ourselves if to no one else, of remembering the stories of those who've gone before. Thinking about Thanksgiving brought to mind this passage, from the story "At Home", which simply follows the thoughts and memories of Art Rowanberry, an aging World War II veteran, as he walks across country he's walked countless times:
The river valley was out of sight behind him now, the creek valley lying fully open ahead of him. Though the light had weakened, he could still see the house, the barns and outbuildings, the swinging bridge over the creek, at the end of nowhere the center of everything, and the day coming to rest upon it.

He knew he would walk on the earth a while yet, and then he would yield back his body to be with the old ones who had come and gone before him, and of this he made no complaint.
This, it seems to me, is what Thanksgiving, properly taken, asks of us. Next weekend, as I walk near my parents' house, and look out over vistas revealed by the autumnal stripping of the trees and fields, I'll be thinking of Art Rowanberry, and Wendell Berry, and my grandparents and great-grandparents, and my nephews and nieces and the centuries that stretch behind and before that assemblage.

Lest I leave you for a week--next week seeming unlikely to yield time for writing--on too somber a note, I'll close with a couple of lines from a column that Charles Portis wrote for the Arkansas Gazette in 1959, collected in Escape Velocity: A Charle Portis Miscellany:
There were Presbyterians, Methodists, and a sprinkling of Baptists at these get-togethers we attended, and when it came time to eat the honor of returning thanks usually fell to the windiest old man there.

He would send a long, thunderous blessing rambling up to the skies, and you would have thought that we had all just been delivered from the fiery furnace, instead of sitting down to eat some sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows on top.
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all. And for those of you outside God's U.S. of A., who perhaps have never had a chance to enjoy sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, drop me an e-mail and I'll gladly send a recipe. That shit is divine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Charles Portis yet again

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Though I'll cop to being 'round the moon for the novels of Charles Portis, I've only been a fan for a couple of years. (Thanks, Ed Park!) So presumably I can be forgiven for not knowing this story of one of the many times in the past four decades that he's been rediscovered:
The earliest inclusion in my Portis file was a 1984 story from the New York Times. . . . The story told of two bookstore employees in New York who were so smitten with Portis's five-year-old out-of-print novel The Dog of the South that they bought all 183 remaning hardcover copies (it had never appeared in paperback) and set them up as the sole window display in the Madison Avenue Bookshop. The books sold fast, to the curious and to those collared by the hand-selling bookstore staff.
The story comes from Jay Jennings's introduction to the new collection of Portis miscellany that he edited, Escape Velocity. Portis, sadly, is such a strange writer--too funny to be taken up by those who require their great novels to announce themselves as such; too haphazardly regional to be our designated national jester; too earnest in his ironies to be slotted comfortably, well, anywhere--that it seems likely he'll need to be rediscovered in perpetuity, exhumed with the pickaxes of praise once a generation or so.

The very existence of Escape Velocity, then, is a reason for celebration, a sign that for now the Portisean moon is in the seventh house, tarpaper and shotgun though its accompanying adjectives may be. Portis fans don't need my encouragement to plunk down twenty-eight of their ill-gotten dollars for it, but just in case, I'll offer up a passage--selected, mind you, nearly at random--to make my case. It comes from a four-part series on quitting smoking that Portis wrote for the International Herald Tribune in 1962:
Another day of lethargy in this bee-loud glade, trying to kick the smoking habit. It appears every one will make it but me.

I did, however, beat a kid at ping-pong three straight games. He had little short arms and all I had to do was tip the ball over the net out of his reach. So much for his nicotine-free lungs.
To think: the subscribers of 1962 had not a whit of context in which to place those sentences! What on earth would one think, sitting down to his shimmer-weak percolator coffee (and, let's be honest, breakfast cigarette), shaking straight the page, and reading this man's bragging about beating a child? But we know: those paragraphs are pure Portis.

Buy Portis. Read Portis. You'll be the better for it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Parachute packs, routines, and reading

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I've spent the past couple of weekends binging on Don Winslow novels, racing through The Dawn Patrol, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Savages, The Kings of Cool, and The Winter of Frankie Machine. In case you can't tell by the length of that list, I'm impressed: Winslow writes irresistible crime novels--fast-paced, smart, full of interesting, memorable characters and written with a wry humor in punchy, slang-filled sentences that he obviously had fun crafting. In addition, the southern California setting, centered around San Diego but running along the coast from Mexico to LA, is handled well. It's long been a truism that crime fiction needs to be rooted in a distinct locale, and while there are plenty of examples to the contrary (the Parker novels, for one), Winslow's books are a good reminder of what a well-described and fully understood setting can do: without being heavy-handed, each novel paints a bit more of the picture of SoCal crime past and present, high and low, secret and sanctioned, and taken together the panorama is richly peopled, extensive, and convincing. Though I'll probably bring my actual binge to a deliberate halt soon--all things in moderation, as Aristotle said, including all things in moderation--I'm glad that a bunch more Winslows will be waiting for me when I'm ready to return to him.

Two bits from The Winter of Frankie Machine, which I finished today, got me thinking and seemed worth sharing. The first comes when the Frankie of the title, a retired hit man, realizes he's in danger and has to run. He heads to an apartment he's kept as a bolt hole, and there he opens a safe that's in the closet:
Inside the safe is his "parachute pack"--an Arizona driver's license, an American Express Gold card and a Visa Gold card, all under the name Jerry Sabellico. Every month or so, he makes a phone purchase with the cards to keep them current, and pays them with checks from his Sabellico account. There's also ten thousand in cash in used, mixed bills.

And a new, clean, .38 Smith & Wesson with extra ammunition.
When I was a teenager and just getting into crime fiction, this was the sort of thing that would absolutely thrill me: it's like getting secret instructions for how to live life as a badass--just in case. Of course when you're an adult you should have a bolt hole, and of course it should have all those things in it.

Then you grow up, and you realize how glad you are that--no real surprise, let's be honest--you didn't end up living the kind of life that might require a quick getaway. Instead, you're living a life bound up in routine--which Winslow also addresses:
All Frank's days are busy, what with four businesses, an ex-wife, and a girlfriend to manage. The key to pulling it off is to stick to a routine, or at least try to.

He has tried--without conspicuous success--to explain this simple management technique to the kid Abe. "If you have a routine," he has lectured, "you can always deviate from it if something comes up. But if you don't have a routine, then everything is stuff that comes up. Get it?"
In some ways, though, even the routine as presented by crime novels is seductive: how many of us have actual routines that don't involve simply going to the office at roughly the same time every day? How many of us surf every morning then hit the same diner for breakfast? The detective (or the criminal, reformed or otherwise) chooses his routine rather than letting it bind him. Like the unchanging patterns of life at Nero Wolfe's brownstone, it's the comforting structure that we're supposed to fall for as readers, so that when the "stuff that comes up" happens, the disruption feels real and we're ready to go along for the ride.

Rather than a routine, what I have these days is a bunch of specific things I want to do each day. When I was a student, and then a young bookseller, I budgeted every week to the dollar (or, when I was selling books in the UK, to the pound). These days, I budget time to the hour instead, plotting days in advance when I'll make the space for running, for the piano, for writing. Habits rather than actual routine rule my days, the difference being that habits are easily rearranged, re-sorted--and few blocks of time fail to be earmarked in advance.

I think it's a good sign that such a situation doesn't even begin to make me long for a bolt hole, a parachute pack, or the sort of life where those are needed. It does, however, make me grateful for the occasional weekend that offers some wide open spaces for doing little but reading crime novels--and even more for a weekend when that reading turns out so well.

Friday, November 09, 2012

In Russia . . .

Wednesday's post drew on an odd little novel that Melville House just republished as part of their Neversink Library, William Gerhardie's Futility (1922). Gerhardie was born of British parents in Russia, and he lived there until enlisting in the British army at the outbreak of World War I, when he was seventeen. Futility a novel of comic despair, is drawn from his experiences as part of the British military's attempts to disrupt the Bolshevik Revolution in the years right after the war. It offers delicately funny portraits of a family of minor aristocrats who blithely continue their feckless ways as the revolution rages around them, and of the young narrator's amusement, irritation, and unrequited love.

Gerhardie has a suitable eye for the absurd, which is of course required for anyone, Russian or not, writing about Russia in that period (or any?), and the book is full of the sort of silliness, self-regard, and charming grandiosity that we are familiar with from Tolstoy's comic characters, or the most dissolute of Dostoevky's passionate lunatics--wrapped round with Gerhardie's wry observations of them. This assessment of the family patriarch is a good example:
Nikolai Vasilievich was very bitter. He had regarded the war almost as a deliberate attempt of providence to complicate his already very complicated domestic situation, and considering that providence had had the satisfaction of achieving its pernicious end, it seemed he could not understand the necessity of a revolution. "Malignity! Malignity!" he muttered, lowering the blinds, as if to show that he, at any rate, would have nothing to do with it.
I enjoyed this bit as well, with its Russian take on English lit:
"You in England are fortunate indeed. You have serious, moral writers who think of the good of the race and really teach you something positive, constructive and worth while. You have Byron and Oscar Wilde . . . "

Like so many other people in Russia, Fanny Ivanovna believed that England has three great outstanding writers: Byron, Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde.
I'll admit to surprise that Dickens isn't of their number, given Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's regard for him.

There are also scenes of straight comedy, like this account of a night in new lodgings alongside the narrator's superior, a British Admiral:
Then in the small hours of the morning [the Admiral]  was wakened by the noise of a dog that ran through the half-open door of his bedroom in pursuit of a cat. I heard the Admiral strike a match, then jump out of bed and fumble with his stick under the bed and cupboards and chest of drawers, evidently looking for the animals. I went in to him and offered my services in the chase.

"Can you see the dog?" came the Admiral's sturdy voice from under a cupboard.

"I'm looking for the cat, sir."

"Cat! Where did that come from?"

"I saw it run into your room after a rat."


"I did, sir, and the dog ran in after the cat."

We fumbled with our sticks.

"I don't believe there was a rat," said the Admiral.

"There was, sir. I saw it myself."

"I don't mind the dog so much. Cats I hate. But I can't stick the rat. Why did you tell me?"

I did not answer this.

"Can't find them, sir," I said, rising.

"They've gone, I hope," said the Admiral.

"They've hidden themselves somewhere, I think."

"Damn them! I shan't be able to sleep all night."

"Good night, sir," said I.

The Admiral could not sleep. I heard him get out of bed and fumble with his stick beneath the furniture. I think the uncertainty of the whereabouts of the animals disturbed his peace of mind. Then I heard him creep into bed, and all was still. I could just hear the rain drum against the window-pane; and I thought that by now the cat had probably eaten up the rat.
The comedy isn't up to the level of Waugh, or even Anthony Powell--of whose scenes of army life that vignette recalls--but it's satisfying nonetheless, and the "only in Russia" aspect of it makes it all the more fun. (If only the dog had been followed by a bear!)

Thinking of Russian bears makes me realize that the book that Futility most reminds me of is Penelope Fitzgerald's The Beginning of Spring. It, too, tells of an Englishman in Russia as the revolution nears, and while that book has an air of mystery and a beautiful spareness of prose that Gerhardie's can't match (and, to be fair, doesn't attempt), in their pictures of a culture half-grasped, yet forever elusive, they feel like kin. And given how highly I think of Fitzgerald's achievement in that novel, that's high praise.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Wall? What wall? Oh, this one I've been banging my head against? That's not a wall--that's clearly a pillow!

Oh, Melville House--how I envy your Neversink Library!

Today, in honor of Karl Rove's gobsmacked face, I share the following, from William Gerhardie's Futility (1922), which I happened to be reading today:
General Bologoevski, on my left, was holding forth on the situation.

"Looks pretty hopeless," I remarked.

"Not a bit of it," rejoined the General.

"But they are retreating everywhere."

"On purpose," said the General.

"But whatever for?"

"Well, there was a conference of generals . . . I presume . . . who have decided it. I think it a good thing myself."


"Well . . . we'll entrap them."

"I am most pessimistic."

"I am perfectly optimistic--quite certain of victory."

"Why, General?"


"He is advancing very slowly."

"Ah, but he is about to enter Great Russian territory."

"Well, what's there in that?"

"Why," he explained,"the Great Russians are the only real decent Russians. I am a Great Russian myself."

I nodded with significance, as if to indicate that this made all the difference in the situation.
Alternative responses our narrator might have chosen: slow chin-stroking; painfully deliberate winks; snappy, tilt-headed two-finger salutes; deep, fulsome bows. And, of course, my preferred option: backing away very, very slowly.

Monday, November 05, 2012


Two very quick addenda to Friday's post about hangovers and drinking. The first one comes from A Place in Time, Wendell Berry's wonderful new collection of stories about the Port William Membership, whose lives and histories he's beeƄn chronicling for decades now. It's found in "A Burden," which tells of Uncle Peach, a well-meaning ne'er-do-well and drunk:
Oe afternoon Burley Coulter came upon Uncle Peach in front of a roadhouse down by Hargrave. Uncle Peach had been drinking evidently a lot of whiskey and also eating evidently a lot of pickled food from the bar. He had just finished vomiting upon the body of a dead cat, at which he was now gazing in great asotnishment.

"Well, what's the matter, old Peach?"

"Why, Burley," Uncle Peach said. "I remember them pigs' feet and that baloney, but I got no recollection whatsoever of that cat."
That one's gross; the next one's horrible. It comes from Stefan Kiesbye's strange and satisfying little book of horrible stories (think Grimm's Fairy Tales crossed with a more sordid Gashleycrumb Tinies) Your House Is On Fire, Your Children All Gone:
He drank until his sweat turned pink.
And with that, well, the coffee is brewing and Monday's tired of waiting.

Friday, November 02, 2012

On that feeling of overnight having had 95% of the cells in your body secretly replaced by unfathomably pure, lab-grade regret

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of my many sure-to-be-unfulfilled ambitions is to edit an anthology of literature's great hangover scenes. The centerpiece would of course be Lucky Jim, whose recent republication by NYRB Classics is plenty of reason to quote it again:
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Good god, that "tarry shingle of morning," the "dusty thudding," the cross-country run. The whole passage trips off the tongue--or would, that is, were the tongue not coated on waking in what seems to be the matted pubic hair of a syphilitic muppet.

Amis also addressed the subject in his book Everyday Drinking:
When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk.
Amis, as you probably know, was something of an expert at both the putting in and the sweating out of the stuff. Cyril Connolly is another who was no stranger to the bottle, and in his sole novel, The Rock Pool, he dealt expertly with its consequences:
Naylor woke late, with a hang-over. It was relatively a new sensation for him, for he was proud of a certain donnish temperance. He would take two whiskies at night and suddenly round on those of his friends who had a third one. Not that he minded, only it seemed rather childish; remember the law of diminishing returns? And why make yourself sick the next day? But strangely enough he was not sick--instead he seemed to be spun up in a kind of voluptuous cocoon. The sun streamed in over the purple bougainvillea. He tottered down to the sea. Lying on his back, the curious sensation was stronger, his stomach seemed made of wool, his throat felt some rich sensual craving, his mind floated among a multitude of sensations, all his senses were slowed up to an unusual delicacy. He masticated a line of Eliot: "The notion of some infinitely tender, infinitely suffering thing." Opening his eyes, the sky and sand were grey as a photograph, his antennae played over the tiny crystals, women's brown legs passed him on the board-walk, but he could not look up. "You see in me a creature in the most refined state of intoxication," he thought, and waves of sensual and lotophagous reminiscence swept over him.
Much as I love the martini, I'll cop to a certain "donnish temperance" myself--one tends to suffice--and I doubt I'm alone in this, our (thank god) more liver-conscious age. In these more temperate times, perhaps it's too much to hope for new entrants to the tippler's TOC?

Fortunately, British novelist Will Wiles has come to the rescue: one of the many great pleasures of his smart, funny, even scabrous new novel Care of Wooden Floors is its splendid rendering of a hangover.

But we'd be doing the memory of Lord Rochester a disservice if we skipped straight to the consequences and neglected the earning of the hangover! First let's get the protagonist--a mostly directionless young Brit who is house-sitting for a particularly particular friend in an eastern European city--drunk. With a friend of said friend who is a musician and (thus?) a committed drinker. Ah, yes, here it comes:
My brain felt thick with scabs, old and new. It was full of wine, it rotated, looked close to spilling.
And that's before they even get to the strip club:
The tide of alcohol was coming back in, dissolving these arguments, mushing them into short-circuiting feedback loops, eating away at ethics, at second thoughts, at broader contexts, at tomorrows and consequences. Amber bumped and ground, and the drink revealed a simple formula on the smeared palimpsest of my mind: seek pleasure. . . . The beer was not helping me as I thought it had been--it had been lying to me. I thought of fermentation, of yeast, of gases, of microbial processes. The wine churned, and came close to spilling.
If only he'd been drinking in Springfield, Homer could have told him that the beer was lying.

And it does spill. Oh, does it spill. But he at least makes it back home, somehow, only to be greeted by the morning:
White noise. Indistinct sound, beneath hearing, the growl and whoosh of blood forcing through tight passages. A two-part beat, the slave-driver's padded drumsticks rising and falling as an exhausted muscle trereme heaves across a treacle ocean. A heart, pumping hot, thick goo in place of blood. Cells striving and dying. The electricity of the brain whining like an insectocutor. A cascade of neural sparks, an ascending, crackling chain reaction, synapses firing. Sensation--the sensation of no sensation. Then, awareness.

A cosmos of pain, discomfort, sickness, and weakness. I was awake. At first, everything seemed to be pain, but this was an illusion brought on by apparent damage to the sensory apparatus. The brain. The brain hurt. It was a sinkhole of pain, dragging all other senses in. Each beat of the drum, each stroke of the oars, simply scooped more sensation towards that pulsing black point of hurt. My heart was going to give up and get sucked into my head, it would explode, and I would die in bed.

In bed. So I was in bed. I realised that this was a good sign.
Or, as Withnail once put it, "I feel like a pig shat in my head." The growing awareness of the extent of his pain continues for three more extravagant pages. "Committees of investigation" are formed to determine that, yes, he is merely hungover. But oh, that merely:
My body was made from wads of soggy material inexpertly lashed together with stringy sinews. The wads composed of the worst stuff possible--bad milk, wine turned to vinegar, chewed gum, earwax, the black crud that accrues on the bottom of computer mice.
The whole scene is the work of a writer having fun with words, and it definitely earns Wiles a place in my chimerical anthology.

And with that, I'll pour the night's lone martini and settle in at the piano to play some Johnny Mercer. Now there was a man who could put it away.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The perpetual past-ness of good ghost stories

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In his introduction to last year's Oxford edition of M. R. James's Collected Ghost Stories, editor Darryl Jones quotes from James's introduction to a 1924 anthology, Ghosts and Marvels, describing it as the "nearest James ever came to a statement of theoretical principles about his chosen form." Wrote James,
Well, then: two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and a nicely-managed crescendo.
That's fine so far as it goes, though hardly an advance on Poe. It's the next portion that I find of interest: Jones explains that James thinks
The ghost story also properly belongs in the past--not necessarily the distant past; but it is important that its setting and concerns be at least a generation out of date, in a world which pre-dates technological modernity:
The detective story cannot be too much up-to-date: the motor, the telephone, the aeroplane, the newest slang, are all in place there. For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. "Thirty years ago," "Not long before the war," are very proper openings.
Writing in 1924, James clearly conceived of his chosen form--conceived of himself--as fundamentally Victorian . . . or at best Edwardian.
I've been thinking about those lines off and on all month. Is James right? Do ghost stories, told best, belong perpetually thirty years ago? Or was that argument specific to his era, the difference between pre-war and postwar, the long sensecence of the old ways versus the birth of the modern?

Well, what's a blog for if not half-baked thoerizing? Though James's position offers nothing like a universal truth--the right writer can scare with almost anything, any time--I suspect it's still a useful way of thinking about scary stories in the near-century since he wrote it. My first inclination was to separate actual ghost stories from what I think of as the larger category of "October stories"--cull the creeps from the skin-crawlies, in essence. For ghosts, broadly defined, rather than any human manifestations of evil, were James's stock in trade. But then I thought of Ray Bradbury's perpetual 1930s--the story "The Whole Town Was Sleeping," for example, from 1950, but which tells of a slasher on the loose in a city where people still walk to the moviehouse, sit on their porches, take in boarders, chat with their neighbors. . . . Or John Collier's delicious little mousetraps, written throughout the first half of the century, but, like the stories of Wodehouse (a clear influence) located in a vague, semi-modern past. Then there are Stephen King's regular returns to a dark but also alluring 1950s. Perhaps James is on to a broader truth about how we want to take our scares?

This ties in, it's reasonable to assume, with two major threads in storytelling: the "once upon a time" compact, wherein we readers agree with the writer that if he'll tell a good story, we'll suspend disbelief, an operation more easily achieved the less we're forced to acknowledge the presence of our daily mundanity in the tale; and the fact that we first encounter stories as children, when we have the fewest intellectual and emotional defenses against them. There's a reason that writers from Tolstoy to King have obsessed over childhood--and it's not because it's some greeting card-style magic unicortopia. It's because we are still forming ourselves, and thus the world, still figuring out not only what is and what isn't, but what can and what can't be, what ought and what ought not. We are susceptible, and as adults the best way to draw us in is to remind us of that susceptibility. Make us children again, however briefly, and we're yours.

All of which leads me to a question: to keep up with James's ever-shifting window, should we now be falling for ghost stories about the early 1980s? Those years seem so plastic, so artificial, that they initially seem inhospitable to spirits.

But then you start to picture it: that party your parents threw that one hot summer night, where you and your sister were pressed into serving drinks--and told how adorable you were by James, or Jimmy, with his twitchy, red-flecked eyes, kissed on the cheek by mom's friend with the smears of glittery eyeliner. Dad's cousin got on all fours and barked like a dog and scratched at the orange shag with his leg; everyone laughed and laughed. Sheila dropped an ashtray on the kitchen floor, where it shattered, sending plumes of gray dust poofing and swirling through the room, and she said a bad word. Your sister plugged into Mom's Walkman and fell asleep early under the side table, headphones over her ears, music so loud you could hear it if you stood over there.

But you stayed awake, increasingly weary as the night drew in, like you could actually feel your bones. The conversations grew louder and more demonstrative, your mom and dad acting strange, funny and wrong at the same time. Then, feeling disoriented by the noise and smoke and music, even a little queasy, you glanced out the front window and saw on the lawn, almost glowing in the midst of the darkness, the guy in the camel-hair jacket, holding the hand of that little boy and staring, staring in at the party. And just looking at the two of them made you so sad it was like something was being taken from you, something you hadn't even known you had but now realized you desperately, tearfully wanted to keep.

Remember? All these years later, surely you remember. You have to remember, because no one else saw them; no one else would even listen when you tugged at their hands and tried to tell them. Even your sister refused to believe you the next day. But how could she? She didn't see them. She didn't have to stand there, transfixed, and read the man's lips.

Friday, October 26, 2012

City life--and afterlife?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Some atmospheric urban horrors for your Friday night, from a letter H. P. Lovecraft sent to Bernard Austin Dwyer on March 26, 1927:
The key-note of the whole setting--house, neighbourhood, and shop, was that of loathsome and insidious decay, masked just enough by the reliques of former splendour and beauty to add terror and mystery and the fascination of crawling motion to a deadness and dinginess otherwise static and prosaic. I conceived the idea that the great brownstone house was a malignly sentient thing--a dead, vampire creature which sucked something out of those within it and implanted in them the seeds of some horrible and immaterial psychic growth. Every closed door seemed to hide some brooding crime--or blasphemy too deep to form a crime in the crude and superficial calendar of earth.
I love that "fascination of crawling motion"--and the transposition of Lovecraft's twisted rural horrors to the rectilinear city. We urban dwellers house our horrors, too, and find a place for our petrified isolation despite the press of the crowd.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"My province is that dim realm where night clutches the worlds," or, Reading Lovecraft's letters

In this too-busy week, I've been finding time to dip into Lovecraft's letters. Dipping is the only sensible approach; spend too much time with Lovecraft and his less palatable side (thoroughgoing racism) starts to show. But a bit at a time, and skimmed for commentary on writers, writing, and horror, they can be quite rewarding.

Today I'll simply share a passage from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long on May 3, 1922:
To me Poe is the apex of fantastic art--there was in him a vast and cosmic vision which no imitator has been able to parallel. It is no wonder that his work was totally devoid of the sensual, because his dominant excitant lay outside the domain of human relationships altogether. His was the true awe of the atom in the presence of the infinite--the essentially intellectual wonder of one who looks out upon the whirling, grotesque, and unfathomable abysses which engulf the entire world, yet of which the sensually-minded are utterly unconscious.
Later in the letter, Lovecraft hedges--but only a bit:
There may be something rather sophomoric in my intense and unalterable devotion to Poe; a devotion which has lasted for some twenty-five years without diminution; but I do not think it is so far amiss as the average ultra-modern would hasten to pronounce it. Poe was beyond anything this age can produce, and is so far America's sole contribution to the general current of world literature. He is the father of most of the redeeming features of decadent literature, and differs from the actual decadents in that they have failed to comprehend the magnificent and ultra-human point of view on which his unique writings are based.
It does remain fascinating how, after all these years, Poe remains sui generis. What other minds, for good or bad, have we seen like his?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thirteen thoughts on reading Stephen King's It at thrity-seven, twenty-one years after I first read it

Spoilers, like ghouls, may abound in the too-long post below. Consider this your warning (about the former; as for the latter you're on your own. It's October, after all).

1 If you were a teenager diving into the work of Stephen King in 1990, two books towered over all his others: The Stand and It. There was an obvious reason: they were the biggest, easily, clocking in at 1,200 and 1,100 pages, respectively. But It loomed larger for a more important reason: where The Stand was freaky, mind-bending, and extravagant, It was scary. Everyone you knew who'd read it said it was the scariest book they'd ever read. Including your sister, who knew scary books. So you devoured it. And it was.

2 All these years later, I retain an acknowledged soft spot for King. Oh, all the people who take to book review and op-ed pages, real or virtual, every couple of years to rehash the now-tired complaints about him have plenty of points. In fact, they're usually right about most of the details of their critique. HIs prose can be clunky, even laughably shoddy at times. He is unabashed about going for the gross-out. His dialogue is often terrible. But in at least eight or ten books, that doesn't matter a whit, because they simply work: these are machines designed to frighten you, and, teen or adult, they do.

3 One critique that the genre-guarding op-ed tut-tutters never seem to make is that King isn't funny. But he isn't--and he thinks he is. I bet he's funny (in a goofy uncle sort of way) in person, but on the page his jokes, usually found in dialogue, fall completely flat, barely eliciting a groan. As someone who prizes comedy in novels, I'm surprised again and again by how often King makes what he obviously thinks are jokes . . . and how hard it is to imagine even him actually laughing at them.

4 I remembered It being the scariest book I'd ever read. More than two decades later, it's still scary. The opening--which in the afterword to Cemetery Dance's twenty-fifth-anniversary edition King says he came up with only after figuring out the basic contours of his story--remains incredibly effective. What could be more terrifying than for a boy, having summoned up enough bravery to look into a storm drain--already a source of visceral fear of a non-supernatural sort--to see something alive down there? And to have that something be a clown? A clown who knows his name? We've all known about Pennywise for so long now that it's hard to imagine just how effective that first appearance must have been; even with foreknowledge, the scene remains satisfyingly chilling.

5 That scene--and especially the vicious, animalistic physical violence of Pennywise's attack when it comes--looms over the rest of the book, which, contrary to my memories, never quite reaches that level of fright again. And it's in part because of a relative lack of physicality: Pennywise and It spend most of the book tormenting the characters through visions rather than physical danger. Some of the visions (fortune cookies that spurt blood, for example) are plenty creepy, but for much of the book it's hard to believe the characters are in any physical danger. Whether it's because I'd encountered them before, or because I'm older and less susceptible, the visions simply weren't as frightening as I'd remembered.

6 One aspect of the book, however, is much more interesting when read in adulthood: that it all starts with a bunch of people in their late thirties receiving a phone call telling them it's time to make good on a promise that's now twenty-seven years old--a promise that, until that second, they don't remember at all. Once remembered, however, it has an irresistible power, drawing them inexorably back into the fight they thought they'd finished when they were teens.

That set-up allows King to cut back and forth between the heroes fighting It as eleven-year-olds and their struggles to work up the emotional, intellectual, and physical strength and courage to fight him again as adults. It's an incredibly effective way to dramatize the book's true themes of the difficulties of growing up and the surprising power and resilience that we have, even if we may not realize it, when we're children. It also can't help but draw us in: is there any way of being sure that we didn't make a similar promise at some point in our youth? Any way to know that we won't ever receive such a phone call?

7 In the afterword to the Cemetery Dance edition, King writes explicitly about that theme:
I worked on the book in a dream. I remember very little about the writing of it, except for the idea that I'd gotten hold of something that felt very big to me, and something that talked about more than monsters. To me, It has always been a book about making the terrible transition over the bridge from childhood to adulthood (it's no accident that the final act Bill and his friends perform as child heroes is sexual).

8 The end of that quote alludes to the moment in the book that was, when I first read it, the most shocking: when the teens, in order to seal their bond and be able to defeat it, have sex. Teenage me, you might imagine, didn't really know what to make of that, and it bulked hugely in my memory for more than twenty years. But when I returned to the book as an adult, I found that the scene passes quickly, important but not outsized, in the midst of a number of surprise and struggles. Is it just that I already knew about it this time around, or is it nothing more than a function of being older? (I've also long wondered what that scene is like for a woman to read rather than a man--since King is a man and all but one of the characters is a boy, there is an imbalance that even the teenage me found uncomfortable.) Its inclusion is a strange, gutsy, and, yes, uncomfortable decision, but it doesn't color the whole novel the way it did when I was a teen.

9 That said, the ending overall, which I'd remembered being disappointing, like so many of King's endings, actually worked much better for me this time around. When I was a teen, what I wanted was a clear, complete explanation of who and what Pennywise and It were. (Much like at the same age I wanted an explicit, numbered list of Spenser's rules for living from Robert Parker.) To find that they were essentially ancient, cosmic concepts that are almost incomprehensible was a disappointment. Older, more prepared to accept that some, if not most, things are ultimately inexplicable, I didn't find myself minding it at all.

10 Elsewhere in the afterword to the Cemetery Dance edition, King explains why he decided to make It manifest itself in familiar horror movie forms:
I began thinking about the differences between our childhood fears--monsters, abandonment, monsters, mistreatment, monsters, bullies, monsters--and our more mundane adult fears, like whether or not our job's insurance program covers dental. It seemed to me that we forgot the vividness of those childhood fears as we grew to adults, which might make us uniquely vulnerable to them if they ever came back . . . not as the shadows of tree-limbs on the wall or an imagined movie-poster monster in the closet, but as real things.
The Lovecraftian idea of the mind broken by a horror too great for it to comprehend is a powerful one, and King plays nicely with the different ways that might work with the very different minds of adults and children. One thing I would find hard about parenting, if I had to do it, would be that: the realization that children's fears are as real and powerful as any of our own--more so, perhaps--and that there's only so much we can do to allay them. And, more to King's point, that if we had, as adults, to deal with the uncertainty, powerlessness, and sheer vivid imaginative malleability of our young lives, we just might snap.

11 King has long been obsessed with childhood, as are many imaginative writers, but It is, I think the place where he makes the best use of it (with, perhaps, the exception of "The Body"). What's long puzzled me--and perhaps should be the subject of a standalone post--is the power of his nostalgia. As a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I don't have it at all. I have fond memories of family and friends and experiences, but I'm under absolutely no illusions that things were better, or more interesting, then. King, though . . . well, I wonder. He's obsessed with the rock music of that period, for example, seeming to still view it as a liberating force. Then there are bicycles and bullies and rock fights and and muscle cars and exploring and all the other incidentals of childhood, all seen through a relatively rosy haze. And that nostalgia started early--he wasn't even forty when he wrote It. Is this a generational trait or a personal one?

12 Speaking of generational traits: one strange omission in It is Vietnam. King cleverly comes up with the idea of all his heroes being childless--a penalty, they only later intuit, for their first victory over It. But while he sketches out their lives between 1957 and 1984 in some detail, Vietnam doesn't, if I remember correctly, come up at all. Yet they should have lost friends and family members, felt the fear and horror of it themselves. It's an odd omission, and I can't figure out whether it's intentional.

13 King's generation is famously skeptical of authority. That skepticism not infrequently verged into paranoia--a paranoia that, while understandable, makes some cultural products of the late 1960s and early 1970s tough to take nowadays, when we live in a more open, if no less easy, relationship with the darker aspects of our society, our government, and our elders. That paranoia underlies much of It, in the sense that the town itself, through its silence, is complicit in the horrors of its history.

But to me what feels more powerful, and much more frightening, is the sense of the ancient nature of the evil. We are but small people in a vast cosmos, and out there somewhere in that vastness there are powers. We rile them at our risk.