Over the holiday weekend I read three books, 2 of which I will describe in brief at the end of this: SCREAM, by Tama Janowitz; and PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov, and then, one of those books that fill a reader with joy, the pages of which introduce you to a new author to whom you can turn when you need to say, “AHHH, this is what writing is and reading should be!” I start with this:
Behold the first thirty-four words of The Way She Handles, the opening story in Patrick Ryan’s collection, The Dream Life Of Astronauts:
“Late one night during the summer of Watergate, I was in bed reading a Hardy Boys novel by flashlight when a car pulled into our cul-de-sac, its headlights sweeping the walls of my room.”
That sentence tells the reader at least ten things about the narrator and one thing about the writer; he’s incredibly gifted. I was so enraptured by the promise of the opening line, I hesitated to read on, fearing disappointment. Instead, I found a new favorite author.
I suppose I ought to have expected as much since the book was blurbed by Ann Patchett, no slouch in the writing department herself. And I then discovered a chat between the two on her Parnassus Books site. Click here for that.
The Way She Handles is about four lonely people, isolated together, which is less oxymoron than miracle of writing, managing to capture the damage people do to one another just by virtue of proximity. Like many of the stories in the collection, members of these fractured, fragile families Mr. Ryan so vividly captures, resent one another, often for an absence — whether it be physical, there is much abandonment herein, or emotional, in that those others we love seem never to appreciate enough how we love them, what we do for them, what we’ve sacrificed for them.
The title story, The Dream Life Of Astronauts, is one of the finest, most moving, layered stories I’ve read since Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck collection. In it, space-nerd Frankie, who is sixteen, almost seventeen, is awe-struck by an almost astronaut he thinks he is stalking; but who is pursuing whom and what they both gain and lose in their misapprehensions about one another make for a tale both hilarious and horrifying. When we meet Frankie again, much later in the collection in a treasure called Earth, Mostly, well, I wept.
Part of the genius of this collection is that while each story stands alone, they all take place near Cape Canaveral and some of the characters reappear, having changed (rarely for the better) in the way people do when you’ve known them for long years but haven’t seen them for ages; upon recognizing them and realizing who they were and what they’ve come to you gasp the “Oh, shit, that could be me,” sort of panic.
Like Bonnie Jo Campbell in her glorious collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters [click here], Mr. Ryan imbues his characters with a native wisdom and a real-life, real-people, day-in-day-out acceptance of their lives and realities. They may have tragedy, they may have regret, but they go on, they trudge, they cope through the terror of life in lower-middle-class America, where all the dreams and possibilities politicians are always blathering on about are pretty much acknowledged to be the things that happen to people not like us; happiness is a thing mostly out of reach.
I loved this book. I cannot recommend it enough. Which was a nice feeling after the two books I read right before it.
SCREAM: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, by Tama Janowitz, hardcover, 304 pages, Dey Street Books
This was a terribly depressing memoir to which I was led because a few people I know on Twitter were talking about it. But, yuck. I quote;
“I found rotten people to be more interesting. What made them the way they were? Thankfully, I found that even nice and decent human beings are pretty rotten as well.”
One can imagine the sort of unhappiness and bleak existence experienced by someone with that cosmology. I feel sorry for her. I’m sorry I read this. And, not only was it unpleasant, but it was poorly edited with many repeated lines and fragments of semi-stories and bitternesses. Just — no.
And then, in my never-ending quest to prove autodidacticism is a viable alternative to a degree, I decided I just had to read what was recently called in print “Vladimir Nabokov’s genius gay classic”;
PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov, Hardcover, 239 pages, Everyman’s Library, 1992
Clearly, my lack of formal education has rendered me unable to appreciate what others (many, many others) have called an ingenious masterpiece of form and structure. Well, okay. But, let me tell you an embarrassing little tale about my writing. Once upon a time I wrote a weekly column and theatre reviews for a small on-line magazine. Its publisher invited a former New York Times editor to workshop with us and he said to me; “Do me and all your readers a favor, confine your masturbatory urges to your private time. If you’re working that hard to prove to us how smart you are, we’re never gonna believe you anyway. Dial it back.”
Of course I got furious. Of course he was right. Now, I am NOT comparing myself to Nabokov, but it strikes me that Pale Fire wasn’t written for — as Dorothy Parker called us — The Common Reader, but rather, for other writers and graduate students enthralled by the technical aspects of literature and rubbing-one-another off about how clever and intellectual they all are.
Listen, I’m not much interested in flipping back and forth and deep-deep delving into a book to appreciate its genius. Truth: I’d rather jack off myself.
Later kids, Love and Light.