I am almost done reading a very remarkable book. Actually, it’s not really a book, it’s seven novellas about one man, a mysterious character by the name of Maqroll the Gaviero. He is too complex to really describe, but I suppose I might try: he is an adventurer first and formost, preferably by sea, but he is not in it for the excitment. His travels are constant because it is his compulsion. He is a lover of the world and ships and beautiful women. He is an excellent judge of character, though he is often drawn into disregarding his own judgements. He encounters many fascinating characters, and we follow as well the Gaviero’s companions and trusted friends, Abdul Bashur (Dreamer of Ships) and Ilona Rubenstein (the Nymph of Trieste).The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is, dare I say it, on par with and even surpasses the work of Borges and Garcia Marquez. These novellas span the globe like no book ever has. Maqroll visits every continent and sniffs out schemes and companions in every port. This Maqroll, he is no vain adventurer, no hero. He is tortured by his restlessness. He is at the same time a most exceptional man, well-read and loyal, courteous and brave when bravery is required. And yet he is so fragile. I worry about Maqroll as he is blown about the globe by the whims of a strange fate. I am almost done with the 7th and final novella. I have almost reached the last of the 700 pages, but I am not ready to say good bye. This Maqroll, he can really get ahold of you. I have read some books, and though I am by no means an expert, I can say that this book will have to be a classic. It is just so good.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I’ve heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven’t been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself… wouldn’t it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It’s a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn’t it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with “Unless you’ve been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan… have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you’ve heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix… The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes… ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You’ll notice on the Amazon page that it says “in stock June 25.” That’s because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we’ve gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we’ve probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens’ section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she’s making. As for the book itself, I doubt I’ll be reading it any time soon, but here’s what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it’s because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it’s because I’ve found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose “register of frustration and deprivation” leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can’t live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can’t put this book down. He’s like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It’s a treat.
If my college had offered a class on the New Yorker, I definitely would have taken it, but it didn’t, and, until today, I wasn’t aware that any colleges did. What a great idea for a class. Last fall, Prof. Bryant Mangum of Virginia Commonwealth University taught a class called Literature in Society: The New Yorker. Each class is constructed like an issue of the magazine with the assignments divided into these parts: Goings on About Town, The Talk of the Town, Features: Fact/Fiction, The Critics, Poems. Aside from the magazine itself, required reading includes classic New Yorker fiction. Perhaps coolest of all is Mangum’s Miscellany page which includes scans of a New Yorker rejection slip, note and check.
I noticed that in the past few days several people have come to this blog after searching Andrei Codrescu and hurricane. Codrescu, a Romanian poet, writer and NPR commentator, is a favorite of mine and when I realized that he makes his home in New Orleans, I became worried that he might be missing. I’m guessing that those searching for him on Google are worried, too. In an interview a little more than a year ago Codrescu, like so many others, dismissed the threat to New Orleans:Standaert: You live in New Orleans, which could be submerged in a matter of a few short hours if a ‘category five’ hurricane hits the city full bore. Does this frighten you? Sorry if I brought it to mind! I’ve heard other residents say with a devil may care wave of the hand that it would be appropriate if New Orleans was Pompeii-ed, Atlantis-ed, or otherwise Sodom and Gomorra-ed. Are these people nuts? Or does living in New Orleans breed a laissez faire attitude toward eminent apocalypse? Is it the decadent caramelized, sugar powdered, steaming apple beignets?Codrescu: So what’s living in San Francisco like? Or L.A.? Or New York? Or anywhere on the path of Comet from Hell? Be serious, Mike. This just ain’t a safe universe. People in New Orleans get great pleasure out of possible disaster just like Venetians do: they are in a hurry to make beauty because they are so close to the elemental (fury) gods. But anyone who decided to be boring because they live on a rock under the desert, is either crazy or hasn’t taken enough LSD. Or they may just be boring, which is incurable. There is nothing sicker than a bunker.I was relieved to hear that Codrescu is safe and in Baton Rouge. Yesterday he mourned on NPR. Like so many others he is both chastened by the wrath of Mother Nature and angry that his beloved city has been destroyed.
10. Angstrom and Zuckerman Fistfight in Heaven, by John Updike, as told to Philip Roth“World-weary Lieutenant Nathan Zuckerman’s got one day left until retirement. But when the district commander pairs him with hot-headed rookie Rabbit Angstrom, s–t gets bananas..”9. Moms are Not Nice, by Christopher Hitchens“The next in this droll Englishman’s series of fearless attempts to speak truth to power. To be followed in 2009 by Your Furniture is Ugly.”8. War & Peace Redux: The Official Restored Director’s Cut (with Deleted Scenes and Commentary)“Finally, experience this great novel as the author intended it! 3,000 pages of previously unreleased material flesh out Prince Andrew’s sordid backstory, and introduce us to one of Tolstoy’s greatest creations, ‘Crazy Uncle Louie.'”7. Cookin’ with the Franz, by Jonathan Franzen“Learn how to cook, the Jonathan Franzen way!”6. Tammy O’Shanter and the Curse of the Missing Cowpoke, by Michael Chabon“Once again, the award-winning novelist puts his unique stamp on our favorite fictional genres: in this case, Horror, Western, and Leprechaun.”5. Bigger Than You and You are Not Me or Him and Her, by Miranda July“Envelope-pushing first novel.”4. How We Became You and What It May Mean, Someday, Someday, Never by Dave Eggers“Envelope-pushing story collection.”3. Ten Days Later in the Hills, by Jane Smiley“A group of chatty and libidinous zombies retreat to the Hollywood Hills for a week of stimulating politico-philosophical dialogue and sexual athleticism. That’s right: zombies.”2. A Perfectly Fine Generation, by Tom Brokaw“Just in time for Father’s Day, Brokaw brings Baby Boomers a much-needed reminder that, hey, they’re just fine.”1. Finite Jest, by David Foster Wallace“The expurgated version (180 pp).”[*Editor’s Note: Not Actual Books]
Noah’s post reminded me that I’ve been meaning to direct readers to an amazing project being undertaken by Chicago-based photographer Jason Lazarus. “The Nirvana Project” asks participants to document, in words and images, the people who turned them on to Nirvana. A gallery of the responses Jason has received so far can be viewed at www.jasonlazarus.com. (click on “images,” then “Nirvana.”)Jason is contributing a photo to a book I’m doing, and asked me if I wanted to contribute something to “The Nirvana Project” in return. Here’s what I came up with: The person who introduced me to the band Nirvana was a kid named Jeff Smith, who had a mullet and a habit of peeling skin from his palms and fingers and eating it during class. He wrote, “here we are now, entertain us” on the blackboard of my 7th Grade math classroom. We were the kids who got to math class early, if that says anything about the Nirvana audience.It even has the virtue of being true. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with a picture of Jeff Smith to go along with the text. But if you’ve got a photo of your Nirvana sherpa, check out Jason’s project statement and participate.
In the back office of my bookstore, folks are already abuzz about this year’s Book Expo in Chicago. Book Expo is probably the largest publishing convention in the world, but if you talk to booksellers, they typically bemoan the crowds and the hectic atmosphere of the Expo weekend. However, this year’s keynote speaker happens to be former prez Bill Clinton who will be pushing his new — and as of this writing, not yet completed — memoir, My Life (“The president came up with the title,” says attorney Robert Barnett, who handles Clinton’s literary endeavors.) Also from this Washington Post article about the Clinton book: a first printing of 1.5 million copies and the first of what will likely be legions of sales comparisons with Hillary’s blockbuster. Hillel Italie of the AP hopes that Clinton will depart from all previous presidential memoirs by providing readers and historians with some actual insights (LINK). I would rate the chances of this as extremely slim. And David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times believes that the timing of the book’s release is purely political (LINK). Meanwhile, back in bookseller land, Book Expo attendees are bracing themselves for the media furor that is sure to accompany the book’s unveiling.