I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
Yesterday, I was watching the headlines as I often do, and I was shocked to see the obituary for Bebe Moore Campbell, author of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, 72 Hour Hold, and many other books, come across the wires. She died, at 56, from complications of brain cancer. Campbell was a well-known writer, but that is not how I came to know her. For a year, when I lived in Los Angeles, she was my landlord.I first met her as the stern Mrs. Gordon – her full name was Elizabeth Bebe Moore Campbell Gordon – when she showed my friend Derek and I a hillside apartment in Silverlake. This upscale nook of the neighborhood was beyond our means – I was working at a bookstore and Derek was helping out on indie film sets – but her price turned out to be just barely in our budget. In the end, it was worth it for the fantastic westward facing view that on the rare smog-free day provided a glimpse of the ocean and for the walk down the hill to Spaceland, a venue where we saw many of our favorite bands.Campbell’s daughter lived upstairs – it was a bilevel duplex – and this arrangement gave us a glimpse into Campbell’s life. It is odd, in these situations, how well you can come to know people without knowing them as friends, or even acquaintances. It wouldn’t be fair to get into all the details here, but we came to learn, in the odd communication beyond mailing in our monthly rent and in the overheard voices that cannot be avoided when one shares a building with someone else, of the challenges in Campbell’s life.After a year, I got engaged to Mrs. Millions and moved out. Derek stayed on through two more roommates before leaving Los Angeles. I’ve never read Campbell’s books, but the obits in the New York Times, Washington Post, and from the AP describe their importance and her place as “a best-selling novelist known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races.” I’ll remember her as my landlord Mrs. Gordon, but for more, Tayari Jones remembers her as Bebe Moore Campbell, the writer.Update: Richard Prince pens a more substantial obituary of Campbell.Related: Campbell wasn’t my only literary landlord.
Just found out that Hunter S. Thompson killed himself. It’s unbelievable. I suppose he’s one of those guys who didn’t want to die of old age. Maybe we’ll find out more…HST has been appropriated by many. He came to represent a lot of things, especially an over-the-top counter-cultural wackiness, that he may or may not have signed up for. It also seems like his work is dismissed by as many as those who embrace it. To my mind, his books, especially those penned from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, included long stretches of blinding brilliance. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad HST writing on bookshelves too, but his public demanded it, I suppose. My favorite HST book is Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72 which is about the race that led up to Nixon’s reelection. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, this is an essential book. In it the ever-distractable HST follows the many tangents that encompass the insanity of the American political process. In one particularly surreal scene, Thompson shares a long limo ride with Nixon. The election is not the only – nor even the central – drama of the book, which originally appeared almost in its entirety in Rolling Stone. The subplot that occasionally becomes the plot of the book, is whether or not HST will be able to finish the book and to face the inevitability of Nixon’s reelection. In the end he does not, and the reader is left frustrated, wanting this man – who seems to have an answer for everything – to stick it out until election day, but he can’t. I think, though, that that was Thompson’s way. It’s infuriating in that instance, as well as in today’s, but in exchange we got brilliance from a man who wrote with such fury that he burnt himself right out.See also: the AP obit. The first of many to come.
Yesterday it was learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields passed away. She was best known for the book that won her the prize, The Stone Diaries. They broadcast an old interview with her on NPR yesterday, and Shields talked about how she squeezed in an hour of writing each day between teaching and taking care of her young children and after nine months she had written The Stone Diaries. Her last book, Unless, didn’t recieve a huge amount of press, but it sold tremendously well at my bookstore and was much loved by the readers I spoke to about it. If you want to learn more about her, here is her obit in the New York Times.
I started reading Harvey Pekar’s comic book series American Splendor in high school, when I was anxious about my future and frustrated by my present. Little did I know then, Harvey would soon become a friend and a confidant of sorts.
At 16, my impending adulthood terrified me, and I worried often about my ability to do the ordinary things that an independent person must do to get by. I was convinced that facing the logistics of life—finding a place to live, paying the bills, going to the dentist—would deplete any happiness I might find. The bureaucracy and tedium of high school left me outraged, and like many young people who came of age during the Bush administration, I had a pretty grim view of humanity’s future.
I found hope and comfort in American Splendor, even as the comics actually confirmed some of my worst fears about the adult world. Harvey’s autobiographical protagonist faces all the challenges I worried about, and he doesn’t always respond to them with the calm maturity I hoped I would someday develop. Most of the stories in American Splendor take place at the hospital where Harvey worked for most of his life as a file clerk, or on the streets and stoops of his run-down Cleveland neighborhood. They chronicle his strained relationships with loved ones, his bouts with cancer and depression, and his frustration at practically everything.
American Splendor reassured me despite all this gloom. A lot of the comics recount run-ins with a cast of eccentrics; some strangers, some co-workers and friends. I think one of these vignettes, an encounter with a guy named Crazy Ed, inspired Pekar to start writing comics in the first place. I spent a lot of my life at the time wandering around the city and riding buses, so I had plenty of conversations with strangers myself, and I often enjoyed talking to them more than anything else I did. Pekar recognized that these interactions are not just funny anecdotes: they can sustain one’s spirits and make it easier to persevere. Getting through the day was hard, he affirmed, but it was worth it. Not for any great philosophical reason, but because ordinary life is filled with strange occurrences that are not to be missed. American Splendor helped me imagine a future I could handle, and I considered Harvey Pekar an ally on my path to adult stability.
When I saw a P.O. box listed in a back issue of American Splendor, I decided to write him a letter to thank him. I told him that his comic books reassured me that things would turn out okay, and that I loved the Mr. Boats stories (a series of comic strips about an elderly co-worker given to making grandiose statements in elevators). I didn’t really expect a response; my brother had made similar overtures to R. Crumb and never heard anything back. A few weeks later, though, my mom called me at work to tell me that I had gotten a letter from Harvey Pekar. Luckily, I worked in a bookstore, so I could brag about it without having to explain who he was.
The wrinkled, beat-up envelope from Cleveland contained a short note, in which Harvey thanked me for my letter and said I could give him a call if I wanted to talk some more. He had free long distance, and he didn’t have time to write long missives. I couldn’t believe that an accomplished writer wanted to talk to me, although I knew from references in the comic books that he had become friends with fans before.
I was extremely nervous the first time I called. His wife picked up the phone, and I stumbled through an awkward explanation of who I was. Once Harvey got on the phone I relaxed a little bit and we talked for a while. His voice was strained and raspy, due to a problem with his vocal chords that was charted in a series of comic strips. I felt bad about keeping him on the phone because it sounded so painful. Our first conversation was friendly but short. We mostly talked about comics we liked; he was very enthusiastic about young comic book writers like Keith Knight, and gratified by the medium’s newfound popularity. He was surprised that I found anything uplifting in American Splendor, since his work was often derided as too curmudgeonly. We agreed to talk again soon and he got off the phone to go to bed.
We had longer phone conversations over the next year. Harvey was warm and funny in conversation, but he also sounded worn out and subdued. In his comics, he portrayed himself bursting with energy and anger and enthusiasm. I knew this was an exaggeration of his personality, but I think the time I knew him was especially hard for him. It was a bad time for me too, and having someone to commiserate with helped. I was so grateful that he was interested in my problems that I felt presumptuous trying to help with his; I was just a kid and I didn’t have much perspective.
I remember one very serious conversation about living with chronic depression. He was amused that I expected him to have some words of wisdom on the topic, since he had struggled with these problems his whole life without overcoming them. Nonetheless, he did give me some advice that was both pragmatic and frightening, and I’ve tried to follow it ever since. I think Harvey didn’t even consider it good advice; it was just the only thing that worked. He told me that you have to force yourself to do whatever needs to be done to get through the day, no matter how you feel, and at some point later you’ll be glad you did.
We talked about lighter stuff too, mostly books and art. Harvey also told me to read as much as I could about everything I was interested in, and to keep educating myself whether I was in school or not. He believed in reading to satisfy curiosity and gain expertise, not just for pleasure, a philosophy in keeping with his pragmatic, unromantic approach to writing (another thing he encouraged me to do regularly). And, as any reader of American Splendor would expect, we spent a lot of time complaining.
We met in person twice, at comic book conventions in San Francisco and Portland, but I enjoyed talking on the phone more. The conventions were busy and crowded, and I was even shyer in person. When I introduced myself for the first time, I was flustered and asked if the convention gave him any free food. Recognizing a fellow cheapskate, he responded enthusiastically and gave me a handful of energy bars.
I was very sorry to hear about Harvey’s death last week. I’m sure our conversations meant more to me than they did to him, but I hope they cheered him up. Our acquaintance demonstrated one of the things I had loved about American Splendor: the importance of connections to strangers. The fan letter I wrote on a whim led to a brief but valuable friendship. Those talks helped me grow up. I took his advice and forced myself through the rest of high school. I’ve settled into the adult life I was so afraid of, and most of the things I dreaded turned out to be pretty easy. I wish I could thank him, and ask him for advice again, this time on figuring out what to do with my freedom.