Spotted today under the arm of a student at a New York college: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’ve written here about the speed of this author’s induction into the pantheon. Nonetheless, it was remarkable – to me, anyway – to learn from this student that TSD had popped up on an English class syllabus. For the record, the student reports that he likes the book so far. (Me, too, kid. Raciest required reading this side of The Kama Sutra. Comparative religion rules!) His other classmates? Not so much. I guess in our world – unlike Bolaño’s – youth is sometimes wasted on the young.
Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.”
No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence — but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass.
First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow — as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God.
“The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories — like Joyce’s — that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him.
“Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home.
Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess.
Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid — the on the way to their home.
Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See — see — what did I tell you — snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow.
They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45.
They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen.
Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.”
“The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
[Editor’s note: This week we’ve invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors’ first-job follies.]Andrew writes:It began, as brilliant decisions generally do, in a bar. A Saturday evening, over drinks with two friends, a few months into my first real job (for the benevolent media magnates that still pay my salary). Why not, one of us spat out, drive to New York City? Uh, right now? Yeah, right now! One of us had a car. We’d need music for the 10-hour (each way), international journey. And, oh yeah, passports. Off we went.Sunday early morning we arrived in Manhattan, walked around in a daze until very late Sunday night, then drove back to Toronto, arriving minutes before my Monday shift.That I hadn’t slept since Friday night could easily be offset with a quick shower and several swigs of Jolt Cola which my colleague poured into me. And, oh, I would wear a suit, something neither I nor anyone else would conceive of wearing in the newsroom, unless heading out for an interview. But the improbable vision of young Andrew in a suit at work would distract my senior editors, I hoped, from the snoring.As it turned out, the caffeine jolt and the adrenalin rush of the whole experience kept me awake, and in retrospect, I doubt that I would have done anything differently.But I’m guessing it wouldn’t win me any awards for professionalism.Megan Hustad responds:The suit was a good call. I got promoted once because I was between apartments, living out of a duffel bag, and the suit I wore twice a week for a month because it hid stains and didn’t wrinkle prompted my boss to imagine I was going on a lot of interviews. This has historically been the best argument for wearing a suit, after all – it communicates you’re going places, and little else. Suits obscure all appetites other than ambition. Horatio Alger and other early American capitalists were nuts about suits.In any event: Children, if you took a long, hot shower and still smell of beer, consider a suit. Don’t do as I once did and show up in an orange (orange that highlighted my bloodshot eyes!), moth-eaten wool turtleneck. Uselessness rating: 1For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: Garth
I have written in the past about the importance of a bookstore’s “front table.”The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.To me, this epitomizes what separates the engaging indie from the faceless chain, but this selling point has not helped indies win out in a climate that has been tough for all book retailers. Among the many struggles indies have faced is how to translate the relevance and ambiance described above to the internet, where a large portion of book buying, selling, and discussion now takes place.2008’s launch of IndieBound, an aggregated indie web presence that is a vast improvement over its precursor BookSense, shows that the indies are hard at work trying to unlock the online conundrum.Recently, Scott pointed to another far smaller but particularly resonant example of online experimentation by an indie bookstore. The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago has started replicating its front table on its blog. This book curation done by a knowledgeable staff rather than the chains’ corporate number crunchers, fulfills the bookstore mission that I noted above, giving readers “what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood.” (This notion of curation is important. In many ways, I’d argue that it’s a key mission of The Millions. Our “staff” selects and sheds light upon certain books at the exclusion of others, bringing to bear our different areas of expertise, interest, and taste.)The front table alone, however, is not enough to make a bookstore. A truly great bookstore and its front table will inspire conversation in the aisles among patrons and staff. Seminary Co-op is part of the way towards making its front table live on its web site, but, as the “comments are closed” message at the bottom of the page indicates, it’s not all the way there. However, the sight of all those covers, laid out neatly, makes me think that we may not be far from an indie bookstore website that makes you feel like you are walking into the store itself.See also: Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed, Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers
Nolo Press, which puts out “trustworthy and approachable legal guides,” spent “two years and ‘hundreds of thousands'” coming up with a redesign for its book covers, according to Publishers Weekly. What did Nolo come up with? Dogs. Chip Kidd, book designer extraordinaire, happened to be guest blogging at Powell’s this week and registered his horror. (Thanks Laurie)