The god of reading, a manipulative daemon who imposes a pattern on the seemingly random succession of books we get through each year, works in mysterious ways. This year’s unifying theme for me was “teeth,” or maybe it just seemed that way because, thanks entirely to my wife, I finally got on a dental insurance plan.
My reading daemon first directed me to Lucia Berlin’s selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which contains a tooth extraction scene as memorable as the one from Marathon Man. Berlin won me over from the opening tale, in which the narrator, whose “first cigarette was lit by a prince,” now finds herself washing diapers in a seedy New York laundromat alongside an old woman:
She said that if I didn’t see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays.
Similarly grim humor appears throughout the wonderful collection, along with a lot of dirt, grit, booze, romance, and glimpses of beauty in everything from macadam roads (“When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice”) to the “wonderful” X-rays of jockeys, whose “skeletons looks like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs.”
In one of the most memorable, gruesome stories, “Doctor H.A. Moynihan,” a girl accompanies her grandfather, a drunken bigot who happens to be the best dentist in Texas, to his office on a Sunday afternoon. There he tells her to pull out all his teeth so he can put in a set of his handmade dentures: his “masterpiece.” This she does, cramming tea bags in his mouth to stop the bleeding and making her grandfather looks like a “scary monster, a teapot come alive, yellow and black Lipton tags dangling like parade decorations.” That image captures the peculiar charm of the story, which is at once horrifying and perversely joyous.
I was also steered by my reading daemon to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, the “dental autobiography” of a charlatan auctioneer who has devised an “allegoric method” to hawk his wares. That is, he literally and figuratively lies through his teeth. He invents a provenance for 10 teeth, claiming each belonged to a different illustrious writer (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Petrarch, Michel de Montaigne, etc.) and describing each as if it were a work of art: “Note the curve; it is like a wing in ascent.” The “novel-essay” has some grating moments, and its afterword, in which Luiselli explains why her project is “a reverse Duchampian procedure,” shuts off the heady flow of nitrous oxide. But the auction scene stays with me as a marvel of erudition and whimsy.
Another dental comedy, this one with broader humor, came my way from Folded Word Press: Garrett Socol’s Tooth Decay. The coffee-abstaining protagonists — white teeth come at a cost — work in a thriving dental practice in a small town in Wisconsin. The sexual tension between the married dentist, Calvin, and his toothsome hygienist boils over one day after she sees him in all his white-coated glory:
Eyes ablaze, forehead damp with sweat, the face of a Greek god on the chiseled body of an American dentist, Calvin ripped the bad tooth out of June’s mouth with raw, barbaric animal energy.
When Calvin’s wife finds out about the affair, she rather pathetically asks if his mistress’s teeth are “white as a fresh blanket of snow.” A man of honor despite his infidelity, he cannot but confirm his wife’s worst fears. Blackmail, betrayal, murder, and a villainous office manager darken the tongue-in-cheek comedy, demonstrating that oral hygiene is no defense against moral rot.
Finally — and just to spite Bill Morris — I read several literary biographies this year. One of these was Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot. This volume, which concludes in 1922 with T.S. Eliot opening the newly printed American edition of The Waste Land, chronicles the youth of a poet who always felt himself old. But why did my reading daemon compel me to devour this particular biography as opposed to the other doorstoppers I routinely return to the library unfinished? Surely it couldn’t just be because Eliot’s oft-ailing first wife, Vivien, was “ever fearful of dentists” and needed extensive, painful work: “I scream the whole time!” she writes in a letter.
No, I didn’t find the answer until Crawford’s excellent study made me revisit The Waste Land, where I came across this bit of pub chatter about dentures:
When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but as Socol puts it in Tooth Decay, “…don’t you love the way the word coincidental contains the word dental?” As I said earlier, the god of reading works in mysterious ways.
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