Something more than serendipity was afoot when I entered my neighborhood’s pie-eating contest this year. It was a warm, sunny morning so I hoofed it a few blocks from my house to the bakery, signed up for the day’s contest, and returned home to kill four hours before it began. I was sitting on my porch, having just cracked open Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, which I’d plucked at random from my bookshelf of Florida writing. (You may have read about my “thing” with the Sunshine State…) Not long after, I got to a scene in which, you guessed it, contestants eat a bunch of pies, hoping to win a fishing trip:
Before he was really prepared for the event, it was upon him. Abruptly, uniformed men from the truck were trooping to the tables, tall piles of stacked pies in their hands. By the time the pies were emplaced, with the flavor choices of the contestants honored, the judges had raised their pistols.
Then the guns were fired and all twenty lashed into the pies; a moment later and the slowest contestants had eaten five; and in another moment, the first vomiter rose, the gelatinous, undigested cherries of her ‘flavor option’ dribbling down her chest.
And very quickly it was over. Losers were roughly hustled away from the table and the redhead was left alone. He looked around himself in happy disbelief for the brief remaining moment before he was declared the winner. Then all hesitation vanishing, he rose powerfully, baying his triumph in an impressive hurricane of crumbs, the insect jaws agape.
When Nichol Dance gave him his certificate, he said, ‘Boy, fishing is all I’m about! I’m the mother dog of all fishermen and I want to go out with you real bad–‘ With the word ‘bad’ he began to vomit all over himself.
And Dance went off in a panic, saying, “Well, I’ll look to hear from you down to the dock. I hope you’re feeling better!”
I took it as a sign. This contest was mine to win. A year earlier, I’d taken third. The man who won was wearing a full arm cast—the type in which your arm is bent at a 90 degree angle, and a stick holds it out from your waist—so he quite literally beat all of us with one hand tied behind his back. I couldn’t suffer the same indignity twice.
Reader, I suffered the same indignity twice. In fact, I did even worse, placing fourth after the same two gluttons who beat me last time, and after the guy who took first, who apparently had won in 2015, took 2016 off, and chose 2017 as the year he’d reclaim his title.
The experience shaded my entire year in reading, however. From that moment on, whenever I read anything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I read would foretell or signal some immediate development in my actual life. This quickly became more than a little scary. I read Mathias Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea and worried, am I growing depressed? I read Stephen King’s It and avoided sewer grates as a precaution. (I am not taking a bath any time soon.) I unplugged so many electronics after I read (and reviewed!) Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love. Why risk it? Did that lamp just move? I wondered after reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. While traveling to a friend’s wedding in Montana, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which is a riveting narrative of Meriwether Lewis’s westward exploration. Somewhere in Wyoming, I read the chapter about the men wintering in South Dakota which opens with this line, and I grew terrified until I realized it was summer, and things were warm:
It was always cold, often brutally cold, sometimes so cold a man’s penis would freeze if he wasn’t quick about it.
It didn’t matter that after the pie-eating contest, there had been no instances in which my reading leapt off the page into my corporeal reality. The feeling endured regardless. Then again, in addition to the times when the effect was frightening, there were also moments in which it was aspirational. Maybe I wanted it to happen again. The whole time I read Fire in the Hole, I was waiting for a whiskey glass to appear in my hand. Ditto for Hard Rain Falling. I expected chicken wings to manifest when I read Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book.
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