Secret Lives: Katherine Heiny’s ‘Single, Carefree, Mellow’

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This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

You are Katherine Heiny, and when you’re 24, you write a second-person short story for an MFA creative writing workshop at Columbia University¬ — “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” about a graduate student who is secretly in love with her male roommate — and you send it out to 31 literary journals, all of which turn it down. One editor writes you a harsh note, attacking the story as indicative of what is wrong with MFA programs and saying that your story demonstrates you have nothing to say.

When you tell a friend that no one wants your story, she asks you what The New Yorker said about it. You admit you have not sent it to that magazine, and your friend laughs. She says you were supposed to start with The New Yorker.

So, on a Thursday, you send the story there, and the next day Roger Angell, the fiction editor, calls you — early enough that he wakes you up — and says he wants to publish it. You do not believe him: you are a poor grad student, behind on your rent, and you think the caller is really your landlord trying to trick you into talking to him. And you doubt the magazine reads stories so quickly.

But it really is Roger Angell, and the story appears in the September 1992 issue of The New Yorker.

Half-a-dozen years later, the magazine reprints it in an anthology, Nothing But You. Your name is in the table of contents between Jean Rhys and John Cheever.

That story helps you get an agent, but you and she later part ways and it takes more than 20 years before you finally publish, at age 47, a book under your own name, a collection of stories called Single, Carefree, Mellow.

You are elated you have a book out in the world, but then the book brings you significant attention, especially for a debut collection of short stories. A month before its publication, Entertainment Weekly runs a half-page interview with you in a piece about books the magazine’s editors are anticipating for the year. Glamour and Elle exhort their readers to buy it.

On Super Bowl Sunday, The New York Times reviews it, calling it a “wry, bittersweet debut,” and saying the work is “something like Cheever mixed with Ephron.” The next day the newspaper publishes a long feature on you and the book.

When the reporter talks about your first publication in The New Yorker, she describes your start as “explosive” and adds that, because of your “disappearance from the literary scene for nearly two decades,” your story carries a whiff of legend, but is actually “more prosaic and compelling.”

The truth is, however, that although the work that followed your first story did not get the same attention as “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you did not, of course, disappear. You were just continuing to live your life and write — write a lot. It was just that most people did not notice.

When you were growing up, you were different in some crucial ways from everyone else in your family, who are all scientists. You were raised in Midland, Mich., home of Dow Chemical, and your mother was a chemist, your father a chemical engineer. One of your brothers is also a chemical engineer, and the other one a software engineer, but you say, “My math and science grades were, well, let’s just say that I may have been the wrong baby brought home from the hospital.”

You “read like crazy,” reading every sort of fiction you could get your hands on, including Judy Blume and later Stephen King, Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel; all of them will influence you as a writer. You say, “I used to get into trouble because I would read in school when the rest of the class was doing other things.”

You allude to this sense of being different in some of your stories.

In one, “Dark Matter,” a character who is a physicist makes fun of his sister because she does not know the difference between Ebola and E. coli. “Sometimes I really think we brought the wrong baby home from the hospital,” he says. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a naïve minister comes to stay with a family that is amazed because he knows so little about their world. You write:
So many experiences were new to him! It was like having an exchange student from the Sudan…Reverend McWilliams had never eaten risotto or drunk Pimm’s. He did not know that shampoo could cost forty dollars…and he jumped every time the GPS spoke in the car…He had never seen a Wii before [and] had never seen Jurassic Park.
You decide to become a writer because, you “have never been any good at anything else,” and in college you take every writing class you can; so many, in fact, that when you apply to law school because you feel obligated to find a career that will allow you to support yourself, you joke that they all reject you because of all of the creative writing classes on your transcript.

Having no other idea what to do, you apply to two graduate writing programs: at Columbia University and at the University of Iowa. Columbia accepts you and you go there, in both poetry and fiction, and study with a faculty that includes Peter Cameron, whose story “Jump or Dive” you’ve read multiple times because it is what you call “comfort reading,” i.e. work you read over and over again because you love it so much. You say, “The fact that I was writing stories and he was reading them was so exciting to me.”

At Columbia, you also take a workshop with Rick Rofihe, in which you write the story you will sell to The New Yorker. At the time, your only income is from reading the slush pile submitted to a literary agent, Roberta Pryor, whose big book was Peter Benchley’s Jaws nearly 20 years earlier, and who also was P.D. James’s American agent.

You read the unsolicited novels that people send in, mostly thrillers, and write reports on them. You get paid only $7 for each report you submit and yet you feel obliged to read every manuscript all the way through even if you know within the first 25 pages you will not be recommending the novel to Roberta Pryor.

This is what you are doing for a living when Roger Angell calls, and why you do not have enough money to be current with your rent. The magazine pays you an unimaginable dollar a word.

After you publish the story in The New Yorker, it does not change your life in any significant way but, contrary to what the Times writer later says, you do not disappear from the literary scene: you continue writing, and your work appears in some of the best journals in the country, including Narrative, Ploughshares, Greensboro Review, Glimmer Train, and others. You also sell stories about young girls and their unrequited love to Sassy and Seventeen, and a publisher for a series of young adult romance novels contacts you to ask if you would like to try writing a book in the series for them. You write more than 20 romance novels. You do it largely because the money is good; compared with what you are earning as a waitress, it seems a fortune.

The work is hard but you enjoy it; when you have a contract for a book, you end up writing every day, and while your name is not on any of the books, you nonetheless learn “to deal with deadlines and how to write a novel-length manuscript.” The publisher insisted on an outline first before you would get the go-ahead on the project and you realize “that the outline is half the work. If you have the structure and you are not just meandering along, it makes it easier.”

It also teaches you the value of persistence; you say, “When I first started writing YA and had a contract for a 200-page novel and I would write five pages, I would freak out at all that there was left to do but it taught me that you write a little bit every day, it gets longer. You get there.”

You give it up after you marry and are expecting your first child and the doctor tells you that you need to stop working so hard for your sake and for the baby’s. You regret having to stop, but you do, and then you have a second child, and then family life means you cannot go back to it, but you continue writing short stories.

A few years ago, you decide that you feel at sea without an agent, so you find a new one. She asks you to send her what you have. You worry that you do not have a novel, as you have heard that agents cannot sell collections of short stories; but your agent says that is not the case, not in a time when a collection, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, won the Pulitzer Prize, as did another novel-in-stories, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

You send her 30-something files, all the stories you have, not organized in any fashion. She tells you that you can make a collection from your work, and the two of you go back and forth, choosing stories — including “How to Give the Wrong Impression” — and organizing them into a collection of 10 stories, all about women, most about women having affairs.

In “Dive Bar,” a woman agrees to meet her lover’s soon-to-be ex-wife. In another, “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid,” a bridesmaid helps her more glamorous friend get married, although even as she prepares to go down the aisle, the bride has been having affairs with two other men. In another, “Blue Heron Bridge,” a married woman has an affair with a man she meets while she’s running — a man who, it turns out, betrays her by having another affair, with the woman’s next-door neighbor; perhaps worse than that betrayal of her affections, however, is the fact that she considers her neighbor silly and uninteresting.

Three of the stories give the collection a sort of narrative spine as they all center on the same character, Maya; in the first of the three, “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” she is preparing for the death of her dog who has cancer, while at the same time she is trying to figure out how to break up with her boyfriend, Rhodes; in the second, “Dark Matter,” she and Rhodes are engaged but she is having an affair with her boss at work; in the third, “Grendel’s Mother,” she and Rhodes are married and expecting their first child.

On Halloween 2013, your agent calls to tell you that Knopf is offering you a two-book deal, for your collection and for a novel you’ve recently begun that will appear in 2016.

In the middle of editing the collection, you have an idea for a new story. You imagine a high school girl, a good student, who begins having an affair with her history teacher who gives her a “B” in his class so that no one will suspect they are sleeping together — although, ironically, she is such a good student that her father, while not suspecting the affair, does find it odd that she earns only a B in the class. Like “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” you write this one, “The Rhett Butlers,” in the second person because, you say, “Very early on I imagined the scene where getting the B in history lowers her GPA [and her class rank from 10 to 11], and I knew that it would be funnier to say, ‘Will you think of this bitterly in the future?’ and then say, ‘You better believe it.’ That’s funnier in the second person. It wouldn’t be in any other point-of-view. I will do anything for a joke.” The story appears in the The Atlantic, and you ask your editor if you can include it in the collection. She agrees, making the final count eleven stories in all.

(Your collection will also have a third story in the second-person, about a mother staging what turns out to be a nearly disastrous eighth-birthday party for her son, where the mother is groped by a nearly inept magician she hires for the event who perhaps is naked beneath his robes.)

Your work is, in fact, marked by humor; but also secrets and sometimes a gentle sadness.

The jokes: some of them are wry observations your characters make. In “Andorra,” the last story in the collection, the main character, who is having an affair with a man who is in marriage counseling with his wife, muses at one point about what she has in her life: “two little boys…and a 50-year-old husband named Roderick who worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a big house in Washington, D.C., and a minivan full of dog hair.” She thinks, “The fact that she has all this and a long-distance lover seemed to her a sign of strength and character.”

In “Blue Heron Bridge,” your character is preparing to go with her husband and daughters to a block party where she knows she will run into her lover and his wife and spends a good deal of time on her appearance beforehand. As she is about to leave the house, she realizes that her husband and children do not look to her satisfaction, and she thinks, “dating…was easier when you were single and had to make only yourself, and not your whole family, presentable.”

In yet another story, “Cranberry Relish,” a character has an affair with a man she meets on Facebook (who later replaces her as his lover with someone he meets on Twitter), and after she decides the sex is not just disappointing but bad, she thinks, “She was just a boring fool who’d had sex with a man who sometimes wrote defiantly when he meant definitely.”

The sadness: in “Single, Carefree, Mellow,” after her dog dies and Maya’s boyfriend seems to grieve even more than she does, she realizes that she cannot, as she had planned, break up with him. She thinks, “There is such a thing as too much loss.” In “Andorra,” as a woman contemplates a relationship that is ending, she thinks, “This was how it was going to be from here on out…nothing but a long series of partings.”

Your fascination with secrets arises from your own life. After you start seeing the man you eventually marry, he confesses that he is actually an MI-6 agent, something you cannot reveal to anyone, not even your family after you marry, because it can endanger your husband and perhaps your entire family. You feel anxious about letting the fact slip (although it’s okay to talk about it now, after he’s left the agency), and so you channel your anxiety into your fiction. In nearly every story, a woman keeps a secret from those closest to her: women hide their affairs from their husbands; in “How to Give the Wrong Impression,” the narrator tries to hide from her roommate the fact that she loves him, and the fact that she is not actually in a romantic relationship with him from everyone else. In the title story, the character tries to hide from her boyfriend the fact that she wants to leave him, at the same time she is discovering that perhaps he is really too good for her. In “That Dance You Do,” the one story in the collection not centered on some kind of romantic love, the mother does not want to reveal to her son that she abhors one of the friends he invites to his party.

So now, almost a quarter-century after the day that Roger Angell called you with the news that he wanted to publish your story, a book with your name on it is at last out in the world and bringing you acclaim that surprises you. The attention is good, and you appreciate it, but then you go back to work on the novel you are writing for next year because, as you once said, there are few things better for a working writer than to be writing. You say:
[Writing] is such an important part of my identity. When I’m not writing and people ask me what I do, I feel like such a fraud. [I]t’s also a coping mechanism — a good one. Nothing so awful can happen that I can’t write a story about it.
Click here to listen to an audio interview with Katherine Heiny.

Post-40 Bloomers: The Risky Fiction of Paul Harding


This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

On the surface, it may seem that Paul Harding made a safe choice when he settled on the territory for his new novel, Enon. It shares the same geographic setting as his debut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers — both take place in the fictional New England town that gives his second novel its title — and centers on the same family that populates that earlier novel. Tinkers tells the story of the last days of the life of George Crosby and Enon that of his grandson, Charlie, who appears briefly in the first novel. Beyond those surface elements, the narrative mechanism of both books turns on a similar event — the death of an important figure. In Tinkers, we learn in the first sentence that the central character is dying, and in Enon, the third sentence tells us that Charlie’s daughter dies after a car hits her, days before she is to start high school. Following those openings, both trace the deterioration of their protagonists.

In Tinkers, we watch George’s body fail and his mind shift in and out of consciousness with varying connection to reality, and the largely interior narrative moves back and forth in time, both within his life and within the lives of his father and his grandfather, slipping sometimes into hallucination. In Enon, after the accident that kills his daughter, we watch Charlie’s life unravel: the interior narrative moves through the end of his marriage and then we observe his fall into a depression that deepens until he is able to do little more than sleep on the couch. When he does stir from his house, it’s only because of a kind of animal need — at first to buy coffee and cigarettes, then to convince a series of doctors to write him prescriptions for pain killers, and then, when the doctors stop writing the prescriptions, to meet with a dealer who sells him drugs for exorbitant prices. Finally, we see Charlie breaking into the homes of elderly residents who, he suspects, will have drugs he can steal to numb his pain. Sometimes Charlie wanders the town in his grief, visiting the cemetery where his daughter’s ashes are buried, becoming nearly as much a ghost as she is; sometimes he’s a sort of ghost in his own life, waking in the cemetery with no notion of how he got there.

Despite these marked similarities, however, Enon is, in a number of ways, just as risky a venture as was Tinkers and gives strong evidence that Harding is a writer who, despite the considerable accomplishment of his first novel, is serious about continuing to test himself. In fact, according to Harding, there’s no point in trying to write serious fiction unless you’re willing to accept that it must test you:

“If you feel comfortable then something has gone wrong,” he says. “I sat down every day writing Enon thinking, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t write this book.’ Faulkner talked about this: You have to write better than you’re able to write. With any project I always have the sense that I am not a good enough writer to write the book I want to write. But then the only way to become a good enough writer to write the book I want to write is to write the book I am trying to write.”

By now, Harding’s story is familiar to anyone who pays attention to contemporary literature. In 2004, a handful of years after he earned his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he finished a short novel, Tinkers, and set about trying to find an agent or a publisher for it. He had no takers. As he later told a reporter for The New York Times, “[The agents and editors] lectured me about the pace of life today. It was, ‘Where are the car chases? Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative quiet book.'” Harding put the novel away and assessed his motives for writing at all. “I had to reconcile myself with making art for art’s sake because I had to face the fact that publishing might not be a part of my life as a writer,” he says.

Eventually, an editor for a small publisher who had declined the book called it to the attention of the publisher of a non-profit press connected with the New York University School of Medicine, Bellevue Literary Press, who offered Harding a modest $1,000 advance. The novel appeared in 2009 when Harding was 42 and once it was out in the world, it began accumulating fans. Tinkers wound up on several “best of” lists at the end of the year. NPR named it one of the top debuts of the year and The New Yorker included it among its annual compilation of “reviewers’ favorites.” Random House signed Harding to a two-book deal and then, in April 2010, Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – such a surprising selection that one newspaper called the choice a “real sleeper” and The New York Times headlined its profile of Harding after the prize “Mr. Cinderella.”

Like Tinkers, which weighs in at around 40,000 words, Enon, at roughly 70,000, is a relatively short work. Despite their brevity, the two novels are sprawling, in both scope and ambition. While the event in Tinkers that helps organize the novel, George’s death, occupies only eight days, the book covers more than a century, giving us George’s life as well as those of his father Howard and his unnamed grandfather. In its framing narrative, Enon deals with little more than the year following Charlie’s daughter’s death, but Harding extends the chronologic scope, largely with flashbacks to Charlie’s boyhood and then further because of Charlie’s fascination with the history of the town of Enon, which reaches to the seventeenth century.

The subject of time, in fact, is one of Harding’s principle concerns as a writer, something he deals with in several ways and for specific purpose. In Tinkers, George repairs clocks, and Enon reflects this in Charlie’s memories of accompanying his grandfather as a quasi-apprentice — most importantly to repair one clock in particular, made by Simon Willard, who made clocks for Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere, among others. In his memory of that day, Charlie recalls:
The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment and then subsumed, and I wondered how old it was, it if contained any of Simon Willard’s breath.
Harding pushes Enon even farther back in time than the late eighteenth century, as Charlie’s growing grief and increased drug use sends him spinning into hallucination, including one in which he sees himself rising out of some primordial soup:
I felt as if I were the only man on earth, as if I were floating through some uninhabited, primeval realms. Only jellyfish and I would watch the vast nets of lightning being cast across the sky above…and hear the muted roaring of the winds over the face of the water and watch with our simple eyes the atmosphere cooking and boiling and synthesizing itself so that when the storms quieted…and the sun shone back down on us, we would step onto the sand with our brand-new feet and walk…onto the fern-littered shore.
For Harding, the centuries, and even eons, through which his novels travel give a sense of his characters inhabiting a real world that has breadth extending beyond their own life spans. More than that, his concern with time reflects one of his larger ambitions for his novels:
It’s the coupling of the infinite with the infinitesimal and how one illuminates the other. You feel how overwhelmed you are by how infinitesimal you are, when you place yourself in geographic, geologic, cosmological time. But at the same time, when you go back to your own experience of that, [you introduce] the primacy of consciousness. In some ways, you’re nothing in the universe and in some ways you’re everything – the idea of the possibility that reality exists because you’re there to observe it. All of this then means that you inevitably and naturally and organically and totally belong to creation and to time. But at the same time nothing could alienate you more than that cosmological time. You just feel outmatched by it.
Beyond his willingness to explore such large questions about what we’re to make of ourselves against such a seemingly incomprehensibly vast canvas, Harding’s riskiness as a writer is apparent in other ways. For example, in both Tinkers and Enon, he is willing to allow readers to lose their bearings in the work as he attempts to draw us deeper into the points-of-view of two characters with tenuous connections to reality. Sometimes, he makes plain to readers the trigger for George’s or Charlie’s imagining, telling us, “I thought about Kate” or “Eighty-four… before he died, George thought,” or, “There was a photograph of Main Street in 1890 [and] I closed my eyes and imagined what it must have been like…” But at other points, he launches into a passage with no such safety net.

In Tinkers, for example, we sometimes encounter, with no introduction, excerpts from a fictional treatise on clock repair — The Reasonable Horologist — that Harding invented for the novel. Coming to such a passage, in the middle of a section where Charlie is reading aloud to his grandfather, we’re brought up short: what are we to do with this, what does it mean, why is it here? But Harding is writing about a character who moves suddenly between sleeping and waking and such passages bring us deeper into his experience, as if not only is he waking while someone is in the midst of reading aloud to him, but we are as well.

In Enon, some of these kinds of passages are even more disconcerting — intentionally so — than they are in Tinkers. For example, Charlie and his wife, Susan, elect to cremate their daughter. At one point later in the novel, as Charlie slips deeper into remorse and near madness, Harding gives us a masterful two-page passage in which he pushes us, with no preparation, into a hallucination that manifests Charlie’s horror over his thoughts of his daughter’s body burning:
The obsidian girl…is all but invisible, the girl of black glass…[She] steps in front of the furnace…The heat blasts at her…The outlines of her face and arms and legs begin to buckle and kink. Her legs give at the knees, and the rest of her slides off them and drops in front of them. She remains upright for a moment on the stumps of her legs, but then she toppled face-first onto the dirt floor…
The images themselves are terrible to consider: the daughter’s body, already inhuman at the beginning of the hallucination, melts away, but Harding makes the moment even more difficult for the reader, and to great effect. He pushes us deeper into Charlie’s point-of-view so that, in a way, it becomes ours. A more conventional approach would have signaled the start of the dark vision: “One morning, Charlie dreamed that his daughter was obsidian, a girl of black glass.” There is safety for the reader in such an approach. For one thing, we can keep our bearings more easily, as we know without doubt how the passage connects to the narrative; for another, because the fantasy would be mediated through a statement that establishes the point-of-view, the reader could remain at a distance from Charlie’s horrible fantasy. Instead, Harding strips away that distance and forces us to confront more fully Charlie’s grief and increasing disorientation. Doing so, he increases our discomfort — always a risk in the relationship between author and reader — and to great effect.

Harding also risks alienating readers in the very character that Charlie becomes as the novel progresses. While in Tinkers, Harding gives us a character that never ceases being attractive – he’s a good and upright man who had some of the difficulties that make characters in fiction engaging (for one, his father abandons him when he’s twelve) – in Enon, Harding is not shy about making Charlie unattractive. His deterioration is increasingly difficult to bear as he wallows in his grief, pushing for some bottom; he’s “ravaged and haunted,” waking in his own vomit after a night of drugs, whiskey, and, when the whiskey is gone, cough syrup. Even more, he turns into the sort of man who steals drugs from people who trust him and who need the drugs.

According to Harding, the litmus test of a book’s achievement is whether, when he finishes reading it, he thinks, “I’m totally shaken because I just read a great work of art.” For him, just as he doesn’t want to feel he’s in safe and comfortable territory when he writes, the point is that readers should also be able to confront something challenging as well. In a way, writing – and reading – risky work is an appropriate response to one of Harding’s obsessions as a writer, the exploration of our minuteness in the context of the seeming infinite. Because they’re not “safe,” books like Harding’s two novels offer a sort of invitation to see beyond our own tiny selves: here is the vastness of time, here is the vastness of one man’s grief. We can either look or not look.

In not looking, we perhaps preserve a bit of security and our minds remain untroubled. But doing so pushes us further into our smallness.

In looking, we may not enjoy what we see, we may not enjoy the discomfort that novels like Tinkers and especially Enon bring us, but in pulling us out of our safe, comfortable selves, they allow us to participate in the vastness that dwarfs us.

I, for one, would rather look.

Ordinary People: Jim Gavin’s Middle Men


“Play the Man,” the first story in Jim Gavin’s superb debut collection, Middle Men, opens with a recounting of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp:
The Romans had a hard time killing Polycarp . . . .[S]urrounded by bloodthirsty pagans, he heard a voice. “Be strong, Polycarp . . . and play the man.” [He] smiled calmly at his persecutors. They tried to set him on fire, but his flesh would not be consumed. They pierced his heart with a sword, but a dove issued from his chest. The afternoon dragged on like that, miracle after miracle . . .
Simply taken in the context of Gavin’s narrative, that tale explains the motto painted on the gym wall at the school where the story’s narrator, Pat Linehan, transfers after the basketball coach at his previous school says he wasn’t good enough to play there. But Gavin uses Polycarp’s martyrdom for more than mere surface detail.

In the legend, the sentence that gives Gavin’s story its title is a heavenly exhortation to the saint to stand firm by his principles. That meaning, however, eludes the boys in the story. Although the motto hovers in the background of every move they make on the court (where they are, it turns out, nearly inept), they can only think of it in terms of basketball defense. “[But] we play zone,” one of them objects.

There, in the story’s first few hundred words, Gavin lays out the central concern of his collection: the tension between the ordinary life and the extraordinary. All of Gavin’s protagonists are rooted in the former. Most have aspirations but, consistent with the fact that the characters are firmly earthbound, even those are dim.

Linehan has his eyes fixed on a basketball scholarship to a Division I college but when he voices his dream, he can’t bring himself to name places like Duke or North Carolina but invokes lesser programs: Fresno State, UC Santa Barbara.

The protagonist of “Elephant Doors,” a TV production assistant, wants fame as a stand-up comic but will be happy with the security of a five-year contract for the show, while the narrator of “Illuminati” is looking to reclaim the small glory he once attained when he sold a script to Hollywood for, by Tinsel Town standards, a pittance in five figures.

To make his characters’ ordinariness seem all the more so, Gavin contrasts them repeatedly with men who have gained true greatness. Linehan has Polycarp. In “Costello,” a plumbing salesman drives 50,000 miles a year but all on the Los Angeles interstates; at home, he reads about Ferdinand Magellan, inspiring him to think of the miles he accumulates as “circles of latitude.” In “Illuminati,” the failing screenwriter listens as two men relate a story they hope he’ll turn it into a screenplay. As they describe what is, in fact, a pale version of either “The Most Dangerous Game” or Predator, they sit beneath a painting of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, yet another reminder in the background of Gavin’s stories that, while his characters chase meager dreams, others actually did become larger than life.

Despite a cast of such characters, Gavin’s collection is often comic. Individual sentences are laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m going to Cypress Junior College,” someone says in “Play the Man.” “My step-mom went there, so I’m a legacy.” In “Elephant Doors,” a man offers evidence of the glorious past of a film studio: “There’s a lot of rich history around here. Did you know this is the soundstage where they filmed Anaconda II: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid?”

Most of the humor, however, is situational.

In “The Luau,” a young plumbing salesman gains a mentor – except the mentor is terrible. He advises his protégée to buy a fancy car to impress customers but admits that when he did the same thing, exceeding his financial reach, the car was repossessed. Later, the mentor tells an inappropriate story to a customer that makes the customer dismiss them. “I think I fucked it up,” the mentor admits, then adds, “But at least I was talking.”

In “Costello,” characters anticipate an awards banquet and golf outing they consider first-rate since the organizers were “going all out . . . Prime rib, champagne, napkins.” At the event, however, the ceremony ends up in a parking lot after guests fall down drunk in sand traps and others hit golf balls from careening golf carts, causing the course manager to shut down the event.

Fittingly, since its protagonist is a would-be comedian, the funniest story is “Elephant Doors.” Part of the humor comes from the fact that the jokes he tells at open mic nights are so awful. He begins one appearance, “I finally found the self-help book that’s going to unlock my potential. It’s called Mein Kampf.” When the crowd greets this with silence he forges on with another Hitler joke, producing more silence.

While all of Gavin’s stories are gems, the crown jewel is the last, “Costello,” which centers on a 60-something-year-old plumbing salesman.

The story originally appeared in The New Yorker and on the surface seems one of those “New Yorker” stories that unperceptive readers complain about: a slice of life in which little happens: Costello floats in his pool, watches Dodgers’ games, avoids visits by his neighbors, calls on customers, and tries to resolve what, in his universe, amounts to a crisis: the recall of 500 defective ballcocks he’d sold to southern California home developers. His high point is the golf outing/awards banquet where he’ll learn whether he’s won regional “sales rep of the year.”

Costello’s entire life, it seems, has been narrow. Although he served in Vietnam as a young man, when he came home his ambition was finding a job that allowed him to work in air conditioning.  He’s a Gary Cooper, doing little talking, especially about himself. In fact, much of what we know about him comes from “The Luau,” which centers on Costello’s son, the young salesman with the terrible mentor. We learn nothing, for example, about his tour in Vietnam, save that on R&R he had sex with a prostitute, the only woman aside from his wife he ever slept with. It’s one of Gavin’s finest strokes that even when the winner of the salesman of the year award gets announced, we have no insight into what Costello feels about the result; he’s as opaque there as he is about his time at war.

Yet, Costello has a heroism that eludes nearly all of Gavin’s other characters. When he has an appointment with someone at the company that produced the defective ballcocks and asks if they can visit the warehouse to make sure the replacements are in stock, the man refuses — he’s actually afraid since someone was attacked in the warehouse. Undaunted, Costello goes there alone and spends an hour counting the pieces to make sure they’re sufficient. At the banquet, after we learn who wins the award, Costello’s most overt gesture is to ask someone to call a cab for one of his drunken colleagues.

In every other story here, a character yearns for a different life than the one he or she has. (All of Gavin’s stories focus primarily on men, but “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror” shifts point of view between male and female cousins; the woman longs to break out of her life so much that she wishes a plane she’s on might crash land.)

Costello, however, doesn’t seek anything beyond his life; he even clearly accepts the distance in glory between himself and Magellan. His lack of ambition is not a failing however: he just expects nothing more. His life is his life; he does what he needs to do.

After all of the unhappy characters striving for shallow aims, Costello’s quality allows Gavin to close the collection with a sense of quiet hopefulness. It also gives Middle Men a larger shape that makes it, as all good collections should be, greater in total than merely a succession of well-crafted stories.

Thirty Years of Re-Reading Lucky Jim

- | 15

The first time I read Kingsley Amis’s classic campus novel, Lucky Jim, I did it to impress a girl.

I was in my early 20s, living in Seattle during my first year after finishing college, and had just started seeing a graduate student in English. Compared to me, she and her friends all seemed intellectual and sophisticated. I listened to Supertramp, they listened to Paul Hindemith, and the first time I saw a recording of Vaughan Williams’s “Five Mystical Songs” at the woman’s apartment, I pronounced the composer’s name “Ralph” and she had to correct me: “You say it ‘Rafe.'”‘

I’d been a voracious reader ever since I’d discovered the Hardy Boys when I was eight or nine but, compared to the woman I was seeing and those in her circle, I was woefully ignorant of literature. I had a degree in communication and, outside of what I’d had to read for school and a short time when I was a boy and my physician father, who’d minored in philosophy as an undergraduate at a Jesuit college, offered me dollar bills to convince me to memorize selections from The Great Books of the Western World, I had read little that was published earlier than the first decade of the twentieth century, and not much that wasn’t by an American writer. In truth, at that point, I had little literary interest beyond science fiction and the Beats. On the other hand, the woman and her friends took courses in Old English and seemed not only to have read Spenser’s entire Faerie Queene but could quote from it.

One day, perhaps to find some intersection between us aside from our being two young people in a strange city two thousand miles from home (I was from Ohio; she, Missouri), she suggested I might enjoy Amis’s book. “It’s funny,” she offered. So I borrowed her paperback copy and read it.

She was right: it was funny but, beyond that, I found I identified in many ways with the novel’s almost hopelessly inept main character, Jim Dixon. True, he was more a contemporary of my parents’ generation than of mine. Amis wrote the novel in the early 1950s (it appeared in the UK in 1954) and, like my parents, Dixon would have come of age during World War II. Putting aside the accident of dates, geography and occupation (Dixon taught college, I was a bank teller), however, I saw much of myself in him.

In the novel, Dixon is in his first year as a junior lecturer in history at an unnamed provincial college somewhere in the English countryside. His principle quality is that he is unsettled without any notion of what he wants to do with his life and seemingly no ability to affect its direction or express directly how he feels. As the novel opens, his primary concern is convincing the head of his department, Ned Welch, not to fire him – but he’s trying to hold onto a job he doesn’t particularly like. At one point, Dixon comments to another character, apropos of his discipline, “Haven’t you noticed how we specialize in what we hate most?”

Even in his personal life for most of the novel, Dixon is incapable of taking charge. Without intending to, he’s caught in a relationship with a woman, Margaret Peel, who’s adept at emotional blackmail; it’s a relationship Amis tells us Dixon was “drawn into” rather than one he pursued and it’s disastrous. Margaret precipitates fights because she craves drama for the sake of drama; she accuses him of slights he doesn’t commit; she either attempts a suicide or claims to (Amis is intentionally ambiguous on this point until nearly the end of the novel) but, in either case, Dixon’s perception of Margaret as fragile binds him to her all the more.

Beyond this, I found Dixon an engaging protagonist because he is clearly a fish out of water. His colleagues, especially Welch, celebrate the past and high culture while Dixon has no use for either, despite his job as a history lecturer. One of the pivotal sections of the novel centers on an “arty weekend” that Dixon attends at Welch’s home (to score points to help him hold onto the job he abhors), where the guests sing madrigals, perform a play by Anouilh in French, and listen to “an amateur violinist” perform Brahms. Dixon prefers jazz to part songs and downing pints at an English pub to the refined repasts at the arty weekend, where Welch “poured Dixon the smallest drink he’d ever been seriously offered.” Dixon, who cannot read music, fakes his way through a tenor part in one of the madrigals. Later, as he stumbles back from the pub he sneaks off to late at night during that weekend, he sings, enthusiastically, an American country ballad, fittingly, given his life, about a train wreck.

Despite Dixon’s bumbling, his behavior that, even against his own better judgment, seems to be sending his life along a track toward sure ruin — he will lose his job; he will never be able to extricate himself from a relationship with Margaret — because it’s largely a comic novel, it’s not ruining a great surprise to say that Amis allows Dixon a triumph at the end: he does lose his job (thanks in large part to an embarrassing public lecture an inebriated Dixon delivers to the entire college community) but at the book’s close it’s clear he’s set for a better life than it appeared he might have when we first encounter him on page one.

Thirty-plus years after reading Lucky Jim for the first time, I don’t remember exactly what I thought of the book, why it struck the chord it did with me, why it would turn out to be one of the most important books in my life.

I could say, perhaps, that the fact that Jim, for all of his bumbling, comes to a good end gave me hope for my own life, but that seems too pat, too much like something someone might write to wrap up, neatly, his relationship to a book he loved in his younger years.

What I do remember distinctly, however, is this:

I was on the bus I took home each day from the bank when I read the last sentence. Dixon is with a woman altogether different from Margaret in every way, the woman that Amis makes plain Dixon’s future lies with. They encounter the Welches on the street as the family is getting into their car and Dixon tries to say something to express his outrage against Ned Welch but cannot find the words. The woman tugs on his arm, and the book ends:
The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and by their own voices.
I remember being on the bus, reading that sentence, then reading it again and my eyes filling with tears at how perfect a last sentence it was.

Not long after that, I married the woman who loaned me the book, but we divorced more than a dozen years ago.

As for Lucky Jim, it’s still part of my life. I read it a second time not long after the first. Then I read it again. And again. Eventually, I did find a career — writing and teaching college — and, for most of the past two decades, I have re-read Lucky Jim annually to mark the start of the new academic year.

On a certain level, it’s perhaps an odd thing to read a book perhaps two dozen times and to plan to read it yet again. After all, the primary force that pulls us through a work of fiction is the desire to find out what happens next and after we’ve read to the last page the first time, we know the sequence of events that make up the narrative.

As a writer, I’ve often re-read work that I’ve admired so that I can figure how the author accomplishes whatever he or she does: How does Gustave Flaubert build the structure of Madame Bovary so that Emma’s suicide seems inevitable rather than melodramatic? How does Vladimir Nabokov convince me to feel connected to Humbert Humbert despite his desire for twelve-year-old Lolita? How does Stewart O’Nan make Emily, Alone or Last Night at the Lobster compelling novels despite the fact that little of seeming dramatic consequence occurs in them? How does Margot Livesey make The Flight of Gemma Hardy a fresh story despite its clear echoes of and debt to Jane Eyre?

Certainly, at least some of my trips through Lucky Jim have taught me something about how to build a novel: one of the reasons it succeeds is that Amis uses the comic moments more than merely for a laugh but as integral parts of what is really an extremely tight structure that allows us to accept that the unhappy and largely incompetent protagonist we begin with who is able, in only roughly 250 pages, to become the sort of man who deserves the happy ending he comes to, who deserves the good job and good woman he has by the final line that brought me to tears for its profound rightness that first time.

But two dozen times through? Is there profit in that?

Even beyond that question, I have come to see that it’s perhaps also odd to celebrate the start of another school year by re-reading this particular book since it doesn’t paint the brightest picture of life in academia. Not only does Dixon hate it, several times in the novel Amis has him say some rather bleak things about teaching and scholarship. At one point, for example, another character says to him,, “I’ve a notion you’re not too happy in [the job]. . . . What’s the trouble? In you or in it?”

Dixon responds, “Oh, both, I should say. They waste my time and I waste theirs.”

At another point, thinking about a scholarly article he wrote to try to secure his position, he cringes at his own work’s “niggling mindlessness” and “funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.”

Lucky Jim is not unusual in this regard, of course, since so many campus novels would not go far as recruiting materials for the profession. Richard Russo’s hilarious Straight Man (in which Russo gives a nod to Amis, as his narrator’s nickname is “Lucky Hank”) is populated by a host of characters unhappy after decades in the professoriate, discovering they’ve settled for mediocrity and petty squabbles. John Williams’s brilliant and under-appreciated Stoner is flat out one of the saddest novels I have ever read. It begins, in part,
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910 at the age of nineteen. Eight years later . . . he earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness. . . . Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now . . .
Then, of course, there are even darker visions of life in academia, like James Hynes’s collection of novellas, Publish and Perish, in which his lecturers and junior scholars face not only the tough road to tenure but threats from the occult, or the ubiquitous campus murder mysteries that suggest that those who work in higher education are not good risks on life insurance actuarial tables.

And so, given Lucky Jim’s pessimistic take on the career I’ve pursued and the fact that, after so many times through it, I know the novel better than any other I’ve read, I ask myself:

Why do I keep reading it every autumn? Why did I read it this year?

The answer is complicated.

On one level, Lucky Jim is a well-crafted novel that holds up even nearly sixty years after it first appeared; even after so many re-readings, its comedy still works, especially two long sections that center on misfortunes that Dixon has because of his drinking: The first occurs during the arty weekend, when he falls asleep smoking and causes a minor fire that damages the room he’s staying in at the Welches’, a small disaster he makes worse by one bad decision after another. The second, which serves as the novel’s climax, occurs during Dixon’s unfortunate public lecture in which he succumbs to a catalogue of missteps that makes his performance representative of the fears of so many who have to stand up and talk in front of groups of strangers.

Its merits continue to earn Lucky Jim praise long after books that sold far better the year it came out but which are out of print and nearly out of our universal consciousness. (How many of us, for example, remember Morton Thompson’s Not as a Stranger, which was the top selling work of fiction that year?)

Lucky Jim, on the other hand, continues to show up on list after list of the best novels of the twentieth century or the funniest novels of all time. In 2005, Time included it on its list of “100 Best English Language Novels” since 1923 (the year of the magazine’s first issue). A decade ago, the late Christopher Hitchens described it as the funniest novel of the previous half-century in an essay he wrote for The Atlantic and, in 2008, when the New York Times polled the editors at its Book Review, asking them to name the funniest novel ever, Lucky Jim got the most votes. (It’s interesting that so many of the novels on their list were campus novels: aside from Amis’s, others included David Lodge’s Small World, Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.)

The New York Review of Books has even made Lucky Jim its “Classic Book Club selection” for October, saying that it is “regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century.” NYRB, which resurrected Stoner for a new generation of readers when it returned the novel to print with a new paperback edition in 2003, is also issuing a new edition of Lucky Jim in October.

But there are many novels on those lists that I’ve read and appreciated, and read more than once and appreciated each time, but I don’t have re-reading any of them on my annual calendar as I do Lucky Jim.

Partly, of course, I re-read it because of the ritual; reading it is my own personal academic convocation that marks a call to another year in the classroom.

Partly, I re-read it because of what Walker Percy calls “repetition” in another of the most important novels in my life, The Moviegoer, another novel about someone trying to figure out how to make his way in the world. “A repetition,” Percy writes, “is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”

As I read it, I am the young man on the bus, with no idea of the shape my life will have, hoping I can find something in the book to make the girl I am seeing like me a bit more.

As I read it, I am in my early thirties, walking into my first class as a teacher with little idea of what I am doing, in a fourth-floor room with a scarred wooden floor and beat-up desks in disorganized rows where nine women sit, assuming I will be able to organize some notions I have in a way that might help them become better writers. I’m in my mid-forties when my marriage to the girl who gave me Lucky Jim is ending and, reading Lucky Jim, I wonder if Jim were not fictional how would his life have turned out with the woman that Amis gave him at the end of the novel? This year, reading the novel, it strikes me that my youngest son is the age I was when I first read it, is roughly the age that Jim is in the book, and I think: we are connected by the experience of being young men in our twenties. And I think, where did the years go?

But even beyond its connection to Percy’s concept of repetition, I re-read the book every year because of that last sentence that moved me on the city bus in Seattle decades ago. I still find the sentence beautiful: “The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and their own voices.”

The words that make the final sentence work for me, seal up the novel once and for all, are the last three: “their own voices.” In the middle of the crowded, hectic town, Amis has isolated Dixon and the woman he’s with, has made clear that Dixon’s world is now separate from the miserable one he inhabited for nearly the entire novel.

It’s a sentence that closes the book up with a hopefulness that has eluded Dixon for nearly all of the roughly 250 pages that come before it and, every year when I read the novel, I know that the sentence is there, sitting on the last page waiting for me to come to it; its existence colors all of the absurd failures that Dixon endures before it.

Turning the last page, as I come to the sentence, I hold my breath as I read it and then, as I did the first time, I read it again.

It still moves me to tears.

Reference Point: Fathers and Sons

- | 3

Not quite a month before my 13th birthday, my father gave me a gift, a mass-market paperback edition of The Universal Encyclopedia of Mathematics. The 715-page book, which cost him one dollar and 50 cents, is, the cover proclaims, “The only reference book of its kind ever published.” (For my actual birthday, he gave me Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, with an inscription in Latin.)

He bought me the encyclopedia, I see now, to encourage me: while he was a cardiologist who worked calculus problems to relax, I had a perplexing, to him at least, inability to do any better than a C in any arithmetic course I took. His idea was that giving me a book with entries on “perspective transformation” and the formula for figuring the surface of an elliptical paraboloid would help me learn to divide fractions.

Clearly filled with hope for his floundering son, he wrote an inscription on the flyleaf: “For Joe. Toward an ∞ of knowledge. Dad.”

My father, who died in 1984 at 60, did not live long enough to see the Internet as it is today, our connection, if not to his wish for infinite knowledge, then at least to something in the same area code as infinite information, and so, to bring the world in, he filled our house with reference books — The Encyclopedia Britannica, Compton’s Encyclopedia (for his younger children), Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume The Story of Civilization, the Concise Dictionary of American History and so many others whose titles I can no longer recall, bookcases of them in the family room and in his den.

While it’s not strictly a reference set, he enshrined the Great Books of the Western World on shelves in our family room and offered rewards of a dollar if I could recite, from memory, passages he assigned me, and if I succeeded, he sometimes had me do it to for the guests when he and my mother entertained, a nine- or 10-year-old me in pajamas standing in a room of adults who were drinking highballs as I stumbled through “Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .”

A devout Roman Catholic, when he decided to buy the books in the early 1960s, he wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for permission because certain of the works were on the Church’s Index Liborum Prohibitum — a list of writings the Church felt threatened the faith and morals of those who read them. A monsignor from the Archdiocesan office responded that my father could buy them but that he should read them with care. For a long while, he kept the letter folded in thirds and tucked into one of the volumes but, when I went to look for it after he left the books to me when he died, opening every volume, holding them upside down and shaking each one, the letter was no longer there.

Almost three decades after his death, I remember my father as shy and uncomfortable socially. Perhaps a decade before he died, my mother showed me a group photograph of him and perhaps 18 or 20 other doctors, my father in the back row, half his face obscured by the head of one of the men in front of him. She was using the photograph to tell me something about how my father was as a person, that he was always standing in a back row, hiding from a camera, metaphorically if not actually, not wanting anyone to notice him.

Given that, I’m not surprised that I can never remember having a heart-to-heart talk with him about anything. I don’t think he ever asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, don’t think he ever asked about any of the girls I went out with nor talked to me about what colleges I wanted to attend. I chose the colleges, filled out the applications, left them on his desk and then found them on the kitchen table, a check for the application fee paper clipped to each of them.

I also don’t recall him being openly affectionate with my mother or any of my seven siblings. More than once, when my mother was going somewhere with my father, she came downstairs in a dress, perfumed and wearing pearls, and said to me, “Tell me I look nice,” because my father seemed never to tell her so. This trait was, in fact, the point of a story she told me often about my father’s father, a severe German immigrant who came to America early in the 20th century when he was 13. In the story, my grandparents are having dinner and my grandmother says to him, “You never tell me you like my cooking.”

“I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?” my grandfather responds.

Whenever my mother told the story, she paused when she came to the end of it then repeated: “I’m eatin’ it, ain’t I?”

When I got older, I realized the story was actually about my own father, that my mother could never say directly that he was not warm, could not complain openly to me that he did not compliment her, and so she told the story about my grandfather over and over, letting it hang in the air until I might understand its meaning.

It’s possible, I suspect, to read these accounts of my father and think him cold and even unkind: he couldn’t tell his wife she looked attractive, he was aloof for his children, disconnected (I wanted Rubber Soul for my birthday and he gave me a Latin dictionary); he embarrassed his oldest son by using him to perform parlor tricks dressed in stretch pajamas: Look at the little boy trying to recite Shakespeare! How cute!

But part of maturing is coming to the point at which you can see your parents as not just your mother and your father but as human beings, imperfect, who just happened to be the people who raised you.

I could, therefore, explain my father’s reticence to express affection by his own father’s resistance to it.

I could talk about how one of the choices my father made for the direction of his life — to pursue college — disappointed his father who had no patience for the life of the mind, despite the fact that my father eventually became a doctor. My grandfather, who worked in a sewing machine factory until he retired, thought a man should work with his hands and clearly favored his other son, my uncle, who worked in an automobile plant and who could fix things — do carpentry, repair a television set. That my uncle, who had no children, was more affluent than my father, the doctor with eight children whom he sent to prep schools and college, seemed to my grandfather evidence that he was correct: books and college were a waste of time.

Given that, is it any wonder that my father was so shy about overt expressions of affection?

And so if he could not directly invite me to connect with him, he could find more oblique ways to bring the two of us together: he could give me reference books as gifts, bribe me to open the books he collected.

In his own way, he was opening a door for me to a world he loved and saying, “I can’t show you my self but I can show you this.”

And so I became a collector of reference books, filling shelves with them in my own home the way my father did in ours when I was growing up. I became a forager in them often for no purpose except to see what was there.

Paging, as I did just now, through Patrick Robertson’s Robertson’s Book of Firsts, published last year, I learn that the first life insurance policy was written in 1583, and would pay out £383 and change, as long as the insured died within a year. When he died 11 months later, the “underwriters sought to evade payment by the dubious argument that he had not died within ‘the full twelve months,’ arguing that a month was only 28 days and therefore the insured had died beyond twelve months’ time. The court found for the beneficiary, saying, “[The] month is to be accounted according to the Kalendar.”

Browsing in The Baseball Necrology by Bill Lee, I learn that there was once a player named Bad News Galloway who appeared for one season in the major leagues and then worked as a bedding inspector during World War II, that Mox McQuery, who lasted for five seasons in the majors during the 19th century, died when he was shot in the line of duty while he was a policeman, and that Kite Thomas, who was a major league outfielder for two seasons, operated a tavern in Kansas in the 1950s that “was said to dispense more beer than any other tavern in Kansas.”

From The Best Books of Our Time 1901-1925, published in 1928 by Asa Don Dickinson, “Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania,” I learn that, according to a meticulous study he devised to analyze critical responses to what was then contemporary literature, the most highly regarded book of the first quarter of the 20th century was Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, which had “25 endorsements” by critics and was therefore, according to Dickinson’s system, superior to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (23 endorsements), Willa Cather’s My Antonia (18) or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (13).

On the surface, this may all seem trivial, but I contend it’s not — is any time that brings us knowledge ever really wasted?

Without meaning to look for it, for example, I know something about the trend of insurance companies contesting the claims of their customers, something specific about the economics of major league baseball players before the current era of six- to eight-figure annual salaries, something about the way taste in literature changes over a period of decades.

See, I hear my father saying. Exactly.

Sometimes, browsing in junk shops and antique malls, I buy reference books that make little sense for me to own — a 75-year-old one-volume encyclopedia, a half-century old book on baton twirling, a dog-eared guide for collecting baseball players’ autographs. Yet, as ridiculous a purchase as they might seem, they open up the world for me as much as did the books on my father’s shelves or the newer books on my own shelves, but in different ways.

Everybody’s Complete Encyclopedia, which the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wis., issued in 1937, for example, freezes the world for me in a manner a more contemporary reference work doesn’t; it gives me a world in which Pearl Harbor can be dismissed with a sentence, describing it as “an inlet not far from Honolulu, Hawaii, with pearl fisheries and a U.S. naval base,” and gives me the Ardennes in even fewer words, as only a sentence fragment, “Range of hills in France and Belgium extending into Luxembourg.” It gives me a world that had no notion of the meaning those places would carry less than a decade later.

The 1962 Who’s Who in Baton Twirling, which contains 500-plus pages of photographs and brief resumes of baton twirlers from around the United States, and a supplement on the Baton Twirling Hall of Fame, illuminates a subculture I hadn’t known was as large as it was, showing me something of the center of the lives of roughly 1,500 people from half a century ago. In one entry, I learn that Marla Miller of Columbia City, Ind., was once featured twirling fire batons at a district competition and that Hall of Fame member Paul Olin had traveled over 7,000 miles to teach twirling at summer camps across the Midwest and South.

As much as that allows me a glimpse at a subculture, the reason I bought the book was that it once belonged to one of the people who has an entry in it, Paula Rondeau of Florida. A half a century ago, the then 10-year-old Rondeau (who started twirling when she was five, had won tournaments in Florida and Virginia and performed on television during the 1961 Junior Miss America Pageant) scrawled her name and address in the front of the book in a careful cursive.

In somewhat the same way, the 1939 Allegheny (Pennsylvania) High School Yearbook opens another flap on the world for me: it was owned at one time by Ellen (Elsie) Tuomela, whom the yearbook describes as “sweet and shy” with “hopes to be a secretary” and who had “a unique hobby . . . working crossword puzzles.” If Elsie is alive still, she would around 90 but her yearbook — with the entries about her and her classmates and the editor’s sad recollection that the construction of a new school building that year meant the loss of “the balcony, long a lovers’ meeting place” –connects me to the teenager Elsie was nearly three-quarters of a century ago, makes the lives of all teenagers then more vivid to me than any general discussion of the youth of America in the 1930s ever could.

As for the slightly water-logged, dog-eared copy of the 1986 edition of Sports Americana Baseball Address List, a guide published for autograph seekers for which I paid 50 cents two weeks ago at a junk shop I passed on a Sunday afternoon: the information in it is, I assume, worthless. How many of the men whose names and addresses are listed are still living where they were more than a quarter century ago? What drew me to it were the almost obsessive annotations by the anonymous person who owned it before it ended up in a pile of books in a battered orange crate on a shelf with old VHS movies and mismatched glassware: whose autographs he had, who was dead or “too old or ill to sign,” and whom he classed as an “SOB,” presumably because they refused his request for a signature. The introduction to the book boasts that 10,000 current and former players were included and the previous owner had a note for well more than half of them. For me, the book reveals a fellow human being who gave himself passionately to something.

I’m certain that when my father extended perhaps the only sort of invitation he could to me, into the world as it lay out before him, and me, in reference books, he was not thinking of baton twirlers, high school seniors from 73 years ago, or autograph collectors, but my interest in them is connected to that same impulse he woke in me when I was roughly the same age as Paula Rondeau when she was ordering the copy of the Who’s Who with her name and photograph in it — the impulse to be curious about the world outside the room where I’m paging through the slightly mildewed book that bears a photograph of her in a costume, standing beside three of her trophies.

Not long after my father died, I found a package he’d received but never opened: the 1984 Britannica Book of the Year, part of the series of annuals the publishers offered to him as someone who had once bought a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and which he ordered each year, lining them chronologically on the shelves beneath the encyclopedia. (He also just as faithfully ordered the annual supplement to the Great Books, The Great Ideas Today.) In the last months of his life, weakened by congestive heart failure and diabetes, on most days he only had strength enough to move the few feet from his bed to a chair in his room and then, later, with the help of a day nurse, back to his bed. But at some point in those months — did he know how many he had left? — he’d marked a box on a reply card, written a check, mailed it off, then waited for the world to come back to him in 766 pages.

If he’d lived long enough to open the package, he could have flipped through those pages and read that health care costs in the U.S. for the previous year were more than 340 percent what they were in 1967, the year after he gave me the mathematics encyclopedia and Latin dictionary. He could have read that Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings was “one of the major literary events of the year,” but that critical response ranged from “uncertain, almost embarrassed enthusiasm to exasperated boredom.” He could have learned that a 29-year-old mathematician had made a discovery that “was the first major step in more than a century in the struggle to verify Pierre de Fermat’s” famous claim, scribbled in the margin of a book, that he had discovered a “truly marvelous [algebraic] proof.” (And my father could have winced realizing that the mathematician was younger than his son who still had difficulty dividing fractions.)

When my mother gave me the set of Britannica and the Great Books after he died, she said, “I don’t care what you do with the encyclopedias, but please don’t get rid of the Great Books. Your father went through so much to get them.”

By then, the encyclopedia, published during Richard Nixon’s first term of office, was dated and while I kept it for a long while, when I moved six years ago, I donated it to Goodwill. However, I held onto the 1984 Book of the Year, the volume my father had never read, had never opened, and it sits on a shelf with the Latin dictionary and the Encyclopedia of Mathematics that he gave me with such hope when I was a boy.

Image courtesy of the author.