Fat City (California Fiction)

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A Year in Reading: Jayne Anne Phillips

I’ve loved a lot of books this year, relatively recent discoveries I’ve finally had time to dive into, or books I’ve re-read, like Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Barry Gifford’s The Roy Stories, Christa Parravani’s haunting memoir, Her. Reviewing a new biography of Stephen Crane (Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire) sent me back to Crane’s poetry (“Because it is bitter/ and because it is my heart”) and prose. The Red Badge of Courage and his gorgeous stories remain immortal. The pulsing synesthesia that marked his writing emanates, controlled and rhythmic, in every graph.

I’ve needed books this year, as the world and the Republic shudder and seem to devolve. Books can be visionary arcs of narration that soar beyond our time, even by penetrating the past. Alchemy and transformation are on my mind: the magic of character, the wonder of the sentence on the page, the spiritual ascendance of books that bear witness. James Agee’s A Death In The Family, with its searing gaze into the heart of identity, remains my Bible. My pantheon includes They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in The Secret Sea, and Irene McKinney’s collected poems, Unthinkable. I love her single volumes: Vivid Companion, tightly bound as a silken correspondence, and her posthumous, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? Each of these books moves through death as though it were a mere worm hole in a celestial galaxy; each decodes a personal survival that made writing the work a necessity for the writer. History, personal or national, may tell us the facts, but literature tells us the story, and stories are immortal. Poetry is full of story. Louise Gluck’s Faithful And Virtuous Night is its own soaring novel; Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda imagines an adjacent constellation; “rows of ghosts come forth to sing” in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Unpeopled Eden. Poems can break character into glittering shards and let us see it whole: Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke “sees” bigger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson; Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A imagines the life of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, the first African American contestant in a ’30s-era national spelling bee, disqualified by Southern judges with an unofficial word: “nemesis.” If character is destiny, memorize Leonard Gardner’s masterpiece, Fat City: a perfect novel about “allegiance to fate” in late-’50s Stockton, Calif. If you’re a reader who looks askance at the writer of the moment, don’t let that wariness warn you off Penelope Fitzgerald, suddenly awarded the attention we wish she’d had when she was nearly destitute, raising three children in a drafty houseboat on the Thames. She saw it all through to The Blue Flower, her own masterpiece, a book I read every year for sheer pleasure, with depthless thanks.

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End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLillo

1.
I teach a course on sports literature and culture at Rutgers-Newark, and we will have a lot to talk about this summer. Unfortunately, our subject will be close to home. The continuing debacle at the New Brunswick campus saddens me. I have stopped revising my syllabus: I simply cannot keep up with the hourly developments. A school that is home to Nobel laureates, National Book Award winners, dedicated faculty, talented students, and nationally recognized programs has become a punchline. The Providence Journal’s Jim Donaldson quips that we are rightfully the Scarlet Knights, since we should be “red-faced with embarrassment.” NBC Sports calls our athletic department a “disaster.” Even Inside Higher Education, a publication devoted to the academic and administrative sides of university life, calls the recent developments “downright shocking.”

Yet former governor Tom Kean says politicians should “shut up” about Rutgers. Governor Chris Christie claims “absolute confidence” in Rutgers President Robert Barchi, who in turn assures that Julie Hermann, the controversial incoming athletic director, is the right person for the job. They all need to watch a replay. The recent athletic drama has been nearly Shakespearean: Mike Rice, the basketball coach with an abusive style, was merely suspended rather than fired. That is, until video of his actions were televised on ESPN. Athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned, but is now championed to return by loyal supporters. Replacement basketball coach Eddie Jordan, advertised as a Rutgers alumnus, did not actually graduate from the university. And Julie Hermann is haunted by her own coaching style, which caused her entire volleyball team to write a scathing letter of criticism. That letter led to her resignation from her position at the University of Tennessee.

That would be enough for the final scene of Hamlet, but not Rutgers.

Members of the search committee for the new athletic director have voiced their concern with the rushed process, which included a $70,000 background check that failed to check Hermann’s background. They missed her role in a 2008 sex discrimination lawsuit during her tenure as a senior athletics administrator at the University of Louisville. Now the university has spent $150,000 on crisis communications to deal with this mess, and Hermann arrives at campus this week. Rutgers is set to join the Big Ten conference, the final step in a decade-long ascension to the national athletic scene. More importantly, the university is in the midst of the largest merger in the history of American higher education, as Rutgers joins with the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. And yet Dick Vitale is right: we have become a national “soap opera.” I certainly will not claim that I predicted this, but I think Don DeLillo did.

2.
“Hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody”: a refrain spoken by Emmett Creed, head coach of the Logos College football team in End Zone. Don DeLillo’s metafictive, surreal novel has always been the central text of my sports literature course. It is a wild story, with an overzealous, abusive coach who leads his team to victory at all costs. As I re-read passages in the cement-walled classroom of Conklin Hall, my Rutgers students know that I love this book. There is a tension in loving and writing about sports, and football exploits those opposing pulls, particularly in the hands of a stylist like DeLillo. His prose pops with the terse language of the gridiron, and these words are blasted through a bullhorn from a tower high above the practice field. Other coaches, and even the linguistic-majoring players, appropriate Creed’s words and cadence. His influence is not surprising. An archetypal leader in the tradition of Amos Alonzo Stagg and a former B-27 pilot, Creed was born “in either a log cabin or a manger.” After a brief career with the Chicago Bears, Creed coached at another college before he broke the jaw of a second-string quarterback who “said or did something he didn’t like.” He was famous, though, for “creating order out of chaos”; for resurrecting programs and careers.

End Zone is a metafictional satire in the DeLillo tradition. Absurd scenes are paused with parenthetical asides. Americana is skewered, and DeLillo, even in 1972, recognized that football had replaced baseball as our nation’s metonymic sport. Yet for all his sarcastic snipes, DeLillo sounds in love with the “autumnal rhythms” of football. He prefaces the reader with a critique of extended game sequences in fiction before devoting nearly 30 pages of End Zone to a play-by-play of a game against rival Centrex. Such self-awareness is certainly a hallmark of metafiction in the style of John Barth, but it is done so lovingly. DeLillo, it seems, wants it both ways.

As do I. One of my goals in teaching the sports literature course is to help students unpack the culture of sports in America. Reading DeLillo helps them examine the economic inequalities within Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, which in turn causes them to reconsider how the bodies of collegiate and professional athletes are owned by their coaches and institutions. Yet DeLillo’s novel shows why sports are so complicated: it is easy to bemoan and simultaneously enjoy the world of athletic decadence.

Coach Creed cancels a Friday workout before his team’s all-important game against rival Centrex. He “suggested” that the captains lead a “beer party” that night, with simple parameters: “no coaches, no females, no time limit.” DeLilllo eschews even a paragraph break before documenting that night’s action. Beer pounding led to fights, “mass vomiting,” and group singing. A defensive end punches his way through a door while others compete in a “pissing contest,” going “not for distance but for altitude.” Men wrestle, jump, spit at each other’s shoes, eat hamburgers, and chug ketchup. Gary Harkness, the novel’s sarcastic, self-aware narrator, admits the party “was the most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent.”

Yet such debauchery was decreed by the team’s patriarch. End Zone is a hyperbolic novel written with the care of a writer in love with elements of football, yet who clearly sees that culture’s surreal moments. The party was a night of male bonding without female distraction; women can be cheerleaders, they can be conquests for postgame parties, but football is a man’s world. DeLillo gives a window into this absurd boys’ club, but fogs the glass with his metafictional prose.

Another, later scene also appears soaked in hyperbole, but actually reveals DeLillo’s care in representing the minutiae of pregame pageantry. The Centrex game is now a reality. Nervous players feel out the Centrex stadium during an easy morning workout. They have an early meal of beef consommé, steak, and eggs before returning to the stadium. They warm up, mimicking the short and controlled bursts they will later employ in the game, and then convene in the locker room. The players smack each other on the helmets, grunting “Awright” and repeating mantras: “We hit, we hit.”

The chants are broken by a request for silence, and Coach Creed, arms crossed over chest, hand solemnly holding a baseball cap, avoids a long pregame speech. He instead delivers a single sentence: “I want the maximal effort.” The team explodes out of the tunnel, making “hard fast rhythmic sounds” as they are born to the audience: “Americans on a Saturday night.” The fans, the band, the cheerleaders, the uniformed young men on opposing sides, the football waiting to be kicked: they all compliment and channel the charged moment. Helmeted, these players are anonymous, yet dynamic members of a honed, single unit. I might smirk at DeLillo’s metafiction, but I am right there with him, with them, ready for this war.

3.
I have never played football, but I have lived football. My father was an All-American in high school and a running back for Holy Cross, playing against Jim Brown; my brother Mark was a fullback for the University of Delaware, and my brother Mike was recruited by Syracuse and Yale before an injury sidelined his career. They were never the type to volunteer replays drenched in nostalgia, but I asked to hear stories about long August double sessions with no water, blocking drills where they pushed players into the ground while churning their own cleats into the grass, and Gatorade-dumps on shocked coaches.

My father was the apex of all this football folklore. People in northern New Jersey know my surname because of my father, and still remember his rushing accolades at Dover High School in the early 1950s. Middle school janitors asked him, already a fully-grown man, to help move furniture; in high school he was the unofficial bouncer at our family’s bar and restaurant. He was fast, strong, and played both sides of the gridiron.

Yet my father has never fit any of the stereotypes about tough male athletes. He is caring and compassionate, and never once pushed any of his children to play sports, although he supported us every moment we participated. Now in his 70s, his biceps are still like rocks, but he is a gentle soul, more interested in building a ramp for my shed than bragging about past touchdowns.

By not playing football, but instead experiencing it through story and observation, I was able to cultivate a personal mythology of the sport without seeing the darker sides. I ran post patterns in my backyard, diving to catch Mike’s well-timed passes. I rushed into an imagined end zone bordered by bushes. I created notebooks full of imagined Saturday afternoon collegiate results. But I never played a second on the football field. My brothers attended a local Catholic school, but I went to a public school, where soccer was king. The football team struggled. The main draw of our Pep Rally was the soccer team’s shutout streak, not the football team. I’d seen photographs from my sister’s years at the school, when Pep Rally ended with a bonfire that smoked to the clouds, the football players flexing in front of the flames. That past seemed so distant it felt fake. I wonder if it felt the same way even then.

4.
Most would not consider what is happening at Rutgers a “football” scandal, but it is football that has driven Rutgers to pine for national athletic glory. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was our savior, but when the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers poached him for the big time, we thought Rutgers athletics would survive. It was our time. We would become national power at football, but the exposure and money would seep into other sports and programs, and, God forbid, our academic departments.

On the surface, the Rutgers scandal is certainly different than the sexual abuse nightmare at Penn State. Yet the subject of the scandal is not often the key to understanding: rather, hyperbole is endemic to top-tier collegiate sports. In the world of Division I athletics, the unreal becomes real. Football is the center, the epitome of this world. Football is a sport centered on masculine bodies: the collision of those bodies, the dynamic movements of those forms. Football is men — often large men — moving at high speeds, making quick cuts, threading passes between the outstretched hands of cornerbacks, kicking long field goals under incredible pressure. Regardless of the tongue-in-cheek attempts of NFL Films and their slow-motion, Sam Spence scored game panoramas, football is a game grounded in control.

The coaches at Logos College want nightly prayer sessions, but Gary realizes that “people don’t go to football games to see pass patterns run by theologians.” These attempts at emotional control are only in service one endgame: victory. In DeLillo’s novel, Logos College loses handily to their rival, Centrex. The next day, the university hires an energetic sports information director, Wally Pippich, who admits that he doesn’t “know squat about football.” But he claims to know about entertainment, and about money. Pippich tells the novel’s troubled narrator that he’ll stick up for him, no matter his mistakes, because “next season we make it big.” No athletic sin is without the penance of victory. Although Logos College is full of brilliant students, sports are king on that campus. I wish this was fiction; instead, the novel is a microcosm of Division I college athletics at their worst.

I can poke fun at Pippich. I can note how Gary Harkness describes the man’s voice as “an animated cartoon,” a fake whose “mouth seemed to invent the words as well as speak them.” But the machine of college football, of American athletics as a whole, would not exist without people like me: people who complain about the world of sports, but who still play. People like me, who forgive the sins, who forget the scandals, because of innocence, ignorance, or both.

5.
My wife and I run at a local trail system. Running together has been a tradition since we met on the Susquehanna University track team. We usually wait until evening, but the summer sun still heats the air. We part after stretching: she runs distance for speed, and staying with her would be a miracle. I go to sprint. After a short warmup, I stretch again and ready myself for accelerations or hill repeats. A middle distance runner in high school and college, I don’t have the mental endurance for distance. I like short bursts, knowing that rest and recovery are near.

I love running in the heat. My muscles warm quickly, unlike those miles in cold where I feel stiff. I run myself drenched, and then I do a cooldown along a shaded, cinder trail that leads to the parking lot, where I am again baked in sun. I take a towel to the treeline and do push-ups and sit-ups until my stomach and shoulders tighten, and then I sit for a few minutes until my wife finishes her run.

I do this to stay healthy, but some days, especially the hottest ones, when my mind is massaged into imagination rather than reality, I think about playing football. After a sectional race in 1999, on the long bus ride home, one of the high school football coaches asked if I wanted to play wide receiver for the team the next year. A throwing coach, he didn’t realize I was a senior. He shrugged, but I was more disappointed: I wanted to play football. Not for wins or cheerleaders or other short-lived glories, but because my father and brothers played, because I ran down-and-out patterns against imaginary cornerbacks. Even then, I had compartmentalized football into manageable, safe parts. I like a good hit, but I love an open field run, a pattern cut to perfection, or a quarterback’s decision to leave the safety of the pocket. I can do that, because I remain on the outside of the sport. If I am so fascinated by a sport, a game, a culture of which I am an ancillary member, what of those who train and play it?

I don’t want to re-enroll in high school and play football. Something else is happening: the ritual of football culture, of athletics, has settled into my soul. I am a 32-year-old man sprinting down the hot roadway of a state park, and I have safely appropriated elements of football into my own mythology. I might do this with my idiosyncratic Catholicism; I suspect everyone does it with some element of their lives. We mold our beliefs into palpable forms, knowing that we fear their uneven shapes. I think about this now, but under the heat that weighs on my shoulders, I am thinking of sneakers pounding on asphalt, of some athletic burst that exists in a world where sport is pure and pain is temporary. It is only afterward, walking back to my car while sweat cools me under the wind, do I wonder if we are all fooled into racing toward our own end zones.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Knockout Reading

This month’s David and Goliath championship bout between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito may have brought boxing some new fans.  Watching  Pacquiao, outweighed some sixteen pounds, dazzlingly wallop the villainous but courageous Margarito, was nothing short of spectacular if not epic.  Margarito, who had mocked Pacquiao trainer’s Parkinsons just before the match, met poetic justice for the first time in Cowboys Stadium.

It’s no wonder boxing has fascinated so many writers.  The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront, traces literature’s affair with pugilism back to Epeius and Euryalus’ fist-fight during the siege of Troy in The Iliad. He also describes Lord Byron fancying the sixty-round bare-knuckled fighting popular in his day.  In the 20th century, A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker famously set the bar high for boxing journalism, employing obscured latinate words between steak and whiskey dinners in West Side dives.  In fact, his haughty tones and smart aleck descriptions can even sound condescending to the world he described.  (Joyce Carol Oates has gone as far as to say his boxing writing is racist.)  Boxing was clearly a serious matter for manly men, a tradition followed by the new journalists, who seemed to have viewed the boxing piece as a rite of passage.  Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese, all wrote extensively about pugilism, but none of these portrayals of real life boxers nurse a bookworm’s dream of being a toughened fighter like fiction.

Ernest Hemingway was a master of fiction and a master of fictional boxing, a self-proclaimed boxing expert in Paris, who despite his lack of experience, trained poet Ezra Pound and coached the Spanish painter Juan Miro on his jab; unfortunately, his sparring matches with real boxers like Canadian Morley Callaghan got Hemingway pummeled.  And yet despite his lack of talent, Hemingway continued following and writing about boxing.  His stories “Fifty Grand” and “The Battler” are both based on pugilists, as is Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises.

There is plenty of bad boxing fiction, mostly old, mostly clichéd, mostly rotting away in used bins, or library sales racks, but then there are the gems, the ones that endure.  In the last couple of years I’ve come across a few that are not just good boxing fiction but good fiction.  They all inexplicably take place in California (where both Pacquiao and Margarito both trained before their match).

Fat City by Leonard Gardner is one of the best novellas I’ve read this year.  It’s a noir novel without really trying to be one.  No detectives, city nights, or hyperbolically dark dialogue, instead we have subtle descriptions, hazy characters; some of its patiently rendered urban landscape descriptions almost slip by, as the reader enters 1950s Stockton, on the beat street motels, between hot pans and dirty sheets.  When not working odd jobs, the book’s protagonist Billy Tulley (a name vaguely reminiscent of late champ Gene Tunney) is boxing or being an alcoholic, a combination which you can imagine must be horribly painful, not to mention high unlikely.  Still, Tulley sweats out his shakes at Ludo’s Gym where a sign reads: “PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR GET UP AND SPIT IN THE TOILET BOWL” and where dialogue like this can be overheard in the changing room:

“You want to know what (sic) make a good fighter?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s believing in yourself.  That the will to win.  The rest condition.  You want to kick ass, you kick ass.”

When not training, Tulley is sopping up booze into bars, where sometimes people even recognize him as the promising fighter he once was.  But then, he gets into a tangle with a malevolent female — a must in any noir novel — something like a trashier version of Holy Golightly from  Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Somehow, despite the archetypal characters, the story, thanks to its effortlessly sleek story, manages to move.  Tulley’s struggle to make himself ¨kick ass¨ in the face of alcoholism and loneliness is tragic, and perhaps tragically outdated in this era of athletic competitiveness, but is told in such a way that the reader can’t help but want to save Tulley from one punishment or another.  I was only disappointed when I found out Gardner hadn’t written any other novels.

Gardners‘s gruesome tell-it-like-it-is portrait of working class in California reminded me of another book that brims with fisticuffs, Ham on Rye.  I should preface my description of the novel by saying that I’ve never been a Bukowksi lover.  Since high school I thought his old man alcoholic misogyny was kind of boring, but this book is different from his others:  his fictional self is only a pre-teen , plagued by acne, no chance at being cool, but angry enough so he isn’t the catch of the day for his belligerent friends who endlessly pull at their crotches, compare wieners, and fantasize about every female near them.  Bukwoski writes:

Each afternoon after school there would be a fight between two of the older boys.  It was always out by the back fence were there was never a teacher about.  And the fights were never even; it was always a large boy against a smaller boy and the larger boy would beat the smaller boy with his fists, backing him into the fence.  The smaller boy would attempt to fight back but it was useless.  Soon his face was bloody, the blood running down into his shirt.

What I think makes this particular pointdexter protagonist so interesting is that he’s tougher than a stale piece of jerky, as are all the other kids.  In this world, “even the sissies took their beatings quietly.”  Zealously narrated kiddy fight scenes run like well told bar stories:

They squared off.  Wagner had some good moves.  He bobbed, he weaved, he shuffled his feet, he moved in and out, and he made little hissing sounds.  He was impressive.  He caught Moscowitz with three straight left jabs.  Moscowitz just stood there with his hands at his sides.  He didn’t know anything about boxing.  Then Wagner cracked Moscowitz with a right on the jaw.

The interchange continues until Moscowitz turns the fight around:

Moscowitz was a puncher.  He dug a left to that pot belly. Wagner grasped and dropped.  He fell to both knees.  His face was cut and bleeding. His chin was on his chest and he looked sick.

Paradoxically these school fights, although bloody, are nothing compared to the beatings Bukowski gets from his dad.  In fact, these fights seem almost cathartic, a good thing in comparison to the much more serious and scary adult world that surrounds them.

Nearly everyone’s seen the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby starring Hillary Swank as a female boxer from the sticks, but not everyone knows it’s based on a short story by F.X. Toole.  A fledgling writer most of his life, Toole was a cut man by trade, the guy in the corner who swabs and smears Vaseline on a fighter’s face, after having been told he was too old for a career in boxing.  Although the stories in Rope Burns can be a bit repetitive (how many more down and out kids do we have to hear about) and sometimes cliché  (see previous parenthetical remark), they have a lot of heart.

“Fightin Philly” describes a manager and his talented but injured light heavyweight fighter Mookie facing a title fight against a hardened Ugandan fighter in Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, Mookie has a leg injury.  Like Yuri Foreman’s bout against Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium earlier this year — Foreman bravely, perhaps foolishly fought through two rounds wobbling — Mookie must fight his injury as much as his opponent.   The match ends up even by the tenth round, or at least his corner man Con thinks.  So, late in the fight – thanks to Con’s advice – Mookie manages to frazzle his opponent with a flurry attack that includes a low blow to frighten him.  Afterward “he nailed him with big left hands and combinations to the head, which began to swell and make [the Ugandan] looked like a zombie.”  Sadly, it isn’t enough and Mookie’s courage, training, and will aren’t enough.  Maybe this story gets at me because I know someone like Mookie with 10-10 a professional record who insists on continuing to fight professionally.

Writers and boxers actually have something in common: nearly impossible odds at ever making it big; of course, it goes without saying that boxers get real bruises rather than just bruised egos.  Toole definitely got this about boxing and literature, which is perhaps why he kept it up for so long.   Unfortunately, he died before the movie adaptation of his book ever came out.  Since his death, a posthumous novel Pound for Pound was published.  I guess some guys just never go down.

A Year in Reading: Jesse Ball

Luckily, I have been keeping a list. I began the year with Tom Hodgkinson’s lovely How to be Idle, which is a very very good way to begin a year of reading. Immediately then to The Twelve Terrors of Christmas (Updike / Gorey). Thereafter, Kicking the Leaves, an old favorite. This is in my opinion, Donald Hall’s best volume of poetry. I have read it dozens of times. Then a short travel with a writer I had never read, Gyula Krudy, whose Sunflower, courtesy of NYRB was enormously pleasing and atmospheric. Then Botvinnik: 100 Selected Games, for those of you who read chess-notation with joy and pleasure. That old Soviet master had a fearsome will. Then Last Days by Brian Evenson, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler, Life of Johnson by Boswell (wonderful — even the ambition of reading it and carrying it about with one is wonderful). Then Fowles, The Collector, and Out by the very resourceful Matsuo Kirino. Read Out if you, like myself and also the previously mentioned Evenson, spend time thinking about how bodies ought to be disposed of. At this point, I went to another old favorite, Robert Walser’s Selected Stories. If you must read something, please forget about what anyone else has to say and read Walser’s selected stories. There’s a lot of posturing about contemporary writing, but the truth is — most of it isn’t any good. That’s where Walser comes in, from the first quarter of the last century, riding the wagon from his Swiss sanatorium. He’ll fix your modern day ills with ease.

I went to Leonard Gardner next, and his Fat City, which I read in one sitting. Delicious! Do you like prize-fighting? I do. Then Zen Antics courtesy of Cleary, and Lolita while on a train to Michigan, and Hass’s Field Guide (not an actual field guide).

At this point we are partway through the year, and I am considering the class I will teach in the fall, a class on derive, which sends us into: Society of the Spectacle by Debord, Revolution of Everyday Life by Vaneigem, Nadja by Breton, The Character of Physical Law by Feynman, A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, Silverstein, and Koolhaus’s Delirious New York.

I will leave you then, there with me in the summertime. Of later books, I will mention but one:

Bears: A Brief History by Brunner (a remarkable book). Do you like bears?

More from A Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Richard Lange

Richard Lange is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of stories Dead Boys. He lives in Los Angeles. Read more about him at www.richlange.comMy favorite book of the year was Fat City, by Leonard Gardner. It’s a novel about a couple of small-time boxers in Stockton, CA in the late ’50s. We follow these fighters as they train in ratty gyms, drink in skid row bars, chase women they don’t love, and work through their hangovers in dusty onion fields. Gardener finds harsh beauty in the bleakness and constructs sad poems out of broken dreams. These men want so much and get so little, and all of a sudden, BAM, you’re sitting there trying to read with tears in your eyes.Another book I liked was Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s dad has jumped bail on a meth charge, and it’s up to Ree to care for her two younger brothers and overmedicated mom. Her quest to track down her father before the bond company snatches the family’s house puts her in conflict with an unsavory branch of her extended clan and leads to some harrowing scrapes. You’ll shiver during Woodrell’s descriptions of the icy Ozarks, flinch at the sudden violence and come to love the indomitable Ree. It’s a simple tale made momentous by Woodrell’s quiet insistence that these poor folks and their hardscrabble lives deserve our respectful attention. I have to put in an Elmore Leonard, too, The Switch, from 1978. A kidnapping plot spins out of control in a shaky moral landscape where everybody’s guilty of something. I’m a fool for Leonard’s casual yet tightly controlled style and peerless dialogue. There’s also a lot of humor here, as he skewers the ’70s suburban country club lifestyle and makes sure that all the bad guys (and girls) get what’s coming to them.More from A Year in Reading 2007

More from the Left Coast

Rodger Jacobs, author of the book Christopher Walken and the Tuna Fish Sandwich and Other L.A. Stories, shares with us the best books he read this year.Best books I’ve read this year? Well, I’m still going to stand behind Michelle Huneven’s Jamesland even though I had some minor quibbles with it. Next to that I would have to go with the stunning debut novel by Canadian journalist Robert Hough, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. I can think of no other contemporary writer — with the obvious exception of Ron Hansen with Hitler’s Niece and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — who has mastered the historical novel in such a vibrant and highly engrossing style. It’s a lengthy tome (440 pages) and by the time you have read the last page you feel that you have lived Mabel Stark’s life side-by-side with this amazing yet deeply troubled woman. The book is so evocative that I still — almost a year after having read it — have sense memories attached to the novel, the scents attached to circus life, the wet hay during sudden storm bursts, the kerosene lamp in Mabel’s railroad car. This was such a master work that I am anxious to see if Hough can follow it up or if, sadly, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime book like Leonard Gardner’s Fat City or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is that damn good.Thanks for that. That bit about “once-in-a-lifetime books” at the end made me think. Many a VH1 special is devoted to the musical one-hit wonder, but what about the literary variety? Who’s on that list? And what do these authors have in common? Hmmm… food for thought.

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