The narrator of this Jonathan Lethem novel, an orphan afflicted with Tourette’s, is handpicked along with a few school comrades for exploitation as black market stooges. The opportunity frees them to work on street education degrees where coursework involves the detective mystery that is coming of age. I had briefly confused Jonathan Lethem with Jonathan Franzen, both peers of David Foster Wallace, Franzen a close friend and Lethem Wallace’s successor teaching creative writing at Pomona College. A used copy of “Motherless Brooklyn” had been gifted to me a few years back but it found a place on a shelf unread, and when I recently pulled it out to take a look, I wondered where I’d picked it up, thinking it was probably from the free library book box down on the corner, but opening it read the thank you gift note handwritten to me. Sometimes writers or books find their way to readers unready or caught off guard. We often think we know what we want to read, what will be good, what will be good for us; we just as often don’t. “Motherless Brooklyn” is about words put into action, plot as call and response, setting as streets and commerce, alive with verisimilitude easily mistaken for fantasy given its enjoyment.
“She aspires to write literary fiction,” Elaine tells Mercer of Leigh, all three characters in John Grisham’s Camino Island (2017), “really impenetrable stuff that the stores can’t give away” (112). Literary fiction there is shorthand for critical analysis of the obscure, a kind of stereotype that avoids ambiguity. Mercer is also a stereotype: adjunct instructor deep in college loan debt who has just lost her teaching position to budget cutbacks at a state college, her two books, a novel and short stories, already out of print. But the loss of her teaching job might provide a way for her to do what she really wants to do, which is, well, to write literary fiction. But not the impossible stuff, but books that when signed by the author in first edition hardback copies with covers in fine condition become collector’s items worth thousands of dollars, and might even wind up on a clandestine market. Books like Catch-22; The Naked and the Dead; Rabbit, Run; Invisible Man; The Moviegoer; Goodbye, Columbus; The Confessions of Nat Turner; The Maltese Falcon; In Cold Blood; The Catcher in the Rye; The Sound and the Fury; Cup of Gold; This Side of Paradise; A Farewell to Arms – all listed on page 52 of Camino Island, and are, in a sense, what Grisham’s book is about – the illicit market for such books, that is, not their value as literary fiction, other than to suggest, in an argument of proposal, that these are the kinds of books we should be reading. And to make a search for them easier, Grisham provides, MLA Style, the author’s name and year of publication.
I was going to say I did not have to resort to a black market to obtain my paperback copy of Camino Island (Dell Mass Market Edition, 2018, unsigned, but in good condition), but it might be argued that I did: Susan had pulled it out of the neighborhood free library share box located in the vacant lot near the Line 15 stop down around the corner from our place, had me read the back cover, adding the counsel, “I think you might like this.” Certainly not impenetrable – I read to page 116 last night before putting out the light. And I do like it.
One thing I liked about Camino Island, placed rudely on top of the stack of reading in progress books and magazines on the bedside table, is that it assuaged my guilt over leaving my recently legally purchased copy of the 50th Anniversary edition of Dune so early, in the middle of Chapter Two. The plan was to read Dune along with one of my out-of-town brothers, another Pandemic exercise, and we would compare notes and reactions over the phone. Dune appears to be a book that involves, as the Baron tells Feyd: “‘Listen carefully, Feyd,’ the Baron said. ‘Observe the plans within plans within plans'” (23). I thought I might get a leg up on Dune by watching the 1984 David Lynch film, but I only got about the same distance as I had in the book, although recognizing not much from the book’s opening, before giving up. But my problem with Dune was not that it is impenetrable. So what is the problem?
Meantime, a reading friend wrote in an email to ask me why I read what I read, and even spend time talking and writing about that reading. The occasion of his question was my putting up here at the Toads those recent posts, one on the new quarterly journal “Firmament,” the other on the two stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini, both published in small book, small press format, both just out this month from Sublunary Editions (Seattle), and both, as Grisham might have it, some form of impenetrable. The question stirs the pond of paranoia in the pit of my stomach. For the act of reading is subversive; yet, paradoxically, reading is mostly considered a virtuous activity. To learn to read, to know how to read, these are valued as good activities. Knowing what to read is a different matter.
Late for a meeting. "extreme and unusual risk." "hacked and...gobsmacked"
I was late for my meeting with Walter. I had some explaining to do, but I wasn’t in the mood for working together as a team in the spirit of cooperation toward common goals for the mutual benefit of all. Nor did I feel like throwing any bums a dime. I was their in house Risk Manager. Walter was itself a Risk Management Brokerage, specializing in extreme and unusual risk. Sometimes avoidance was the best answer. I rode down Pine to First and over to Pike to the Market and looked for a place to pull the Harley over and park. Cleo nodded I could squeeze into the space in front of his international news stall. The rain had stopped, the clouds still low and grey and blue and hanging bushed like wads of cotton candy over the diamond. Out on the water a ferry would be approaching, carrying Walter from his The Breakers West on Bainbridge Island. I was late with my quarterly report. We’d been hacked and I was still too gobsmacked to explain it. Walter would want to know who, when, what, where, why, and how. “Damned if I know,” was not the answer he’d want to hear from his six digit plus bonus contracted Risk Manager.
“Hacked and Gobsmacked”
is episode 2 of
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads
Riding Harley in the rain in Seattle. Ball lightning. The gods.
I throttled my green gnarly Harley across I-90 from Bellevue, wind chopped waves blowing over the wall on the south side of the bridge, the water as smooth as a coffin lid on the north side. I raddled through the last tunnel and merged onto I-5 north to downtown Seattle. A glob of ball lightning looped out of a smoke ring cloud hanging over the ballpark. The ball lightning bounced across the closed roof. The baseball stadium looked funereal. No game tonight. The winter circus was in town. On nights like this the gods might get bored and when the gods get bored no amount of prayer satisfies these clouds of gluttony, the local paradise filling like a wet basement. Why so many gods, I don’t know. Even the Catholics (and I am one, though maybe not a good one, whatever good means, but as Reverend Mother Mary Annette never tired of telling us, once a Catholic, always a Catholic), who profess belief in but one God, pray to the Saints and Mary and the rest, who seem to function much like the old Greek and Roman gods, one for every need or desire, one for every occasion, one for every problem, one for every predicament. A god for this, a god for that. A god for the nice, a god for the mean. Finely balanced too, the old gods, but like an unequal arm balance, some more powerful than others, leaving it to the mortals to try to balance things out. Still, evens up: one for light, one for dark; one for water, one for air; one for love, one for hate. Always meddling in human affairs, though, these immortals. Sure seem to get in the way all too often. Always wanting something, too, a piece of the human pie chart, insatiable. Why do we keep calling out to them? Was there a Saint of scooters? Could use a prayer to him now. Dear Saint Scooter, please get me and my Vespa downtown safely, as an 18 wheeler passes at twice my speed, his mud flap cowgirls waving and laughing. God of lead, god of gold. God of the meek, and god of the bold. God of yes, and god of no. God of hot, god of cold. God of bought, and god of sold. God of gods, who never grows old, oldest of all.
“The gods Get Bored”
is episode 1 of
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads