Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book 43: The Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

I find it hard to be a fan. When it comes to acting I feel such a kinship that I can't help but feel like an appreciative peer. When it comes to music my blood pulses with it to the point that I can't be separate enough to be counted as an audience. And with authors most of the books I read are by dead people.

I am an unabashed fan of at least three modern authors. Perhaps more. One I've already touched upon, Douglas Coupland. There will be several more of his books appearing on this list before I'm through. Steven King who is frowned upon by most serious literary minds who need to get their collective heads out of their singular ass and get real.

And then there is Michael Chabon, who seems to combine the populist nature of King's romps with the cerebral post-modern intellectual tone of Coupland. This mix can be exasperating (see Gentlemen of the Road which lasts about 5 minutes and took me several tries to finish or Yiddish Policeman's Union in which Chabon thinks he's writing a sparse hard boiled detective novel for the first 2 1/2 pages and then writes a sentence 47 paragraphs long in which he starts with a dradel, passes through decades of imaginary Jewish/Alaskan history, and winds up in the sad empty bathroom of a music club where an out of work guitar player sits slumped and unknowingly containing the key to a plot to blow up a portion of Jerusalem and this sentence itself will give you an indication of how that hard-boiled sparse thing worked out for Chabon in that novel which I still loved...sheesh) but when Chabon gets it right there is NO ONE better.

I will most likely include several of his books here as well. He and Coupland and King could dominate this and might when all is said and done. The Wonder Boys isn't even my favorite but I think it is the funniest of Chabon's work and I need to conjure up some laughs today.

My college life while I was in it was chaotic to an absurd level. At the time this seemed like an ancient curse like arrangement and I couldn't see the humor in it. But now, picturing myself scaling dorm room balconies, parked outside of doctor's offices trailing the unfaithful girlfriend of a friend, smuggling blankets into the concert hall in anticipation of a tryst on a grand piano only to wind up miles away needing a coat to take the bite out of the wind that was whipping through my pajama pants on the beach, sitting in a giant hall listening to a professor whisper arcane economic facts with her back to the throng (she must have suffered from some sort of social anxiety when I look back on it) or trying to explain to a police officer why the flames coming out of the left side of my car were no real cause for I look back on it all and wonder if I could ever have that much fun being that fucked up again.

The Wonder Boys captures that insane sort of arbitrary bullshit that human beings inject into staid university life. It is as if the ivy and brick and organized schedule makes the imp in everyone revolt. Girls take their tops off in public. Guys drop trou. People pour liquor over each other as if a certain amount of beer could approximate the fountain of youth. Contests arise in which marijuana smoke is held inside of varied lungs to see who can hold onto it longest. And these are the normal moments.

I can't even remember what happens in The Wonder Boys, per se, but there is a dress that Marilyn Monroe wore, a transsexual, a transvestite, a murdered dog, a whole helluva lot of liquor, cigarettes and weed, and a good deal of crying and wondering at what the hell it all means.

While it is happening to the characters it must have seemed interminable and tragic. Now that it is for us to read it is hilarious. And, like college or whatever wild oat period you went through, irretrievable. And the grief that accompanies that revelation puts the sturm und drang of the memory to shame.

So yes, I am a fan of Michael Chabon. And I once opened every cabinet in my kitchen to send my father a message.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book 44: Ulysses by James Joyce

Today is Bloomsday.

For the uninitiated, June 16h is the day on which the novel 'Ulysses' takes place. The main character of the book is named Bloom.


Now, I have a blue t-shirt that my parents gave me from a literary museum in Philadelphia that they visited on one of their frequent trips. It says, "Rejoyce!" in big letters and I like wearing it because I would never wear anything that said "Rejoice!" but I sort of wish I could.

I finally got around to finishing 'Ulysses' last year. I'd gotten 600 pages in the year I spent in France but then I came back to the States before I'd finished and my life sort of swept out of control for the next 10 years or so. I'd read 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and 'The Dubliners' but I'd never finished The Holy Grail.

The fact that I knew what Bloomsday was, that I wore a t-shirt commemorating that actual/fictional day, never having read the book all the way through, should give you an idea the place that James Joyce has in my family life. You know how Jews leave a place open at the table? I am so ignorant that I don't know who the place is for, the expected Messiah or God himself but I know that James Joyce is the closest thing to an empty expectant plate in the O'Malley house.

When my father was reading you could not reach him. You would say 'Dad' and his eardrums literally repelled the syllable right back at you. You said it again. Again rebuffed. A third time brought the mildest of acknowledgment but you pretty much had to climb in his lap and grab him by the ears to get past the book. There were times I resented that distance. It awed me at the same time.

His concentration was so fierce that his other senses dulled. What a brain.

I dove back into 'Ulysses' some time last year and read it riding the bus back and forth from Santa Monica. The bus has been a blessing and a curse for me, a place where I've been able to rekindle my reading flame and dive back into many albums I cherish, but also a visible daily reminder that my life has not turned out the way I envisioned for myself.

One of the things I'll always be grateful to that bus for is the pages it gave me time to read. I would walk from work to pick up Cashel at his elementary school, just over a mile. On that walk I would talk to my Dad if he was up to it and get the update on how his day was going. We'd chat about the Red Sox or Celtics or Patriots or Cashel. Rarely did we discuss what was happening to him because it didn't need articulation. Then he'd be tired out and I'd be at the school and we'd say good night. Then I'd walk Cash home and shortly thereafter I'd be on the bus reading 'Ulysses'.

It would take me a minute to rearrange the cells of my brain in order to take that language in. My headphones would be blaring something away which would drown out the sound of the bus itself and the people on it and the traffic around it. Without the music I couldn't read. I wonder if this is what the 4 kids running around were for my dad, the bit of himself that he couldn't concentrate without. It always cracked me up, how far he could go into a book, how clamorous we had to be to drag him back out.

Looking back on 'Ulysses' for me is like looking back on a particular day of my childhood. It doesn't matter which day. Any day I pick naturally contains all the other days. Any specificity contains all the generalities, any macrocosm leads to all the microcosms.

The moment I woke up when I was 4 and couldn't walk because my hip hurt. Walking was still new enough to me that I assumed that perhaps you stopped being able to walk at some point so I just went back to crawling. My mom knew something was up with me when I crawled into the kitchen for breakfast.

But that moment contains every moment from that kitchen and spreads out to the living room where I first saw my mom with her new haircut, a curly perm. I think I cried because she was different. That shoots me around the corner into the den where Sheila and I had so much fun we almost went crazy. Up into my room where I listened to the Red Sox on the radio and looked out over the back yard for what seemed an eternity.

So, yep. Today is Bloomsday. And I read 'Ulysses' last year on the bus.

I don't know what the book is all about. But then, I don't know what life is all about either. If walking is no longer an option I guess I'll have to crawl.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Book 45: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

My appendix gave up on Easter Sunday, 1993. I had been out in Providence the night before. Had a beer. Got home and spent the evening puking my guts up and having terrible diarrhea. I remember thinking that my tolerance had really waned. I was sick enough that I wasn't thinking clearly already.

At around 5 in the morning, my room mate at the time, a guy named Tom who I barely remember, came into the bathroom and suggested that I go to the hospital. Which, lucky for me, was right next door.

They admitted me and then proceeded to run every possible test that they could run. They couldn't give me pain medication because they don't want to numb something that might give a clue as to what is going on. Every so often a doctor or a nurse would come in and press on my belly just to see how loud I would yell.

Finally at around 10 they shot me up with something once they'd determined that my appendix was trying to exit my body. I had been up for almost 30 hours by that point. I remember that the drug took effect so quickly that all pain almost instantly vanished. But I was so tired that it also dropped me right off to sleep. I know from there I was prepped for an operation but I have no memory of it. I know they then anesthetized me further in order to begin cutting me open but I have no memory of that either. I don't remember the cliche 'Count back from 100' moment. I never saw the doctor who saved me.

I woke up. I was in such pain that I thought there must have been some mistake, that they'd left my appendix in by accident. I actually asked a nurse if they could check to make sure. She assured me that, no, they had taken the appendix out, what I was feeling was the aftermath of the operation itself. I'd somehow thought of it like a big shot, that once they took it out, all the pain would be gone! I neglected to consider the fact that I'd have a gaping wound to deal with too. When I think of how stupidly I faced this stuff I wonder I made it this far.

This was pre-cell-phone so I don't know how I did it but I got word to Maria what had happened, where I was. She was still married at the time and we'd not been in contact for some time. She came and visited me and walked me up and down the hall in my little hospital robe hooked up to an IV and she brought me a Marlboro Medium to smoke. In the hospital. Imagine that.

Somewhere in here my Dad gave me 'The Magic Mountain' by Thomas Mann. I always thought there was some specific reasoning behind this, that he'd pored over the book and found the moral to be something that might be useful for me as I faced this recovery period.

Many years later I found out that this was not the case at all.

I started to read it. I moved home for a time. I took a leave of absence from my gig with Looking Glass Theater, as lugging equipment and doing two shows a day in elementary schools was out of the question. I tried to go back to work and almost passed out during a show. I kept reading.

I didn't finish the book, as great as it was. Maria moved out of her husband's house, we started dating, I resumed my acting job and began playing shows out with my band, the book was connected to my appendix and that was no longer a focal point.

By the following summer Maria and I had broken up and I was bent on moving to New York City.

I started reading the book again once I got down there, squatting in a dorm room at Columbia's Teacher's College. My friend had moved in with her boyfriend and left her dorm room empty. I was grieving the time I'd spent in Providence and working in the Columbia bookstore. I almost broke my ankle running for a subway. I was so new to the city that I didn't understand that another one would be along in 5 minutes so I ran pell-mell down a flight of stairs, tripping on the last one and coming up horribly lame.

When I look back on my life I feel as if I've been hanging on by the slightest thread.

This was 1994.

1996 Marriage. 1997 Child. 2000 Divorce. New love. 2001 9/11. 2001-2003 Cross country. 2003 Move to LA. Career free-fall.

Throughout that time I started to read 'The Magic Mountain' many many times. I never got past say page 250.

Last summer I determined that I would finish it. My father was very sick and I wanted to know the ending to this book that meant so much to him that he gave it to me as I convalesced.

Then in one of our nightly 5PM conversations, I brought it up, asked him why he'd given it to me.

Turns out he'd never even read it!

We laughed about that.