Friday, January 15, 2010

Book 9: It by Stephen King

Everyone romanticizes childhood but when you cut through all the bullshit being a kid is terrifying. Imagine having the realities of childhood imposed on you as an adult:

1. You do not control your environment.
2. You do not have any say in where you live.
3. You are surrounded by beings that are much larger and stronger than you.
4. For years you are bombarded with images of a world you CANNOT name.
5. You cannot control your own bodily functions.
6. You spend the first few years of your life having sentient thought without being able to express it in any comprehensible way, as if you were in a living coma.
7. You would be defenseless without your caretakers who can mistreat you and you can do nothing about it.

Need I go on? Even those of us lucky enough to have had a relatively unscathed childhood (and I count myself a member of that small crowd) there is a patina of terror that envelops most of what I remember as a child. You are in a situation that you do not understand. By situation I mean life.

Stephen King is not a great writer. I rarely note the language he uses (i.e. 'What a sentence!' or 'What an image!'). But the cumulative effect of the narratives that he calls into being is stupendous.

'It' is, for me, a treatise on what we go through as children. I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be truly in peril as a child. I had loving parents, great siblings, an extended family that was ever-present and fun on both mother and father sides. And still...

I respond to the situations that Stephen King creates in this book as if I had some deep dark secret never told, ever unfolding. The novel tells two dueling narratives involving the same set of characters as children and years later reconvened as grown-ups. They faced an unspeakable evil as children and have gathered to finish the job.

The irony is that they have all each forgotten much of what happened. In order to triumph they must willingly go back into that trauma and come to terms with it. Put as baldly as that it is an obvious metaphor for dealing with the past and its effects. Woven into the context here it takes on epic proportion as these people face not only their own internal demons but actual external ones as well.

I was brought to tears again and again as he articulated these personal trips his fictional counterparts were on. The double power of the narrative is such that we see these kids bravely facing something that will haunt them for years to come.

When I look at pictures of my son as a little boy I am struck by how open he is, how vulnerable. And how much strength there is in such vulnerability. We shed this openness, through design I think. There just wouldn't be any way to survive if you took the full brunt of input that you could handle as a toddler.

And I ache for him, knowing that some day he will have to look at those pictures and wonder what the hell happened and how it all went wrong.

But King leaves us with the knowledge that doing so can chase dark dreams from our nights, that finding the bravery to confront the scary moments of childhood inevitable leads to a powerful clean present moment.


Book 10: I Was A Teenage Dwarf by Max Schulman

I am not sure how this book came under the O'Malley family radar, most likely either my mother or father had read it as teenagers. Looking back, the book rests like a banana peel right outside of a swinging door from a busy kitchen in an overstuffed restaurant. Nothing might be happening right now but hilarity is about to ensue.

Both my older sister and I devoured this book on family road trips, roaring with laughter as Dobie Gillis dates one disaster after another, pledging life-long love in spite of incompatibility of the intellectual, spiritual and moral variety. He starts by saying things like, "Okay, so the next girl I date will not lie. I don't care if she has eight moles on her nose she has got to be truthful."

Of course, minutes later he is buying ice cream sodas for some beauty who is most likely lying about her name.

A half mile up a gorgeous tree lined road from our house sits a used bookstore. It used to be a Variety Store. Looking back on it it seems to be rather sketchy, a convenience store run out of an old Colonial house first floor showroom. The floors were scuffed wood and they seemed to be turning to cinder underfoot. They sold what we called 'penny candy' and odd assorted knick knacks.

My grandfather used to pile all thirty seven grand kids into the biggest car brought to the family reunion. He would then drive us up to the Kingston Hill Store to each buy a small bag of 'penny candy'. He was one of those men who is funny by being deliberately un-funny. He would wear goofy hats. He said, 'Kenny-pandy' instead of 'penny candy'. His face in photographs seems to be in a perpetual imp grin. Grampa.

I'm not sure when but the Kingston Hill Store eventually was transformed into a Used Book Store, which considering the tendencies of my family is somewhat akin to putting a poppy field next to a family of opium fiends. The ancient penny candy tradition immediately transformed into long walks down the Indian Summer tunnel of red gold yellow brown tree leaves culminating in orgies of $3 book buys.

On one of these trips I found 'The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis'. I laughed out loud when I saw it. Upon re-reading it, I was surprised at how well the humor has held up in spite of it being published in 1959.

It makes you blush on reading it, thinking of how absurd you've been in your life in the face of attraction. The lengths you'll go to as a teenager to get the attention of a crush and then how quickly your feelings flip to the opposite spectrum.

Through the vagaries of memory and real-estate turnover, this book is now associated with a store that used hold 'Kenny Pandy', a store that sat halfway between my house and the University of Rhode Island library on a street my father walked every day to work. I'd turn down South Road in the car and there he'd be, arms swinging slightly, hands curved, and sometimes he'd accept a ride. Others he wanted to enjoy that tunnel of trees.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book 11: Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

When I read this book every breath I took was suffused with guilt. Nothing could be free from the taint of corruption. And the corruption came from within, not the other way around. The idea that I could exist outside of that stain was as preposterous as time travel.

Raskolnikov. Just the name produces an interior shudder in me, a throb of recognizance, a sob of regret. Now my sin was not on the order of murder in cold blood as the protagonist of this massive treatise of human psychology has committed. No. But just that small slice I visited upon myself was enough to make me wish that I HAD done something irrevocable. If it was going to hurt this bad without it why not go through the crucible and sin all the way?

How easily we court our own undoing. How much more effort it takes to avoid sin. How attractive is the slippery slope of wrongdoing because once you allow for the possibility that you are capable of such things everything starts to feel EASY.

I've dreamed of killing vagrants, of Leopold and Loeb-ing myself into some heightened state of reality, one in which human life is just another grain of sand slipping through the curved glass of time. I've felt the pull of violence both against myself and others.

Dostoevsky must have understood this pull and so sends Raskolnikov through that circle of fire. In some reviews I don't mind giving away plot points because that isn't really what this blog is about but in this case there is no way to discuss the trajectory the character is on without giving away vast areas of story.

Suffice it to say that the book follows his brain as it attempts to deal with the magnitude of taking a life. Of stopping another heart.

My connection to that comes from the romantic version of that act. I sat my first college girlfriend down and stopped her heart. I will never forget her face and I wished immediately that I could take it back, that I could undo what I'd done, that I could start her heart again. Would my whole life have changed had I done that? A different marriage? No son named Cashel? Probably not, I don't take things that far. But perhaps I'd have trusted myself more along the way, felt more in control of my own life.

As it was, the guilt I talked of ate away at me like an acid for the better part of fifteen years. I had my own Siberia to go to.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book 12: London Fields by Martin Amis

When paranoia shows up in your morning cup of coffee it might be time to reclassify it as precognition. And if each cigarette that you light delights you because it is a clear cut way to taste death, why shouldn't you wash it down with a pint of something strong?

Nicola Six is planning a murder. Her own. No, not a suicide. A murder. Who will do it? The family man or the darts thug? Our narrator, an American writer dying of some sort of cancer, is trying to find out. Or so he thinks.

Every tiny plot line in Martin Amis' masterpiece 'London Fields' is like some horror film version of those Russian dolls, each smaller doll contained in a slightly larger replica of itself, only these get bigger with each reveal instead of smaller and from the hollow body that seems so beautiful comes a disquieting sound, as if claws scratched, straining for escape, so that what started out as a sweet little plaything is now some monstrous prisoner.

The city of London is a character as well, the poisoned well all the characters must drink from, breathe in, move through.

The nihilism inherent in inciting someone else to murder you might seem like an impossible conceit, something intellectual to hang a plot on. But why should that be so? The scope of human trickery is so vast; why couldn't it contain such a dark conclusion?

It is difficult to admit the extremes of humanity. To truly appreciate a Mother Theresa one must also leave room for Pol Pot, Hitler, Dahmer. And if a Dahmer exists, is it so impossible to believe that some sad soul out there is searching for him, seeking out what they perceive to be their fate, hoping against hope that some day they will find themselves in his clutches?

'London Fields' forces us to a mirror, head twisting, neck straining, desperately wishing that we could UNSEE all we have seen. Can we trust ourselves in love when we have so often hurt each other? I am a member of a race that has systematically slaughtered itself with each ironic technological advance. Electricity? Aren't we geniuses? Let's kill someone with it.

This is who we are. We love. We kill. But who? Who will we love? Who will we kill?

Who will love US? And who will kill? Who?

Like I said at the top, what seems like paranoia is more like prophecy. Now pour me a cup of joe and light my smoke.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book 13: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Depression goes on and off inside of me with a thud, as if some giant switch had been inadvertently thrown, as if I'd stepped through a waterfall of crude oil, leaving me coated in foreign harm, appreciably heavier than the moment before.

When this happens beware. You will not measure up to my standards. Your choices will be indefensible. I will have no patience with you. I will make you wrong.

Only later will I be able to see how much of this is projection, how you merely camouflaged the mirror I was trying to grapple with, how you stood in for my reflection. Only later will I be able to judge fairly. Only later will I be sorry.

Once that switch goes off I revert to some animal state, truly dangerous because it actually uses intelligence and cunning, not brute force. Oh, I'll resort to brute force if I have to but I'll first use what seems to be logic against you. You'll wonder what happened. How such a nice guy could shift so totally, so swiftly.

I'll apologize once I've got my wits about me again. But I'm not sure the damage can be undone. Would you trust a rabid dog that had finally taken its medicine?

Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' is a depressing book. I've read many of her other books and at one point liked her enough to buy new books as she published them. This has fallen by the wayside. This was the first book of hers I'd read.

It had been assigned as part of my course load for a class I was taking within my English major at URI.

My sense of apocalypse hadn't been finely tuned yet, resting in angry teen punk rock anthems raging against corporations, which mostly meant they'd been hassled by the local convenience store owner who didn't want them skateboarding in the parking lot. So when Margaret Atwood walloped me with a United States of America in which women were systematically denied their rights, citizenship and even basic identity outside of their reproductive capability, I was taken completely by surprise.

I remember being keenly unsettled by this book. It scared me. I hadn't read or witnessed much propaganda preaching against the modern political machine so I was really quite taken aback. The world isn't fair? Things don't work out? There is no man behind the curtain? Malevolence is the main force behind our world?

Now these things seem old hat to me. Last night for some reason my internal switch was thrown and I walked through that sheet of oil. I can't breathe. I have no articulation. Nothing is fair.

What is truly disturbing is that there is no opposite process, no psychic facility where I can go to get a good scrub, no mental spa designed to lighten my load and recharge my batteries. Or, maybe there is and I'm just too depressed to find it.

The only slight difference these days is that I can now HEAR the thud of the switch being thrown, I acutely FEEL the scum of the oil that sheaths me. Which may be the headlight of a train but at least it is a light in my tunnel.