Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Books For A Dying Man?

I’m always up for a good meme. In this case, it comes from my good blog friend Le0pard13, but it originated with author Declan Burke:

“For simplicity’s sake I’ve kept it to one book per author, and the idea is that the last book on your list is the book you’d most like to die reading, if you had to die reading.

To wit: A long, long time in the future, in a galaxy far away, the doctor says, “Sorry, but you’ve only got a month to live.” What ten books would you re-read in your last month?”

So here are my ten – and it should be noted that for this post, I’ve borrowed liberally from what I wrote for a little project I did in the fall of 2003 that I called “The Desert Island Book Project”:

“L.A. Requiem,” by Robert Crais. Robert Crais had written seven novels featuring private detective Elvis Cole and his best friend Joe Pike when he wrote “L.A. Requiem.” But the eighth novel was the first that I read, and now that I’ve read them all, there’s no question that “Requiem” represented a quantum leap forward for the series and for Crais as an author.

See my post on the book here.

“It,” by Stephen King. In simplest terms, “It” is designed to scare the living daylights out of you, and it succeeds. You’ll never look at clowns the same, that’s for certain. Few people are as good as King is at writing about children, and the genius of “It” is the way that it adopts a child’s viewpoint of the world around them – the adults don’t understand what is going on around them in the town of Derry, because of course adults don’t understand why clowns are scary – or why sewers are scary, or bullies, or leeches, or abandoned refrigerators…etc., etc. But the kids sure do understand, and so a group of lovable losers band together and try to do something about it. They indeed do something about it, but they don’t fully succeed. So as adults many years later, they come back to Derry to finish the job. Some even survive to tell the tale. And meanwhile, the clown is still there…and the bully…and the sewer…

The book develops it characters well, tells a compelling story, and gets all the little details right. Oh, yeah – and it’s scary as hell.

“Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, an utterly hilarious account of the waning years of the Yankee dynasty and then Bouton’s attempt to make it back in the Big Leagues as a knuckleball-throwing relief pitcher (!) for the Seattle Pilots (!) after blowing out his arm at the tender age of 25. Irreverent but never disrespectful (except perhaps of Bowie Kuhn), and really the first sports book to show that sometimes our heroes really do have feet of clay. Worth the price of admission just to hear a very young Joe Morgan describe, in a mock interview after a critical strike-out, the difference between a normal curveball and a “motherfucking” curveball. I was 15 years old, the first time I read it.

Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music 1977-92 is a collection of essays by legendary rock critic Greil Marcus which covers the period of music that I enjoyed the most. Marcus is without peer in finding the meanings of rock music within the context of society as a whole. Some of his references can be overly academic, but he also has a wickedly funny sense of humor and a taste for the trashy that overcomes those academic tendencies. And it doesn’t hurt that he loves, as do I, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash.

Maus, by Art Speigelman. The concept – a tale of the Holocaust in graphic novel form, with the Jewish characters depicted as mice, Poles as pigs, and Nazis as cats, and so on – sounds like an insult to history, but nothing could be further from the truth. Speigelman, a legend of underground comics, tells his mother and father’s story, and it is a profoundly moving, tragic, and compelling one. The winner of a richly-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

L.A. Confidential, by James Ellroy. The third volume in the so-called “L.A. Quartet” (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz), L.A. Confidential is the critical link in Ellroy’s career between the mostly conventional writing style he employed in his previous novels and the rapid-fire, staccato style that has predominated in subsequent works. The book tells the tale of three deeply flawed members of the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s: Ed Exley, the crusader who believes in “absolute justice” but whose reputation and career are based on a lie; Bud White, the defender of abused women whose brutally vicious methods represent everything that Exley finds abhorrent in the LAPD; and Jack Vincennes, the star-struck thrill-seeker who rarely lets morals stand in the way of a good bust.

Over the span of the decade which provides the backdrop for the book, the three men’s careers become intertwined through a maze of seemingly unrelated characters, including the charismatic and sociopathic police Captain Dudley Smith; the proverbial “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold” Lynn Bracken (who understands Exley, White and Vincennes better than they understand themselves); various “real-life” characters such as Bill Parker, Lana Turner, and Johnny Stompanato; and seemingly unrelated events including the beheading of a child star by a serial killer that occurred some twenty years earlier; the construction of the L.A. network of freeways; and the development of a Disney-like theme park, a major sub-plot that was dropped from the wonderful film adaptation, for reasons that become obvious by the end of the novel. The single event around which all of the plot revolves is the Nite Owl Massacre, an unexplained shoot-out in an all-night café that results in the deaths of six people and alters the course of the lives of all the book’s major characters.

It is when the plot threads begin to converge – and when Exley, White, and Vincennes come to realize that only through working together to solve the Nite Owl case can “absolute justice” be served – that the novel soars to heights that have been reached by few works in the genre. In the end each pays a price for that justice; in this book redemption – if one can call it that – does not come easy.

Cosell, by Howard Cosell. Howard Cosell may have been the best and the worst thing that ever happened to televised sports. The best because of his journalistic instincts and his status as one of the few sports reporters who has ever attempted to hold athletes and other sports figures accountable for their behavior (but please, never compare Cosell to the execrable Jim Gray); the worst because he nearly single-handedly ruined television coverage of professional football through his insistence that the “storyline” was more important than the details of the game.

This book, written in 1972, is terrific – it includes wonderful chapters on his close relationships with Jackie Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Vince Lombardi, Woody Allen, and the Olympics, among others. But the centerpiece of the book is what may be the definitive writing on Muhammad Ali. The MNF rot had yet to set in, and Cosell’s enthusiasm and knowledge of his subjects is exhibited throughout. And if you remember Cosell fondly today, remember him not for Monday Night Football, but instead for his unmatched skill and enthusiasm covering boxing – and especially for his call of the Foreman-Frazier fight, which will never be forgotten (DOWN goes Frazier! DOWN goes Frazier! DOWN goes Frazier! DOWN goes Frazier! DOWN goes Frazier!).

“A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. Though I am far from being the most religious person in the world, I love Christmas. I love the decorations, I love the collegial feeling of the season, and most of all I love the music (my holiday tradition is to make Christmas CDs for my colleagues; and I always try to find the most interesting and obscure songs that I can). And I love this book – I read it every year, and it always makes me feel better about the human condition.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. “Why not go north?” Woodrow Call poses that question to Augustus “Gus” McCrae, his long-time friend and fellow Texas Ranger, early in Lonesome Dove. Gus can think of no good reason to go, and plenty of reasons not to. “…It sounds like a goddamn wilderness,” he tells Call. “I’ve slept on the ground enough for one life. Now I’m in the mood for a little civilization.” But at the same time, he realizes that there really is nothing left to do in Lonesome Dove.

And so, for no particularly good reason except that there’s nothing left to do in Texas, the men and boys of the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium head for Montana, with “a passel of shitting cattle” in tow. And thus begins a magnificent adventure, one that takes the clichés of the cattle-drive story and turns them into something memorable and magical. Much that happens in Lonesome Dove had already appeared in some previous novel or film about a cattle drive, but McMurtry creates a landscape – and more importantly, a host of characters – that make Lonesome Dove seem as if it were the only book ever written on the subject.

I’m not sure that any great themes are involved, outside of Americans sometimes do heroic things for no particular reason except that there’s nothing else to do at the moment. And while this is a great adventure story, it is also much more than that. McMurtry paints an enormous canvas that is epic in scope, but at the same time the book is full of wonderful small moments. Such as the moment when Gus encounters on the plains an enormous killing field filled with buffalo bones, and an unusual man who spends his time gathering them:

He remembered when he had first come to the high plains, years before. For two days he and Call and the Rangers had ridden parallel to the great southern buffalo herd – hundreds of thousands of animals, slowly grazing north. It had been difficult to sleep at night because the horses were nervous around so many animals, and the sounds of the herd were constant. They had ridden for nearly a hundred miles and seldom been out of sight of buffalo.

…Thus the sight of the road of bones stretching out over the prairie was a shock. Maybe roads of bones were all that was left. The thought gave the very emptiness of the plains a different feel. With those millions of animals gone, and the Indians mostly gone in their wake, the great plains were truly empty, unpeopled and ungrazed.

Soon the whites would come, of course, but what he was seeing was a moment between, not the plains as they had been, or as they would be, but a moment of true emptiness, with thousands of miles of grass resting unused, occupied only by remnants – of the buffalo, the Indians, the hunters. Augustus thought that they were crazed remnants, mostly, like the old mountain man who worked night and day gathering bones to no purpose.

Another reason for the greatness of Lonesome Dove is that there have been few books with as many brilliantly rendered characters – from Call, Gus and the Hat Creek Company – Pea Eye, Newt, Deets, Dish, and others – to the women of the story – Lorena, Clara, Elmira – who are in nearly all aspects just as strong and heroic as the men; to the villainous Blue Duck and the Suggs Gang, both evil incarnate – to the aimless Jake Spoon – to the tragic July Johnson – and even the lesser characters such as Wilbarger – the educated cattleman who reads Milton on the plains, and Po Campo – the cook who fries grasshoppers in molasses – that are drawn in such a way that in just a few pages one feels that they know them well. A great novel could be written about any of these characters, and McMurtry clearly understands the importance that each brings to the story.

But as great as all those characters are, the book really belongs to Gus McCrae. It is through Gus that McMurtry makes most of his important statements about change, about life, and about the fickle nature of that life. It is through Gus that it is demonstrated that there is more than one way to define a hero. It is through Gus’ thoughts that the book’s most moving moments are articulated, in particular this one –which may just be the most important passage of the book:

Though dawn was his favorite hour, it was also an hour at which Augustus most keenly felt himself to be a fool. What was it but folly to be riding along the Canadian River alone, easy pickings for an outlaw gang, and hungry to boot? A chain of follies had put him there: Call’s abrupt decision to become a cattleman and his own decision, equally abrupt, to try and rescue a girl foolish enough to be taken in by Jake Spoon. None of it was sensible, yet he had to admit there was something about such follies that he liked. The sensible way, which he had pursued once or twice in his life, had always proved boring, usually within a few days. In his case it had led to nothing much, just excessive drunkenness and reckless card playing. There was more enterprise in certain follies, it seemed to him.

There are parts of Lonesome Dove that are laugh out loud-funny, parts that are stunning in their unexpected violence, and parts that are just plain exciting – the book really has everything. And while McMurtry would go on to write three other novels featuring many of the same characters, none of them matched the original. Nothing could, and it is not likely that anything ever will.

And the champion, the last book I would read:

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice.” A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with those words from narrator John Wheelwright, who then goes on to say, “…not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” And with that introduction, Irving provides the framework for A Prayer for Owen Meany, a story of faith and the role that it –and fate – play in our everyday lives.

Not that Owen Meany could be accused of having an everyday life. Very early on, his extraordinary nature becomes apparent – upon their first meeting, John’s cousin Hester proclaims, “I didn’t think he was human!” And it isn’t every day that you accidentally kill your best friend’s mother by hitting a foul ball during a little league baseball game (“Who would have thought he could hit a ball hard enough?,” John’s cousin Simon asks). Not long after this tragedy Owen – who is 11 years old at the time –learns his fate when he sees a vision of his own death while portraying The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come during a production of A Christmas Carol.

One way to look at the book is to say that, armed with the foreknowledge of his own death, Owen’s life from that point on becomes a series of events which prepare him for that day. Owen believes he is God’s instrument, and over time he comes to know so much about his death – through a series of increasingly detailed dreams – that it becomes easy to ascribe that motive to all of his actions and decisions. Is the book, then, Irving’s attack on faith? Does Irving believe that those who ascribe “God’s will” to all things under the sun are fools? After all, John Wheelwright, who finds his own faith through what happens to Owen, is not a happy man, somehow incomplete and even damaged without the presence of his best friend. Or, is Owen’s story Irving’s way of saying that only through faith can our lives have any real meaning? The book does not resolve this question, but my view would be toward the latter proposition.

In the end, the strength of Irving’s writing is such that such questions become secondary to the power of the story itself. And it is a wonderful story; wonderfully told, at turns hilarious, moving, and emotionally shattering. Owen’s words, all written IN CAPITAL LETTERS, are memorable whether he is talking about John F. Kennedy, Liberace, the increasing horror of the Vietnam War, which of the town’s mothers have THE BEST BREASTS, or engaging John Wheelwright in a conversation about faith and the power of prayer. Owen gets most of the best lines, but as with many of his works, Irving is generous with his supporting cast – providing memorable moments to John’s family, creating a memorable villain in Randy White who rivals Garp’s Michael Milton, and investing much time in making John Wheelwright a believable and worthy narrator (playing the perennial doubter to Owen’s true believer).

Irving’s gift is his ability to find meaning in the ridiculous (or the absurd). And while that may sound like a disrespectful way to treat one’s faith, one cannot really question that what happens to Owen is absurd. But it happens, and in a believable way, and therein lies the power of A Prayer for Owen Meany.


Marketing Marci said...

I really enjoyed this blog entry and it has given me some great books to read. I need to get back into reading (before I die).

Thanks for the inspiration.

le0pard13 said...

What an outstanding list of books, Jeff. You and I already share an admiration for L.A. Requiem, but it's great as well you included L.A. Confidential and Lonesome Dove here. Loved McMurtry's LD series, but the first made it all possible. Thanks for this and the shout-out, my friend.

Carol said...

It's a wonderful list, and you have a few of my favorites on there. "Lonesome Dove" was beyond awesome. I still think about the characters and their dilemmas. Some I haven't read so I guess I have to put them on my to-do list. I've kinda been into non-great-but-entertaining books lately. "It Happens Everyday" is my latest and the "Rumpole" series never fails to entertain.