A Rare Pleasure

Sure, there are a lot of them. In this case what I’m talking about is reading a book in one sitting, or in one period of awakeness which I think is what people really mean by this. I mean one sitting? How long can a person really be expected to go between breaks for bathroom, carbonated liquids and jumping in the swimming pool? In my case, I’d say an hour, max. Still, it’s a luxury. And it’s also a choice, choosing to give up most other forms of media (save music) and interaction and just read for a day. And I have to face it–I’m a slow reader, so it takes a day, or a good chunk of one. Maybe this is why summer is particularly good for reading: long days.

Anyway, I finished two books today, and both were surprisingly good. The first one was Camouflage by Joe Haldeman, which at the very least is going to win an award for the most Amazon SIPs involving the word “changeling.” Even beyond that impressive accomplishment, I was pleasantly surprised. When I picked this thing up off the “recent” rack at the library, recognizing the venerable Haldeman name, I kind of assumed it would be a short, pointless read in the later-life Clarke model. You know, that thing that happens to old sci-fi writers when they attain a certain age and status and absolutely anything they can vomit into a Word document and email off to the publisher will garner a six-figure advance and library buys? Yeah, this is why I go to the library instead of buying books these day. And yet this book was actually pretty good. Yes there were a lot of reused tropes and outright cliches, but with a 24-hour sci-fi channel on every TV set in America, what do you expect? Sometimes you need to trot out dueling, shape-shifting aliens one more time. Oh, and don’t forget enigmatic alien artifacts and a corrupt government with its finger on the panic button. And notice I’ve used only links to visual media to illustrate my point. That’s how pervasive and mainstream “sci-fi” concepts like these have become. I don’t think any of us would be too surprised if we suddenly found out we were in love with a deadly, immortal, shape-shifting alien with inscrutable intent. And yet, pretty good.

But that was read over the course of several days. The book I started this morning after finishing that one and still managed to finish today was the real surprise. Again, a recent-rack find, I’m not sure what drew me to Mick Foley’s Tietam Brown. I’m not even sure what makes the Austin Public Library order a book like this. I guess I must have heard of it, or the author. Still, the jacket description of Foley as “wrestler-writer” was off-putting. And I’ll borrow a little from an Amazon review here and say it was “dark, sad and sickening.” Yes, I agree, wholeheartedly. I disagree with the argument that it received good reviews because “only wrestling fans read it.” No, this book stands on its own. Wrestling doesn’t even come in until two-thirds of the way through. It’s mainly about abuse and evil and loss and deception–and above all, family–so yes it can be painful to read, even for a person who hasn’t had a lot of first-hand experiences on the receiving end of those things. And yes, it plays the race card, and the sodomy card, and the misogyny card, and the dad-fucking-the-neighbor-woman card. But these are called “cards” for the simple reason that we can understand them and they can be played to us. Maybe this is Jerry Springer’s or Chuck Paliniuk’s influence, but maybe, also, it’s our cultural heritage. I mean people do grab each others breasts and balls in inappropriate and inexplicable circumstance. People do put their tongues in other people’s asses more or less willingly, and they enjoy it. It’s just that not many writers can be honest about these things while incorporating them into a coherent narrative. And I’m not going to say it’s ultimately redeeming, because in the universe of modern fiction that would just make it pat. But it is satisfying, and a good read.

What this has made me realize is that I’m having better luck lately with pseudo-random picks off the library shelf than with “professional” literary recommendations. I got burned badly by Michael Ventura and his recommendation to read The Sea Came in at Midnight. I’m willing to consider the failing my own. I may very will be of the wrong generation, or not smart enough, or simply not well educated enough in literature, and most likely all of the above, but I didn’t get it. It never pulled me in, never struck me as something worth finishing. I did finish it, but I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I might have tried after the first chapter, but beyond that it just faded into obscurity and irrelevance. For me, for this audience of one, it was just trying too hard. And ultimately I didn’t care and still don’t.

Foley tries hard, certainly, in Tietam, but he tries and succeeds. His characters at their most bizarre are at least comprehensible. You can see how people could be this fucked up, because people sometimes are. There’s no magic. No falling back on the spirit in the sky. You can see how bad things happen to bad people, and later have it revealed to you that things just happen, without value being applied, to people who are at best ambivalent and who are often mislead, full of illusions and morally confused. Shit happens. And Foley, I think, captures and presents this more clearly and more honestly than Erickson. Don’t write him off as a literary Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

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