“About books. They let you travel without moving your feet.” — Jhumpa Lahiri
Reading is my favorite pastime and it’s ironic because as a young guy I never read anything except Surfer Magazine, and feeble runs at “The Hardy Boys.” Books got in the way of my Type A personality and my desire to not sit still. Traipsing around and breaking bad was my deal as a kid. Then, I read — on the insistence of my next-door neighbor — Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” and it was on! Hell, buried gold, ships, pirates, maps, a one-legged sailor and tropical islands; what’s not to like? Local South Kingstown writer and Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri sure nailed it with the aforementioned quote.
Some books are so good that they beg to be reread for various reasons such as: substance, style, narrative, theme, character complexity and word choice. A book we read at one period in our lives will perhaps resonate differently at another time when we revisit the story. That’s the beauty of rereading a well written book — it can constantly inform us of the changing elements of the human condition. One of life’s certainties is that things will change. Recently, I was organizing all of the books I have on my sailboat. (Reverie is my favorite place to read; sometimes in slack wind I’ll just drift and read for hours.) As I rummaged around the cabin, I pulled out five of my all-time favorite books and put them in the cockpit to let them air out — the bookshelf was a bit musty. The careworn and tattered heap consisted of “The Odyssey,” by Homer, “Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry, “Forever,” by Pete Hamill, “No Country for Old Men,” by Cormac McCarthy, and “Cloudbursts,” by Tom McGuane. Note well that all these guys are Irish — Homer was a Celt. Just sayin.’ Furthermore, all of these guys are/were prolific writers and very sharp.
Last week after a long day of sailing in some great northeast wind and anchoring Reverie, I grabbed a copy of Hamill’s “Forever,” and opened up the book to a random page where I found the protagonist Cormac O’Connor jammed up with some gangsters from the hard neighborhood of the lower East Side neighborhood known as the Five Points. I’ve been down this road with Cormac many times before; however, reading this book over the years I see Cormac’s conflict more clearly in this epic tale. See, O’Connor arrives from Ireland to the island of Manhattan in 1740, where he must live forever. His life is tasked with reinvention as he lives through pivotal and transformative moments of New York’s storied history. I never tire of Hamill’s writing about the City of New York and Cormac’s travails. The structure of this novel is a basic hero quest where the guy wins the game and gets the girl. But, Hamill tosses in a little twist into this story, which can make the reader think of what they would do under similar circumstances. Hamill’s book is always nearby.
My copy of McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” has a torn and tattered cover and pages that are worn thin from several years of flipping pages on my sailboats. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are the wily and grizzled former Texas Rangers who bicker like an old married couple. McMurtry wrote these guys to be a foil for each other and this device drives the narrative. If I open to any page of this beat up and musty book I’ll be pinned down for a minimum of an hour. I’ve never been out west in a boots-on-the ground fashion but I’ve read many histories regarding manifest destiny and westward expansion to have a solid context of where McMurtry is taking his reader. This guy writes beautiful and fully developed characters and then sends them packing into the abyss. A movie was made about his book but the words on the page wins the day—for this reading and sailing geezer.
Tom McGuane has got to be the best short story writer I’ve ever read in my life. “Cloudbursts” is a collection which demands attention of the reader. I call this kind of writing heavy lifting; McGuane is a funny and very worldly wise-ass guy. His characters are flawed and many of them don’t give a damn for any kind of redemption; they’re just scattered, crazy, mixed-up people that inhabit the east coast, the open stretch of the western states and right to the sketchy tip of Florida — Key West — trying to make sense out of their life’s deal. Whether McGuane’s characters are on a horse, a sailboat, or cruising in a Ford Crown Vic, we know we are in a master storyteller’s grip, as we surge forward noting the bashed-up personalities of these worn out souls. Nota Bene: a dictionary is always next to a McGuane book.
Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” is brilliant. He dispatches convention and writes dialogue without parentheses. I like this — it’s natural. Plus, any guy who can write two existentially challenged characters like Anton Chigurth and Llewelyn Moss to power up a narrative gets a permanent spot on Reverie.
Finally, Homer is Homer, and his story of Odysseus has been around for 2,000 years. My copy is tattered and annotated on every page. Homer stays on the shelf and he’s always there when I need him. Now that I’ve given you the tip of the iceberg for my boyos, get to steppin’ and grab a book.