I’ll get around to “Ulysses.” And “Infinite Jest.” And “Middlemarch.” I swear. But first, I want to head over to The Shire and take one more quick spin with Bilbo, Frodo and Gandalf…
When time endlessly stretches before you—in other words, when you’re young—you were able to make a viable argument in favor of rereading Lord of the Rings, say, or Catch-22 or One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Time is a relative quantity (hey, maybe I’ll work up a scientific theory on that very topic) and prior to middle age time is like a stick of taffy sloppily melting in the ninety-degree sun.
As time grows shorter, rereading becomes a luxury: You already know that Frodo will sail away, that Yossarian will (barely) escape, that the Chief will make contact with his personal reality and make a run for it. With so many more classics and hot new novelists to read, how do you justify the seeming waste of hours or days that you should be allotting to the deeper personal enrichment waiting for you between the covers of Moby Dick or Anna Karenina?
The last novel I reread (actually, re-reread) was Dog of the South and that was ten years ago. Although I’d already laughed my way through the Charles Portis novel twice, on reading number three I just wanted to analyze how it worked. How did his deadpan prose elicit sequences that made me laugh out loud over and over again? I still haven’t figured out how he did it. Maybe it’s time to re-re-reread it.
Flash forward to this June. With the summer came a dry spell in my reading schedule. A visit to Spain was on the docket, so on the trip over I started Ghosts of Spain for a little historical perspective. Then with nothing appealing on my reading horizon, on the flight home, I allowed myself a treat.
I reread Beautiful Ruins, my favorite summer book of all time. This time it wasn’t a matter of trying to see how Jess Walter did it. I already knew that: indelible characters, exciting locations and brilliant storytelling. This time I just wanted to have fun.
I’d first read Ruins three summers ago and my memory being what it is, large chunks of the tale had evaporated, so I was able to enjoy much of it anew. (Hey, maybe this is what Alzheimer’s is like. Maybe there’s a upside!) I was transported again to the 1960s, to Cinque Terre and Rome. I met Richard Burton (he’s a minor character) all over again. In alternate chapters I sat in Hollywood meetings set in the here-and-now and eavesdropped on delicious show-biz story conferences. And in the end I was happily devastated.
How do you follow up such a wonderful book? I gave Joseph Finder’s Suspicion a whirl: twisty and turny, although I anticipated most of the twists and turns. Entertaining? Yes, but not entertaining enough to have me scrambling towards the rest of Mr. Finder’s oeuvre. Instead, I reached back into the past for another reread.
As it happens, I’m working on a memoir. (Who isn’t?) And for inspiration I returned to a book I’d read back in 2005: JR Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, in which the author recalls his days growing up on my home turf, Long Island, NY.
The narrator–a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist–tells how the denizens of a bar in Manhasset served collectively as his father, who abandoned him and his mother.
It captured my eyeballs and my heart the first time around because it’s figuratively and literally Dickensian. Figuratively because the cast of barflies and other supporting characters is drawn with the brushstrokes of a master. Literally because much of the action takes place in the bar, which happens to be named Dickens.
As Moehringer goes up and down in the world, Dickens (later renamed Publicans) is the place he goes for the male companionship he desperately craves, for comfort, for love, to be someplace he feels he belongs.
Rereading that last paragraph I now realize that final desire–to find someplace where you belong– is central to most successful memoirs and a key reason why we read them. So, in writing this post, I’ve drawn inspirations for my own story. Now all I have to do is write the damn thing.