Monday, December 27, 2010

Entry 25: "The Shipping News" by E. Annie Proulx (1994)

After an arguably failed attempt of reading William Faulkner's A Fable in one day and having my brain absolutely pummeled and my will to read anything else for the rest of my life almost beaten out of me, and with Christmas fast approaching, and with my checking account being overdrawn twice in two weeks, and with being kicked out of two places in one week, I decided to take it easy on myself with this project. I took a much-needed week off from reading anything at all, and, instead, indulged myself with YouTube, watching British and Irish sitcoms, like Father Ted and The IT Crowd.

Christmas is always a stressful time of year for me. Thanksgiving is bad enough, but the four weeks leading up to Christmas are like riding on a train that you know is going to crash into a ravine—I'm just waiting, waiting, bracing myself for December 25th. Then it comes, it's a mess, then it's over, and I come away from it relatively unscathed. This year, though, it's as if both The Universe and Fortuna, herself, were conspiring against me. 2010 was the year of the worst December ever.

But, I'm a fighter. And I'm a survivor. I had the courage and the strength to stand up to the winds (that are still blowing, if I'm being honest with myself) and I did not bow or break. I pressed forward, and even gathered the energy to read another book.

I needed to read another book from the 90's since I've been forsaking that decade lately, and at Joshua's suggestion, I wanted to read Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, but in my recent moves, I couldn't find it. Instead, I chose the first novel from the 90's I could find in my "Unread Pulitzer Books" box, E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, the novel that won a year after Butler, in 1994.

Close enough.

Now, I know that conflict is a catalyst to driving a novel forward and that a story without conflict, really, isn't a story at all. But a few chapters into The Shipping News, I almost started to regret picking this one up when I did. As I mentioned, life was putting me through the wringer for the entirety of December and I was plenty stressed out. I thought I had it rough losing two homes in one week.

The hell that Proulx puts her protagonist, Quoyle, through makes my life look like a cakewalk. And that stressed me out even more.

In the first half of this novel, Quoyle's parents commit suicide, his wife cheats on him with countless other men, then leaves him and takes their children, she sells his two daughters to a black market adoption agency, she then dies in a car wreck, he loses his job, his house, gets his kids back, but is forced to move to Newfoundland, where his family originated, to a home he could afford with the very little amount of money he had.

This character took a beating from his author of The Fixer magnitude.

In her acknowledgments, Proulx mentions The Ashley Book of Knots, a book that she found at a garage sale for a quarter and references in almost every chapter; her chapter titles, predominantly, are knot names and she offers an explanation of the knot by referencing the The Ashley Book of Knots. The first chapter, for example, is entitled "Quoyle;" the explanation Proulx provides from The Ashley Book of Knots states, "Quoyle: A coil of rope. A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary."

This explanation is a perfect summary of her main character's life. Quoyle is a one-layered man that gets walked on by the world surrounding him every single day. Just like me, more often than not. Coincidentally, Quoyle has Irish blood.

Go figure.

However, as the novel progresses into its second half, Quoyle's luck starts to turn around—he gets hired at a local newspaper, impresses his editor and is promoted twice, he makes friends in the community, falls in love with a woman who truly loves him in return, his relationship with his children improves, and he learns how to love himself and be happy with his life. He becomes more confident, more poised, more in control of his life. There is no central conflict to the novel upon first reading, which I found annoying, but upon completion, the reader realizes that Quoyle's central conflict was with himself all along.  

The Shipping News is ultimately a redemption story. It is the story of a man who refuses to let his lot in life define his life and comes out on top. And that's the sort of story I think we're all hoping to live.

I certainly am.

Stage 1: Over

The Pulitzer Project is now officially coming to a close. Now that I have Margaret Wilson's 1924 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Able McLaughlins, in my possession, and Joshua has H.L. Davis's 1936 winner,The Honey In the Horn, Joshua and I have finally, after a full year of searching, completed our Pulitzer collections and now comes the time to buckle in and read. The first of three stages has finished and the second is already well under way—reading all 84 (in a few short months, 85) novels. The third stage of this project, then, will be to either write a Pulitzer-winning novel of our own under a pseudonym (i.e. Alan Germain, or Joshua Andrews) or a memoir detailing the journey from inception to completion.

I can't wait to see what the rest of this journey has in store for these two wearying travelers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Guitar Lessons

I come from a family of musicians. On my mother's side, anyway—the members of my father's side of the family have trouble enough playing the radio, let alone any musical instruments. My mother and aunt dabbled with the piano when they were young; their mother has been playing jazz and boogie woogie piano semi-professionally for years; her younger brother played blues guitar; their youngest brother plays the blues on the mighty Hammond B-3 professionally; and their father, my great-grandfather, Pa, played bluegrass and skiffle on the banjo almost his entire life. These years of musicianship were passed down through the generations and have landed with me—an acoustic guitarist by trade. It's my hope to continue passing down my family's ear for music to my children, should that day ever come.

I first picked up the guitar when I was eleven. Just like everyone else who picked up the guitar for the first time, I had big dreams: songwriting, playing in a band, record deals, world tours, changing the world, and the face of rock and roll forever. And girls. Of course, there were the girls to consider. Even in the sixth grade, girls were flocking to boys who wore Led Zeppelin t-shirts and played electric guitars. The boys in my school could only run a few scales and maybe even play three chords (which, if we are to learn anything from the punk rock scene, that's really all you need), but girls loved them nonetheless.

The boys even brought their guitars to school. Sat around in the choir room during study hall, said to each other, “Hey, dude, check this out,” and would strum out “Louie, Louie.” The girls swooned and another boy would smirk, then retort, “Yeah, well check this out,” play the three same exact chords and mumble the words to “Wild Thing” or “La Bamba.”

This went on for years—all through middle school, all through high school. Boys attempting to impress girls, and even each other, with their guitars. Some people even made careers out of it. Their scales and chords got more complicated, their sense of rhythm and strumming patterns evolved, they started writing their own songs and incorporating other musical influences into their repertoires. Then, of course, as soon as the girls they were attempting to impress became disinterested in their guitars, so did they.

I was one of the few that never really cared much for rock music. At that time in my life, I was far more interested in the music my family listened to—American folk, jazz, and blues. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, George Gershwin, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan. While my friends in high school sat on Napster, illegally downloading Metallica MP3's then learning the songs by printing guitar tablature by the ream, I was sitting cross-legged on Pa's living room floor, listening to his old vinyl records through a pair of my uncle's old studio headphones, circa 1973. I learned the old songs on the acoustic guitar by slowing the record speed down and picking around on the fretboard until I found the note that sounded the same as the one Robert Johnson was playing.

That guy sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of two dusty country roads in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi to learn blues guitar—my method seemed a much safer alternative.

My parents eventually enrolled me in guitar lessons. When I was 12 or so. Figured if I were going to become a serious guitarist, I should learn from a serious guitarist.

They enrolled me at a local guitar shop in Joliet and drove me there every Tuesday night for my lesson at 7pm; my teacher was Gustavo "Gus" Gutierrez, a sweet old Cuban man who was approaching his 70's. Every Tuesday night, he'd show up ten minutes late, wearing a white, V-neck undershirt, black slacks and sandals, his belly bulging over his waistband and his breath smelling of booze. Bursting through the door, semi-triumphantly, he'd stretch out his arms and proclaim, “Mi amigo! Que pasa, hombre?

I'd exclaim, equally as enthusiastically, “Gus! Oye como va, mi profesor?” and he laughed because he knew I was trying to be clever. All the Spanish I knew came from Santana song titles.

He'd sit down in his chair, pop the buckles of his guitar case open, pull out his beautiful semi-hollow body guitar, its sunburst finish and always freshly polished silver frets glistening in the low light of the practice room. He'd close his eyes, and effortlessly run a few jazz scales. “A quick calamiento. Need to clear the cobwebs,” then wink at me. It was like being with family, watching him play.

And every week, he'd forget what we were practicing the week before.

So, because I had a more enjoyable time just listening to him play, I would lie to him: "Well, last week we finished this song,”—I'd wave a piece of sheet music in front of him—“and you said you were going to play this song for me this week," then I'd pull any random song out of his rusty filing cabinet.

“Ah, yes. I remember very clearly now. Que bonita un canción .”

In the 1950's and 60's, he was a rhythm guitarist for a jazz combo in Chicago and they'd play the standards; songs like "Unforgettable," "San Antonio Rose" and "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Loves You)." Every week, he'd introduce the new song to me by explaining the first time he'd heard it, the first time he'd played it and the audience's reaction. He'd tell me the stories for ten, fifteen minutes while absentmindedly strumming his guitar. Then, without any pause, he'd immediately transition into the song, singing his old Cuban heart out, his voice cracking and warbling under the strain of years of smoking cigarettes in dive nightclubs. It was almost magical to watch his old fingers weaving mellow tones into the air. Watching him lose himself in the music of his yesterdays. Before we knew it, it was 7:35 and the shop manager would knock on the glass window of the door and indicate that some other kid was waiting for his lesson.

Ay, ay, ay, chinga tu madre,” he'd say, and wave the manager away. “This kid that's coming in, Andres—he doesn't give a shit for the classics. He doesn't know how to make that guitar sing like we do. That's why the women will never sing for him. Am I right?” Another wink. “Now, you go home and practice this one,” and he'd gently place the sheet music for “Summertime” in my folder, hand it back to me. “You go home and play this canción and a beautiful woman will fall in love with you. Guaranteed.”


One week, he just stopped showing up for lessons and I had to start taking lessons from another teacher who wasn't nearly as talented and wasn't nearly as passionate about music as Gus was. So I quit taking lessons after about three more weeks, having never really learned anything after almost a full two years of taking them.

I saw Gus almost two years later, in a grocery store, with what appeared to be his personal caretaker. Gus was wearing the same white V-neck undershirt, with sweat and food stains all over it, his hair was greasy and completely disheveled. Instead of his characteristic black slacks and sandals, he was walking around in boxers and slippers, buying cheap frozen pizzas and Ramen noodles.

Pa, although he was never a fan of the music I started learning after I graduated from my own school of folk, was very encouraging and always eager to listen to whatever I learned. I suppose he got his patience from parenting three musicians who played music that he didn't like, and grandparenting two musicians who'd tinker on his upright piano's keyboard until they go so frustrated with it that they both just gave up. I like to think that he suffered through my playing because he would have much rathered I play music he couldn't stand than giving up on music all together.

Even though the banjo was his instrument of choice, he had dabbled with the guitar in the early days too; and, in the corner of his living room, resting against the wall was his prized possession—a Gibson acoustic guitar from the 1930's. He told me that during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, while living on a farm in Kentucky, he'd play that guitar to get through the day. It stayed with him his whole life—as far as I know, always resting in the corner of his living room.

He never let anyone touch it. His own children weren't hardly allowed to even look at it. When my cousins got anywhere near it, he'd shout “Scram!” and shake his cane at them. I, on the other hand, was given full access to it. I never knew why, but I never questioned it either.

At every family gathering—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas—, when all of the family was in town, we'd meet at Pa's house for a party and dinner. And, at every family gathering, every musician in the family would pull out their respective instruments and we'd all play music together well into the evening. Pa played too, but as his progressed into his late 70's, and into his 80's, he became weaker and weaker, to the point where he couldn't play with us anymore. So he sat in his easy chair and tapped his fingernail on the wooden armrest, keeping time.

I knew not being able to pick at the banjo anymore killed him more than his advancing years did. No matter how much joy the music we played brought him, there was always that part of his heart slowly dying with each note.

During the Christmas of 1998, I ambled over to him with his guitar, sat down on the edge of the coffee table across from his easy chair, set the guitar down in front of him, “Teach me something, Pa.”

He furrowed his eyebrows, wrinkled up his weathered face, and admitted, “Aw, hell, I couldn't even pick up that damned thing let alone play it.”

I shrugged. I knew he was flattered at my request. And I knew his response, no matter callous it sounded coming from him, was humble.

“Eh, fine. I can show you something. You ever hear of harmonics?”

I shook my head, no, I hadn't.

So he reached out his shaking, fragile hand to mine, grabbed a hold of it, spread my fingers slightly apart, and guided my middle finger to the twelfth fret. "Like this," he directed. "Now pluck that top string." I did, and the guitar made the most pathetic sound I'd ever heard. It was just a muted pluck. The sound of dead weight.

“Like that...?”

“No, no, no, not like that, goddammit.” If I hadn't known the man for 13 years, if he hadn't been Pa, that man would have terrified me. He was in 80's, but had a fierce snarl and a rough, raspy voice that inspired fear in anyone he scolded. But his bark was worse than his bite.

“Well, what am I doing wrong? I did everything you said.”

His eyes widened with surprise. “The hell you did,” he scoffed. “I didn't tell ya to strangle the damn guitar's neck. You've gotta learn to be more gentle, Andrew. Don't force it. Just let the note be the note. You're just guiding it along.”

He grabbed my wrist again, pulled it away from the neck, gave it a shake. “There ya go. Now, relax,” as he guided it back, reset my middle finger at the twelfth fret. “Now, just lightly rest it there. Don't press it. Don't force it. Just lean on it a little. 'Til you're hardly even touching it at all.”

I did as he instructed, carefully eying the way the fleshy round of my finger sat on the E-string, making sure the skin didn't fold itself around it. When I plucked the string, the guitar sang out like a bell. The sound of overtones rising and falling, building and collapsing over themselves, the beautiful note's song wafting in the air between us. The wavelengths of the string, in half-time, stretching far back into his youth and far ahead into my unknown and momentarily tying the two of us together in a fleeting moment of mutual understanding.

He closed his eyes, grinned his toothless grin, sat back in his chair. I wanted to play the harmonic again, but didn't dare disturb the calm.

“Good. Good,” he finally affirmed. “Now ain't that the damned prettiest thing you've ever heard?”

It was.

“I don't expect you to understand this now. But someday you will. It's good and well to show off your strength and really press into these frets. The strings will discipline you. You'll build up callouses like this one here” and he tapped my fingertip. “Those callouses will help you. Makes you tough. Gives you hands like mine. Hell. He lifted his hand, worn and weathered, calloused and hardened by the years and scratched at his scraggly white beard. “But sometimes you need a more gentle touch.” He paused, possibly to consider what he was saying. “A more gentle touch, Andrew. That's when you really hear the beauty.” He looked past my shoulder at his wife of 60-plus years, Gwen; his wife who would pass a mere five months later.

“You'd be amazed at the beauty, my boy. You'd be amazed.”

The next Christmas was the last we spent at Pa's house. His wife passed in May of that year and Pa was slowly dying of heartache. I used to have my dad drive me over to his house for chats. We spent most of our time together talking about old music, old times, and his wife. I went there to spend time with him, to help him clean up, to help him haul firewood from the backyard to the fireplace in the dining room.
And I went for the occasional guitar lesson.

That Christmas, after dinner was drawing to a close, Pa hoisted himself up with his cane and excused himself from the table. My grandmother got up to help him to his feet and he protested, “Get the hell off, goddammit. I've been able to stand up on my own two goddamn feet for 80 years, I certainly don't need any help now,” then shuffled his way back into the living room. The family stayed at the table, gave each other exasperated glances of worry for dear old Pa. “He's not well,” “His heart is broken,” “I don't think he has much longer.”

I excused myself and followed him into the living room, found him sitting in his easy chair. He was hunched over a TV tray, examining a newspaper with a magnifying glass.

“Heya, Pa.”

He looked up, saw me squinting at the newspaper, trying to figure out what he was reading.

“What the hell's the matter with ya?” His customary greeting.

“Nothing, Pa. Full from dinner. Whatcha reading there?”

“Obituaries. I've outlasted all these poor bastards. Just look at me. I'm in the prime of my life!”

I laughed. “Yeah, I should say so. Hey, so I learned a new song I wanted to play for you. Want to hear it?”

“Aw, hell, can't you let me read for a minute?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, that's fine,” and started rifling through his old records, pulling out some of them and turning them over in my hands. “Oh! Pa! It's this one!” I held up an old Hank Williams record. One of his favorites.

“Aw, hell, go ahead and play yer damned song then.”

I knew he would say that.

So I made my way over to his guitar, picked it up, and assumed my regular position on the edge of the coffee table. Sat directly across from him, so he could see the chords. Gently and slowly I strummed a C, first the root, then the bass—an old country and western strumming pattern he had taught me. Switched to the F, to the G, then back to the C. First the root, then the bass, in ¾ time:

I heard the lonesome whippoorwill
he sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I sang the song, sweet and low, with my eyes closed, then ended it with a harmonic on the twelfth fret of the G-string. For good measure.

And as the overtone rose up and swelled in mid-air, I opened my eyes and looked up at Pa to see if my song had gotten his approval. I was surprised to see that his eyes were still closed—closed eyes and a blank, expressionless face. One tear streaked down his wrinkled face and was lost in his beard.

I had never seen Pa cry before. Not even at his wife's funeral, not even when we drove away from her grave. I was surprised at how little it bothered me. How little it bothered me to see this 84 year old man, who had always stood out to me as a pillar of manhood, who always kept his strength, who never showed weakness, sitting across from me and shedding his brazen exterior to reveal the man underneath it all. I was surprised, in the low light of his living room, with just the two of us—the oldest and the youngest man of the family—and his guitar in my lap, the only thing between us, at how beautiful it was. How beautiful it was to see this gentle spirit that I had never seen before, and in a month's time, never see again.

You'd be amazed at the beauty, my boy. You'd be amazed.

I'm still learning.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Entry 24: "A Fable" by William Faulkner (1955)

Of all the books I could have chosen to read in one day, my only day off work this week, I just had to pick William Faulkner's 1955 Pulitzer-winner A Fable.


That's how my brain feels right now.

I struggled all the way through this book and I'm even finding it difficult coming up with the words to describe the experience reading it. The story is a good one, but is drowned in an ocean of language and stream and consciousness narrative and intentional ambiguity and paragraphs that last for pages and sentences that stretch over two or more pages with excessive commas, semicolons, and M-dashes to the point of the reader throwing the book against the wall in a fit of rage and in hopes of the book exploding in a flurry of pages flying everywhere, hitting themselves repetitively over the head with it until they pass out if the book's dizzying effect hasn't made them pass out on its own. *deep breath*

I like how one reviewer from Amazon put it: "...his stream of consciousness writing results in the reader becoming unconscious." That sums it up quite nicely.

Of course, this is all true to form for William Faulkner—very familiar territory. Faulkner, one of the most esteemed, prolific, and influential American writers of the 20th century, has oft been cited as the American Shakespeare (don't ask me by whom), but I'd like to offer that Faulkner is more like the American James Joyce. I've read quite a bit of Joyce, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and even all of Ulysses, and Faulkner's novels The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and A Fable, apparently, prove themselves to be prototypical of the Joycean stylings. William Faulkner's novels are never for everyone, and that may be doubly true of A Fable. This novel is Faulkner being Faulkner at his most brilliant and complicated.

And, of course, I just had to pick the book that Faulkner lets his Faulkner flag in all of its complicated, convoluted glory to read in one day.

Based on all of the other reviews I read of this book, A Fable is apparently Faulkner's densest work. I even read another Pulitzer reader's blog—a reader whose goal was to read all of the Pulitzers in five years—and he admitted that A Fable is the novel that almost sunk him; he almost gave up the project entirely because of William Faulkner, and he had only gotten halfway through his journey! Another reviewer stated that he once did a comprehensive study of William Faulkner's work, and, while most of his novels took him about a week to finish, A Fable took him nearly a year of reading and re-reading.

I, on the other hand, committed myself to starting and finishing this book in one day. Because I'm an idiot.

Now, even though I managed to, somehow, do it, and even managed to, again, somehow, at least comprehend the main story, I will admit that I didn't devote to this novel nearly the attention it commands from its reader. In fact, as I described it to my friends at work (yes, I did go to Peet's on my day off just to read) while I was reading it, it seemed like so much less of a novel, and more like a psychological challenge—it was as if Faulkner didn't invite me into his home to tell me a story, so much as he dared me to follow him on a winding, unbeaten path in a dark, scary forest. A better analogy, I guess, is that he dared me to follow him into an unlit, underground tunnel; but the good news is that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Just like Joyce (with his Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, most notably), Faulkner really makes you earn his endings. It's an epic struggle making your way toward the light at the end of the tunnel, but it's well worth the struggle when you step into the sunlight. Just like most of his novels, a lot of the narrative in the beginning and middle don't really come together until the very end of the novel, sometimes not even until the last few pages. Unfortunately, because I wasn't giving A Fable the time it deserved, I didn't pick up on all of the little nuances that make a Faulkner novel a Faulkner novel—this is my own fault, but, when this Pulitzer Project is over and done with, you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be revisiting this one with a pen and journal to take notes.

Unlike some of the other novels I've read along this journey, A Fable is not at all one that can be read passively. It takes a lot of focus, concentration, and even willpower to forge your way

The other thing that surprised me about this novel (besides how incredibly dense it was) was that it isn't set in Yoknapatawpha—the fictional county that Faulkner sets a lot of his works in. More surprisingly, this novel wasn't set in the American South, nor even America at all (though there is one flashback scene that does take place in the South)! Rather, it was an anti-war novel set in France during World War I.

On the surface, it is the story of a French corporal and twelve of his officers who "corrupt" a brigade of 3,000 soldiers into not attacking the enemy, rather, staying in their trench and not fighting at all—this mutiny, as it is declared, eventually leads to their being court marshaled and, ultimately, executed. The anti-war sentiments of this novel are displayed, not in the mutiny, but in the Germans' reaction to the mutiny—rather than charging the lines and obliterating the French mutineers, they lay down their arms and stay in their trenches as well. This bizarre event leads to the end of the war after four years of bloodshed and horror. Of course, the thing Faulkner is saying here is, "If there were no armies, there would be no war; and if there were no war, there would be no senseless killing."

However, as the title, A Fable, indicates, this novel is so much more than your everyday anti-war novel. In fact, it's a really thinly disguised allegory. The corporal and twelve officers (by no means an arbitrary number) who protested fighting by performing a "sit in," as it were, and were court marshaled, arrested, and executed are actually metaphorical for Jesus, his disciples, and the passion of the Christ—a man who died for the sins of society, and not for anything he did or didn't do. Faulkner even takes this metaphor down to every jot and tittle during the execution scene: Jesus was arrested, the corporal was arrested; Jesus was marched through the streets of Jerusalem, the corporal was marched through the streets of France; Jesus was spat at and mocked by onlookers, the corporal suffered the same; Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, the corporal was tied to a wooden post; Jesus wore a crown of thorns, the corporal's head got wrapped in barbed wire; and Jesus was crucified between two thieves, the corporal was executed between two officers.

And, in the end, Faulkner leaves the reader with mixed reactions; on the one hand, it is an anti-war novel as it celebrates pacifism. However, the novel is sprinkled with quotes like this one that make it difficult to gauge what Faulkner is really saying: "Isn't the war over?" one of the men said. "The sergeant-major turned almost savagely. "But not the army," he said. "How do you expect peace to put an end to an army when even war can't?" Then, right before the corporal is executed, the Generalissimo tries to convince him that war can never be stopped because it is the essence of humanity (this, of course, is metaphorical of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness).

I'll be honest—I was actually really disappointed with this one; but, again, that's mostly of my own doing. Rather than devoting the time and energy the novel deserved, I went with my foolhardy decision to read an entire novel in one day. This practice is probably unhealthy for any of the novels I'll be reading along this journey, but it was especially true of this one. I probably couldn't even properly read this novel in one week, let alone one day.

However, and this was the most disappointing aspect for me, the only reason I chose to read Faulkner in the first place was because Josephine Johnson and Shirley Anne Grau had put me in the mood for Southern Gothic literature—I was so enchanted by their novels that I wasn't completely prepared to leave that place. So, knowing that Faulkner was one of the most prolific of Southern Gothic novelists, I chose to read his first Pulitzer-winner. As you can imagine, after about ten or so pages, about the point when I realized that this novel was going to be solely about World War I, I was pretty disappointed.

Even more frustratingly, I chose what will probably prove itself to be one of the most intellectually challenging novels to read of all the Pulitzers, and I chose to read it in one day—my day off. I set out thinking that today was going to be a great day to kick back with a Pulitzer and relax. Instead, it turned out to be an altogether too grueling battle between Faulkner's prose and me that left me irritable, on edge, and mentally exhausted. My mind was so brutally pummeled by A Fable, that it actually led to a headache that spread throughout my body, infecting every muscle, joint, and sinew. I had to take hour-long breaks from it just to recuperate! I'd set the book aside and smoke a cigarette, or watch a DVD, or play guitar, or even take a quick nap in order to restore just enough energy to last me another 50 or so pages.

However, despite the struggles, despite the turmoil, despite the headaches and heartaches, I can ironically say that I enjoyed this "fable" and am really looking forward to revisiting it after Joshua and I have reached our destination. The bottom line here is this: this novel is the epitome of Faulkner being Faulkner; however, the conclusion of A Fable is considerably worth the effort the story requires.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Entry 23: "The Keepers of the House" by Shirley Anne Grau (1965)

I think I may have found my newest favorite form of literature: Southern Gothic. I am, of course, referring to the literary movement that is a subgenre of gothic fiction (with authors like Anne Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley) that is specific to the southern United States. Southern gothic literature got its start in the early 1900's, during the Modernist movement, and has blanketed authors like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Tennesse Williams, Truman Capote, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, the infamous John Kennedy Toole, and, as I've recently discovered, Shirley Anne Grau.

I can't quite put my finger on one specific reason I've fallen so in love with this genre—there are so many things about it that absolutely enchant me.

There's a certain sense of mystery that prevails throughout the novels, an eerie suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat, a darkness that lurks in the woods surrounding the property, a ghost in the closet, an endless highway that stretches long into the night, the devil playing blues music on acoustic guitar at the corner of two dusty crossroads. The novels bring me into this dark, demented, spiritual place that terrifies me, but hypnotizes me; I don't want to be there, but I can't bring myself to ever leave (which is the reason why I'll be reading A Fable, by William Faulkner, next).

So far, every example of Southern Gothic I've read has been fantastic—Shirley Anne Grau's 1965 Pulitzer-winning The Keepers of the House is no exception.

I had pretty high expectations for this book going in because of the amount Joshua—who read this book at the outset of this project—hyped it up and I'm happy to report that I was not let down. It took me a while to get through it, just because I kept putting it off, but the only reason I kept putting it off was because I wanted the book to last longer. Normally, with a book like this (like Now In November and Gilead, for example), I love it so much that I race through it because I can't put it down. This time, I wanted to savor the book. I wanted it to last. I didn't want to leave the titled house that Grau invited me into. I had kicked off my shoes, reclined on the couch, and watched the family drama unfold from one generation to the next from that one place on the couch, and despite the discomfort that Grau put me in with her narrative, I felt obliged to be there.

The Keepers of the House is the story of a family through three generations and uses the family home as the pivot point of the novel—even though the story is epic in scope and far-reaching, telling story after story after story through these three generations, by keeping the house as the central "character" in the novel, the character that all of the stories and other characters revolve around, their stories, and the overall arc of the novel, are easy to follow and understand. This is a concept I earlier discussed in my review of Philip Roth's American Pastoral—the novel is even more epic than Grau's, but it's still accessible because of Roth's maintaining his focus on one specific family and the stories that surround them. The same is true of The Keepers of the House—in this novel, Grau confronts racism, interracial relationships, war, group violence, motherhood, fatherhood, family, religion, politics; she runs the gambit of hot topics of her day (this book was written just as the American Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam) and she does so in a really accessible, easy-to-follow fashion, never getting off track, never disinteresting the reader, and never getting preachy.

And, true to Southern Gothic fashion, she creates a world so full of mystery, so full of intrigue, so full of regrets and hopes, dreams and nightmares. This quote, from Wikipedia, really sums up quite nicely what Southern Gothic is and, after having read it, I can say now that The Keepers of the House is almost a prototypical representative for Southern Gothic literature—it has all of the basic elements:
One of the most notable features of the Southern Gothic is "the grotesque" - this includes situations, places, or stock characters that often possess some cringe-inducing qualities—typically racial bigotry and egotistical self-righteousness—but enough good traits that readers find themselves interested nevertheless. Southern Gothic authors commonly use deeply flawed, grotesque characters for greater narrative range and more opportunities to highlight unpleasant aspects of Southern culture, without being too literal or appearing to be overly moralistic. Tennessee Williams described Southern Gothic as a style that captured "an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." However, the genre was itself open to criticism, even by its alleged practitioners. As Flannery O'Connor remarked, "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."
In this novel, Grau introduces the reader to some of the most twisted and perverted characters one will come across. The racism and bigotry that pervades this novel is almost overwhelming, and the racial tension keeps the reader in suspense all the way up until the culmination of the tension results in a near-deadly fire set by an angry mob at Abigail Howland's homestead. The ugliness of some of the events and characters in this book truly are grotesque.

Despite the grotesque, though, there's something quite moving about this novel. There's something to be said for the loyalty to family, for the coexistence of two races, for the ardent desire to be free from social norms and dictations. I really have discovered my new favorite subgenre and I want to stay in this place for a while.

1955's Pulitzer-winning novel, A Fable, by William Faulkner—you're next.

Friday, November 26, 2010

One. Last. Book.

With nothing but thanks to my good friend and Pulitzer Project brother-in-arms, Joshua Riley, I am now one last book away from having a complete Pulitzer collection. Of course, so is my good friend and Pulitzer Project brother-in-arms, Joshua Riley. Just like I did with Honey In the Horn, Joshua used the Internet to find a first edition of Upton Sinclair's Dragon's Teeth in Mishawaka, Indiana. By some bizarre twist of fate, they also had a second copy of it, plus Ernest Poole's His Family!

In the meantime, I walked down the used bookstore a few blocks from my apartment, Howard's Books, and found an elegantly-bound edition of Margaret Ayer Barnes' Years of Grace. Then, I drove myself down to Printer's Row in the South Loop of Chicago and found a second copy of Years of Grace!

That's when a deal was struck: Joshua would buy Dragon's Teeth and His Family for me if I bought Years of Grace for him. So guess what happened next...

One. Last. Book.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Two Down, Four to Go

I have finally found one of the white whales of this Pulitzer journey—Harold Davis' 1935 Pulitzer-winning novel, Honey In the Horn. It was quite the adventure to find it, but I found it. Thanks to this modern marvel known as the Internet, I was able to do a search of booksellers all around the world to find this novel; I really didn't want to resort to the Internet because there was a part of me that felt that it would be way too easy to find these books and, thus, take all of the adventure out of the project. However, after almost a full year of not being able to track down a couple of them, I decided it was time to up the ante.

After typing and clicking around on Google and eBay for the better part of an hour, I finally located a seller who had a copy of Honey In the Horn for ten dollars relatively close to me—in Omro, Wisconsin.

From Chicago, where I live, it took me about three and a half hours to get there—three and a half long hours of winding, hilly roads that took me through some of the most picturesque farmland you'll ever see.

Omro is a really small, sleepy town in central Wisconsin, a little outside of Oshkosh and about an hour southwest of Green Bay—a town so small that, if you're driving through it and blink, you'll probably miss it. As the flag in the upper left hand corner of this picture indicates, Omro is the epitome of Small Town, America—a perfect example of Americana. The downtown area lasts all of a few blocks and doesn't have much more than a bank, a gas station, a few bait shops, a corner grocer, and a drugstore—all of the businesses are one side of Main Street. The other side of the street is residential. These are smaller, nuclear-family homes that haven't been updated or remodeled since the 1950's. I can just picture the Omro High School marching band—with all 15-25 members—marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July while kids follow suit with their sparklers, senior citizens lining the sidewalks on their lawn chairs, blue skies and the July sun smiling down upon them all.

These are the kind of people I expected to find in this town when I rolled in—people who knew all of their neighbors and waved "hello" to everyone passing through. And when I rang the doorbell of this seller's house and was greeted by a tiny 80-plus year old woman who was every bit as delightful as I had imagined the townspeople would be, I felt safe and at home. She greeted me at the door and, in her quavering old voice, inquired, "May I help you, son?" "Yes," I replied, "I've come in from Chicago; I was supposed to meet someone at this address who was going to sell me a book?" "Oh, yes, do come in and I'll fetch him for you."

I walked in the door and was amazed at the interior of this house—it was obviously a storefront at one time, as it was located on Main Street on the commercial side. The exterior of the building even had the frame of an awning still in place. The interior of the building had a wide open space, a big room that was probably, at one time, a store of some kind—I could imagine it being a pharmacy or a bakery, where a counter would have been installed along the left wall. However, this building had been converted into a home and, over the course of a few decades, had been again converted into a storage space for a massive personal library. The main room was filled with books—books in piles, on shelves, in boxes, covering the floor, covering the walls, stacked to the ceiling... Thousands of books! I stood in the vestibule of their home and just stood there, mouth ajar, ogling all of the books before me.

The little old woman said, "Now, you wait here, I'll go find Joel for you," and she left me to dumbfoundedly gape at the massive collection.

After a minute or so, I heard the little old woman coming back with her son and I overheard her saying, "The boy from the Flatlands is here to see you." She turned the corner of the hallway and found me, introduced me to her son and then said, "I thought I heard a knocking on the door, but I wasn't sure. Anyhow, he knew to ring the doorbell, so he must be somewhat intelligent!" and gave me a big, toothy grin that had a certain air of superiority to it and, just like that, my ideas of Americana perfection were shattered. I gave a nervous laugh and attempted to play it off, but I knew what was going on.

See, Wisconsin and Illinois have a bit of a rivalry that runs deeper than merely football—the citizens of both states, for whatever reason, have an intense dislike for each other. We're like the Hatfields and the McCoys; the Kiwis and the Aussies; the Brits and the Micks. Wisconsinites call us Illinoisans "flat-landers" or "low-landers" and we refer to them as "cheeseheads"—no matter where you go in Wisconsin or Illinois, you'll find locals ribbing their neighbors with such juvenile taunts and I'm really not sure why. They hate the way we Chicagoans drive, and we Chicagoans hate their insane state roads; they hate our accents, and we hate theirs. Really, I think that Wisconsinites are just jealous of the fact that we have Chicago, the greatest city in America and, despite their proximity, they can't have it nearly as much as we can.

Regardless, I was far from home, a stranger in a strange land, and had suddenly become the victim of a geographical slur. The tiny old woman gave me that smug smile and waddled off into another part of the house and left me there with Joel, who gave me a firm handshake and invited me a few steps further into the house. Now, I kind of knew what to expect from this guy purely based on the couple of emails we had exchanged prior to this meeting: I sized him up to be kind of a blue-collar, tough guy. As it turned out, my estimation wasn't too far off—he greeted me wearing a pair of faded navy blue Dickies, construction boots and a ratty old sweater that was coming apart at the seams.

Apparently, in Omro, he's a bit of a local celebrity and professional fisherman—he owns his own ice fishing venture and rents out fishing equipment for a living. He's also appeared on ESPN and made a couple instructional fishing videos. He was a rough guy, which I also induced from our correspondence: the first time I wrote him, I told him all about the Pulitzer Project and the rules that Joshua and I have set up for ourselves and explained that I needed this book, but had to buy it in person. I asked him if he could help me out and he wrote back "Ummmm??? Sounds like you are either gonna have to lie and cheat your ass off by hitting the "buy it now" button -or- Drive a hell of a long way to come pick it up....."


I wrote him a second time and told him that I'd be available to pick it up on Tuesday and he replied: "Sure, I'll be here with a good psychologist for you."

Fair enough.

He handed the book to me and a well of joy burst inside of me; I told him, "Joel, you have no idea how amazed I am to be holding this book right now." He chuckled and quipped, "Man, you are a fuckin' freak, dude!" Of course, I was a little taken aback by his completely inappropriate response, so I had to ask, "What makes you say that?" He replied, "Shit, man. You drove almost four fuckin' hours, out to the middle of fuckin' nowhere to buy a fuckin' book. You are a straight-up book FREAK!" and chuckled to himself again. I bit the bullet and admitted, "Yeah, I supposed you're right there. But I have to ask—how in the world did you end up with this book?? I have been searching for it this entire year and until last week, I had never even seen this guy's name in print!" "Huh," he replied, obviously uninterested. "I don't know, man. All of these fuckin' books are my parents' and my grandparents' shit. They've been collecting all these damned books for fuckin' years and years and I don't give two shits about readin' so I'm just selling them all online. I'm gettin' tired of packin' all this shit up and moving it all the time so I just want to see it go."

This made sense to me: the thousands of books that lined the walls, floor, and ceiling of the house had been collected by two generations of a family for the past hundred or so years. Most of the books were bought decades ago, read once, and have been sitting in boxes ever since. The copy of Honey In the Horn was printed in the 1960's and is in almost mint condition—it doesn't look like it's even been read! I was probably the first one to crack the binding of it since the day it was bought almost 50 years ago.

Joel told me that he needed to look something up online for it and invited me to his office so I asked him, "Is it cool if I look around? I need five other books and, from what I've seen so far, I think it's a fair assumption that you probably have a couple that I need in this massive collection of your's." He shot me a very serious look and replied, sternly, "No way dude. Nuh-uh. I can't let you do that." I thought he was kidding, so I laughed it off a bit, until he said, "No, really. I can't let you look at my books." Obviously I was dumbfounded and had to ask why. He said, very matter of factly, "Every now and then, I get a freak like you in my house, wanting to look at all my books. I used to let people do it but then it became a problem. I'd have people browsing around my house, looking at all these damn books like they're getting off on it and I'd have to kick them out because they'd just look around for a couple of hours. I don't want you fuckin' book weirdos in my house lookin' at my shit!"

I really couldn't believe the lack of respect I was being shown. This guy was ridiculing me right to my face and all I was doing was trying to give him money!

"You want some books?" he asked, in a smug way. "Here: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Haven't listed it yet. It's your's, free. Here have this one too," as he tossed to me an old Roald Dahl book. "The Honey book is ten bucks, but I should probably just give it to you for free, just for being such a fuckin' book freak, driving all the way up here from fuckin' Chicago!" At least he had courtesy enough to write down the titles of the last couple books I need so that he could browse his collection for me. "You're right," he said, "My folks have been collecting this shit for years, so they probably have whatever you need."

Before I knew it, I was back on the road, bewildered at the interaction I drove three and a half hours to have, but brimming with joy for being the proud new owner of Honey In the Horn. I drove alone, through the hilly farms of central Wisconsin to the sound of gunfire, echoing from the woods and fields, all around me. Old men in camouflage and bright orange vests toting shotguns around, firing at pheasant and turkey and flat-landers like me.

Since I was in Wisconsin anyway, and heading back to Chicago, I figured I might as well stop in Madison for an hour or so. When Joshua and I were in Iowa for the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, we were told a few different times that Madison, Wisconsin was a bibliophile's paradise, so it's been our goal throughout this journey to eventually make our way up there. Unfortunately that opportunity never came, so I took matters into my own hands and went by myself—an action that Joshua is still upset with me about.

I only went to three stores, since it was getting close to 6pm—a time that I've discovered is fairly characteristic for used book stores to close shop for the evening. The first, Avol's, while a great store, didn't have at all what I was needing. The second, Book Browser's (or something like that) was a really great store and I had two near misses with Ernest Poole and Upton Sinclair (as usual). The third, however, Paul's Book Store, provided me with my second find of the day...

After browsing around fruitlessly for about 20 minutes, I finally asked the owner if he could help. I told him the list of books that I need and he quickly replied, "All Pulitzer winners!" "Yeah, they are actually... How did you know that?" "Well, I recognized a few of the titles—a couple came here last week looking for all these same books, but we only had Willa Cather's One of Ours." As it turns out, the owner of the store is an incredibly knowledgeable gay man who teaches Best-Selling Literature at the University of Wisconsin, so he was very familiar a few of the winners. 

The two of us couldn't find any of them on the shelves, but he informed that he had a basement full of old books that hadn't been priced and shelved yet, but that he'd go look for me. I perused the shelves and sipped at my coffee while I waited and about ten minutes later, he emerged from the basement with a first edition copy of T.S. Stribling's The Store. He handed it to me and said, "Does $12 sound fair?" I gave him $15 just for being amazing.

I now have only four books to find to complete my Pulitzer collection: His Family by Ernest Poole, The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson, Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, and Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair. Joshua has three remaining: Dragon's Teeth, Years of Grace, and Honey In the Horn. These are our remaining white whales. However, after finding my copy of Honey In the Horn, and finally tracking down The Store, In This Our Life, and Guard of Honor, I'm finally feeling like we'll able to finish this collection before the end of the year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Entry 22: "Now In November" by Josephine Johnson (1935)

Now that November is drawing to a close, Joshua and I decided to tackle a novel that would hold up a mirror to our Pulitzer journey; what better novel to do exactly that with than Josephine Johnson's 1935 Pulitzer-winning Now In November? It's probably a trite and cliche decision on our parts, but I've never been more satisfied with being cheesy after having finished the novel. It took me all of a mere couple of hours to read it, but that isn't to say that I was just breezing through it for the sake of getting it done—the truth is that Johnson's writing invited me to enter a world that I didn't, for the life of me, want to ever leave, even in spite of the tragedy, heartache, and drama that pervades every single paragraph throughout. Much like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I was left absolutely mesmerized at the end of each chapter and really should have stopped to catch my breath by the sheer beauty Johnson's words created in the ashes of her story, but I couldn't tear myself away from it. It was like being a marathon runner that hit the proverbial wall, but being so high on the thrill of the race, had to press forward without stopping to reflect on what I had already accomplished. I completely lost myself in Johnson's November, and am, even now, hoping and praying that December never comes.

To be honest, I didn't really have high expectations for this book. For one thing, I had never heard of Josephine Johnson and, so, had nothing in mind to form an opinion of her; secondly, this is a novel written in the 1930's, and, as I have made you well aware by now, most of the novels from the first 20 years of the Pulitzer Prize really haven't done anything for me. However, I am more than pleased to report that I have never been more surprised by a novel.

Joshua said it best: "This book wins the 'Diamond In the Rough Award.'"

Even a day after having finished it, I am still hypnotized by its raw beauty, its brutal honesty, and the hints of mystery and magic that wind their ways through its pages. When I finished the last paragraph, laying on my couch—my familiar reading position—, I closed the book, laid it on my chest, and just stared up at the ceiling, meditating on everything that I had just read, until I fell asleep, drunk on beauty.

Now In November is the story of a poor farm family in Anywhere, USA—the setting and time are never specified, but it is safe to assume that it is set in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. This family owns a farm that is wracked with debt and they are struggling to survive a massive drought that is destroying their land, their crops, their livestock, their farm, and even their family. The cracks in the hardened, clayey ground are indicative of the cracks growing between each member of the family. With all of the tension being imposed on the family by the threat of failing crops, foreclosure on their farm, homelessness, and even death, rather than coming closer together to lift each other up, they tear apart at the seams. It's almost unbearable to join them as they trudge through their lives, but with her intoxicating words, Johnson beckons you to come along so convincingly that you can't stand to turn down the invitation.

The novel is written in the first person from the perspective of Marget, the second-oldest of three daughters. It really seemed like Now In November is written less like a proper novel and more like a personal journal. The entries are short, concise, and written very "matter-of-factually," though contain these occasional bursts of sheer literary brilliance that are so magical, you almost have to stop reading to shake your head in disbelief: How is this woman coming up with such wonderful phrases? Johnson's novel is such a marvelous revelation.

 "We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun."

I have a feeling this is mostly true. There have been so many days in the past several months that I felt like I was suffering through my own personal drought—I've felt so unbearably dry, cracked, and barren inside. It's been as if there haven't been any rains and my spirit has been slowly withering away. I've been parched, thirsting for something meaningful and promising in my life—something that will inspire me and bring me back to life. Josephine Johnson, with these words, reminded me that all is not lost—all is never lost. She reminded me that, in spite of all the difficult circumstances I've been through in my life; in spite of all the pain and tragedy that surrounds me, and all of us really, that even if we cannot find, hard as we may look for it, reason to hope or believe, we must press forward. At the end of every hard-earned day, we must find some reason to believe.

Now In November brings to mind a poem that I read several years ago that I have been in love with ever since—"Try to Praise the Mutilated World," by Adam Zagajewski:
Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Ballad of Great Finds, Chance Encounters, and Near Misses

Yesterday, Joshua and I both had a much-needed day off of work, so we decided to thank the gods for the opportunity to catch our breath by setting out on the open road and heading downstate, to Champaign, Urbana, and Bloomington—three cities smack-dab in the middle of Illinois—to continue our search for the final few novels we each need to complete our Pulitzer Prize collections. He started the day off needing a mere three novels, and I needed eight; at the end of the day, Joshua hadn't found what he needed and I had come two novels closer to having a complete collection.

The story of our day together, however, would have made for a great story—even if neither of us hadn't found anything.

We headed out early, anticipating the nearly hour and a half drive ahead of us to get from Bradley to Champaign. We smoked some cigarettes, shared some laughs, discussed art and language and religion and literature (our usual conversational stomping grounds) as my tiny little car, weighted down with boxes upon boxes of books yet unpacked from my most recent move, ambled its way down Interstate 57 to the tunes of Tears for Fears (of all things). I had guessed that the day set before us was going to be absolutely ridiculous, and I couldn't have thought of a more ridiculous band to listen to in order to prepare ourselves for it.

The reason we set out in the first place was for one book—James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor, a World War II novel which won the Pulitzer in 1949. For some reason, in the eleven months that Joshua and I have been doing this project, I have not been able to find this book anywhere. One would think that living in Chicago, one of the country's greatest cities for used book stores with stores like Powell's and Myopic, that I would have had an easier time finding it—one would, in this case, be wrong. Although Joshua found it very early on in the journey, I didn't have any luck until a few days ago, when we haphazardly found it on On this website, you can search for a specific used book and find sellers all over the world who have a copy of it that they are wanting to sell. A couple of days ago, Joshua was perusing this site and discovered that the nearest Guard of Honor was waiting for me at JBL Books in Champaign. We called the owner and learned that his business is based out of his home and he sells from his own private collection on the Internet; since the Net's inception, this trend is growing more and more popular. Booksellers no longer have to pay rent in a store front or have a payroll; rather, they can post their entire library on the Internet and let people shop their stock that way.

Sooner or later, I think this whole Internet thing is really going to catch on...

So we drive to his house, a humble, lovely little ranch style home in Suburbia and John, the seller, let us inside and led us up the stairs to his collection (which was impressive, albeit modest). He pulled Guard of Honor from the shelf, handed it to me, flashed a big toothy grin and said, "This must be for you." Though it sounds trite, cliche, and melodramatic, I am not ashamed to say that joy welled up in me to have finally found a copy of this book—this book that has, I feel, unnecessarily eluded me for eleven months. I attempted to explain how happy I was at finding this book, but couldn't really choose words that wouldn't make me sound crazy. "Well, you see, sir—I have set up a challenge, a challenge with absolutely ridiculous rules and regulations and guidelines that I have imposed upon myself, and, apparently, you are the only person in all of Illinois that has a copy of this damn book!"

The edition which he sold me is an elegant leather-bound edition of the novel, so he naturally asked me if I were looking specifically for rare editions of it, and felt like I seemed crazy enough when both Joshua and I tried to explain that we were, actually, looking for any copy of that particular book, as long as it was used. This, of course, led to our having to explain, in its entirety, The Pulitzer Project to him. He seemed rather impressed with our undertaking and informed us that he knew a lot of private booksellers in the area that might be able to help us; then, this sweet, kindly old man pulled out his rolodeck and phone book and made several phone calls to associates that he's met along his own book collecting journeys. Unfortunately, he couldn't get a hold of any of his contacts, though we were still appreciative of his efforts.

He did, however, inform of us a used book sale at Urbana Public Library that was going to be held from 5-8pm.

Since we were in the area anyway, and it was only 11am, we decided that we'd spend the rest of the day hunting in used book stores and antique shops; so we did a bit of research and came up with a pretty healthy list of places to visit. Say3 Books in Champaign was our next stop. We pulled in the parking lot, where we were greeted a giant neon green awning displaying the words Say3 Books, in Comic Sans font, over the front entrance. I turned to Joshua and said, "Josh—this place is not going to have what we're looking for." "You don't know that, man. Come on, let's go inside." When we walked in the front door, we were greeted by a middle-aged woman, the store's proprietor, and her tiny little Yorkshire Terrier. The walls were outlandlishly colored, adult-contemporary blues music was playing on a purple boombox, and the front display in the lobby was covered with dog books. I turned to Joshua again and have him the look. You know—the look that silently says, "I really don't think you're right about this one."

The owner asked us if we needed any help, so we told her what we were looking for; she replied, "So you're looking for, like, fiction books? I'm not sure if I have anything you're looking for, but you'll find some fiction books in this room, around this table, over here in this room, and in the back room. Let me know if you have any questions," and returned to her desk. We walked into the rooms that she pointed us to and were horrified at the lack of organization—there were piles upon piles of books everywhere, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. It was as if a giant truck, filled with books, backed up to the store, the roof were lifted, and these books were just dumped into the store.

We looked around for about 20 minutes, but obviously, this store did not have what we were looking for. However, all that being said, I don't mean to say that the store was by any means a bad place to shop for books—it just wasn't the type of place where we were going to find what we needed. They had a lot of really great books that, were it not for the task at hand, I would be very interested in. So, we piled back into the car and left the store behind. Our next stop would prove itself to be the second-greatest used book store in Illinois, and the greatest source of our frustration along this journey...

Jane Addams Book Shop, in downtown Champaign, is three floors of book-browsing magic, specializing in rare books. As soon as we walked inside the shop, and saw the neatly organized aisles and shelves, completely stocked with extremely old volumes, Joshua and I knew we had come to the right place to properly ensue our day's hunting.

We made our way over to the fiction section of the store and separated so that, in the unlikely event that one of us found something, we'd be able to beat the other person to it. Of course we're best friends, and are partners, traveling companions, along this journey, and of course we want each other to succeed, but it is also a matter of course that we are men—competitive men—and both of us want to be the lucky man that completes the journey first.

I was scouring the P section of the shelves for Poole's His Family, and my entire chest seized up when I actually say the name "Ernest Poole" gracing the spine of a novel. Then, to my horror, I discovered that the novel I found wasn't His Family at all, but his ironically more famous work, The Harbor. I almost refused to believe it, turning the book over in my hands and inspecting it, as if I might discover that the book had been tampered with and was actually His Family, but in a clever disguise! As I was doing this, I heard Joshua exclaim, very loudly, from the next aisle over, "Noooo!! Come on! You have got to be kidding me!," followed by a bunch of unintelligible, un-spell-able growls, and, possibly, a slur of profanities. I hustled around the corner of the long shelf, worried that something unspeakable might have happened, and found Joshua crumpled up on the floor, a wreck, clutching a first-edition copy of Margaret Ayer Barnes' Within This Present—a novel which, unlike another work of her's, 1930's Years of Grace, did not win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. My heart broke again, and I related to him that the same thing had just happened to me with Ernest Poole.

He looked up at me, with a sudden glimmer of hope in his eyes, and silently exclaimed, "Drew—this store has at least one of the books we're looking for. I can feel it." I smiled mischieviously and slowly replied, "Yeah... We are." He must have seen what I had in mind on my face when he said that, because he scrambled up to his feet and we both raced to the S section and frantically scanned the shelves for "Sinclair." Aha! There they were! Upton Sinclair's books! Oil!, no; The Jungle, no; A World to Win, no; Jimmie Higgins, no; World's End, no; Between Two Worlds, no; Wide Is the Gate, no; "Singer." Wait, what? That's it!? Where is Dragon's Teeth??

For the third time that day, we had been thwarted by a near miss and for the second time in as many weeks, we had come so close to finding Dragon's Teeth—the third book (and 1943 Pulitzer-winner) in Upton Sinclair's 11-novel "Lanny Budd" series—; the first near miss we had with this book came a week earlier at Ravenswood Used Books in Chicago when Joshua, while perusing a completely unorganized "classics" shelf, haphazardly stumbled across Dragon Harvest, the sixth book of the same series. After these two adventures, we have now seen five of the eleven books in the series, but not Dragon's Teeth, a book that hasn't even been printed since the 1960's. It's weird—as popular as Upton Sinclair is in 20th century American literature, I really didn't think his books would be too difficult to find; I figured Dragon's Teeth would be tough to find, just because neither Joshua nor I had even heard of it, but I've been shocked to find that the only three books we've been able to consistently find by him are Oil!, The Jungle, and A World to Win—especially when one considers that his body of work includes over 100 titles.

I couldn't dawdle in agony any longer blankly staring at the name "Sinclair" on the spines of books, so I ran over to "D" and once again cursed the sky when I found, not Honey In the Horn, Harold L. Davis's 1936 Pulitzer-winning novel, but Harold L. Davis's Land of a Thousand Harps. None of the three books Joshua needed were there, but I still needed to find a couple for myself, so I made my way over to "G" and, once again, had to bite my tongue to keep from swearing out loud when I found five Ellen Glasgow books—none of which being her 1942 Pulitzer-winning In This Our Life. The same fate, of course, awaited me when I returned to "S" to search for T.S. Stribling—rather than finding his most famous work, the 1933 Pulitzer-winning The Store, I found The Sound Wagon.

We were outraged—and rightfully so! I really can't recall a time in my life when I felt so completely and entirely ripped off. One of the store's owners, a younger lady, greeted us at the desk when, heads hung low, we shambled back to the door: "Any luck?" We recounted to her the fate that had just befallen us and she couldn't help but sympathize for us; then she suggested that maybe, just maybe, there is some other person out there who's doing the same thing Joshua and I are—collecting all of the Pulitzers. This, of course, makes a lot of sense: how could it be that a bookstore, specializing in rare books, has literally all of the authors that we are looking for—three of which we had never seen and were seriously starting to doubt if they even existed—, but not their most famous work? That is unless, of course, there is someone else out there doing this same project and beating us to the punch.

If you had told me what was going to happen next, I wouldn't have believed you. Even after experiencing it, I still can't hardly believe it happened... 

We left Champaign, feeling a little deflated, but, in a strange way, inspired now that we had at least seen some of the author's names that we saw. We hopped on Interstate 74 and headed west to Bloomington, IL—our first stop as we entered the downtown area was a store that will, next month, be closing its doors for good: About Books.

This shop wasn't quite as prestigious as Jane Addams Book Shop, but not nearly as familiar as Say3 Books—it was somewhere in the middle of the two. It had its fair share of trade-size paperbacks, but it had a back room and basement with some real gems—some really rare gems too. The back room housed most of these books. Since the owner is retiring, she hasn't bothered to organize any of the books in the back room and they are scattered all over the place—on wooden racks, metal storage shelves, table tops, sawhorses... Everywhere. So Joshua and I, seeing that these books were really antiquated volumes, set out to scour through them in hopes that somehow, somewhere, we'd find something we needed. The fact that we were finding a lot of Tarkingtons, Bucks, Wouks, Wilders, and Ferbers was encouraging anyway.

Now, having the experience we had at Jane Addams Book Shop, where we found literally every single author we needed but none of the right books, was a total fluke. Neither of us had anticipated having that much (un)luck and both of us knew that experience was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that would never happen again.

Until it happened again.

Once again, three first-edition Ellen Glasgow books that weren't In This Our Time; a Margaret Ayer Barnes novel that wasn't Years of Grace; a Stribling novel that wasn't The Store; a Margaret Wilson book that wasn't The Able McLaughlins; an Ernest Pool novel that wasn't His Family; several Upton Sinclair novels that weren't Dragon's Teeth; and, most unbelievably, another Harold L. Davis novel that wasn't Honey In the Horn.

This was becoming increasingly infuriating.
The afternoon was plodding along and we had just time enough for one last store before we headed back to Champaign for the Urbana Public Library used book sale. So we headed into downtown Normal to pay a visit to Babbitt's Books—another store specializing in used, rare, and collectible books.

This store was very similar in selection and quality to Jane Addams Book Shop and other bookshops with this specialty that Joshua and I have been to over the course of our lives; and, I can freely admit, that Babbitt's Books is one of the better stores either of us have been to (and, between the two of us, we have been to several hundred used book stores—so this quite a feat on their part).

We didn't have quite as much bad luck with near misses as we did here as we did in the other stores, but our streak of finding wrong books by the right authors continued. Finally, after 20-30 minutes of searching, I decided to approach the front desk to ask if they had an inventory of their stock, where they could look up some titles for me. As it turned out they do, and I proceeded to rattle off all the titles to the young lady sitting at the computer, a pretty girl named Sarah. Every title I said out loud was followed by the click-click-click of her fingers on the computer's keyboard and a "Nope." When I got to title #7, I said, "Okay, well—I'm assuming you won't have this one either. But, it's Ellen Glasgow—the title is In This Our Life."

This title, however, was met with an excited shout from the other end of the counter, where I turned to find an older woman, Kathleen, jumping and exclaiming, with giddy excitement, "I have that one right here in this pile! It just came in this morning!" I turned to Joshua with the juvenile expression of a kid in a candy shop plastered to my countenance. He gave this sort-of half-grin and held out his hands, as if he were a butler escorting me into a giant castle; and, just as the juvenile expression I displayed suggested I would do, I eagerly reached out to Kathleen and she, ever so obliging, handed it off to me. There, in my hands, was the first edition of Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life—my second find of the day, and the 78th of this journey.

Kathleen asked the two of us why we were searching for the Pulitzers, so we, for at least the fifth time that day, explained the entire story of the Pulitzer Project. However, this time, rather than being met with an almost insincere "Oh, neat," or "How interesting," our story was met with robust enthusiasm! Kathleen asked if we were going to write a book about the experience, and we told her we had planned on it originally, and she encouraged us to press forward with that idea; she asked us if we were blogging the experience, and we told her we are, so she wrote down our blogs' web addresses, and has even subscribed to both and is already actively directing her traffic to us; she even shared her blog with us and wrote up a little paragraph about the "two young search of some of the hard-to-find Pulitzer Prize winning  novels for a blog project they are doing together." If that weren't enough, she has even offered some career insight to me!

What a swell lady! The coolest aunt I never had.

We headed back to Champaign for the Urbana Public Library sale around 4:30pm with renewed energy, renewed hope, renewed ambition. We finally got back into around 5:30pm and discovered that the sale was only open to "Friends of the Library" and, in order to become a "Friend of the Library," a $10 entry fee for the book sale was required." I had already found two books, so I let Joshua be the one to go in while I perused the library itself and stole their Wi-Fi.

While perusing, a strange thought popped into my head: "I wonder if they have Dragon's Teeth here..." As I was about to go looking for it, Joshua called my phone and distracted me. "Hey man. Where are you?" "Oh, I'm upstairs looking around." "Okay. I need to show you something. Be right there." *click*

I thought he had found something... I thought his search was over... I thought maybe he had found some of the ones I needed... When he found me browsing all the aisles, I saw that he was empty-handed and my heart shrugged its shoulders Oh, well.

"Drew," he said in a short, curt manner. "I need to show you something." He turned and walked down one of the aisles and I followed eagerly behind as, soon, the author's last names on the book spines started being spelled with an "S." "Sa," "Se," "Sh," "Si," then, there it was—the 1942 first-edition of Upton Sinclair's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dragon's Teeth. Even without its dust jacket, even with the coffee stains on the first few pages, even with the library card pasted inside, and the ragged edges of the hard binding, it was beautiful. It was everything I dreamed it would be. Euphoria washed over me when I held it.  

At last, I thought. Here it is. Here it is in my hands. Now I know—a physical copy of this book really does exist.
Now, you may be thinking that this trip was kind of a loss. We did, after all, spend 12 hours on the road while never leaving the state; we did, after all, spend 12 hours on the road and over $80 on gas, food, and expenses while only actually finding two books. And all of that is true and, in a way, I guess it was kind of a loss.

But if you're going to set out on a journey with your best friend, you need to do it right. And we did yesterday right. We found two books, we found two amazing book stores, we met the sweetest kooky old lady we'll ever meet, and we pursued, even further, the Prize set before us.

This was a good day.