Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Swing State

Joshua and I woke up this morning, prepared a few last-minute items, packed up the truck and hit the old dusty trail—and by that, I of course mean Interstate 88. The two of us had been looking forward to this trip for a couple months now, ever since we found out about a used-book convention that is held twice per year in Des Moines, Iowa.

After a five hour drive through America's heartland, listening to Jim Croce, talking and laughing, smoking cigarettes, and dreaming of the books—the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of books—we would be perusing, we finally arrived at the 4-H Building of the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

We approached the building, where we saw hordes of people lined down the sidewalk and giant signs, labeling the event—The Planned Parenthood Book Sale. Josh and I had no idea that this event was sponsored by the fine folks at Planned Parenthood, so were almost taken aback by the signs.

I turned to Josh and retorted, "Planned Parenthood Book Sale...? Joshua—I think we're in a swing state."
The 4-H Building was enormous and very spacious. Upon entering, Josh and I were amazed to see hundreds of people that had already beaten us inside (the sale started at 4pm and we arrived at 4:15) and had already filled their totes and boxes and even shopping carts to the very brim with their loot; hordes of people, from all walks of life, swarming around the tables and competing with each other to locate obscure treasures. If they weren't in the least bit educated and civilized people, I could very easily imagine it being pure anarchy inside—people pushing and shoving each other out of the way, spitting at each other, throwing fists. There was one occasion, however, where I was holding up the line of people behind me while I thumbed through a kooky old edition James Joyce's Dubliners and an old woman groaned, "Could you please move?" On another occasion, I was standing next to two older women who were cackling amongst themselves, the way old women are apt to do, and, eying the pile of books in my arms, one of them retorted, "Well Mikey wanted me to find Lonesome Dove for him and I just simply cannot find it anywhere! I've scoured this entire building and haven't even found something by that author!" Of course, as they were saying this, I was holding a first edition copy of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove—which I, of course, later purchased for the low, low price of one dollar. That's right—I'm a ruthless competitor.

After five hours of intense scouring through these thousands upon thousands of books, I came much closer to completing my Pulitzer search; I came needing close to 20 titles and left with needing less than 10. The Pulitzer-winning novels I managed to snatch up include:
  • Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry - first edition
  • Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie - first edition
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck - first edition
  • Laughing Boy, Oliver LaFarge
  • Elbow Room, James Alan McPherson
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter - first edition
  • One of Ours, Willa Cather - first edition
  • Now In November, Josephine Johnson - first edition
  • So Big, Edna Ferber - first edition
  • Edge of Sadness, Edwin O'Connor - first edition
  • A Fable, William Faulkner
  • All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren - first edition
  • The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor
These purchases mean that I own every Pulitzer from 1950 to now, except for Jean Stafford's Collected Stories (1970). And, of course, since I was there, I bought plenty of other books that I've been wanting as well. You might be scoffing and saying, "Drew—you make shite pay in the fast food industry—how could you afford all that!?" The best part of the whole experience was that nearly all of the books I purchased were less than $3—even the first editions.
"Really...?" I asked. "Why do you want to stay in a motel like this?"

"Drew—I'm a married man. I never get to experience stuff like this," he replied.

We were sitting in the truck, in the parking lot of the Beacon Motel in Des Moines. This particular motel was something out of a horror movie, like the Bates Motel—a classic side-of-the-highway, sleazy inn. Besides its inherent sleaziness, it was close to the fairgrounds, had vacancies, and, at $40 per night, was the most easily affordable place we could find—all the criteria necessary for a night well-spent in Des Moines, Iowa.

The lobby of the motel wreaked of burning rubber and, yet, for some reason, this did not turn us away—it only added to the mystique. A young Indian boy—probably in his late teens—greeted us, "Are you the guys that called about vacancies?" Josh and I glanced at each other and we both understood immediately that this kid was thinking we were gay; so we did whatever it took to let him know that we weren't—we probably overemphasized it, in fact. Our assumed homosexuality became the elephant in the room—we all knew it was there, but we really did not want to acknowledge it. Here we were, I in my argyle sweater, Euro-loafers, and freshly washed blue jeans, and Joshua, dressed very similarly, both of us looking as much like pretentious literary-types as we probably could, doing whatever we could to convince this kid that there wasn't any hanky-panky going on between us. The kid asked, "So, you guys need... One room?"

"Yeah," Josh replied, making sure to quickly add, "Two beds!"

"Right, two beds... I've got a great room for you."

And, with that, the kid led us down the sidewalk to room 29, unlocked and opened the door, and showed us around. He was a great guy, very helpful, but it was around this time that he suddenly became quite overbearing—it was almost as if he wanted to spend some more time around us, just to feel us out, to see if we were straight or not. "This is the room," he said. "Very clean—I just vacuumed in here and made the beds and washed all the sheets and dusted. So, I mean, it's really clean." We nodded, "Yeah, great. Thanks."

"Sure, no problem, guys. This is the television over here—I just cleaned that up too, it had some dust on it. Do you guys need a channel guide?" We didn't. "Hang on right here, I'll go get one." Then he ran out, let himself into another room, took their channel guide, and returned to us swiftly. "Here you go—there's a lot of channels. We have HBO, too."

Mmhmm, great, fantastic, thanks.

We finally managed to get him out the door; Josh turned to me with an exasperated look and I retorted, "What a delightful, helpful young man!" After a long day of driving and book hunting, it was high time to open the windows, lay down on our separate beds, and enjoy a smoke. I hadn't taken two drags of my cigarette when the incredibly helpful Indian boy pressed his face up to the screen and exclaimed, "Just so you guys know, there's an ice machine in the lobby and we have some sodas in there—you know, in case you get thirsty. I have a list of restaurants in the area too—and a phone book. Do you want me to bring you those?" No, we're fine, thanks. "Okay, I just wanted to make sure. I see you have your laptop with you—" my laptop, resting on the bed in front of me with the screen popped open "—we have Wifi here too, you can connect to my username, if you want to. My password is," etcetera, etcetera. "Well, I'm going to back to the office, let me know if you need anything else."

Mmhmm, great, fantastic, thanks.

And as swiftly as he entered our lives, he was gone. Josh turned to me and said, "Well, let's order a pizza!" I found a list of pizza joints in the area and stumbled across one that seemed like a great place—very professional website, fancy Italian name, all the makings of a great pizza joint, apparently. I called them up around 7:30, placed an order for a large pizza with an appetizer of cheesy bread and the guy informed me that I'd have my dinner within an hour. After 45 minutes, we got a little impatient and decided to call. I informed the guy that it had been a pretty long time, just checking on the status of my delivery, he told me, "I told you—within an hour! Give it some time!" After another 30 minutes, I called again. "Hey, it's been over an hour, where's our pizza?" "I just called the driver—he'll be there in a couple minutes." After another 15 minutes (it's about 9pm now), Josh said, "This is unordinarily long couple of minutes," so I called again. "The driver will be there very, very soon!" and, sure enough, he arrived a minute or two later.

Josh told me, "I'm in the pizza delivery business—this is unacceptable. I'm not paying for this shit." I agreed—it would be the epitome of foolishness to bend over and take it from a pizza joint like that. So one can imagine my curiosity when Josh answered the door, received the pizza and handed the driver the money. I said, "Josh! Don't pay for that! We've been waiting for an hour and a half!" He turned to me, with a nearly expressionless face, and replied, "Drew—I had to. That guy would have probably killed us if I didn't." He then explained the driver's personality attributes: a tall, skinny guy with a shaved head, a long tattoo of a dagger on his neck, and prison tats up and down his arms. He further explained, "We are strangers in a strange town—a shady part of said town—and we're staying in a sleazy, roadside motel. You were an English major—can't you foreshadow what the outcome of this story would be if I didn't pay?? He would've gotten fired, became bitter, and come back here to murder us!" As ridiculous as that sounds, I agreed.

I opened the pizza box and, I must admit, was not surprised to find the sorriest excuse of a pizza I have ever seen. It was cold, some of the pieces were curled up (how that happened, I'll never understand), and, considering it was a large, was very tiny. And if that sounds bad-looking, it doesn't even compare to how badly it tasted. But we ate it—and because our lives were no longer in danger, we ate it happily. Then we decided to dip into our appetizer—the cheesy bread.

Now, when I ordered it, I was imagining that the "cheesy bread with marinara sauce" was going to be several thickly-cut slices of Italian bread, smeared with garlic butter and oven-roasted with mozzarella cheese—kind of like Texas bread. Not so. The cheesy bread, actually, turned out to be exactly how it was named—three slices of white bread with a piece of cheese on top. I want you to understand this—the cheesy bread was nothing more than three slices of white bread, from a loaf of Wonder Bread, with a piece of cheese on top. White bread with a piece of cheese on top! But we ate it—and because our lives were no longer in danger, we ate it happily.
Now if there's one thing that the world knows Des Moines for, it's the night-life. (...right?) Josh and I knew this and we wanted to tap into it. We set out around 10pm, turned on the GPS and searched for "Bars and Nightclubs," scrolling through the names that came up, eventually deciding that The Underground Lounge seemed to be the best place for a good time. We followed the directions the GPS supplied and we found ourselves being led away from downtown Des Moines—a curious location, I thought, but the GPS knows better than me. When it led us into the country and into the entrance of a subdivision, we knew something was amiss. As it turns out, The Underground Lounge is, apparently, in somebody's basement. I reasoned that the proprietor of this "club" was probably some 16 year old kid, making beats on his laptop in his parent's basement and inviting his 16 year old friends over for glue-huffing parties.

That's when we decided to head downtown, just to see what was there. We found a classy pub and I indulged myself with an I.P.A. beer and a gin and tonic and Joshua had a beer with a rum and Coke; we shared some laughs, discussed Obama's visit to Iowa City, health care reform and watch NCAA basketball to the wee hours of the night and, at last call, reasoned that it was time for us to head back. We stepped outside into the crisp Des Moines air, lit our cigarettes, leaned against a bench on the sidewalk and watched all the people coming from a Black Eyed Peas concert fill the streets and scurry into different bars.

A gothic girl approached me and asked, "Do you have a light?" I reached into my pocket, pulled out my lighter and offered it to her and was surprised when she took a few steps back, held up her hands in front of her and blurt out, "No, no, no! I'm sorry—no, no. I cannot use that lighter!" I turned it over in my hands and asked, "Okay? Why?" "It's yellow!" she exclaimed. "Jimi Hendrix was found dead with a yellow lighter! I'm sorry—I cannot use it!"

After she bummed Josh's light, we decided it was time to get the hell out of Des Moines. We retired to our separate beds and, because our lives were no longer in danger, we slept.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Entry 6.1: "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," by Thornton Wilder (1928)

I have fallen woefully behind in my blogging, but not behind in my reading, which is peculiar in and of itself. The most recent novel I finished (which was last week) was Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won the Pulitzer in 1928. I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but despite my interest in the book, the chiefest reason I elected to read this one when I did was because I was falling behind in my reading schedule and this book, being a light 110 or so pages, promised to be a quick read. However, this book also happened to be one that took me much longer to finish than I originally planned (I figured I'd finish it in a day or two, but instead it took almost a week) as I wrestled with quite a lot.

For the past year or so, Joshua and I have been at odds with Calvinism—a theology with the basic belief that God has all of creation on a set time-line; that free will is non-existent; that the fate of all of creation has already been determined. Wilder, it seems, also was at odds with this theology, or at least wrestled with it enough to feel urged to write about it at length. When asked about his inspirations for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder related:
...the central idea of the work, the justification for a number of human lives that comes up as a result of the sudden collapse of a bridge, stems from friendly arguments with my father, a strict Calvinist. Strict Puritans imagine God all too easily as a petty schoolmaster who minutely weights guilt against merit, and they overlook God's 'Caritas' which is more all-encompassing and powerful. God's love has to transcend his just retribution. But in my novel I have left this question unanswered. As I said earlier, we can only pose the question correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way.
Wilder also said that, with this book, he was posing the question Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual's own will? In other words, is there a third party which has just as much of an effect on lives as a first party? That, of course, is the same question that Joshua and I have been struggling with since we came into each others' lives last January.
The book tells the story of five interrelated people who happen to find themselves on a suspension bridge in Peru at the same time, and this bridge happens to collapse, sending all five to their deaths. A friar, Brother Juniper, witnesses the event, then proceeds to launch an investigation into the lives of each person to determine whether or not there is some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each individual dies. Because, surely, there must be some sort of a reason for such a travesty. Curious about why God would allow such a tragedy, he decides to take a scientific approach to the question. He works for six years on his book about the bridge collapse, trying various mathematical formulas to measure the spiritual traits of each victim and the results?


He compiles his huge book of interviews, but a council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square.

The emotional reaction I got from The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Also inconclusive.
Let me first say, I didn't dislike this book. On the contrary, I actually found it to be wildly fascinating and I really enjoyed reading it. So far, along this Pulitzer journey, it seems as though this book was the first one that wasn't filled with inauthenticity and meaningless bugaboo. Wilder knew which direction he wanted to take the book and he got there without spoiling the story with a bunch of verbal nonsense. As much as I love the written word, I'll be the first to admit that, sometimes, some words just aren't necessary; as much as I love Charles Dickens and will defend his writings to my death, I'll be the first to admit that he had a really bad habit of meandering aimlessly (seemingly). Wilder, on the other hand, jumped right into the story without wasting any time. I mean, the climax of the book happens in the first two or three pages.

The next three sections of the book are (what I assume to be) his notes from his interviews. They contain the histories of all five people—Doña María; her maiden, Pepita; Esteban; Uncle Pio and his student, Jaime—and the events that led them to the bridge that day and, ultimately, their deaths.

The fifth section of the book, however, is where Wilder loses me—it's just one curious event after another. First of all, as aforementioned, Brother Juniper's work is deemed heretical and so he and his book are burned at the stake. Why? I have no idea. Wilder completely neglects to explain why his work was such a heresy; instead, the reader is expected to say to himself, "Oh, of course it's heretical—that makes perfect sense." What's more baffling to me than this whole heresy thing is why Wilder decides to kill Father Juniper off in the first place; I was actually even offended by Wilder's choice. It's strange because Father Juniper is the main character in this novel, but plays a very small role in the book—in fact, with the proper amount of reworking the story, his character could have been eliminated all together. It really seemed as though his research was merely the catalyst that drove the story along, rather than being the story itself—which I thought was an interesting and daring move on Wilder's part. But because of his lack of contribution to the actual story, I'll admit that I felt a little betrayed by his unjustified death.

Then again, maybe, in some ironic way, that was meant to be the point of the story—that death is, oftentimes, unfair and unjust. The five people who fell to their deaths when the bridge collapsed didn't do anything to deserve such deaths, and Father Juniper didn't deserve such a death. All six of these characters were merely on their own journeys—literally and figuratively—that were concluded tragically and prematurely.

Perhaps what Wilder was trying to convey was that, because God has already made up His mind about their deaths, there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. The five characters who were crossing the bridge were crossing the bridge because, in light of God's set trajectories for their lives, they had to. They had no choice in the matter. They were going to die on that bridge because there was no other possibility. They couldn't have decided to do anything but attempt to cross the bridge because their assumed free will didn't even enter into the equation. The same is true of Brother Juniper—he had to compile his book and his book had to be found heretical and he had to be burned at the stake because that's the destiny God had mapped out for him before he was even born.

Then again, maybe that's not what Wilder was trying to convey at all. Maybe, rather, Wilder was saying that we'll never know what might have happened to these people had they decided not to cross the bridge; that the reason they fell to their untimely deaths wasn't because that was how God predestined it, but because they made a series of decisions (of their own free will) that guided them to that place.

And, of course, we, as the readers, will never know what Wilder intended with this book. As aforementioned, he even stated, "But in my novel I have left this question unanswered." He poses two possibilities and allows the reader to decide for himself which one he will align with.
I, for one, am not sure. I'm no Calvinist, but the whole argument of free will versus predestination does intrigue me—particularly when it comes to everyday situations. I've made it well known that I don't believe in all of the pillars of TULIP (Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistable grace; Perseverance of the saints), but that doesn't mean I don't wrestle with them from time to time.

For instance, I made a conscious decision to stay up late and write a blog tonight... Or did I? Am I only fooling myself in believing that I made this decision? Did God mandate at the beginning of time that Drew Moody would be writing this very blog at this very time on this very day? And what if I had decided instead to go to bed? Either way, a devout Calvinist would be able to say, "That's the way it was meant to be, because that's the destiny God chose for you."

After a while, you just come to a ridiculous chicken/egg situation...

There is one quote in the book that has been haunting me since I finished it last week: it (and I'm going to misquote, since I don't have the book sitting in front of me) essentially states that Father Juniper witnessed the collapse of the bridge and instead of sensing that shameful excitement of How lucky I am, for that could have been me!, he instead thought Why did that happen to them?

I can't even count the number of times I've had that very same reaction—I'll see a car accident happen right in front of me and I'll get this relieved excitement and wonder If I hadn't spent the two seconds it took to bend over and pick up my car keys when I was walking to my car this morning, I would've been the one in that accident! And I almost never wonder about the person that was actually in the accident—I'm too preoccupied thanking my lucky stars. I have a feeling this might say something about my personality, but I'm not sure. Am I really that egocentric that even other people's misfortunes, somehow, revolve around me?

Maybe it's time I try to make it a point to be more concerned or empathetic with other people's lives.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Death In My Family

My cousin called me yesterday and left me a voicemail. "Hey Andrew, it's Katy. Give me a call back sometime tonight if you can. I don't know if anyone else called you tonight... Um. Uncle Jerry died. We don't know much yet, but... If you want to call, I'll be up for a few more hours." And that was it.
I don't know much about my uncle, Jerry—I know that he was an alcoholic, loved hunting, and never spoke much. He was really mysterious, though never serious about anything. At every family gathering, he would be the one quietly brooding away in the corner of the room, watching the goings on, and sipping at his vodka (he drank beer for a long, long time until he found out he was diabetic; then he switched to vodka and gin, since there's no sugar in those). Despite his being hidden away, he was always the easiest person to spot in the room—what with his giant horn-rimmed, Elvis Costello-esque glasses, fisherman's hat, coffee stained khaki paints, flannel shirt, and hunting vest. I used to wonder if even owned any other clothes.

He lived directly next door to my great-grandparents (his parents) in an old, nuclear-style ramshackle house in a poor section of Joliet. It wasn't that he didn't have any money—I'm pretty sure he did—but he was a cantankerous old miser. He didn't live extravagantly (in fact, his lifestyle was the polar opposite—if one were to see his house and living conditions, one would think he lived in squalor), and, besides drinking and hunting, didn't have any hobbies.

It was strange that, besides his sister (my grandmother) and brother-in-law (my grandfather), nobody really knew anything about him. The kids in my generation of the family especially knew nothing about him—in fact, he made stuff up about him and passed it off to each other as fact. For instance, he used to wear his giant coke-bottle glasses with a variety of differently colored rubber bands that connected from arm of the frame to the other, wrapping around the back of his head to ensure that his glasses would never slip off. The first time I saw the red, green, and blue rubber bands under his thick, curly hair, I thought they were wires; I ran to the other room and informed my cousins (who are 4-6 years younger than me) that Uncle Jerry was, in fact, a robot. I was probably ten at the time. When I asked him how it was that a robot like him could drink beer and not short circuit, he informed that he was actually drinking fuel and that it made him keep going.
His wake, from what I've been told, is going to be this upcoming Tuesday. That's all I've heard.

Much like his life, his death has mystery swirling all about it—nobody is saying anything other than the obvious. From what I've heard so far, it seems as though my grandfather was trying to get a hold of him on Wednesday and when Uncle Jerry failed to return any of the calls, my grandparents went to his house and found him dead. The other fact that has been shared is that his wake and funeral will be closed-casket. All of this leads me to wonder...

There are two possibilities here, I think. One is that Uncle Jerry finally dealt with his depression by getting drunk and shooting himself. However, I cannot think of any reason why he would do that now instead of years ago. Furthermore, he never seemed like the type of person that would do that. The second possibility is that he died days before he was found and, by the time my grandfather discovered him, he had already decomposed quite a bit. The latter seems more likely to me.

Nothing is being said though, one way or the other.
Much like many of the characters in the books I will be reading along this Pulitzer Journey, his death presents a few inner and outer conflicts in my own story. Let me share a bit of background: I haven't spoken to anyone (save for my two younger cousins) on my mother's side of the family in five years now. There was a major falling out between my immediate family and my mother's parents when my sister, Gail, began having trouble with gangs and drug and alcohol addiction. My grandparents didn't want Gail around and barred her from all family gatherings—something that my mother still hasn't forgiven them for. The final straw was when Gail gave birth to a black baby and my grandparents told us that Gail was no longer considered part of the family—the completely disowned her. My mother retaliated and told them that if they were going to remove Gail from the family, they'd have to remove her and my youngest sister, Morgan, too. So, they did. They kept me around for a little while more, but when I confronted them about the entire situation, that was the end of me too. They wanted to come visit me at college whenever I had any spare time, so I told them, "If you don't have time for my family, I don't think I have any time for you." That was the last time I heard from them. As a result of my grandparents, the Browns, removing us from their lives, we no longer felt welcome at any family gatherings, so we were disconnected from everyone. My uncle's death is the catalyst that is going to make me face these people, my estranged family, for the first time in five years.

The first conflict this brings up is with my mother. Allow me to be entirely candid—my mother, though I love her dearly (as every Irish boy should their mother), is a horrible woman. She is bitter, unforgiving, mean-spirited and entirely insane. She's one of the few people I've ever met that can make anybody's misfortune entirely about her; for instance, when I called to tell her about Uncle Jerry, her first reaction was "I wonder why nobody called me..." This woman is so bitter toward her parents that she actually becomes bitter against her husband (who is a dentist) when he treats them in his office. She accuses him of "choosing sides," "aligning with them," and even "plotting against" her. When I go to this wake, I will almost undoubtedly have to face the same accusations from her. And it's not that I really care, but I just wonder how I should react when I do face the firing squad that she will be.

The next conflict is obvious: my estranged family. My cousins, Katy and Laura, have been my only contacts from that area of my life. For me, this will be a homecoming, of sorts. For the past five years, this sort of reunion has been my fear—I didn't want a death in the family to be the catalyst to a reunion. However, because of my unwillingness to bridge the gap between my family and me, because of my fear of my mother, that's what has happened.

But, perhaps something good will come from this. Perhaps Uncle Jerry's death was not in vain; perhaps, even, he died for a cause. Perhaps I will go to his wake, pay my respects, and be allowed the opportunity to reconcile with my family. Perhaps the old adage will prove itself true, that even in death, there is life.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Entry 5.2: "Early Autumn," by Louis Bromfield (1927)

Five novels down, and I think I'm just starting to attain the level of commitment necessary to finish this project. As my brother in arms, Joshua, said to me today, "This Pulitzer project is a true test of endurance my friend." Amen to that. I didn't really suppose that this project would be particularly easy, but I also didn't think it would be this difficult.

I mean—I am a reader. For all intents and purposes, I am a reader by trade. I read my way through childhood and high school to keep me occupied, I read my way through college in order to graduate and my goal has been to make reading my profession. That being said, I guess I kind of assumed that this project wouldn't be such a chore. What I didn't take into account, however, was that there would be some books along this journey that I really don't have any interest in at all. Welty's The Optimist's Daughter and Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, as has been well documented, were dreadful bores and, to be entirely forthcoming, so was my most recent reading, Louis Bromfield's Early Autumn.
Now, even though I wasn't very taken by this book, I wouldn't ever say, "It's not a good book," because, in all honesty, it is a good book. It's very well written and the subject matter is of great interest. It's just that I had a difficult time getting into it.

For one thing, most of the characters in the book were entirely one-dimensional. There were a couple of exceptions of course, like Olivia, Michael O'Hara and, eventually, John Pentland, but the others were so drab and dull. Even in their most exciting moments, I wasn't particularly enthralled with them. This book reminded me of something John Lennon once said about the Bible: "Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me." It was the other characters in this book that I think made Olivia so intriguing—if it wasn't for their mediocrity and lack of character development, Olivia probably wouldn't have been so interesting. It really seemed as though she was the only one throughout the entire book that had any real conflicts about anything; everyone else had a set opinion or feeling about such and such and that's the way they were throughout the entire book despite whatever situation they were in. Aunt Cassie was shallow and concerned with image; Sabina was vindictive and completely against the establishment the wealthy had created; Sybil was the dreamer that longed to see the world; Jean de Cyon was the young, hopeless romantic Frenchman and these personality traits defined the characters throughout the entire book. They were completely one-dimensional.

And, of course, with Sabine and Sybil, I quite liked their personalities. But one worthwhile quality does not a good character make.
And, just like The Magnificent Ambersons, Early Autumn was really nothing more than a long-winded narrative about High Society. I commented to Josh yesterday, while I was still trudging through Chapter 7, "With all this shit, there has to be a story here somewhere." Throughout the first seven or eight chapters, I must confess, I really didn't know what was going on. Maybe I was reading through too quickly, maybe I was just reading for the sake of reading and not really getting the full scope of what Bromfield was trying to convey, or maybe I was too distracted by the density of the text, but I really didn't see any overarching plot in the book. There were a lot of subplots going on—I was able to pick those out pretty easily: a couple of deaths, a love scandal, an affair or two, family rivalries, etc., etc.. It almost seemed as though the subplots were actually driving the story. I suppose one could say that the plot of the story was Olivia's eventual disenfranchisement with High Society, but, to me, were this any other book written by any other author, this would seem more like a subplot.

Fellow readers, help me out on this one: is there something blatantly obvious that I'm missing or is Bromfield just another case of a fantastic writer suffering from a bad story?
I think I'm going to take a break from the High Society books for a while, and I'm definitely going to take a break from Modernist books—how is it that what was once my favorite literary movement now seems such a drag?

For whatever reason, I'm feeling like I should read either William Kennedy's Ironweed or N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn next. I guess all of you will find out which direction I decide to go in my next update!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Entry 5.1: "Early Autumn," by Louis Bromfield (1927)

Here in the greater Chicagoland area, it seems as though winter is finally fading and giving way to Spring. The weather, for the past week and a half or so, has been heavenly—everyday, it has been in the mid-50's to mid-60's and the rains have been washing the snow away and exposing the remnants of last fall, buried in the drifts. This is my favorite season of all, second only to Autumn—the sun returns from his hiding place, behind the clouds, and Mother Nature rejuvenates herself for another six or seven months. The temperatures range from a crisp 45 degrees to a very pleasant and enjoyable 70 degrees and the whole world seems to come alive again.
At the behest of a fellow reader and my compatriot, Joshua, the next novel I chose to tackle in my Pulitzer journey is Louis Bromfield's 1927 winner, Early Autumn. As per my usual, Louis Bromfield is another author, I must admit, I was ignorant of before I embarked on this journey. I'm not sure how to think about my education and literary savvy when compared to the prolific nature of these writers. I mean, these people wrote best-selling novels that were revered enough (in their respective years of publication, at any rate) to win one of the most prestigious (if not the most prestigious) awards in all of American literature—the Pulitzer Prize. And yet, for all their critical acclaim, I had never heard of about three quarters of them. What does that say about my education? Or, conversely, what does that say about the novels' lasting impact? I'm not sure.

After the debacles that were The Magnificent Ambersons and The Optimist's Daughter, I'm wary of picking up another book that seems to be about one's own magnificence (this is with particular regard to The Magnificent Ambersons); but I have been assured by a couple different fellow readers that I will probably enjoy this novel much more. I'll confess, according to the review I read on the Pulitzer Prize Thumbnail Project's website, my fellow readers just may be correct in their assumptions:
The Pentlands of New England are an old rich self-satisfied family. But Olivia Pentland, the middle-aged central character of the novel, is a 20th Century woman struggling to live more honestly and passionately. She's not content "that all of us here may go on living undisturbed in our dream, believing always that we are superior to every one else on the Earth, that because we are rich we are powerful and righteous." Although this is another long and windy narrative about High Society, it's unusual because it attempts to question the self-image of that society and to create a heroine who openly challenges it.
We shall see.
I found a kooky old edition of this novel at Elgin Books, uncarefully filed away behind a pile of other books (much like the first edition of Tarkington's Alice Adams, which I also procured there). The book is included inside of a three-volume anthology, or collection (whatever), oddly entitled A Bromfield Galaxy—not "A Bromfield Collection," "A Bromfield Overview," or even "A Bromfield Trilogy," but A Bromfield Galaxy. This collection is an entire GALAXY of Bromfield novels, novels which were floating around in the cosmos and which some brave editor dared to defy gravity, ascend into the heavens and collect.

There really isn't any significance to my mentioning this oddity, I just find it fascinatingly peculiar.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Entry 4.2: "The Magnificent Ambersons," by Booth Tarkington

And, so, here we are—a fourth Pulitzer-winning novel read and another 79 to go. For whatever reason, I'm falling woefully behind in my schedule (for the person that voted my finishing the project, but not on time, you just may be correct in assuming so! But I shall remain steadfast and vigilant in times of extreme pessimism, just to prove you wrong—that goes for you too, whomever voted that I won't finish at all!). With 83 books (including 2010's Pulitzer, which will be announced in April) to finish in 52 weeks, I estimated that I'd need to read a book and a half per week; thus far, I have only managed to read one book per week. My original goal is a grueling pace and one that I need to get back to (damn these worthless distractions that keep me from my commitments!).

It's funny the things I allow to get in the way of, just about, anything that will better me. When I commit to working out, I allow myself to become even more lazy; when I commit to reading, I allow video games and iTunes maintenance (finding the highest quality album artwork, changing genres, adding and deleting files, etc) to prevent me from my books; when I commit to writing, I watch television—all things that don't add up to anything and, in all reality, all things that I don't even really care about. Maybe I should convince my roommates to lock me in my bedroom with nothing to do but read these books—that ought to do the trick.

The most recent novel I have finished is Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons—the second novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (1919). Originally, I kind of wanted to save this novel until almost the very end of the journey; I thought it would be cute in a kitschy sort of way to read the earliest and the most recent winners in succession. But, with the circumstances of my personal life being as they are, I decided to be even more cute in a kitschy sort of way by reading the book I thought most mirrored my current state in life. In light of my breakup with a girl who lives in Indiana, I decided to read a book by Indiana's favorite son (no, not Larry Bird, Michael Jackson, or David Letterman), Booth Tarkington; in light of the current disrepair we currently find our economy in, I decided to read a book about a rich family that loses their prestige; in light of my dislike and distrust of the incredibly wealthy, I decided to read a book about a rich family that loses their prestige. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about my decision.

On one hand, I found a sort of appreciation for Booth Tarkington. Now, that being said, aside from Alice Adams, which is another Tarkington novel I'll have to read to complete this project, I can't honestly say I'll want to read another Tarkington book, just because he didn't capture my interest. However, just knowing that he was a successful author in his day is enough for me to at least respect him.

What I found curious about Tarkington, though, is that until Joshua and I embarked on this journey together, I had never heard of the man. I was an English major at Northern Illinois University—a school which is widely renItalicown for its liberal arts department and, more specifically, its English program and professors. In none of my literature classes was the name "Booth Tarkington" even mentioned. And even despite his writing during my favorite movement (the Modern age), I had never heard of him. But, in spite of my ignorance of his existence, he was, by all appearances, a very active and prolific writer—in his time, anyway.
Let me get straight to the point: I was unimpressed with The Magnificent Ambersons. I found it to be unevenly paced and "magnificently"—if I may—disingenuous.

First, I want to tackle this book's protagonist (if I can even refer to him in such a manner), little Georgie Amberson Minafer. I can honestly admit I've never encountered a more unlikeable main character in all my readings. It felt like Tarkington really wanted me to develop a bond with Georgie, but I just couldn't! I was distracted by his shallow character and entirely annoyed by his incessant whining, unfounded biases, and his spoiled little boy persona that he never quite grows out of. I have a reader following me who embarked on a similar journey and, in his review of the book, I feel best described Georgie:
...Tarkington invests us in an implausible “redemption” storyline for the one character no reader can reasonably be asked to empathize with. Furthermore, Tarkington’s narrator gives us too many little nudges that there is something “right” about Georgie’s perspective–I think Booth was a lot more taken with Georgie than I am…that he saw him as a more complicated guy, a guy who represented a side of America that Booth was a little sad to lose.
I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment of the novel. Early in the novel, Tarkington beats his reader over the head with Georgie's malevolence and the fact that everyone in the town wanted nothing more than to see Georgie get what he had coming to him—he brings it up at least a couple times in every early chapter, just to remind the reader, over and over, that Georgie Amberson Minafer was a shitty little imp that everybody, save his own family, hated. Why, then, in view of this, is Tarkington so adamant about my wanting to develop a bond with Georgie? There are only two possible conclusions I can come to: 1, much like my (fellow) reader implied, Tarkington was taken with Georgie and wanted his readers to feel the same admiration for him, or 2, Tarkington employed Georgie as the protagonist in an ironic fashion and desired for his audience to develop a hatred toward him and a desire for divine vengeance. If the latter is true, well done, Tarkington! You've successfully created a character I absolutely despise.

And even in the long run, when Georgie "grows up," his fate still seems to be a little disingenuous. After sabotaging his own relationship with Lucy, then sabotaging his mother's relationship with Eugene and, I feel, essentially killing his mother, there is this all too brief moment in his life when the reader begins to think "Maybe Georgie has come to his senses and has become a responsible adult now!" This moment is interrupted by the screeching of tires (which I will further address in a few sentences) and Georgie winds up in a hospital bed, only to revert to his whiny self. And when he no longer has his mother and the rest of his family to coddle him, the two people he most wronged—Lucy and Eugene—rush to his bedside to coddle him even more! The reader is offered a glimmer of justice when Georgie is hit by an automobile and has both of his legs crushed, but Tarkington takes this justice away from us just as quickly as we are offered it!
Now, as for this accident—let me say it this way: if there were a title that is just as reasonable for this book, besides The Magnificent Ambersons, it would be Transparent Symbolism. I swear, there are times when writers must legitimately think their audience to be completely ignorant, imbecilic nincompoops. How else can such overt symbolism be explained?

Wait—I'm getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain this accident in context...

This book was written in the early 20th century, but takes place during the turn of the 20th century. The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in town and they got their riches from, presumably, real estate. However, their riches are being surpassed by those of industry and invention—most notably, the invention of the automobile. While it generated excitement and the country reveled in its advent, Georgie, dead-set in his ways, was absolutely opposed to it. And, frustratingly, he really didn't have any reason to be—he just hated the idea of change. He made snide remarks about automobiles, scoffed at them, and would shout at their drivers "Get a horse! Get a horse!" And, honestly, I think he did these sorts of things just to be impossible; or, more likely, to garner attention.

So, of course, it's ironic—and, yet, incredibly obvious—that Tarkington's method to incite Georgie's turnaround, his maturation, if you will, is to run him over with the automobile that Georgie was so opposed to. How does the phrase go? "Get in line and follow, or be run over."

Thanks, Booth Tarkington—for being so painfully obvious.
Somehow, even after the last two utter disappointments, I remain resolute in my desire to finish this project. The next book I am going to tackle, James Bromfield's Early Autumn, comes from 1927—two years previous to the Great Depression. After that, I'll probably skip a few decades and read something from either the 50's or 90's.


Because I can, I suppose.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Fruitful Day

Yesterday, I had one of my very few days off, so I decided to spend it in the company of good friends in Sycamore. Of course, Boston Market called me and said, "We really need you to come in! We're desperate for your help!" but I said, "Eff that ess! This is my day OFF!" After hanging up, Joshua and I set out to continue our respective Pulitzer searches; at the start of the day, I was only about halfway through my collection. An entire day off of work gave us ample time to commit to the hunt.

Our first stop was at Classic Books in DeKalb—a used bookstore inside of a small garage in the parking lot of DeKalb's Sears Roebuck house. At least I think it's one of the Sears Roebuck Modern Homes. This shop's proprieter, one Mr. Sigwart, is an older gentleman with three fingers on one hand, a hook on the other and I believe only one eye. Physical appearances aside, the man is apparently an absolute genius—the man has several doctorate's, master's and bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering, biology, chemistry and mathematics. Furthermore, as it turns out, he prides himself on being a sort of economic guru. I've chatted with him a couple times before and he never fails to mention his stock market savvy. He also never fails to mention that his daughter is a marine biologist, living in Dublin.

Can you imagine a more interesting man than this?

It was at his shop that I found a first edition of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent, MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville, and a couple other books that I couldn't pass up (like Rabbit Redux and Rabbit, Run, by John Updike, and Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury).
Our second stop took us to a used bookstore in downtown Elgin simply called Elgin Books (which, I suppose, is a befitting enough name for the store). This store is owned by an older Greek woman—I'm guessing she's in her late 50's or early 60's. Let me be entirely forthcoming now—I absolutely adore this woman. She reminds me of the grandmother or aunt that I always wished I had, but never did. She's charming and polite and her thick Greek accent makes her about 90% more interesting than she probably actually is. She seems to be a freethinker, a connoisseur of the arts and literature, a liberal woman that is very conscious of the world that she finds herself in. She's the type of woman that I would love nothing more than to just sit and chat with, over a couple cups of coffee. I would be fascinated by her recollections of her life as a young girl in Greece.

Elgin Books, over and over again, proves itself to be a fruitful visit. Yesterday was no exception. Immediately, I found A.B. Guthrie's The Way West—a Western that's been eluding me since I started this search. Also immediately, I found first editions of MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville (yes, the book that I had just found, not 30 minutes earlier), Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (which I already owned an early edition of and which, coincidentally, I also found at Elgin Books) and an early edition James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. I rounded out my initial search with Marjorie Kinnan Rawling' The Yearling and an anthology of Louis Bromfield novels (curiously called A Bromfield Galaxy) that includes his Pulitzer-winning novel Early Autumn. So, ten minutes into my hunt at this store, I had already stumbled across and accumulated over $50's worth of books.

Now, with Tales of the South Pacific, I was almost ready to throw the towel in. I have been to every Goodwill, Salvation Army and used bookstore in the greater Fox Valley region and I have found that Michener is an incredibly popular author; I have found several different titles of his at every single store I have visited thus far—Hawaii, Return to Paradise, The Bridge at Andau, Caravans—but I had yet to find Tales of the South Pacific anywhere. The same is still holding true for Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift and John Updike's Rabbit Is Rich (I swear to Betsy, I am almost entirely convinced that I am not going to find that Updike book—I have found every other Updike book known to man and, yet, for whatever reason, I cannot find Rabbit Is Rich! The day I do find it, I am buying dinner for all of my friends, getting drunk and running through the streets naked). Finding this very early edition of Michener's, though, gives me a bit of hope.

There was a tie, however, for the most impressive finds of the day.

Josh and I discovered a little corner of the store that we had never been in before and it was dominated by very old and rare books. On a whim, really, we decided it was worth a shot to just peruse it; if nothing else, we'd find some really interesting titles. That's when Josh stumbled across a first edition of Laughing Boy, Oliver LaFarge. Not to be outdone, and excited by his find, I started looking through the shelves of books starting at the end and working my way backwards; I figured I'd be able to find something that he hadn't even gotten to yet. On these shelves, organization was not goal 1. There were some books leaning up against other books, some were flushed on the shelves in a neat and orderly fashion, and some were just piled up and shoved to the back of the shelf behind other books. I really had to dig and burrow my way through to even see what the proprietor had in stock.

Joshua asked, "Hey, what are you looking for?" I replied, "Updike, my friend. Updike. I am committed to finding this damn book!" He scoffed at me and exclaimed, "Updike!? Are you crazy! You can find him anywhere! You should be looking for Booth Tarkington man!" So I considered his advice and thought "Well, I suppose this isn't quite the place to be looking for Updike, considering the youngest book in this section is from the early 1930's." So I moved a shelf up, from "U" to "T," ran my fingers along the spines of the volumes, reading the names, and pushing books aside to find the piles they were hiding in back. And it was in one of those piles that I found a first edition of Booth Tarkington's 1922 Pulitzer-winning novel Alice Adams. Of course, the dust jacket is missing and the book isn't in the greatest condition, so it's probably next to worthless, but it was an impressive find nonetheless.
This morning, around 9 or so, Josh called to inform me that he had found my birthday present—a first edition of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song—which he found at Northern Illinois University's Founder's Memorial Library.

This hunt is really starting to take form now.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Entry 4.1: "The Magnificent Ambersons," by Booth Tarkington (1919)

Not too long ago, my girlfriend and I decided to take an indefinite break—at the very least, a month long. With that in mind,—and with her being from Indiana—I decided tackle a book by Indiana's favorite son, Booth Tarkington. And, considering the massive worldwide recession we've been in for the past year or so, I thought that his Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (1919), would be a timely and relevant selection.

Before I embarked on this Pulitzer search, I'll admit, I had never heard of Booth Tarkington. However, apparently, he was one of the more prolific American authors to emerge during the Modernist movement. That being my favorite time period for literature, I am very excited to be finishing this book next.

Here is a quick description of the book:

Set in the Midwest in the early twentieth century—the dawn of the automobile age—the novel begins by introducing the richest family in town, the Ambersons. Exemplifying aristocratic excess, the Ambersons have everything money can buy—and more. But George Amberson Minafer, the spoiled grandson of the family patriarch, is unable to see that great societal changes are taking place, and that business tycoons, industrialists, and real estate developers will soon surpass him in wealth and prestige. Rather than join the new mechanical age, George prefers to remain a gentleman believing that "being things" is superior to "doing things." But as his town becomes a city, and the family palace is enveloped in a cloud of soot, George's protectors disappear one by one, and the elegant, cloistered lifestyle of the Ambersons fades from view, until it vanishes altogether.
I'm eager to read this book, this account of what might perhaps be Tarkington's prophecy of the Great Depression that came ten years after his book's Pulitzer win. And even if the book doesn't turn out to be the prophecy that I'm hoping it is, at the very least, I'm excited the read about the exploits of a super-stupid-rich family that loses everything. Because if there's one thing I love, it's seeing the super-rich fail.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Entry 3.2: "The Optimist's Daughter," by Eudora Welty (1973)

It has been six days since I last posted anything and, in all honesty, I don't have much of an excuse for it. Everyday, I have been confronted with crises that, in the long run, won't prove to be as critical as they now seem. Over the next few days, while reading my next Pulitzer, I will do my best to fill you all in on the goings on in my life. In the meantime, however, I have some thoughts about the most recent Pulitzer I've finished, The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty.

This book was a very short 180 pages and read very quickly, but for the life of me, I had the most difficult time forcing myself to actually sit down and finish it. To be entirely forthcoming, I could have easily finished this book in one sitting—probably in two or three hours. Instead, however, it took me almost a full week to work my way through it. Finally, after dreading a return to its pages, I sat down tonight and finished it, once again, only to be left feeling empty and dissatisfied.

My biggest complaint about this book is that, in all honesty, I really didn't see the point of it. There was no central conflict, no rising action, and very little character development. I felt that Welty glossed over things that she could have really gone into great detail about (the main character's personality, thoughts and life story, for instance). I read through 180 pages of drivel and pure blibber-blab, a constant overuse of similes, and one of the more lackluster resolutions I've read in quite some time. When I read the final paragraph of the book, I actually found myself wanting to read more because I just couldn't imagine the book actually ending the way it did.

Allow me to offer some cliff notes for the novel for you: The main character's father dies, so she and her sociopath stepmother host a funeral in his hometown, some people come to it and sing his praises, and after the funeral, the main character spends some time going through some things around the old house she was raised in and finds letters her father wrote to her mother (though we never get to read what they said), some letters her grandmother wrote to her mother (though we never get to read what they said), and finding these things makes the main character very sad. At the end of the novel, she gets very upset with her sociopath stepmother and they have a confrontation that lasts for a few paragraphs, then the main character goes home. In all sincerity, that's really all that happens.

I was beyond discouraged when I finished the book and didn't find myself pondering what a fantastic novel this Eudora Welty wrote; I didn't lay the book on my nightstand and stare at the ceiling and let her words run its course through my veins. Instead, I put the book back in my pile and wondered "How in the hell did this book win a Pulitzer Prize?"
Now, all of that being said, there were some things about the book that I did appreciate—just like Coldplay sings, "everything's not lost."

For one thing, Welty is a gorgeous writer. Regardless of how much I felt this book was filled with nonsense, it was very eloquent nonsense. Like I said before, she is very guilty of going a little overboard with her similes, but some of them were so well constructed that I had to sit back and marvel—it's very apparent that Welty is capable of being an amazing writer, so why didn't I get that from this particular book?

The other thing that I thought Welty captured really well was her portrayal of the main character's despondency throughout her father's sickness, death, funeral and the several days thereafter. Despite her being the protagonist, Laurel has very few lines because Welty has her so lost in her own thoughts—an all too common occurrence during hard times. There were several scenes where, as a reader, I was really wanting Laurel to confront somebody—particularly her insane stepmother. Instead, she internalizes her misery, her anger, her sadness and disassociates.

Being very much the same way when it comes to conflict, I suppose I saw myself in Laurel a bit.