/ literati:

“when i was your age, television was called books!”—Peter Faulk, The Princess Bride

Why Don’t You Finish What You Start!

Murakami Wind-Up BIrd Chronicle, Steinbeck East of Eden, Capote In Cold Blood

As a fairly dutiful reader, I tend to follow one rule: Give the book a 50-page chance at grabbing your attention. If it does, commit. Finish the damn thing, even if the deciding early pages prove to be sneaky little posers.

For the past year, I’ve broken that rule time and again.

The culprits: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, John Steinbecks’s East of Eden and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I haven’t finished a book since.

Not having been a fan of the true-crime genre, I put off reading ICB until I was gripped with the narcotic pull of American Psycho some years earlier. With that chilling bit of damn fine writing, I became fascinated with the horrifying, seductive charm of the killer instinct. So, having been charmed with Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s in my teen-age years, I gave ICB it’s due attention. Suffice to say, I didn’t have to wait for 50 pages to make up my mind. More like 50 words. After the first paragraph I knew: this was going to be the most satisfying piece of lyrical narrative since reading (and re-reading) my early favorites Fitzgerald, Carver and Salinger.

As to Steinbeck, I’d avoided him all this time. His reputation was too entwined in my mind with the tedious boredom of most high school reading lists. Plus, as Morrissey says, the Dust Bowl days “says nothing to me about my life.” Again. Proven. Wrong. With simple, direct language, Grapes of Wrath pulls of the difficult trick of rendering rich, textured narrative without mucking it up with purple prose (i.e. the over-rated Lolita. Don’t gasp. It’s the rare case where the movie is most definitely better than the book ).

The honorable Tom Joad and tragic Rosasharon hooked me hard, so I moved immediately on to East of Eden. A re-telling of the story of Genesis, EOD is the multi-generational epic tale of a pair of Celinas farming families. So often, epics are drawn-out tomes whose worth is seemingly measured by page-count, not engaging narrative (God rest your soul, D.F Wallace, but Infinite Jest. Really? I love tennis and weed, but man.) On the contrary, EOD gives epic it’s due with economical language and a steady, deeply satisfying rhythm. The 700+ page novel reads like 350. And it introduces no less than one of the most seductive, horrifying female antagonists in modern literature, the inhuman Cathy Ames.

In contrast to the realist and journalistic approaches of these first two novels, Wind-Up is an exercise in urbane metaphysical fantasy and Manchurian history draped in Raymond Chandler’s gabardine. So much could be said about this book, I’ll devote a post to it alone. For now, a simple real-life anecdote sums it up nicely:

One frigid New York evening, I layered up like an elementary school kid and made the long, slushy trek to 157th street (up hill, both ways!) to attend one of my buddy Ben’s periodic New Orleans Gumbo fests. The gathering had all the requisite ingredients of a smashing party – southern food, whiskey, huge record collections, illicit libations and more than it’s share of delightful ladies. The apartment was, even by New York’s distorted standards, huge: 5 or 6 large rooms, each catering to it’s own distinct cadre of 24 hour party people.

After a skull, a suitcase, and a long red bottle of wine, I made my way to the “quiet” room, where I could climb out on the fire escape to enjoy a smokey treat. There lay our gracious host, (on his bed, not the fire escape), the pages of WUBC tilted towards a scarf-shrouded table lamp. Dude. WTF? It’s a party, you nerd. Looking up sheepishly but entirely without guilt he replied simply: “It’s just so good. I can’t put it down.”

And there you have it. If booze, drink and dames can’t distract ya, you better crack that spine and get readin’. But fast.

So, the main point here is that these three books have positively ruined me to everything I’ve attempted to read since. The only book I completed in the last year was Simple Twist of Fate, The Making of Blood on the Tracks (all things Dylan get me every time). But that’s another story. Other than that, I’ve failed to finish any of the following worthy titles:

(despite my devotion to all of Chabon’s previous efforts).

Crime and Punishment (ok, not so surprising)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (despite it’s captivating anachronistic language).

Inside Tracks(a collection of essays from famous record producers)

(Joe Pernice’s contribution to the 33 1/3 series)

Born To Kvetch (I’m a devoted pupil of the well-crafted Jewish complaint)

The Thin Man (c’mon, it’s like, what? 275 pp? Plus, the NYT crossword puzzle consistently clues Nora’s dog)

The Cider House Rules (got through three-fourths of this before deciding Owen Meany and Garp just can’t be trumped)

(proving to be if not long-term project a dutiful moderate liberal)

I’ll give these it another go of course. But… if you have any suggestions, please. Help me out here…

  1. Friday 05.14.2010 | 11:34 EST

    Gerald says:

    Fucking *weird*. I’ve had almost the exact same experience; Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and East of Eden were my summer reading two years ago. Wind-Up had that great non-pacing endemic of Japanese culture. East of Eden turned out to be my favorite book of all time, displacing 100 Years of Solitude. What a fucking beautiful book. http://timshel.org/timshel.php

    Haven’t finished a book since, either :) I’m really trying hard with Kavalier & Clay, though, which I love so far.

  2. Saturday 02.27.2010 | 9:51 EST

    miles says:

    I rather enjoyed the Jesse James film, though I think I’m in the minority. Haven’t touched the book.

    Try this. I love the hell out of it. True crime at its best: http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/devilinthewhitecity/about.html


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