Good Luck: Episode Thirty-Four
My friend, the playwright, invited me to breakfast. So I climbed on the train and took it across the water. A perfect spring morning.
I knew for sure it was a perfect spring morning because out an open window on 11th Street, I heard someone singing an opera.
I stopped to listen.
Italian, or Greek, or German.
Whatever it was, bombastic. I didn’t know any other language besides English, which was a shame, it was limiting my ability to make friends.
If I spoke Mandarin, I could go to Taiwan and make Taiwanese friends, or if I learned Russian, I could go to Belarus and make Belarusian friends. Instead, I was stuck with the English. Still am.
I leaned against a wall. Flies buzzed around a garbage can. I looked at them and thought, It’s too bad I can’t speak Fly, because then I could be friends with the flies too.
A lot of my friends are books, some of them written in other languages I don’t understand. Sometimes a translator becomes my friend by translating a book so I can read it. Friends everywhere.
I went into the restaurant to meet Anselmo. Because he’s my friend, I call him Ansel. While we waited for our breakfast to come, I asked Ansel why he was visiting the city. He said his new play was in pre-pre-production. When I didn’t understand, he explained the way his plays are usually written. He sends a scripts to the theater company and they work independently of him, free-rehearsing the material, improvising, seeing what works. A few months after that, he flies up to see a rough performance. I said, “That’s cool, that’s interesting, that’s exciting.” I asked how he liked the rough performance, and he said he liked it a lot, but it was all still forming, and he’d been surprised to see the actors had put a bunch of Leaves of Grass into the play. The actors had decided the play needed more Walt Whitman. A heap of Walt Whitman, actually. When I asked if the script he had sent had had some Walt Whitman in it, Ansel shook his head and laughed, “Not at all.” I said, “What happens next?”
My friend said he would have to try to think of a way to extract the Leaves of Grass that had infiltrated his play, but it would be tricky.
Then our friend, the waitress, came with our tea and coffee and we ordered the rest. Eggs, bacon, toast.
Ansel asked how I was doing. I said I was unemployed but things were going well. Gian had given me edits on my forthcoming novel so I’d had that to keep me busy for the last month. Everyday I woke up, drove Rae to the train and then sat down at my bamboo desk in my pink room and worked worked worked on the edits until she came home.
I didn’t want to talk about myself though, I wanted to hear more about his plays. I brought it back up, especially since I didn’t understand how someone went about writing experimental theater.
Ansel told me about one of his previous plays. The director of the play happened to be an atheist. But the director’s mother had just died and what? Gone to heaven? Gone to hell? Gone nowhere? Ansel and the director decided they should conjure the spirit of the director’s mother, live on stage, in front of the audience.
In pre-production they consulted some spiritual advisors. Each spiritual advisor said it was a bad idea to try the conjuring in front of the theatergoers. A voodoo priestess felt the strongest. She said a spirit would wreak havoc on the audience, destroy them in body, mind, soul. They argued, “But the mother was not an evil spirit.” The priestess told them, “Well of course not, but once you open the door, something could come. Malicious spirits are always around, bored, looking for some fun to have.” They asked the priestess, “What if we built a box around the conjuring ceremony to make it private?” The priestess said that that was even worse, the spirit would gain more power, these ceremonies always had to be done out in the open, as transparent as possible.
I don’t know what happened as a compromise for this conjuring. Our friend, the waitress, brought us our eggs. We ate, talked about music, books, our own writing, and then we paid the bill. The time had sadly come to part ways with each other and that cafe. I waved goodbye to Ansel.
Then I was standing in the shade under scaffolding, and the day was wide open in front of me, and I didn’t want to go home and edit my novel. It was now a perfect spring afternoon, but I couldn’t hear anyone singing.
I called my friend, Bible. He answered on the first ring and asked me if I wanted to go and get a beer. Of course I wanted to go get a beer. Where was I? Oh, I’m standing on the corner of 12th and Broadway, that’s where. He asked if I wanted to meet him at the Strand bookstore. I said, “Where’s that?” He said it was where I was standing. I looked up and there it was, just across the street.
So I went inside, and it was Sodom and Gomorrah. And it was plagues of locusts. They have an advanced review copy section. They don’t advertise this section because they aren’t supposed to be selling these books. I went downstairs and asked the girl at the information desk where it was and she looked at me like I was a cop and I said, “Cops don’t read books.” She took me to the hidden section. I was looking for a copy of Mary Miller’s Biloxi. My friend Jackson read it and said it was really great. But they didn’t have Biloxi.
I went back upstairs to see what other stuff I could find, and I got to thinking about how my life had changed a bit the year before, when my friend Bill Yarrow had come to Jersey City and had told me I was reading great contemporary books, but I should read the classics too. Oh that was easy for Bill Yarrow to tell me, he was a Shakespeare scholar from Chicago, a man who taught classes on King Lear, and MacBeth, and Hamlet, and also Don Quixote, and Madame Bovary, and so on forever. So of course he had given me a big long list of heavy duty classics. So now I browsed the shelves looking at some of them. You know how it goes. The problem with those old books is they’re so goddamn heavy, and here I was about to go out day drinking with Bible and I knew if I bought any of those books, fucking forget about it, I’d wind up leaving them somewhere.
Something like this had just happened. I was downtown with Gian, he was here from Italy and he had hand edited my novel. He passed the manuscript to me, and then it was my responsibility to take care of the thing. He’d worked so hard editing it, weeks and weeks of work, and now I just had it in a plastic shopping bag, and Gian wanted us to go out and have some fun. This was great news and this was bad news. Most of a bottle of whiskey later I was in a dimly lit bar and the plastic bag with the manuscript—where was it? I’d set it down somewhere. Jesus Christ. Ah, here it is, the bag fell onto the floor under my chair, isn’t that funny, I hope none of the pages fell out, no, it looks like it’s all here. I woke up the next morning, hungover and not sure where I was, but then I recognized I was in my own aquamarine bedroom, Rae snoozing beside me, and I walked out into the kitchen and on the table was a plastic bag from some copy center in Rome. What the hell is this? I picked it up and looked at it. Oh it’s my novel in a plastic bag, oh cool. I put it on my bamboo desk. After a cheeseburger and a cup of coffee, I paid it proper attention.
Now I was empty-handed in front of the Strand, and thinking about my friend Ron Kolm, a great New York poet, who worked there a long time ago with Patti Smith, before she was famous. I’d just watched a movie where Patti Smith was rambling on and on about something or other to Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan had this look on his face like, “Please shut up.” I liked the way Patti Smith’s speaking voice sounded, she talked like someone I knew at the oil refinery.
Bible walked around the corner and he had his dog with him. I thought, This will be great, I can get this dog drunk too. Bible had a beard now, but other than that, he was still my same old friend. New York City was the same too, in that it had changed like it always did. We walked, sidewalk to sidewalk, traffic light to traffic light, and I wished, of course, that I could talk Dog, so that I could ask the dog what was new in its life. Instead, the dog had to listen to me and Bible talk about our lives, both of us were unemployed now, and had our days wide open to do nothing with them as we pleased. The dog was unemployed too, and it’d had every day of its life wide open, with nothing to do, the only difference was it had not been able to do hardly anything it wanted. Case in point, we walked up to Bible’s apartment just to lock the dog inside the apartment (she immediately got a ball and wanted to play, but we smiled and said see you later and hurriedly shut the door on her).
We went to a bar called Ferns and drank gin martinis and then beer. Bible asked what I was reading, I said I was almost finished reading Madame Bovary and it was really good. She’d just eaten a bunch of rat poison. Gian had recommended I read it before returning to the edits on my novel, but also a few years before that my friend Bill, the Shakespeare scholar from Chicago, had told me, on a pier in Jersey City, on a sunny summertime day, that I had to read it, it’d invented the prose poem.
Bible was like, “How do you know a Shakespeare scholar from Chicago?” I told him Bill had read my first novel and had reached out to try to talk me into becoming a better reader, after I’d said to him I was working heavy construction and hadn’t gone to college. I read some of Bill’s poetry and loved it, it was humorous, wise, and weird. I was impressed that he’d been teaching literature at colleges since 1978. At that point I didn’t have any friends who were professors. I needed friends with life experience, especially in concern with books and movies and art shows to go see in museums.
I mean, I already had people to ask about welding and oil refineries and beer and betting on football and horses, and other people to ask about women and war and dogs and cats and whatever. Bill was my guy to ask about literature. Being his friend was sometimes like taking an advanced college course without having to write any papers. You could just pick up the phone and talk about what you’d read, or send a Facebook message or a Twitter DM.
One time Bill said to me, “I don’t think [anybody] needs to go to college to be a great writer, but I do think [people] need to read widely and deeply. As Samuel Johnson said, ‘I don’t desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.’”
Another time he said, “There are two impulses that are important, I think. 1.) Read what you love, what energizes you, what excites you, what floats your boat. Read enthusiastically! 2) Get a guide of some kind to help you develop your taste. Otherwise you stay imprisoned in the world of fast food and chips. That stuff is delicious but there’s other delicious food out there. Expand your experience. Grow your enjoyment. Refine your palate.”
Another time Bill gave me some advice that was pretty good for a writer to hear. He said, “Be careful who you choose as your model of excellence. If you choose someone really great, you’ll strive harder and perhaps write something really great. You may never be as good as your model of excellence, so choose carefully. Melville chose Shakespeare and the Bible. Hawthorne chose John Bunyan. That’s why Moby Dick is FAR superior to The Scarlet Letter. Hemingway began by parodying Sherwood Anderson. Dostoyevsky said he came out from under Gogol’s overcoat. We all come from somewhere.”
Well anyway, Bill Yarrow this, Bill Yarrow that. He’s been a great guide to me, in a life of looking for artful guides.
Another round of drinks came out and I was feeling like telling Bible a story, so I told Bible this one:
Bill came to Jersey City. One of his daughters was getting married. He was staying at one of the hotels on the Hudson. Bill and I met on the pier and right there was the shining New York City skyline in all its glory, and the ferries running and the sound of people talking and laughing. We sat down in the shade of one of the pavilions. Bill asked me how I was doing, and I was in a good mood that day, so I just started saying funny things that had happened to me at work lately, and then funny stories about family members and other friends, most of them people Bill didn’t know, but I think it’s important to talk about people and places and things in your life that may seem mundane but truly nothing in life is mundane, just think about a lightning bolt, is that mundane? What about a thunderclap that must be mundane, right? How about a flood or someone egging your car on Halloween or tripping and falling down the stairs and breaking out your two front teeth?
When someone asks what’s going on in your life, you might as well point up at the sky and say, “That cloud is going on in my life and here’s a story about it, here’s how it was born and here’s how it will die.”
Bill listened to me blabber on for over half an hour, grinning. He kept changing the way he sat and sometimes would slap the table, laughing. I could’ve gone on talking about nothing for the rest of my life.
Finally, I said, “What’s new with you, Bill?”
He said, “Well Bud, I just had a stroke.”
I was so mad. I said, “You had a stroke? You let me sit here all this time talking about parking tickets and bird shit and you had a stroke? When did it happen?” He said it’d been just a few weeks before. He said it wasn’t technically called a stroke when you didn’t “suffer” aftereffects. They call it a stroke when you lose the use of your limbs or you get brain damage from it. What he had was just called an episode. He’d been in the house, reading a book or writing a poem and he started to have seizures and then he fell onto the floor and was shaking, he couldn’t get up. He was lying there for a while and he knew he had just a little bit of time to call the hospital or he would die. But he couldn’t move. Then miraculously, his wife came home, found him on the floor, she thought he was joking but when she saw he couldn’t talk she knew something serious had happened. She called the paramedics, they got Bill to the hospital and they gave him a treatment fast enough that he completely recovered.
We talked about what it was like to be close to death and then to get a second chance. The sun shone on the mirror of the river. The gulls cried for potato chips. One of the twin towers was up, the other wasn’t. Then, after we got off the subject of our impending deaths and the deaths of everyone we knew, Bill gave me a list of 100 books I should read.
I told all of this to Bible, and he fixed his hat, and scratched his beard and said, “Well, what were the books?”
I took out my phone and checked my email and started rattling off some of them. Books books books on a Saturday in June. Another drink, let’s read Moby Dick together, hey did I ever tell you I went to Faulkner’s house, hey what about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers you ever read that, it’s amazing.
I’d asked Bible what I should write my next column on and he said I should write about Bill.
I should write down this list of books he gave me so other people could see it. I said, “Oh that’s a great idea.”
I thought I should tell you, this list of books I’m about to give you, all of them were written before WW2. Yarrow read them all, reread them all, and some of them he’s even taught. Bill told me the list wasn’t diverse and it wasn’t historic, and it wasn’t representative of anything, he just likes these books. He said, “Anyway, it’s, perhaps, a place to start.” I thought, 100 books written before WW2 is a lot for this column today, a lot for this essay. So here are 50 of Yarrow’s picks, in no particular order:
- Don Quixote by Cervantes
- Gargantua, and Pantagruel by Rabelais
- Candide by Voltaire
- Madame Bovary by Flaubert
- Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan
- The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky
- War and Peace by Tolstoy
- The Pickwick Papers by Dickens
- Ficciones by Borges
- Emma by Austen
- Mysteries by Hamsun
- The Dwarf by Lagerkvist
- The Stranger by Camus
- The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke
- Winesburg, Ohio by Anderson
- Jacques the Fatalist and His Master by Diderot
- Max Havelaar by Multatuli
- Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis
- Young Torless by Musil
- Melincourt by Peacock
- Life of Johnson by Boswell
- The Family of Pascal Duarte by Cela
- Snow Country by Kawabata
- Mist (Niebla) by Unamuno
- At Swim-Two-Birds by O’Brien
- Miss Lonelyhearts by West
- Vile Bodies by Waugh
- King Lear by Shakespeare
- Pere Goriot by Balzac
- The Good Soldier by Ford
- Murphy by Beckett
- The Awakening by Chopin
- Dead Souls by Gogol
- We by Zamyatin
- The Waves by Woolf
- The Metamorphosis by Kafka
- Tristram Shandy by Sterne
- Through the Looking Glass by Carroll
- Tropic of Capricorn by Miller
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Stories by Chekhov
- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce
- Wuthering Heights by E. Bronte
- Jane Eyre by C. Bronte
- Nausea by Sartre
- Journey to the End of the Night by Celine
- Light in August by Faulkner
- Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki
- Steppenwolf by Hesse
- Exercises in Style by Queneau
Okay, so that’s nice. Thank you Bill. But what about books written after WW2? I thought I could handle that. That’s mostly what I’ve been reading since I was in middle school. Here are 50 books I have read and reread and that I would recommend to you. Really, the reason I typed this list up, is because I wanted a personal one, now I’ve got a list for myself, things to keep rereading till I die. Each year I’ll read some new books, and I’ll read some classics, and I’ll keep rereading these. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Cannery Row by Steinbeck
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Vonnegut
- Fair Play by Tove Jansson
- The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
- Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut
- On Fire by Larry Brown
- Literally Show Me a Healthy Person by Darcie Wilder
- Potted Meat by Steven Dunn
- One More for the People by Martha Grover
- The End of My Career by Martha Grover
- The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
- Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan
- Ray by Barry Hannah
- Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson
- A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
- So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
- Welfare by Steve Anwyll
- Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
- Fat City Leonard Gardner
- The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle
- Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz
- My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley
- Factotum by Bukowski
- Old Friends by Stephen Dixon
- Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison
- Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney
- Addicts & Basements by Robert Vaughan
- Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
- Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory
- The Jokes by Stephen Thomas
- Murder by Jane Liddle
- Norwood by Charles Portis
- Dog of the South by Charles Portis
- Raking Leaves by Joseph Grantham
- In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
- The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan
- Rontel by Sam Pink
- Pale Fire by Nabokov
- Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
- Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
- Person/a by Elizabeth Ellen
- Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson
- Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
- Happy Rock by Matthew Simmons
- The Complete Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
- A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke
- Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke
- Sad Laughter by Brian Alan Ellis
- Last Words from Montmartre by Qui Miojin
- Problems by Jade Sharma
If you asked me tomorrow for a list, I’d give you a different one. And also, if you want the 100 books Yarrow said, just email me. Okay. Okay. Okay.
It was time for Michael Bible to go back to his dog. We paid our friend, the waitress. I went back to the Strand and I bought Moby Dick and Bleak House and another copy of Don Quixote. I must think I’m gonna live forever or something, I’ll have time to read all these big heavy books.
One of the things I like to do sometimes, is buy an extra copy of a big heavy book, used $2 or whatever, and take a razor blade and cut it into 300 page sections, tape them up so they don’t fall apart. Any book, 300 pages at a time, is no big deal in the real world, where I live. I traveled home, drunk and the hands of time spun eight times faster than they ever do, so one breath was eight, and one heartbeat was eight, and so on.
Later that night, my friend Abe texted me that he was reading a great book. I was surprised to get a text from Abe. Abe Covello. We don’t talk that much, even though he has been one of my best friends since we were kids. Mostly I was surprised he texted about a book. He’s not much of a reader. He loves video games and action movies and his kids. I asked what book it was, he said the title and I’d read that book, it fucking sucked, it’d ruined two days at the beach for me. It was a horrible book. One of the worst. So horrible, so incredibly bad. A dreadful, horrendous, abysmal, atrocious, execrable, crummy, rotten book. But I didn’t mention that to Abe. I was just glad he was reading. I wrote back that the main character in the one I was reading just ate rat poison, and she’s dying real slow in the Victorian era and it’s all gruesome, and it’s all a hoot.
Rae was next to me in the bed, and I showed her the texts from Abe like, “Isn’t this weird?”
Rae was unfazed.
She said, “Tell Marcy I said hello.”
And then I realized, she had Marcy saved in our shared contacts list as Abe Lincoln.
Marcy Chrysanthakopoulos saved as Abe Lincoln.
“Why do you have Marcy saved as ‘Abe Lincoln’?”
She told me the story. It had something to do with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I said, “Okay.”
Abe Lincoln wrote back, “Oh man, old timey Victorian lady books.”
I texted, “Yeah, it rules though, Marcy.”