On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])


1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

Mr. Leopold Bloom sat on the couch, legs akimbo, knees a bony promontory untried of clothing but the frayed bottoms of boxer shorts. Between such legs blared a rerun of Friends, Joey’s debauchery the teeth-pulverized pomegranate seed to Chandler’s sadsack oatmeal.

Sunlight slaked inward through smudged, unsmudged, resmudged glass and Mr. Bloom’s mind wandering between the television refractions. Two days’ unchallenged breakfast dishes stacked in unsteady layers between silverware and unread newspapers. Where is Molly? Where is Molly?

Away, Molly with the litheblack cat. The chipped floorboards a horizon, challenging. The wallplaster beyond, a cracked sky. A maiow opened tuna cans in Monday’s downward pinioned morning light. But this is Tuesday and where is Mr. Maiow, whose company in neutrality would be more and less a nuisance than that truthtelling? Four breakfasts and two tuna cans ago, and how strange an accusation of infidelity, being the veritas vos liberabit of his solitude. And cruel, cruel that she changed the Netflix password!

Time rising up from sleep’s cotton-smothered ululations, indiscriminate. An hour, a day. Friends played ad infinitum on that one cable channel. Starz? And the sunlight downward thrown from Phoebus’ crag admits no ticktock of rossrachelmonicachandlerjoeyphoebe.

Might as well start drinking, Bloom thought. Red Stripe, yes. But Budweiser is cheaper. An easy decision: Drink well til the cost means less the further in. Do we have any of those cheese crackers left? We.

He would ask easy questions to the sunlight.

The flap of bare feet on the living room floor startled him so a sneeze erupted the dust. Coffee table spaces between her magazines. Magazines unread. O but looking through the sunlight’s brief prism over that wasteland of clothes and blankets and pizza boxes. Molly’s mother’s afghan, where he slept. Onward!

The footflapped walk to the kitchen navigated by the sound of the television (Joey Tribianni, undone love remakes your liaisons!) through the dark sitting room, the bookshelves looming. Avoid the looking glass, her left underthings on the towel rack. Beers, as many as you can carry. Make true the minutes the sunlight would deny.

Bloom eschewed the bedroom light switch, also. The bed! And kicked an unidentified slipper. Whose, the slipper? The bedclothes strewn? Hers? Mine? Pussens walks on downy slippers, pads of animal skin, Bloom in crocodile moccasins.

The creak of the bedroom door spoke maiow, and Pussens. Sunlight through the hallway made a path of the world.

Suck, spoke the refrigerator like the sucking of a drain. The motor whirring. Don’t look at the dirty dishes, some hers. The armful of beer was unwieldy but for the shortness of the trip until her mother’s afghan enfolded him and milksopped the rossandrachel spillage, the sitcom catharsis.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

The trouble with discussing what you’re reading is that you might sometimes be clobbered by someone else’s dislike of the book you’re reading, a dislike sometimes felt and then expressed without their having read said book. It’s something I’m sure to have done, too, with books and just about everything else, forgetting the wise admonition to never “yuck somebody’s yummy”; and, perhaps in some kind of karmic retribution for my past, and surely upcoming perpetrations, of said admonition, when I’d recently mentioned I was reading Finnegans Wake (I’ve since finished it, falling way short of my goal to read it in as close to a single sitting as possible (it took me seven days, the significance of the number exaggerated in my mind)), trying to stay up while reading about someone who was, presumably, asleep, I received a few “yucks,” including, “I tried reading it, but I only know how to read English,” or something of the sort, the comment meant as nothing more than a joke, but, as we know with most jokes, it revealed an underlying belief, and the belief here was that Finnegans Wake is at best incomprehensible to readers, excepting the few academics still wheezing around in the dusty stacks, expert at splitting all kinds of exegetical hairs; or is, at worst, just a hodgepodge of navel-gazing jabberwocky. Joyce, however, quoted in Derek Attridge’s The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, would disagree: “If you take a characteristic obscure passage of one of these people [modern writers] and asked him what it meant, he couldn’t tell you; whereas I can justify every line of my book.”

When I Fell in Love – Greg Olear

I “fell in love” in the same manner that Mike Campbell, Hemingway’s drunken wastrel, went bankrupt: gradually, and then all at once. Here is a timeline of my formative years, with the year read in parentheses:

(Note: I’m skipping the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, Charles Wallace, Boo Radley, the Tripods, the Chicken Man, various two-dimensional pilgrims to the Boulder Free Zone, and other childhood crushes for whom my ardor has not stood the test of time.)

1984 (1984)

The first grown-up book I ever read, at age eleven, impacted me almost as much as the video for Macintosh that ran during the Super Bowl that January. Not only do George Orwell and I share initials, his (pen) name is almost an anagram of “Greg Olear.” If I squint, it looks like I’m the author.

Lord of the Flies (1986)

The first and only time I finished the entire book when only the first three chapters were required.

Welcome to the Monkeyhouse (1987)

In which we are invited to identify with Billy the Poet, intercourse apologist and deflowerer of damsels in distress. Wow did I want to boink a Suicide Hostess.

The Sun Also Rises (1989)

Continuing the trend of crushing on novels that had absolutely no relevance to my dorkwad existence, I picked this for a book report because my mother had a copy, and it was short, and it was featured on an episode of Cheers, in which Sam Malone, upon discovering that Jake Barnes had gotten his you-know-what shot off in the war, drops Diane’s coveted first edition into the bathtub. I’ve read this seven or eight times. I’m still in love with Brett Ashley—of whom Totally Killer‘s Taylor Schmidt is, perhaps, a kickass Gen X reincarnation.

Ulysses (1993)

Semester at NYU. Class on Joyce. Three months reading Bloomsday. Day he met Nora Barnacle. Name makes her sound clingy. Paddy Dignam and Simon Dedalus. Old professor. Irish of course. Name escapes me. O’Connell, O’Donnell. Long discussion on a single paragraph. Epiphany: dog spelled backward is God. Or is it God spelled. Profound anyway. Deep as a. Over my head, most of it. Understand it, no. Read it. Eyeballs scanned every word. Yes yes yes yes YES.

Paradise Lost (1994)

I did everything short of selling a kidney to get out of the “major author” prerequisite necessary to graduate from Georgetown with a bachelor’s in English literature, but after suffering through Shakespeare, I had no choice but to submit to a dourer DWEM. Lucky thing, because Milton turned out to be the best class I took in college, and Paradise Lost superior, in my view, to anything composed by the more-celebrated Stratford-upon-Avon Bard. (Sidenote: the professor who annotated my text, who also wrote the Cliff’s Notes, makes dubious claims such as, “Paradise Lost is not about politics,” when that is, in my reading, the epic poem’s main concern.) Milton is also the author of my favorite poem of all time.

From there I moved to Dolores Haze and John Shade, Pierce Inverarity and Bucky Wunderlick, Teresa Durbeyfield and Libbets Casey, Michael Valentine Smith and Andrew Wiggin, Maximilien Aue and Major Major, Vince Camden and Matt Prior, Jason Maddox and Wayne Fencer and Will the Thrill, and Paul Theroux in any of his various forms.

Literary love, it seems, is not monogamous.

[Author’s note: In honor of Jonathan Evison, I wore sweatpants when I wrote this].