Actually, I don’t re-read myself very often (although The Memory Project is turning into a nifty alterna-journal), but I couldn’t resist the literary allusion. Some people find it insane to re-read when there is so much to be read. I usually invoke the Valium defense, saying that re-reading is not reading but a narcotic experience, one in which familiar words wash over me until I’m in a trance-like state that otherwise could be achieved only via rocking back-and-forth and sucking one’s thumb. And I haven’t sucked my thumb since I was . . . seven. I’m not proud, but I’m truthful.
Anyway, there is another kind of re-reading, as I’ve been reminded the past two weeks; I’ve re-read PISTOL POETS and ANOTHER MARVELOUS THING for my Goucher class. Because of the snow day last week, I have to choose between the Feb. 14th lesson plan (PISTOL POETS and Mary Gaitskill’s “Daisy’s Valentine”) and the 21st (ANOTHER MARVELOUS THING and “Goodbye Columbus”). I chose the 14th; I see now that I should have cross-pollinated and picked the two from Column A, PP and AMT. No knock on Gaitskill and Roth; I just have more to say about Victor Gischler’s novel and Laurie Colwin’s short stories, one of those rare collections that really does cohere into something more than just a set of linked short stories.
Given my poor memory, it’s striking to me that I have such a vivid recollection of my first encounter with the first story in Colwin’s collection, “My Mistress.” It was in Best American Short Stories, possibly ’82 or ’83; I read/re-read it to pieces — that book might also have included the superb Bill Barich piece, “Hard to Be Good” — but the first time was on the beach in Fenwick Island, DE. Here, on a frosty February day in Baltimore, I can feel the heat beating down on my shoulders, remember the bathing suit I wore that summer, see the cover of the book (mauve?), feel sand between my toes. The story was a revelation to me. A woman writing in a man’s voice! A story about adultery that was melancholy, but not punitive or judgmental! (I was very young.) Plus, there was the character of Billie (the woman in the affair), who was nothing at all like most mistresses, with her shoes held together by duct tape and her hair falling in her eyes.
I also always remember where I was when I learned that Colwin had died, unexpectedly. (She was 48 and it was from a heart ailment.) I was covering the a.m. police shift for the Sun, sitting in the messy little cubicle at police HQ, reading the New York Times on a slow morning. I felt as if I had lost a friend.
It was only a year ago, almost to the day, that I read PISTOL POETS. I assigned it to my Goucher students in part because I always like to shake up their sensibilities by forcing them to consider “genre” fiction. (I’ve taught RIGHT AS RAIN, too.) Plus, it’s set in a writing program and it takes, as its thematic climax — to borrow a phrase from Gischler — a poetry reading. Yes, a poetry reading as the emotional climax of a satiric crime novel. Granted, a gun battle follows, but what you will remember, I aver, is the poetry reading.
But here’s what I didn’t remember, a simple-yet-profound meditation on reading, inspired by the poetry reading I just mentioned:
“The crowd roared, the applause shaking the building. It was right up their alley. A whole generation who’d thought poetry had to be about flowers and bumblebees. Now they’d heard poetry on steroids. Gritty Extreme poetry like in a Mountain Dew commercial . . . .
“Perhaps they enjoyed it for the wrong reasons. Maybe there are no right or wrong reasons.”
Sometimes, you find passages like that only through re-reading.
Gotta make some phone calls. Like Danny Deck, I have problems with my locks. And you know what? If you can tell me about Danny Deck and why he has problems with his locks, I might just send you a free copy of WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. Oh, you can Google your way to Danny. But you’ll have to share my affection-verging-on-obsession for a certain novel to know about Danny and his locks.
Meanwhile, feel free to confess to re-reading, thumb-sucking, whatever makes you feel safe and secure in the world.