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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2004

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August 2004

Nick Hornby
16 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Prayers for Rain—Dennis Lehane
  • Mystic River—Dennis Lehane
  • Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War—T. J. Stiles
  • The Line of Beauty—Alan Holllinghurst
  • Like a Fiery Elephant—Jonathan Coe

BOOKS READ:

  • Prayers for Rain—Dennis Lehane
  • Mystic River—Dennis Lehane
  • Like a Fiery Elephant—Jonathan Coe

Shortly after I submitted my copy for last month’s column, my third son was born. I mention his arrival not because I’m after your good wishes or your sympathy, but because reading is a domestic activity, and is therefore susceptible to any changes in the domestic environment. And though it’s true that the baby is responsible for everything I read this month, just about, he’s been subtle about it: he hasn’t made me any more moronic than I was before, and he certainly hasn’t prevented me from reading. He could argue, in fact, that he has actually encouraged reading in our household, through his insistence on the increased consciousness of his parents. (Hey—if you lot are all so brainy and so serious about books, how come you’re still using contraception?)

Shortly after the birth of a son, I panic that I will never be able to visit a bookshop again, and that therefore any opportunity I have to buy printed matter should be exploited immediately. Jesse (and yes, the T. J. Stiles bio was bought as a tribute) was born shortly before 7 a.m.; three or four hours later I was in a newsagents’, and I saw a small selection of best-selling paperbacks. There wasn’t an awful lot there that I wanted, to be honest; but because of the consumer fear, something had to be bought, right there and then, just in case, and I vaguely remembered reading something good about Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. Well, the shop didn’t have a copy of Mystic River, but they did have another Dennis Lehane book, Prayers for Rain: that would have to do. Never mind that, as regular readers of this column know, I have over the last few months bought several hundred books I haven’t yet read. And never mind that, as it turned out, I found myself passing a bookshop the very next day, and the day after that (because what else is there to do with a new baby, other than mooch around bookshops with him?), and was thus able to buy Mystic River. I didn’t know for sure I’d ever go to a bookshop again; and if I never went to a bookshop again, how long were those several hundred books going to last me? Nine or ten years at the most. No, I needed that copy of Prayers for Rain, just to be on the safe side.

And then, when the baby was a couple of weeks old, I became convinced that I was turning into a vegetable, and so took urgent corrective action: I bought and read, in its entirety, Jonathan Coe’s five-hundred page biography of B. S. Johnson, an obscure experimental novelist—again, just to be on the safe side, just to prove I still could, even though I never did. I’m hoping that the essential anti-vegetative nutrients and minerals I ingested will last me for a while, that they won’t be expelled from the brain via snot or saliva, because I’m not sure when I will next get the chance to read a few hundred pages about a difficult writer I’ve never read. It almost certainly won’t be for a couple of months.

They actually make a very nice theoretical contrast, Johnson and Dennis Lehane. Johnson thought that our need for narrative, our desire to find out what happens next, was “primitive” and “vulgar,” and if you took that vulgarity out of Prayers for Rain, there wouldn’t be an awful lot left. Prayers for Rain is “a Kenzie and Gennaro novel,” and if I’d spotted those words on the cover, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I appreciate that I’m in a minority here, but I just don’t get the appeal of the reappearing hero. I don’t get Kay Scarpetta, or James Bond, or Hercule Poirot; I don’t even get Sherlock Holmes. My problem is that, when I’m reading a novel, I have a need—a childish need, B. S. Johnson would argue—to believe that the events described therein are definitive, that they really matter to the characters. In other words, if 1987 turned out to be a real bitch of a year for Winston Smith, then I don’t want to be wasting my time reading about what happened to him back in ’84.The least one can ask, really, is that fictional characters should be able to remember the stuff that’s happened to them, but I get the impression that Kenzie and Gennaro would struggle to distinguish the psycho killer they’re tracking down in Prayers for Rain from the psycho killers they’ve tracked down in other books.

There is a rather dispiriting moment in Prayers for Rain that seems to confirm this suspicion. Angie Gennaro, who is involved both professionally and romantically with Patrick Kenzie, asks whether she can shave off his stubble—stubble that he has grown to cover scars. “I considered it,” Kenzie tells us. “Three years with protective facial hair. Three years hiding the damage delivered on the worst night of my life…” Hang on a moment. The worst night of your life was three years ago? So what am I reading about now? The fourth-worst night of your life? Sometimes, when you walk into a pub in the center of town mid-evening, you get the feeling that you’ve missed the moment: all the after-work drinkers have gone home, and the late-night drinkers haven’t arrived, and there are empty glasses lying around (and the ashtrays are full, if you’re drinking in a civilized country), and you didn’t make any of the mess… Well, that’s kind of how I felt reading Prayers for Rain.

I liked Lehane’s writing, though. It’s humane, and humorous at the right moments, and he has a penchant for quirky cultural references: I hadn’t expected a discussion about David Denby’s film criticism, for example. (On the other hand: would someone who reads Denby accuse someone who uses the word “finite” of showing off?) I was more than happy to plough straight on into the next one. And the next one was absolutely fantastic.

Why hasn’t anyone ever told me that Mystic River is right up there with Presumed Innocent and Red Dragon? Because I don’t know the right kind of people, that’s why. In the last three weeks, about five different people have told me that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is a work of genius, and I’m sure it is; I intend to read it soonest. (Luckily, I happened to be passing a bookshop with the baby, and I was able to pick up a copy.) I’m equally sure, however, that I won’t walk into a lamp-post while reading it, like I did with Presumed Innocent all those years ago; you don’t walk into lamp-posts when you’re reading literary novels, do you? How are we sup-posed to find out about landmark thrillers like Mystic River? Anyway, if you haven’t seen the movie (and the same goes for Presumed Innocent and Red Dragon) then take Mystic River with you next time you get on a plane, or a holiday, or a toilet, or into a bath, or a bed. Onto or into anything.

Years and years ago, I read a great interview with Jam and Lewis, the R&B producers, in which they described what it was like to be members of Prince’s band. They’d sit down, and Prince would tell them what he wanted them to play, and they’d explain that they couldn’t—they weren’t quick enough, or good enough. And Prince would push them and push them until they mastered it, and then, just when they were feeling pleased with themselves for accomplishing something they didn’t know they had the capacity for, he’d tell them the dance steps he needed to accompany the music.

This story has stuck with me, I think, because it seems like an encapsulation of the very best and most exciting kind of creative process, and from the outside, the craft involved in the creation of Mystic River looks as though it must have involved the same stretch. Lehane has done everything that a literary novelist is supposed to be able to do (this is a novel about grief, a community, the childhood ties that bind); the intensely satisfying whodunit element is the equivalent of the dance step on top. Indeed, Lehane has ended up making it look so effortless that no one I’ve ever met seems to have noticed he’s done anything much at all. But then, the lesson of literature over the last eighty-odd years is the old math teacher’s admonishment: “SHOW YOUR WORKINGS!” Otherwise, how is anyone to know that there are any?

In Prayers for Rain, Lehane piles complication upon complication in order to keep his detectives guessing, and there is a certain readerly pleasure to be had from that, of course; but it just seems like a more routine pleasure, compared to what he does in Mystic River. There, Lehane peers into the deep, dark hole that the murder of a young girl leaves in various lives, and tries to make sense of everything revealed therein; everything seems organic, nothing—or almost nothing, anyway—feels contrived. I’m happy to have friends who recommend Alan Hollinghurst, really I am. They’re all nice, bright people. I just wish I had friends who could recommend books like Mystic River, too. Are you that per-son? Do you have any vacancies for a pal? If you can’t be bothered with a full-on friendship, with all the tearful, drunken late-night phone calls and bitter accusations and occasional acts of violence thus entailed (the violence is always immediately followed by an apology, I hasten to add), then maybe you could just tell me the titles of the books.

At the time of writing, Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s brilliant biography of B. S. Johnson, doesn’t have a U.S. publisher, which seems absurd. Your guys seem to have been frightened off by Johnson’s obscurity, but we’ve never heard of him, either; the book works partly because its author anticipates our ignorance. It also works because Jonathan Coe, probably the best English novelist of his generation (my generation, as bad luck would have it), has been imaginative and interrogative about the form and shape of the book, and because it’s a book about writing, perhaps more than anything else. Johnson may have been a 1960s experimentalist who hung out with Beckett and cut holes in his books, but he was as egocentric and arrogant and bitter and money-obsessed as the rest of us. Johnson was a depressive who eventually killed himself; his suicide note read:

This is my last

word.

But he was a great comic character, too, almost Dickensian in his appetites and his propensity for pomposity. Whenever he wrote to complain to publishers, or agents, or even printers—and he complained a lot, not least because he got through a large number of publishers, agents, and printers—he was never backwards in coming forwards, as we say here, and he included the same self-promoting line again and again. “In reviewing my novel Albert Angelo, the Sunday Times described me as ‘one of the best writers we’ve got,’ and the Irish Times called the book ‘a masterpiece’ and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett,” he wrote to Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, demanding to know why he wasn’t interested in paperback rights. “The Sunday Times called me ‘one of the best writers we’ve got’, and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece and put me in the same class as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett,” he wrote to his foreign rights agent, demanding to know why there had been no Italian publication of his first novel. “You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke,” he wrote to Thomas Wallace of Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, Inc. after Wallace had turned him down. (Maybe Coe should write a version of the same letter, if you ignorant unliterary Americans still refuse to publish his book.) “For your information, Albert Angelo was reviewed by the Sunday Times here as by ‘one of the best writers we’ve got,’ and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece and put me in the same class as Joyce and Beckett.” And then, finally and gloriously:

…The Sunday Times called me ‘one of the best writers we’ve got,’ and the Irish Times called the book a masterpiece, and compared me with Joyce and Beckett.

However, it seems that I am to be denied the opportunity of a most profound and enormous experience: of being present with my wife Virginia when our first child is born at your hospital on or about July 24th…

This last letter was to the Chief Obstetrician of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, after Johnson had discovered that it was not the hospital’s policy to allow fathers to attend a birth. It’s the “However” kicking off the second paragraph that’s such a brilliant touch, drawing attention as it does to the absurdity of the contradiction. “I can understand you keeping out the riff-raff, your Flemings and your Amises and the rest of the what-happened-next brigade,” it implies. “But surely you’ll make an exception for a genius?” In the end, it’s just another variation on “Don’t you know who I am?”—which in Johnson’s case was an even more unfortunate question than it normally is. Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now.

Johnson had nothing but contempt for the enduring influence of Dickens and the Victorian novel; strange, then, that in the end he should remind one of nobody so much as the utilitarian school inspector in the opening scene of Hard Times. Here’s the school inspector: “I’ll explain to you… why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact?… Why, then, you are not to see any-where what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste is only another name for Fact.” And here’s Johnson: “Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies.” Like communists and fascists, John-son and the dismal inspector wander off in opposite directions, only to discover that the world is round. I’m glad that they both lost the cultural Cold War: there’s room for them all in our world, but there’s no room for Mystic River in theirs. And what kind of world would that be?

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