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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2008

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2008

Nick Hornby
20 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Jesus Land: A Memoir—Julia Scheeres
  • This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession—Daniel J. Levitin
  • Feed—M. T. Anderson
  • The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007
  • The Best American Comics 2007

BOOKS READ:

  • The Ghost—Robert Harris
  • The Pigman—Paul Zindel
  • X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking—Jeff Gordinier
  • The Abstinence Teacher—Tom Perrotta

I have recently spent two weeks traveling around your country—if your country is the one with the crazy time zones and the constant television advertisements for erectile dysfunction cures—on a fact-finding mission for this magazine: the Polysyllabic Spree, the forty-seven literature-loving, unnervingly even-tempered yet unsmiling young men and women who remove all the good jokes from this column every month, came to the conclusion that I am no longer in touch with American reading habits, and sent me on an admittedly enlightening tour of airport bookshops. This is how I know that your favorite writer is not Cormac McCarthy, nor even David Foster Wallace, but someone called Joel Osteen, who may even be a member of the Spree, for all I know: he has the same perfect teeth, and the same belief in the perfectibility of man through the agency of Jesus Christ our savior. Osteen was on TV every time I turned it on—thank heaven for the adult pay-per-view channels!—and his book Become a Better You was everywhere. I suppose I’ll have to read it now, if only to find out what you are all thinking.

True story: I saw one person, an attractive thirtysomething woman, actually buy the book, in the bookstore at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, and, perhaps significantly, she was weeping as she did so. She ran in, tears streaming down her face and muttering to herself, and went straight to the nonfiction hardback bestsellers display. Your guess is as good as mine. I am almost certain that a feckless man was to blame (I suspect that she had been dumped somewhere between gates D15 and D17) and indeed that feckless American men are generally responsible for the popularity of Christianity in the United States. In England, interestingly, the men are not in the least bit feckless—and, as a result, we are an almost entirely godless nation, and Joel Osteen is never on our televisions.

I wrote this last paragraph shortly before going to the gym, where for twenty minutes or so I wondered how to link the story of the weeping woman to Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher; I just couldn’t see a smooth way of doing it. As The Abstinence Teacher is, in part, about a feckless American male’s rebirth as a Christian, I ended my session on the cross-trainer wondering instead whether my tour of U.S. airport bookshops has left me brain-damaged. I am almost sure it do has.

I should say that I read a U.K. proof copy of The Abstinence Teacher, and that on the cover it claims that Tom Perrotta is an American… Well, an American me. This is a high-risk, possibly even foolishly misguided, marketing strategy, and does no justice to Perrotta’s talent. And it says a lot about my admiration for him, and my interest in what he has to say on what puzzles those over here most about the U.S., that I overcame my initial dismay and wolfed it down—albeit with the spine cracked, so that I could carry it around inside-out. Needless to say, I end up absurdly flattered by the comparison: The Abstinence Teacher is a clever, funny, thoughtful, and sympathetic novel.

Perrotta’s initial focus is on Ruth Ramsey, a sex- education teacher who is having trouble with her school governors and the local evangelical church after telling her students, with a careless neutrality, that some people enjoy oral sex. When her daughter’s soccer coach, a member of the church, leads the team in impromptu prayer after a victory, her outrage and grievance lure her into a confrontation that provides the bulk of the narrative, but what is particularly daring about The Abstinence Teacher, given Perrotta’s constituency, is that he isn’t afraid to switch point of view: it’s all very well, and for Perrotta (I’m guessing) not particularly difficult, to give us access to the mind of a liberal sex-education teacher, but attempting to raise sympathy for a formerly deadbeat born-again is another matter. Perrotta’s Tim is a triumphant creation, though, believable and human. It helps that he’s a burned-out ex-musician who’s turned to the Lord to help him through his various dependencies—there but for the grace of God go the readers and writers of this magazine, and certainly half the potential readership of a literary novel. And Tim’s nagging doubt is attractive, too. Where Perrotta really scores, though, is in his detailed imagining of his character’s journey. It seems entirely credible, for example, that Tim should have a particular problem with Christian sex: He knows that the drugs and the alcohol were harmful, and are therefore best avoided. But seeing as he has to have sex anyway, with his naïve and sub-servient Christian second wife, he cannot help but feel nostalgic for the old-school, hot and godless variety. I’m betting that this is exactly how it is for those who have followed Tim’s path to redemption.

There was a similar collision between Christianity and liberalism in the canceled TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but it didn’t make much of a noise, mostly because the Christian character—or, rather, her determination to appear on a satirical liberal entertainment program weekly—constantly stretched our credulity, until our credulity tore right down the middle; Perrotta employs his considerable skill to ensure that Tim and Ruth are an accident waiting to happen.

Just recently, I read an interview with a contemporary literary novelist who worried—and I’m sure it was worry I heard in his voice, so the tone of lordly disdain was just mischievousness on the part of the inter- viewer—that books by me (and I apologize for repeatedly cropping up in this column as a writer, rather than as a reader) and other writers who use pop-culture references in their fiction would not be read in twenty-five years’ time. And, yes, there’s a possibility that in a quarter of a century, The Abstinence Teacher will mystify people who come across it: it’s about America today, this minute, and it’s chock-full of band names and movies and TV programs. (One or two passages may mystify people who live in soccer-playing nations now, but I enjoyed the book too much to take issue with Perrotta about his failure to grasp the insignificance of the throw-in.) Yet some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter what the cost to the work’s durability, no? This novel takes on an important subject—namely, the clash between two currently prevailing cultures opposed to an almost ludicrous degree—that is in urgent need of consideration by a writer as smart and as humane as Tom Perrotta. My advice to you: Don’t read writers with an eye on posterity. They are deeply serious people, and by picking up their books now, you are trivializing them. Plus, they’re not interested in the money. They’re above all that.

I have been writing this column for so long that I am now forced to consider a novel by my brother-in-law for the third time. Irritatingly, it’s just as good as the other two, although it’s a lot less Roman than either Pompeii or Imperium, which may or may not show some encouraging signs of failure and/or weakness. In fact, The Ghost is Robert’s first novel set in the present day, and, like The Abstinence Teacher, you don’t want to wait twenty-five years to read it: it’s about the relationship between Adam Lang, an ex–prime minister whose bafflingly close relationship with the U.S.A. has cost him a great deal, and his ghost writer, whose research uncovers things that Lang would prefer remain covered up. As the two of them work together in a wintry Martha’s Vineyard, Lang’s world starts to fall apart. The Ghost is one part thriller, one part political commentary, and one part the angry wish-fulfillment of an enraged liberal, and it has enough narrative energy to fuel a Combat Shadow. It also has a very neat GPS scene in it, the first I’ve come across in contemporary fiction. It has been said that Tony Blair is extremely vexed by The Ghost, so you don’t even have to read it to feel its beneficent effects. If that’s not a definition of great literature, then I don’t know what is.

The last time I was here, I promised to return to Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs, which I hadn’t quite finished. Well, I finished it, and liked it (although not as much as I liked Empire Falls, which is an all-time favorite), and no longer feel competent to write about it. I started it on a sun-lounger in France, and it’s now November, and Lou “Lucy” Lynch and his careful, gentle ruminations seem a lifetime ago. The same goes for Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, this month’s YA experience—I know I read it, but I’m not entirely sure I could tell you an awful lot about it. Maybe I should have done my book report the moment I finished it.

I recently discovered that when my friend Mary has finished a book, she won’t start another for a couple of days—she wants to give her most recent reading experience a little more time to breathe, before it’s suffocated by the next. This makes sense, and it’s an entirely laud-able policy, I think. Those of us who read neurotically, however—to ward off boredom, and the fear of our own ignorance, and our impending deaths—can’t afford the time.

Speaking of which… Jeff Gordinier’s forthcoming X Saves the World (subtitled How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking) begins with an apposite quote from Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: “My life had become a series of scary incidents that simply weren’t stringing together to make for an interesting book, and God, you get old so quickly! Time was (and is) running out.” X Saves the World starts with the assumption that the Boomers (born in the late ’40s and ’50s) have all sold out, and the Millennials are all nightmarish Britney clones who can’t go to the toilet without filming the experience in anticipation of an MTV reality show. And that leaves Generation X, a.k.a. the slackers, a.k.a. the postmodern ironists, a.k.a. blah blah, to make something of the sorry mess we call, like, “the world.” Gordinier, of course, is neither a Boomer nor a Millennial, which might in some eyes make his generalizations even more suspect than generalizations usually are, but I loved this book anyway: it’s impassioned, very quick on its feet, dense with all the right allusions—Kurt Cobain, the Replacements, Susan Sontag, Henry James, and the rest of that whole crowd—funny, and, in the end, actually rather moving.

And it’s convincing, too, although of course it’s hard to talk about generational mores and attitudes without raising all the old questions about when generations begin and end, and how we as a collection of individuals, as opposed to a banner-waving mob, are sup-posed to fit into it all neatly. As far as I can tell, I’m supposed to be a Boomer, but I was twelve when Woodstock took place, nineteen when Anarchy in the U.K. was released, and always felt closer to Johnny Rotten (and hence to everything that came after) than to David Crosby, so where am I supposed to fit into all this? There were Boomers that never sold out, plenty of Xers that did, and lots of lovable Millennials who worry about global warming and literacy levels. There have always been relentless and empty-headed self-promoters, although in the good old days we used to ignore them, rather than give them their own reality show. Gordinier is right, though, I think, when he argues that Generation X (and I know that even naming you like this makes me sound cheesy and square, but I can’t say “so-called” every time, nor can I raise my eyebrows and roll my eyes in print) has found another way of doing things, and that this way may well add up to something significant. This is a generation that not only understands technology but has internalized its capabilities, thus enabling it to think in a different way; this is a generation that knows that it can’t change the world, a recognition that enables it to do what it can. Cinema, books, TV, and music have all produced something new as a result, so long as you know where to look.

I suspect that those who write about Gordinier’s book will engage him in his argument, and that very few people will point out how much fun this book is to read, but it is; the last chapter, which uses Henry James’s novella The Beast in the Jungle and the life and work of James Brown as the ingredients for a passionate rallying cry, is particularly fizzy.

In other news: nearly a third of the football season is over, and Arsenal, still undefeated, is sitting at the top of the Premier League, despite having sold Thierry Henry to Barcelona in the summer. These are golden days, my friends, for another couple of weeks at least. This is how to become a better you: choose Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s brilliant manager, as your life coach. I did, and look at me now. If I found myself weeping in an airport, that’s the book I’d buy: Think Offensively, the Arsène Wenger Way, but he hasn’t written it yet. (You’ll be reading about it here first if he ever does.) Mind you, even Joel Osteen would be able to see that we need a new goalkeeper urgently.

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