Recidivism in Reading and the Bookshelf Boogie
[Twice Sold Tales was written about some of the books I’ve read again, if not again and again and again. I think it was originally written in April of 2009, and while I don’t remember exactly why, I’m pretty sure it was used as a segment (or two) for a radio show, possibly RRR’s All Over The Shop when my broadcast partner (as ever) Stew Farrell was away for a spell. I’m not sure it ever appeared on the old version of this site, so for the two or three of you out there who still read books, I hope you enjoy it.]
HERE’S LUCK – LENNIE LOWER
Set in Sydney sometime around the 1930s, and the thing is, with some adjustments to the language, beer prices and implied clothing arrangements, it could be set any time since, right up until now. A bloke’s deep and abiding relationship with the local pub’s landlord, and particularly the stuff served by the local pub, results in his wife leaving him, and he enters into one sustained debauch, spreading all over the city and into the country, accompanied by his shiftless son, his brainless brother-in-law, a female goldigger duo he nicknames Steak and Eggs, and sundry underworld figures, err known racing identities, following in their wake. At some point he illegally imprisons a plumber who irritates him, and it all winds up in a monumental drinkathon of a beano back at his place. Use of the language in this is as close as we ever came to having a Damon Runyon, only very much in an Australian way. I think “Here’s Luck” probably violates around 58 separate points and conditions on any current government-approved list of political correctness, or to put it another way, if I don’t have misplaced faith in our listenership, that’s another 58 reasons why each of you ought to pick it up.
THIN HE WAS, AND FILTHY HAIRED – ROBERT LLEWELLYN
The only one on this list that is non-fiction, but written like a novel and as reader-friendly as a real snappy one. The story of a young, idealistic and somewhat idiotically naive English individual trying to live life real in the hippie communes of the early 1970s around Cambridge University, and largely failing hilariously, with great determination. Lots of flat-out belly-laughs and an unforgettable set-piece at the finish set around the lavish annual Cambridge ball which Robert attends clad in a stunning evening frock, after scaling the university wall with his fellow gate-crasher dope-head pirates. How this has never been made into a movie is beyond me. The author was a regular cast-member of “Red Dwarf” which may be where you’ve heard the name before. The one time I remember “Red Dwarf” being as funny as this book was, oh that’s right – never.
THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION – ROBERT COOVER
Very much part of the fictional equivalent of the Gonzo school of writing that marked the screwier end of American journalism of the time (late 60s/early 70s) this tells the tale of a loner called Henry, who as other parts of his life have faded in interest for him, retreats entirely into the world of a baseball simulation game played with dice and charts out of which he has constructed an entire world, which effectively he lives in. It’s about living in, and being separate from society, the separate realities of the outside world and inner life – so it probably wouldn’t make much sense to fashion writers or anyone who was at the Logie awards. It’s also it’s very much about the real meaning of sport, its legends and rituals, so it might not have much appeal to the Herald-Sun footy writers. If the guy didn’t get sport at all, the book wouldn’t work, and he really does get it. Probably way ahead of its time in the late 60s, and still quite valid now. It has blistering pace on its side, as well as a compelling and original use of language, and some belly-laughs as well. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a nerd who ultimately makes good, a plot a five-year-old could reconstruct from building blocks in the dark in five minutes and features no obvious part for Jack Black or Will Ferrell, so it probably won’t ever be a hit movie.
WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN – BUDD SCHULBERG
Dispassionate, sour and convincing depiction of the corrupting nature of Hollywood, show biz and success set in the old Hollywood, following the story of a young guy, Sammy Glick who comes from strictly nowheresville Daddy-o, as a copy-boy on a newspaper, and grinds, insinuates, back-stabs and flukes it to the top of the showbiz pile. Distance and perspective comes from the story being told from the point of view of Glick’s initial boss, and later kind of employee and chronicler. Maybe still as good a book as there is on, Schulberg puts it, “a blueprint of a way of life that was paying dividends in America in the first half of the twentieth century.” Unfortunately getting by on a combination of push, half a brain, complete and utter self-regard, total contempt for everyone else and a pantsload of luck is still pretty much pretty much the way of showbiz life in the first half of the twenty-first century, a fact which is about as cheering as any late-breaking news of an upcoming concert tour by Dannii Minogue and the guy in WHAM who wasn’t George Michael.
ROLLERBALL MURDER – WILLIAM HARRISON
A collection of extremely readable and re-readable fantasy stories of the type that doesn’t involve unicorns and magic hats, and one or two other kinds, in a variety of styles from the conventional reminiscence – an oddly involving recollection about his father’s steadfast refusal to put poker machines in his barber-shop – to extremely adventurous subjective prose, which loosely translates into “Things get a little out-there, Pilgrim”. Two stand-out stories are about the meaning of sport, one about the mystique of the shot-put of all things, and the title story, which in expanded and somewhat altered form, became the first movie version of “Rollerball” (1973), although not the second version of “Rollerball” (early 200o’s) which was apparently derived from smoking cones and drinking raspberry cordial to excess. “Rollerball Murder” sort of asks the question, does the sport exist for us, or do we exist to feed the sport, and then kind of tells you that depends on who’s running it. This is either more or less chilling in the case of AFL, where you become increasingly convinced, based on all available evidence to hand, that no-one is running it at all. Or at least…no-one…human….
THE SECRET AGENT – JOSEPH CONRAD
The writing is superior and the subject matter invariably tawdry, as Conrad depicts various decrepit, slothful, and sociopathic waster types involved with espionage and terrorism, as well as the individuals and institutions seeking to control, contain, imprison or expose them. It’s played out as a series of detailed character studies, which overlap – very slowly – as the main action of the story proceeds from one to the other. Pretty much every character gets the full profile treatment, almost to the extent of a chapter per individual. The dissection of the characters is brilliant writing and probably way ahead of its time for this kind of fictional psychology, but makes the book slow-going by current standards. What makes it worth pursuing is that even though the causes, names and body-counts have changed, the terrorism as depicted in “The Secret Agent” still seems eerily 100% in line with terrorism as experienced today.
This tends to make the considerable degree of irony deployed in the book come over as brutally stone cold as the average Australian TV comedy series without the benefit of a laugh-track.
DAY OF THE LOCUST – NATHANIEL WEST
Another great sour raspberry blown at the magic of old Hollywood, seen from the point of view of fringe-dwellers within the system and lifestyle. Kind of a California version of “Candide” by Voltaire, where every misfortune and corruption possible happens to the main character, but minus the ironic tapdancing sadism, the latter replaced by a jaundiced compassion which ultimate burns all the worse for turning into blank despair. Basically he apparently pretty much saw exactly what sort of an E!ntertainment Channel hell the world was bound to turn into from his point in time, which indicates one of the greater disadvantages of being a shrewd social observer. I mean if you were alive in the 1930s, gave a crap, and could predict “American Idol” or Paris Hilton, you’d probably hurl yourself over a cliff.
TAPPING THE SOURCE – KEM NUNN
Gritty Raymond Chandler-derived shop-soiled Californiana detective story set in the world of surfing, of all things. Does a great job of elaborating the mystical appeal of the subject matter to its acolytes without making land-lubber types like yours truly laugh their breakfast cereal all over the table, keeps your feet on the tarmac with the details of dirt-poor seaside town types scrabbling to get by, and then combines the two areas in a mystery plot development of a most unexpected, haunting and eerie nature – a hint of a vaguely plausible underworld of evil that maybe a James Ellroy could have come up with on one of his better days, and which in a way perfectly resolves both the main subject matters of the story. It’s definitely a book with its own evil magic to it, like Madonna, only this is something you’d like to see MORE of in public.
A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ – WALTER M MILLER
The best science-fiction novel I ever read. Well, that should put about half of everybody off, along with everyone the title took care of. And the good news for the remaining two people listening, and Stew who’s doing his best to politely feign attention while thinking of beer, is that the book is pretty darn hard to describe in any way that can reflect how remarkable an achievement it is.
Ok basic premise. Large amounts of the world blown up in some unspecified apocalypse of war, just like around 67% of other science fiction books. In the wake of the destruction, most survivors develop a hate for the knowledge and science that reduced the world to barbecue scrapings, so become wilfully illiterate, as of course their descendents are as well. They pursue and persecute those with written materials. Only some guy called Liebowitz saves some books. A kind of religion and social order grows around them, based on something similar to the Catholic monks of older times, except Catholic monks generally weren’t worshipful of anyone called Liebowitz. This society is depicted in surprising detail and vividness from the point of view of a young bumbling Don Knotts type monk called Brother Francis, as he seeks his destiny in the world. All the politics within the Abbey and without it are investigated, and we get glimpses of the savagery of those who live without the books in the wastelands. Anyway, that’s only part one of the book, which continues on in two other distinct parts, at least one of which is from memory set thousands of years later. It’s kind of about words, their power, the difference between knowledge and wisdom, the truth within legend, the not-so-truth within legend, and it’s also about people and why they do the very strange things they do, and why shouldn’t they do nothing whatsoever. It’s a book which in its way is entirely different from watching virtually any hit show on TV right now – i.e. there’s no way reading this book can make you dumber.