Hank Stamper throws some dynamite

Good bit from Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion where Hank Stamper tries to bomb a boat. That Kesey never uses the word “dynamite” is the aspect I like best:

Henry appeared to be tiring. One of the men, the taller one, who I decided must be Hank—what other Caucasian ever moved with that slack-limbed indolence?—left the others and loped into the boatshed and reappeared, bent in an odd position as he shielded something with his cupped hands. He stood at the edge of the dock in this position for a moment, then straightened up to throw whatever he held in the direction of the boat. (Oh lordy, what’s happening?) And then there was nothing but silence as the whole cast—the figures on the dock, the petrified brown lump in the boat, even the pack of dogs—stood perfectly still and quiet for perhaps two and three-quarters seconds before a thundering blast right next to the boat jammed a white column of water forty feet into the hot, smoky air, ka-whooomp! like an Old Faithful erupting in the middle of the river.

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Kerouac’s Big Sur

Picked up a copy of Big Sur at Moe’s last week for an unknown reason–I hope the purchase was made for an unknown reason and not a known reason like nostalgia. Okay it was likely nostalgia. Shoot me.

Strange to remember that Kerouac–for all his On The Page flaws–is a natural writer, natural in the natural sense, that his prose flows easy and moves a story along as a story requires. Compared to contemporary bestsellers his writing style is envious; compared to Lee Child he is James Joyce Jr.

Laughed again at this bit from Chapter 6 featuring Alf the mule:

So I angle back down to the home canyon and down the path past the cabin and out to the sea where the mule is on the sea shore, nibbling under that one thousand foot bridge or sometimes just standing staring at me with big brown Garden of Eden eyes — The mule being a pet of one of the families who have a cabin in the canyon and it, as I say Alf by name, just wanders from one end of the canyon where the corral fence stops him, to the wild seashore where the sea stops him but a strange Gauguinesque mule when you first see him, leaving his black dung on the perfect white sand, an immortal and primordial mule owning a whole valley — I even finally later find out where Alf sleeps which is like a sacred grove of trees in that dreaming meadow of heather — So I feed Alf the last of my apples which he receives with big faroff teeth inside his soft hairy muzzle, never biting, just muffing up my apple from my outstretched palm, and chomping away sadly, turning to scratch his behind against a tree with a big erotic motion that gets worse and worse till finally he’s standing there with erectile dong that would scare the Whore of Babylon let alone me.

Robert Stone’s freezer

In a 1982 essay concerning the novelist Robert Stone, Joseph Epstein agreed that Stone was a talented writer, but that his third novel A Flag For Sunrise (1981) was “a botch, such a sad and misguided failure.” Epstein went on to criticize Stone’s conventional liberal politics as the main problem of the novel, and that Stone’s sentiments dull what ought to be a dazzling story.

I read A Flag For Sunrise fifteen years ago and had forgotten all of it.  Stone’s second novel Dog Soldiers is one I can never forget, and while A Flag For Sunrise doesn’t measure up to that predecessor, it is better than I remember–or failed to remember. How can one forget the girl in the freezer?

He scanned the surface contents of the chest, amorphous cubes of ice, the enormous turkey, the bottles of beer with their peeling labels, and saw at last—in one comer, partially concealed by ice–a human foot. Looking more closely, he saw that it curved downward from a turned ankle on which there was a small cut gone black. The outer side of the foot was visible, its callused edge pressed against the top of a South American sandal. The thong of the sandal divided the darkly veined front of the foot; caught between two of the toes was a tiny cotton pompom of bright red. Father Egan looked down at the foot and understood only its beautiful symmetry, its functional wholeness, the sublime engineering that had appended its five longish toes. The top of it, he saw, was suntanned.

Talent spotting

Was it 100? That is the number I think of when I think of the number of notable books selected by the New York Times for 2014. 100 notable books from 2014 is of course nonsense–one only has to look back to 1914 and count the notable books from that august year. I will guess that there are 5, maybe 6 good/great books from 1914. Probably less. It is always less.

In a lifetime of reading I still cannot comprehend how unreadable books get published. Bad books outnumber good books 100 to 1. But given that there are 5 great novels from 1914, maybe that ratio is 10,000 to 1–this is heavy math and I am no mathematician.

I know good books when I read them. I am guilty of praising books I like that do not hold up 10 years after I have read them. But so much garbage…

I read one great 2014 novel in 2014, The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis. Now I am reading another very good novel from 2014, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish. Lish’s book is terrific, and he seems to be a very funny person away from novel-writing, for he says glorious bullshit like “I didn’t really know that books win awards.”

So my notable 2014 books list now stands at 2, 98 behind the Times. One of us is full of it.

Theroux pesters an American Buddhist

‘What do your folks think about you becoming a Buddhist?’
‘I am looking for water,’ he said obstinately.
‘Are you in a monastery or what?’
‘Look, if there’s no water here, just tell me and I’ll go away.’
‘I’ve got some good friends in Baltimore,’ I said. ‘Ever get back there?’
‘You’re bothering me,’ said the monk.
‘Is that any way for a monk to talk?’
He was really angry then. He said, ‘I get asked these questions a hundred times a day!’
‘I’m just curious.’
‘There are no answers,’ he said, with mystifying glibness. ‘I’m looking for water.’
‘Keep looking.’
‘I’m dirty! I haven’t slept all night; I want to wash!’
‘I’ll show you where the water is if you answer me one more question,’ I said.
‘You’re a nosy bastard, just like the rest of them,’ said the Buddhist monk.
‘Second door on your right,’ I said. ‘Don’t drown.’

from chapter 13 of The Great Railway Bazaar

Theroux of Lahore

In The Great Railway Bazaar Paul Theroux makes clear that a good train compartment is preferable to any fixed lodging. In this scene, after wandering around Lahore and finding nothing to do, Theroux returns to his hotel:

I set off in search of a drink as soon as I got back to the hotel. It was still early, about ten o’clock, but I had not gone fifty yards when a thin man in striped pyjamas stepped from behind a tree. His eyes were prominent and lighted in the dusky triangle of his face.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘A drink.’
‘I get you a nice girl. Two hundred rupees. Good fucking.’ He said this with no more emotion than a man hawking razor blades.
‘No thanks.’
‘Very young. You come with me. Good fucking.’
‘And good fucking to you,’ I said. ‘I’m looking for a drink.’

The Great Railway Bazaar at 40

Paul Theroux’s first travel book The Great Railway Bazaar turns 40 this year, and rereading it is like meeting friends one hopes one will never meet again. Travel friends, like friendships made on a political campaign, are fleeting and slightly useful, and they can either cure or induce boredom within seconds. The benefit of these friendships is that they need not be maintained.

The early stars of the book are the threadbare Duffill, a mystery man bound for Istanbul, and the cheerful Molesworth, a man whose supreme talent is procuring wine. Theroux’s one constant companion is Little Dorrit, and he is constantly kept from Dorrit by passing sights and present smells–there are many unwashed hippies on his trains.

Theroux offers deadpan commentary on the towns and trades visible from his window, and he is best when describing the nameless intruders, whether they are a boy who cries whenever his flirtatious mother gets heated, or a silent Turk who escapes his bratty children to smoke cigarettes alongside a reposed Theroux. Pressed travel on trains forces one to be civil to one’s neighbor, and perhaps it is that civility, forced or forced upon, that once made us better as people.