Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyUsed Books of the Future Redux

  • Mon, 05 May 2014 09:24:00    Permalink
    Greg: "Don't bother me. I'm having deep, noir thoughts... working on my next detective novel."
    Anne Marie: "Looks more like you're working on your next drink."

    After two weeks of Irish hills and windswept islands, we've retreated to our home place, Cork City, for a couple of days of loafing around. Then we'll go north to check out Newgrange,that mysterious, awe inspiring, neolithic temple/timepiece, and then we'll head home.
    I can't tell you how good it feels to be taking a break from the rare book biz. OK, I did try to buy an 1871 French voyage to Tahiti, but that was left over from an earlier deal, and I'm not even sure I placed my order in time.
    This is not to say I'm on vacation from books. Just that I've been spending my entire holiday with what people refer to as "new" books. To me, “new books” are simply "used books of the future." Perhaps, someday, they will accede to the vaunted status of "rare books of the future." But only time will tell.
    Specifically, when I haven't been walking, talking, eating, sleeping or drinking, I've been reading Roberto Bolano's magnificent book

    The Savage Detectives, and Laurent Binet's whimsical, moving, and equally marvelous novel HHhH (Himmler's Hirn heisst Heydrich, which translates as Heydrich is Himmler's brain). I'm not a WWII history buff, but this one is an exception. Exceptional!
    I don't think any two novels could be more different. Bolano's work is a rackety, crowded, noisy story within a story leading to a story told by dozens of narrators posing as eyewitnesses who talk about their contacts with two guys who may or may not be searching for someone who may not have existed, at least in the way they'd assumed she'd existed. It is the work of a genius – compassionate, funny, wise, compelling, and utterly exhausting. The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolano's other masterpiece, crowd into more than 1500 pages. You have to be a tough, seasoned reader to get through them both. I know more people who have tried and failed than those who have met me on the other side, drenched with sweat, panting, “That was great. What happened, anyway?”
    Binet's book is told by only one man – Laurent Binet, the author. He is so close we can hear him breathe as he works, his dry chuckle. We can see his sweat and tears. The story and the people in the story are very personal for him, and he shares his research and thoughts about them with a heartfelt, intimacy and generosity. If Bolano is hard to get through, Binet is hard to put down. His chapters are short – some no more than a few lines in length – but they can land like blows.
    For me, a key element in the effectiveness of both of these books is the voice of the narrator – the sound of the voice of the guy who's telling the story. And I mean this literally. Every book has its own sound. I've been thinking a lot about this because the other thing I've been doing during this vacation is working on the sequel to my detective novel (13,027 words so far, but who's counting?) The Old Turk's Load– yet another used book of the future (now available as a paperback!) – and voice is critical to this effort as well. I can't begin to tell the story until I figure out how the guy who's telling it (me) sounds as he's telling it.
    Here's a bit of what I think it's going to sound like - a scene introducing the hero, Walkaway Kelly...
    Kelly shambles out of his living quarters as if he’d been hibernating there. He’s dressed, but might have slept in his clothes. Needs a shave. Jarkey is sitting at one of the two desks in the front office, pecking the typewriter, scowling at the article he’s writing about Radio Row, the Lower West Side neighborhood recently obliterated to clear the way for the new World Trade Center. He’s wondering if anyone cares. The whole place was a rathole anyway.     Kelly sits at the other desk, rummages through the top drawer, finds a packet of Brioschi, takes it to the water cooler beside the filing cabinet, dumps the powder into a greasy glass and fills the glass, watching the bubble travel up the tall transparent jug from the spout to the top, where it pops with a blurp. He tosses off the Brioschi in a single gulp, pours another glass, watches another bubble, returns to his desk with the full glass. From a side drawer he removes a bottle of Tang, dumps some orange powder into the water glass, stirs with a pencil, drinks. Then he walks back to the filing cabinet, on top of which sits a hotplate with a recently perked pot of coffee. He pours a cup of coffee, returns to his desk, removes a quart of Wilson’s “That’s All” blended whiskey from the Tang drawer, pours the whiskey into the coffee, straightens his tie, and leans back in his chair with a satisfied half smile. Breakfast.    Jarkey has been trying not to pay attention, but finds irresistible the vacant, catlike manner with which Kelly moves through the universe. For the thousandth time he wonders whether Kelly is an idiot sustained by luck and stubbornness, or a genius attuned to forces unperceived by mortals. For the thousandth time he rejects those limiting axes. The man is, as they say, “something else.”    Just now, for example, he has somehow read Jarkey’s mind. Or, no. More like he picked a crumpled piece of paper from Jarkey’s mental wastebasket, unfolded it, and read it. Radio Row is a rathole.    Kelly puts his cup on the desk and says, “Did you know there are 100 million rats born in this city every year?”    “How do you know that?”    “Larry told me. You know? Over in sanitation.”    “Well, Larry should know, if anyone does.”    “Larry says there’s a new kind of rat,” Kelly continued. “A super rat. It’s immune to rat poison.”    “You’re kidding.”   “No, really. Larry says they’ve found them up in the Bronx. Rat poison is an anti-coagulant, see? The rats bleed out internally. But these new rats are resistant to anti-coagulants on account of high concentrations of certain vitamins in their bloodstreams.”    Jarkey stares at Kelly. Genius or moron? He realizes Kelly has just given him the lead for a new story. A more interesting story than the demolition of an area that should have gone down decades ago.    Kelly finishes his coffee, rises, grabs his coat from the rack near the door. “I’m gonna get a shave.”   “Get me one, too,” Jarkey mumbles, already thinking how he’ll frame the rat story. “What’s Larry’s number?    But Kelly is gone.

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