Thursday, June 19, 2008

It's a Mystery to Me

As we are drawn to particular preferences in the things we eat, don't eat, drink, don't drink, and on down the line of pairs of opposites that claim our approval or disapproval, we are draw to a spectrum of story that sates what I like to think of as the mystical appetite of reading taste. This is the literary equivalent of comfort food in the sense that it has the potential of calming, exciting, infusing with nostalgia, transporting us to another era or place or age. As such things go, it is not a rational taste. The more I think about it, investigate its implications, compare it with the things I enjoy writing and actually do write, the more it comes to me that literary taste is quite contrary, bordering on impish and perverse.

We write to fulfill emotional hungers, just as we read to enter the domain of an individual writer and sign on for the chef's taste special.

One such writer awaits in person in a few days. I had been reading Joe Wambaugh from the first of his remarkable publication record. When he last appeared at our writers' conference, it fell to my happy lot to introduce him in is role as featured speaker of the evening. "Joe Wambaugh," I said, "writes the books we wish we'd written." He liked that and went on to say that he wrote books he was glad to have written. Although I had one long-term and warm relationship with a homicide cop, he was a different breed from Wambaugh, his reading tastes running to The Sporting News, Field and Stream, and the L.A. Times his writing tastes ran to field reports and summaries. I mention St. John, for that was his name, as a reference point for my being so fond of Joe Wambaugh's work. I admired St. John, ate and drank with him, But neither that crossing of paths with the man who worde badge Number one from the LAPD nor the opportunity to hang out with Joe Wambaugh explain to my satisfaction my interest in crime-related novels. To my tastes, Wambaugh has a quality greater than is inside knowledge of police work; he has an antic humor that explodes with wit and good humor of the ironic sort I often prefer. Things are not what they seem for any of his cops or civilians. I like Joe Wambaugh novels because his tone and word choice and sense of how relations play out pull me in as though, as though they were comfort food.

Of all his works, fiction and nonfiction, The Mysteries of Harry Bright became the equivalent for me of peanut butter and jam on a thick slab of bread.

Thinking about some of the legendary crime writers I knew, went on the carouse with and/or edited, writers such as Bill S. Ballinger, Day Keene, Bob Turner, Steve Fisher, Frank Gruber, Dorothy B. Hughes, Ken Millar, Bill Gault,Tom Dewey,John Wilder, all of whom I greatly admire, there is that special place for Joe Wambaugh because of that particular flavor he imparts, that edgy humor that pushes the boundaries but does not bleed over into cruelty or gratuitous violence.

The closest to have approached Wambaugh is Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and it is my suspicion that Chabon is a fan of Wambaugh.

I have come some distance then in saying Wambaugh writes the books we wish we'd written. Although I think this is still true, I also believe he writes the books we wish we'd read sooner.

1 comment:

lettuce said...

i think my literary comfort food is probably fantasy - poss. science fiction also

thats a very nice way to think about it