Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Holy Grail Found in a Used Bookstore

Addiction comes in many forms.  When you were quite a bit younger, you harbored fears about being addicted to licorice cigarettes, small cylinders of licorice perhaps half the diameter and length of a real cigarette.  They were packaged in cardboard boxes which you carried about after school,  in your ventures in the large swaths of vacant lots that were even then on their way to becoming a large housing tract.  This undeveloped landscape was your jungle, wherein you imagined explorations, safaris, and adventures taken from whatever you happened to be reading at the time.

This was the time of penny candy, where a trove of varieties of shapes, flavors, and brands were available.  You knew of several venues for these purchases, but far and away your favorite was a combination magazine-book-candy-smoke shop at the southwestern corner of La Brea and Olympic, walking and biking distance from where you lived.

Licorice cigarettes attracted you at first because of the cardboard containers in which they came, bright reds or greens with stark black lettering and scant illustrations.  You were also attracted by the number of quasi-cigarettes per package.  Then, as habit persisted, and you heard adults speaking of their addictions to real cigarettes, your alarm began to appear when you found yourself up to two, sometimes three packs a week.

You had no such alarm when you began smoking actual cigarettes and pipes, nor did you consider yourself anything beyond a coffee drinker until, one hungover morning, you awoke to a considerable headache, no fresh cigarettes in your then apartment, and few scant grains of coffee in the can you'd been saving because you'd thought to use it as a container for pencils.  Going through your kitchen trash to find yesterday's coffee grounds, still damp in the used Chemex filter, you heated water, then re-used the mess to brew an emergency pot.

While the water was dripping and the very things the filter paper had filtered from yesterday's coffee were dripping through, anemic and murky, you scrounged through the living room wastes for cigarette butts that might provide enough puffs to convince you of being sufficiently alert to consider a  breakfast that would take away the hangover's persistent reminders of last night's excesses.

Some hours later, you were at the market on Hollywood and Gower, paying for a pound of cheap coffee, a quart of milk, a cylindrical box of Quaker Oats oatmeal, and a pack of Camels with coins from your change stash, your mind focused on the short story you'd subsequently sold, and would deliver tomorrow, whereupon you would be paid fifty dollars, which you knew would be spent on such luxuries as better coffee, Benson and Hedges cigarettes, and likely such luxuries as lamb shanks and sole or yellowtail.

The worst-case scenario, having to scrounge for butts and used coffee grounds, did its best to remind you of the degradations associated with addiction.  Subsequent to that day and one or two others like it, you've heard enough worst-case addiction stories to convince you you were more late-twenties romanticizing than demonstrating addiction.

However a reach it may be to link a deeper kind of addictive behavior to the hours you've spent in used bookstores, away you reach, thinking again of your financial reserves being limited to a pocketful of coins, desperate to find your version of the holy grail, the book you believed would, even as you read it, cause elements both real and irrational to coalesce, imparting the secret that would unlock the doors to your greater understanding of drama, of story, of character, event, dialogue, circumstance, emotional depth, and yes, empathy.

For years, at times when you could well afford hardcover books purchased new off the shelves at Pickwick in Hollywood and Vroman's in Pasadena, and Martindale's in Beverly Hills, or used in the shops on Santa Monica Boulevard or Vine Street or Las Palmas in Hollywood, you read, absorbed as best you could, then moved on, not yet satisfied.  You were well into your fifties when you began to suspect that not only did no such one transformative book exist, rather that all those you'd devoured were only a piece of the larger mosaic.  You must continue to look, you must continue to read because they all contribute to the end goal you seek.

In a real sense, much of this dances about that most genial and generous of writers, Thomas McGuane.  You've just gone to the bookcase housing your short story collection, whence you pulled forth To Skin a Cat,McGuane's first collection.  The bookmark is still in place where you left it, at the precise place where you stopped reading because your reading had given you an idea and you did not wish to go any farther, lest the idea become more McGuane than you.  And thus you labored for quite some while on Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which you have yet to finish, although you have returned to it numerous times and have a sense of how and where it will end.

A scant week ago, over a leisurely lunch with McGuane, you told him of this as you spoke of short stories, of writers you both knew, of writers you each preferred, and, indeed, of one you'd never heard of before, recommended by him.  Maile Meloy's Half in Love is also a collection, and before you'd got past the opening paragraph of "Ranch Girl," you knew you were in for a ride you'd never take, not even with Annie Proulx's remarkable short story, "The Mud Below," which is about bull riding, while Meloy's "Ranch Girl" is not.  Nevertheless, although you got something stunning and remarkable from the Proulx, you were, yourself, riding the Meloy story, as hopelessly addicted to it as you feared you were to licorice cigarettes.

You are in fact Jonesing on story, hopelessly in love with the form and the effect the powerful ones have on you.

You are a city boy.  You have perhaps ridden horses a few hundred times.  You do not sit a horse well at all, and although you have respect for horses and for farms and ranches and barn cats and have formed a kind of bonding passion for herd dogs and bluetick hounds, you are a city boy.  Your ride is neither the bronc nor the bull or horse, it is the urban short story, as cranky and pestered as you are in the city, as bored by concepts of rural life as only a city boy could be.

Talking to persons who have written short stories, reading the short stories of writers such as McGuane, who make you want to sit a story of your own and let it loose to see if you can ride it down, even though it bucks you and throws you on your ass, willing to get back on again, and screw the humiliation or sore bones, just to get the sense of doing that thing, much like the young protagonist in Annie Proulx's short story.

The vision you sought from one book is not to be had, but the vision from being in the world of story, trying to keep on it even though it wishes with great passion to throw you, this is the discovery of the holy grail in a used bookstore.  This is the knowledge you need, the knowledge that somehow urges you back after you've been thrown.

In 1967, a writer by the name of William Murray wrote a novel called The Sweet Ride, in many ways about surfing.  You've watched more surfers than rodo performances, and although you are not of that world either, it is closer to you and when you stay on a story until it gives you some of the responses you saw in it, you think of what you've been through as a sweet ride, perhaps in a nod to Murray and his novel, perhaps in recognition that there is a sweetness and harmony to the most noir and bleak as well as the most focused of poignancy.

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