Friday, May 16, 2014

Second Time Around Readings and Old Friends

There are times when approaching a favored book for a second reading is as risky as being contacted by an old friend from college or early work days.  You are not at all sure what to expect from either.  The greatest risk of all, even beyond disappointment, is the discovery of something about yourself you thought you'd put to rest.

Your apprehensions about such things came into play without you noticing it at first.  One of your courses this quarter is Noir fiction.  You'd worked out the syllabus and reading assignments to give a historical journey through some of the more epic dark moments in literature.  The only thing left for you was the compilation of one hundred memorable noir novels, your intent to pull some of these from such surprising literary gems as Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

So far, so good.  You also wanted--then compiled--a list of fifty noir authors, men and women who worked in short story as well as novel.  Number six was Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Dickens, whom you've come to much admire.  With number seven, you began to feel a tingle.  Number seven could have been any author whose surname began with a C or a D.  But you felt Jim Crumley coming on, and so you wrote, Crumley, James.  The Last Good Kiss.

Trying to triangulate on when you'd last read that novel, you settled on somewhere in the 1990's, based on a number of personal landmarks.  In memory, the novel soared right up off the charts, but possibly because of your meeting him here in a rather anomalous meeting, then getting rousingly drunk with him, you thought your judgment might have been clouded.  This is where the risk comes in.  What kinds of changes had you undergone in the twenty-some-odd years between then and now.

For about a year, the resort hotel, The San Ysidro Ranch, hosted a series of literary lunches in which the guests paid a fixed-price fee, got a not-to-be-sneezed-at buffet lunch, heard an author speak for forty minute, got the latest copy of his/her book.

Such things ordinarily do not attract your interest, but when Barnaby Conrad phoned to say you had to come to the next one, because it was James Crumley, and because it was you who'd put Conrad onto reading Crumley, you were in.

Crumley was an engaging, if not inspiring speaker.  While he spoke, you recalled, then later asked him about some of the venues for food and drinks in his novels.  The missing elements were sudden, explosive danger, often in the form of violence; a clientele of individuals who'd not come to be on nearly such agreeable terms with life as today's assembled host in the San Ysidro Ranch, and a sense of a saloon or bar or tavern more as a refuge from the world than a place to sample the concoctions of able bartenders.

You and Crumley moved to the nearby lounge which you believe is still called The Stone Room, a place where even the well drinks sell at prices that could keep a drunk in one of Crumley's novels going for several hours.

By that time in your life, you'd more or less moved away from hard stuff, single-malt and the higher plateaus of bourbon, taking your pleasure in the occasional bottle of wine, more often yet in ale.

Drinking with Crumley that afternoon caused you to experience the feelings you'd get when, during your years of driving Volkswagen Beetles, you'd be passed on the highway by an eighteen-wheeler.  You did not match Crumley by any means, but you did put away considerable Wild Turkey that afternoon.

There is a nourish inevitability about the Crumley novels, spreading like a double bourbon spilled on the bar to all aspects of the story, its voice, its quest, and the men and women who seem always to be fighting against an unstoppable barrier.  The fenders of automobiles in Crumley novels are forever being mashed, sometimes after unintended contests with trees, the sides of buildings, or large rocks.

Your conversation with Crumley ranged over such things as blues, bourbon, which writers neither of you could abide, and why.  Crumley was a man of wide and varied opinions.  He could and in fact did encourage differences.  But he seemed to be obsessed with curiosity.  He wanted to know why.  His whys took him farther and deeper than most of the contemporaries who seemed to think of the medium as entertainment.  You did not need to get drunk with him in order to see this.  You got his seriousness from his people, their responses to the problems they see or imagine, and their persistence in trying to make sense of it.

In essence, at the half-way point of your second read, you are even more forgiving of the ominous sense of violence and the constant sub-theme of drinking, looking at the bright flashes of understanding and awareness that send you tumbling deeply into not only his narrator but everyone who sets foot on one of his pages.

You'd certainly not intended to go off into a long afternoon of sipping Wild Turkey, much less sipping enough to convince you that you were drunk.  Nor did you need that remove of defenses and suspicion to see Crumley as a loner but not a misanthrope.  Drunk as you were, you were not hungover.  Crumley might have ascribed that to the fact of drinking a good bourbon, chasing it only with ice water.

You knew better.

Second time around for The Last Good Kiss is just fine, thank you.  You have not grown apart, the friendship is still there, waiting for you.

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