Friday, July 25, 2014

East Is East and West Is West and Always the Twain

Unless the young reader is born into some family circumstance of unusual intensity, home life is going to be routine, with a measure or two of hum-drum thrown in.  Small wonder that characters from novels, plays, and films became the  beacons for an inner life, paving the way, don't you know, for confrontation and ultimate reconciliation with James Thurber's icon of a short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

When you first came upon this story, Thurber was at the point of beginning to eclipse Mark Twain in your estimation.  This was not so much of a crisis as it was a turning point in your own vision of who you were, what you wished to become, and the seeming obstacles to be encountered and vanquished.

You were, for all intents and purposes, between Twain and Thurber.  Twain knew how to send a person on an adventure.  He in fact sent you on several, including your determination to get a job at his old launching pad, The Territorial-Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada.  

But Thurber was alive and producing new materials with some regularity, including drawings, cartoons, short stories, and dramas.  You were also at the stage where you realized Thurber and his circle of friends had a level of sophistication to which you aspired, influencing your tastes in reading and in fantasy.  

Thurber was also much of the East.  Even though he was from the Midwest, he'd gone to New York, he'd secured a job in New York, he was published in New York, he was performed in New York.  You were fighting--and would continue for some time to fight--the battle between East and West until one November afternoon after your career in publishing had been launched to your near satisfaction.


The wind off the river was crisp, reminding you of the iodine tang of the Pacific and of the way winds seemed to bounce along streets of San Francisco, taking traction the way cable cars gripped their way up the hills.  You were with a group of publishing associates, all easterners but you.  The day had a flavor of chestnuts roasting on street corner braziers, the waft of hot dogs and sauerkraut from the Nathan's and Neddick's stand.  You and your group moved past a Chock Full 'o Nuts restaurant, its spicy Arabic coffee blend adding its voice to the clamor of the street.

You couldn't help yourself.  "This day"  you announced, "is so perfect.  This is like San Francisco."

You felt an immediate group hesitation, as though all five or six of you had been jostled going trough the turnstiles at a subway entrance.  Then you were told their version of the day.  "This is indeed a remarkable day, but this is not like San Francisco.  This is remarkable because it is New York.  If San Francisco is anything, it is like New York."

You were reminded of the famed Saul Steinberg cover of The New Yorker, a map, really, showing the entire continent of North America, reduced to a narrow border against which the largeness and importance of New York proclaimed itself.  And there you were, reconfirmed in your westernness, your California-ness.

Not surprisingly, you have a number of easterner friends, but they have found their way here, and you began here.

True enough, the young reader who was you wanted adventure where ever it was available, and for the longest time, you wanted New York as the natural roosting place wherein to process your adventures.  He wanted New York suits, New York ties, New York literary agents, New York publishers.

Events such as the this-is-like-San-Francisco day meant among other things that your life was catching up with your reading, which is to speak of a number of realizations that it was time to be you instead of characters you admired.  Most of your favored characters now are men and women who emerge from the crucible of story accepting negotiated settlements with Reality or accepting the possibility that their earlier goals were pumped up with the froth of youthful restlessness and impatience.

You are western restless and western impatient, a crazy, haphazard force in search of a story he can run down amid a terrain of mesas, high and low deserts, strip malls, and espresso bars seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Your favored characters are men and women who walk the city streets as though attempting to disguise the sea legs acquired from reading  and writing too many stories about the far away places of the interior.

You are perhaps more in need of adventure than ever before, because you've moved through the plateaus of the young reader, the YA reader, and the adult reader, where protagonists and antagonists had their work cut out for them.  Many of the individuals you see are back into routines of days at parks or lawn bowls or hobby centers, the focused vision of the character on a quest gone from their eyes.

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