Saturday, May 30, 2015

The One Book You Dare Not Let Yourself Continue Reading

You learned about the One Book, meaning the One Book You Couldn't Let Yourself Continue Reading, from the man who is ultimately responsible for you using the second person point of view for these blog entries.

The man, whose birthday happens to be tomorrow, was born Julian Lawrence Shapiro in 1904, and who stayed with us until March of 2003, writing his books on a Royal upright manual typewriter, pausing from time to time to thumb through what many still consider the quintessential unabridged dictionary, the second edition Merriam-Webster.

He'd already changed his name to John Sanford when you met him in the 1990s, way too late for your taste.  At one point when you were having coffee at the now defunct Xanadu Bakery in the lower village of Montecito, California, Sanford, on his way to the adjacent Von's Market, spotted you, waved, then imitated a vaudeville dancer's time step as he made his way over to you, an uncharacteristic grin on his face.  

By no means a dour or grumpy man, Sanford was impatient in advance for fools he might have to suffer and for causes that were not advancing with the speed he'd hoped.  "What ninety-year old do you know who's just signed a two-book contract?"

Sanford began his writing career as a novelist, his early work encouraged and praised by his personal hero, William Carlos Williams, and also by Carl Sandberg.  Williams' book, In the American Grain, once Sanford picked it up, became the book he could not allow himself to finish, lest it have too strong a hold and influence on him.  But the first few pages were enough for him to know that some light had been shown on a way he was to spend the rest of his life pursuing, in the process completing a lyric history of American, written in haunting, ironic vignettes, and a multi-volume autobiography, written in the second person.

In a sense, Sandford had produced enough work to have found a way into the narrative voice for fiction that would, given his own work ethic and love for his craft, seen him extend his dramatic range and heft.  But the poetry, politics, and inherent humanity of the Williams work acted as a catapult, thrusting him into a format and ironic voice of an entirely new order.

With the exception of this greeting exchange at the Xanadu Bakery that day, your standard greeting to Sanford was, "Rather the ice than their way,"the opening line of the first chapter, written from the point of view of Red Eric, the explorer.  Sanford's response, a crisp nod, and, "That's all I needed, kid.  I read that page and I was on my own way."

You'd already read In the American Grain before meeting Sanford.  The discovery that Sanford knew and had been published by Williams in some of his literary journals sent you back to the book with the recognition of how you'd no doubt be rereading it with some regularity.  Your copy went next to another of the Williams books in your shelves, a poetic evocation of his home town of Patterson, N.J.

Your own One Book You Mustn't Allow Yourself to read from any farther than you have was a collection of short stories by Thomas McGuane, one of which took place in the parking lot of a large motel in Arizona where, one night, you'd had to sleep in your car because there were no vacant rooms.  Almost immediately on starting the story, the most remarkable stage direction in all of Shakespeare's plays careened into your mind, right out of A Winter's Tale.  "Exit, Pursued by a Bear."  The material, triggered by the half of McGuane's story you read had an electric effect on you.  

During the next several days, you managed six or seven chapters.  Even when school work and other obligations threatened, you got more pages, and when it became apparent you were going to have to take some time off, you scribbled notes for the ending, which are still clear in your mind.

When you finally met McGuane in person, you already knew what to expect, given his longtime friendship with your own pal, Barnaby Conrad.  An affable, thoughtful man, McGuane radiates good humor and that quality you've come to prize in persons who have it, the ability to laugh at himself.  When you told him about the effect his story had on you, he smiled.  "I think,"  he said, "it's safe for you to go back now and finish reading the story.  You might want to start from the beginning, but I do think it's safe now."

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