by Hugh Gilmore
I hesitate to file copy originating from deep within a spruce forest, a mile from the nearest two-lane blacktop, on a deck overlooking a large, quiet pond. The setting leaves me speechless. I’ve fled Chestnut Hill to recuperate from certain, shall I say, “insults,” in … let’s call it “Maine.”
Blame the pleasant setting, I guess, but I have nothing to say. It’s all so … quiet … in these parts I think my mind has gone to sleep. I’d stomp it a few times, like I do my foot when it goes to sleep, but I’m not sure how to get my leg over my head.
Even if I could, where would that get me? I’d be up here “Down East,” and fully mindful of all the duties, noise and pollution awaiting me back home. Not to mention certain persons who think I’m a lazy writer who’s been running a journalistic scam.
What do I mean, Pete? Well, I’ve been on the run up north ever since the Chestnut Hill Book Festival opening night cocktail party at the Valley Green Bank. On entering that sophisticated scene, I foolishly, without even the shield of a wine glass, stepped up to a conversation in progress. A lady festival planner looked at me, and without so much as a “Hello, handsome,” gave me the old vaudevillian fish-in-the-face,
“Well, we’re joined by the guy who gets other people to write his columns for him,” she said.
Ouch! She was referring to my recent “Reading Roundup” series, where I yielded column space to some of our eloquent neighbors who wanted to describe their love of books and reading.
Well, Pete, I mean to tell you I haven’t been slapped in public like that in quite a while – and by a lady whose tone suggested she’d rehearsed this acute assessment of me before the mirror a few times.
What did I do, Pete?
I recoiled, and started to say, “You don’t understand – it takes three times longer to write an edited collaboration piece,” but I instantly remembered Einstein’s mantra, “Never explain” and shut up.
Pete, you’ve always told me, in your avuncular way, that the worst crime one can commit against oneself is to seek understanding from someone who doesn’t “get you.” I finally understood. I put my thumbs to my temples, waved my fingers, and said, not especially at her, but meant for her, “booga booga,” hoping such eloquence spoke louder than mere words. Then I backed away and spent the rest of the reception standing behind a clear plastic cup of white wine, nodding to people whenever their lips stopped moving.
As the evening wore on, however, I remembered the plot of John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samara,” (Cadillac dealership owner throws drink in face of one of his investors at Christmas party, thereby ruining his own life) and immediately began to regret the possible consequences of my “booga-booga” speech, certainly a small-town social gaffe. As soon as I got home, I packed my bag and rented a car. The next day I drove up here to the land of the loons.
But now what, now that I’m in the Witless Protection program up here? The Book Festival’s over, a success once again (no particular thanks to me this year, as I had a diminished presence). And I’m sitting on the deck overlooking the pond, nervously listening for the sound of Chestnut Hill Aesthetics Committee squad cars crunching up the gravel path through the forest. I’m trying to avoid rubbing up against my life back home.
The cabin does not have television reception or a telephone. Every other day, disguised as a tourist, I drive to an Internet café in the nearest town. In fact: bye for now. I’m going there now to check the Phillies score from yesterday. (Yes, I know, an “enemy of reading.”)
Hi, Pete, I’m back. I know what you’re thinking. It came to me while driving back to the cabin: “He can save this piece if he writes something about books or reading.” Thanks, I’ll take the hint.
You know, I selflessly asked everyone in Chestnut Hill what he or she was enjoying as summer reading, but I didn’t mention my own ambitions. For six months I’ve wanted to read Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” This book won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is now being adapted by HBO into a television series. My interest in the author was also piqued by reading several interviews she’s done with various book critics. She seems like a very appealing, dauntless, talented person who has worked hard to develop her craft.
The only impediment to my reading this book at once was that I don’t usually buy new books. I borrow them from the Free Library of Philadelphia. As vacation approached, however, my place in the waiting line decreased slowly, from number 67 in mid-June to number 42 when I left for Maine. I’d have to buy a copy, I decided.
When we arrived in Belfast, Maine, after our long drive, our first stop was for provisions: bread, milk, hummus, beer, and “Goon Squad,” items easily found at, or near, the Renys shopping plaza on Route 3. In this small shopping center, a wonderful bookstore, Mr. Paperback, sells a wide range of tasteful new books. Part of the bookstore’s space houses the equally wonderful Bell The Cat Wi-Fi café.
I began reading “Goon Squad” that afternoon and finished it in three easy sittings. Quite enjoyable. Brilliant scene writing. Vivid, believable characters. Strong on psychological insight. Never quite ties together, other than in quick biographical summaries of what happened to the characters later.
There, Pete, how’s that for in-depth critical analysis? If you noticed, I made my review exactly as long as someone at a dinner table will listen if they bother to ask you, “Oh, you read that? How’d you like it?” Then the conversation can return to the only two things that matter in modern middle-class life: who’s eaten at what restaurants? And, who’s seen what movies?
I then, I confess, bought a mystery. I loathe mysteries so much I don’t count them towards my “Books Read” list. But there are a few long-tenured authors I invested in years ago and I feel absolutely compelled to read their latest productions. In this case, I’m a sucker for anything by Nevada Barr, creator of the Anna Pigeon series.
Anna Pigeon is an intelligent, fallible, gutsy, middle-aged U.S. National Park Service ranger. Each of Barr’s many novels is set in a different U.S. national park and filled with fascinating behind-the-scenes details of how that park operates and what kinds of problems besiege the rangers as they perform their duties.
Barr’s latest Anna Pigeon book, “Burn,” is set in and around the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in post-Katrina New Orleans. I enjoyed “Burn,” but only because I’m a fan. Mysteries require too much “suspension of disbelief” for their plots to entertain me. I always sense the author manipulating the puppets ‘ strings. However, I very much enjoy learning to sense what kind of person Nevada Barr must be from reading 20 years of the interior monologues she’s placed in the mind of her all-too-human protagonist, Anna Pigeon.
That’s it, Uncle Pete. Please write and tell me when it’s safe to come home.
Your errant nephew,