Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2005

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2005

Nick Hornby
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  • The Diary of a Country Priest—Georges Bernanos
  • A Complicated Kindness—Miriam Toews
  • Blood Done Sign My Name—Timothy B. Tyson
  • Over Tumbled Graves—Jess Walter
  • Becoming Strangers—Louise Dean


  • Citizen Vince—Jess Walter
  • A Complicated Kindness—Miriam Toews

On my recent book tour of the U.S. I met a suspiciously large number of people who claimed to be Believer readers; some of the people who came to the signings even told me that they had read and enjoyed this column, although I can see that if you’re standing in front of someone waiting for a signature, you might as well say something, even if what you end up saying is patently and laughably untrue. Anyway, having met and talked to some of you, I now realize that the descriptions I occasionally provide of the Polysyllabic Spree, the eighty horribly brainwashed young men and women who control this magazine (and who may in turn, I am beginning to realize, be controlled by someone else), have been misleading. There are some misconceptions out there, and I feel it’s only fair, both to you and to the Spree, to clear a few things up.

Numbers. The Spree consists of sixty-four people. You can safely ignore any other figure you may come across, either here or in the national media. Sometimes I have inflated or deflated the numbers, for comic purposes—because the joke of saying, for example, forty or eighty when really it’s sixty-four is always funny, right? Or it could have been funny, if people weren’t so literal-minded. My recent conversations have left me with the feeling that this particular witticism, along with several others (see below), may have fallen flat.

Robes. The trademark, telltale Spree white robes are only worn in certain circumstances, namely during editorial meetings, major sporting events (as a protest against their existence) and morning “prayers,” wherein the Spree shout out the names of literary figures. (I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to hear otherwise attractive and frequently naked young women yelling out “SYBILLE BEDFORD!” in a banshee wail.) I’m sorry if I have somehow given the impression that they wear white robes all the time. They don’t. In fact, given the propensity for nudity up at Believer Towers, I wish they’d put them on more often.

Free copies of the Believer. A while back I remarked in passing that I didn’t ever see this magazine because the Spree refused to send me free copies. I can’t say too much about this, because, sadly, it’s all sub judice, and my lawyers have told me to be careful about how I address the matter in print. In brief: I have discovered that the magazine and its new publishing venture is not, as I had been assured previously, a vanity publishing outfit, and that therefore I should not have been paying the company to have my columns and my book The Polysyllabic Spree published. In a desperate attempt to avoid having their asses sued off, the Spree have started lavishing subscriptions and T-shirts upon me. It won’t do them any good. Things have gone too far.

Suspensions. Similarly, I have in the past complained bitterly about my suspension from these pages after having ignored one of the Spree’s many unfathomable and apparently random edicts. The truth is that I haven’t been suspended by the Spree nearly as often as I’ve claimed; I made some of those stories up, usually to excuse my own indolence and/or temporary disappearances, usually prompted by the investigations of the relentless Child Support Agency here in the UK.

I hope that’s cleared a few things up and we can now all make a fresh start.

As you were probably beginning to suspect, the pre-ceding nonsense was a crude attempt to deflect attention away from the dismal brevity of this month’s “Books Read” list: for the first time since I began writing for this magazine, I have completely lost my appetite for books. I have half-read several, and intend to finish all of them, but at the moment I find it impossible to concentrate on what anyone has to say about more or less any subject. This seems, in part, to be something to do with my book tour—it’s unfair, I know, but I seem to be sick of the sound of everyone’s voice, not just my own. Plus, at the time of this writing, I live in a city which seems to be exploding about our ears, and this has done nothing at all for my interest in contemporary literature. It all seems a bit beside the point at the moment. I’m sure that’s an error in my thinking, and that my unwillingness to engage with sensitive first novels about coming out on a sheep farm in North Dakota in the 1950s—I made this book up, by the way, and if you wrote it, I mean no offense—proves that the terrorists have won, to use the phrase that seems to end every sentence here at the moment. (“It means they’ve won” is applied indiscriminately to anyone’s failure to do anything at all that they usually do. If you don’t feel like getting on a tube or a bus, going into the center of the city, reading a book, getting drunk, or punching someone on the nose, it means you’re a scaredy-cat, not British, etc.) Instead of reading, I play endless games of solitaire on my mobile phone, watch twenty-four-hour news channels, and try to find newspaper articles written by experts on fundamentalism assuring me that this will all be over by Tuesday. I haven’t found any such reassurance yet. This morning I found myself moderate-ly uplifted by a piece in the Times explaining that ace-tone peroxide, the explosive that London bombers favor, has a shelf-life of less than a week. It’s cheap, though, and available in any half-decent hardware store, so it’s not all good news.

Anyway, in this context it seems something of a miracle that I’ve finished any books at all. Jess Walter, a wonderful writer of whose existence I was previously unaware, sent me Citizen Vince in the hope that I might start a third list at the top of this page, a list entitled “Books Foisted Upon Me,” so I was immediately intrigued by his novel; as a freelance reviewer I get sent a ton of books, but nobody to date has expressed an ambition to appear in a Believer list. If I hadn’t actually gone and read the thing I might have been tempted.

The clincher for me was an enthusiastic blurb by the great Richard Russo, and he didn’t let me down, because Citizen Vince is fast, tough, thoughtful, and funny. (Right at the beginning of the book there’s a terrific scene involving an unwilling hooker and her unsatisfied customer, a scene culminating in an interesting philosophical debate about whether there’s such a thing as half a blow job.) It’s about a guy who’s moved from New York City to Spokane, Washington, under the Wit-ness Protection Program; he’s going about his business of making doughnuts and committing petty fraud when it becomes apparent that a man who may or may not be connected to Vince’s past wants to kill him. And this guy, the bad guy, he’s really, really bad. He threatens to do something so vile to a small child that you can’t read on until you’ve started breathing again.

Citizen Vince would have worked fine as “just” a thriller, but Walter has ambitions on top of that, because it’s also about voting, believe it or not; Vince has been registered by the authorities, and for the first time in his life he has to decide who he wants as President. The book’s set in 1980, so the choice is between Carter and Reagan, and Vince is paralyzed by it; this is hardly surprising, seeing as Walter suggests that the choice is between the America you ended up with, and another America, one that vanished when poor, decent, hopeless Jimmy was beaten. In a couple of bravura passages, Walter leaves his gangsters and petty crooks to fend for themselves while he enters the minds of the candidates themselves. I loved this novel. It came through my letter box just when I was beginning to think that I’d have to write “NONE!” under the heading “Books Read”; it seemed to know that what I needed was pace, warmth, humor, and an artfully disguised attempt to write about a world bigger than the one its characters live in.

Miriam Toews’s lovely A Complicated Kindness is funny, too, but it’s not overly bothered about pace, not least because it’s partly about the torpor that comes from feeling defeated. Last month, I believe I threatened to get religion; I may even have said that I’d gone to live in a monastery, but before anyone at a reading asks me how I’m enjoying the monastic life, I should explain that this was another of those jokes where I say that something is so when it is in fact not so. (Maybe it’s a cultural thing, these jokes falling flat? But then again, I don’t make anyone laugh here either.) Anyway, A Complicated Kindness has further delayed my plans to turn my back on this vale of tears: Nomi Nickel, Miri-am Toews’s narrator, is a Mennonite, or at least she comes from a family of Mennonites, and she doesn’t make it sound like too much fun.

Mennonites—and everyone’s a Mennonite where Nomi lives—are against the things that make life bear-able: sex, drugs, rock and roll, make-up, TV, smoking, and so on; Nomi Nickel, on the other hand, is for all of those things, wherein lies both the tension and the tor-por. Nomi’s sister Tash and her mother have already been driven out of town by the Mennonite powers-that-be, but Nomi has stayed behind to look after her father Ray, a man who spends a lot of time sitting on his lawn chair and staring into space; Nomi, mean-while, bounces round the town off the diamond-hard disapproval she meets everywhere, getting into all the trouble she can, which isn’t so much, in a town that doesn’t even have a bus station—it was removed because the more rebellious spirits kept wanting to go places. One of the joys of the book, in fact, is the desperate ingenuity of its characters, looking for ways to express themselves in a culture that allows no self-expression. “That was around the time our Aunt Gonad asked Tash to burn her Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. Tash could do a hilariously sexy version of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ where she basically worked herself into a complete fake orgasm during that big crescendo.” You may think that you don’t want to read about the problems of being brought up Mennonite, but the great thing about books is that you’ll read any-thing that a good writer wants you to read. And the voice that Miriam Toews finds for her narrator is so true and so charming that you don’t even mind spending a couple hundred pages in a town as joyless as Nomi’s East Village.

I bought A Complicated Kindness in the Powell’s bookstall at the Portland, Oregon, airport, after sever-al fervent recommendations from the Powell’s staff who looked after me at my signing. Did you know that you have the best bookshops in the world? I hope so. Over here in England, the home of literature ha-ha, we have only chain bookstores, staffed by people who for the most part come across as though they’d rather be selling anything else anywhere else; mean-while you have access to booksellers who would regard their failure to sell you novels about Mennon-ites as a cause of deep personal shame. Please spend every last penny you have on books from independ-ent bookstores, because otherwise you’ll end up as sour and as semi-literate as the English.

I bought The Diary of a Country Priest in a fit of post-Gilead enthusiasm, although I have to say that at the moment, my chances of reading it, at least in this life, are slim. I was tempted, however, by the following review on the Amazon site:

This book has had an enormous impact on my life. Having had to read it as part of my French A level course (in French!) it left me psychologically scarred. Grinding through each pas-sage was like torture, making me weep with frustration and leaving me with a long-burning and deep-felt resentment against my French teacher and the A level exam board. This resulted in a low grade for my French lit paper, which offset a decent language paper, resulting in a ‘C’ which wasn’t good enough for my chosen university. So I had to switch from French to business studies, so changing the course of my life. To say I detest this book is an understatement.

You see the profound effect that literature can have on a life? Who says it’s all a waste of time? If only I could produce one book that left someone with that kind of ferocious grievance. If you have read one of my books, you probably feel cheated out of however much money it might have cost you, and you’ll certainly begrudge the time you wasted on it. But even at my most bullish and self-aggrandizing, I can’t quite make myself believe that I’ve actually wrecked someone’s life. Any documentary evidence to the contrary will be gratefully received.

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