Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2006

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2006

Nick Hornby
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  • Sons of Mississippi—Paul Hendrickson
  • Last Days of Summer—Steve Kluger
  • True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass—Tom Piazza
  • On Fire—Larry Brown
  • The Devil’s Highway—Luis Alberto Urrea
  • Happiness—Darrin M. McMahon
  • The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure—Jack Pendarvis


  • Into the Wild—John Krakauer
  • The Boy Who Fell From the Sky—Ken Dornstein
  • The March—E. L. Doctorow
  • Freakonomics—Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Last month I read Marjane Satrapi’s two Persepolis books and Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country, and I seem to recall that I described the experience as somewhat gloomy. Ha! That was nothing! I didn’t know I was born! I now see that the time I spent in Satrapi’s horrific postrevolutionary Iran, and the time

I gave over to Vonnegut telling us that the world is ending, were the happiest days of my life. The end of the world? Bring it on! With the honorable exception of Freakonomics, the most cheerful book I read this month was Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the story of how and why a young man walked into the Alaskan wilderness and starved (or perhaps poisoned) himself to death. Into the Wild wins the Smiley Award because it has a body count of one. Ken Dornstein’s memoir The Boy Who Fell from the Sky begins and ends with the Lockerbie disaster in 1988, when a Pan Am plane blew up over a Scottish village, killing all 259 passengers, including the author’s older brother David. And E. L. Doctorow’s novel The March describes William Sherman’s journey from At­lanta up to North Carolina, and just about everybody dies, some of them in ways that you don’t want to spend a long time thinking about.

I was actually in North Carolina when I finished The March—this is something I like to do when I’m particularly enjoying a novel, despite the cost. (Did you know that there’s no such planet as Titan? Vonnegut just made it up. They could have put that on the jacket, no? Oh well. You live and learn.) A couple of days later I passed the book on to one of my travelling companions, Dave Bielanko of the mighty band Marah, and he in return gave me the Krakauer book. It’s what you do when you’re on the road. Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of, like, brother­hood and stuff. We were actually on the road between Memphis, Tennessee, and Oxford, Mississippi, a journey that takes approximately ninety minutes, and those forty-five minutes were the only chunk of road I experienced. But never mind! I was there, swapping books, and, you know, looking out of the window. (And Oxford, Mississippi, is yet another place in the U.S. that I want to move to. Everyone there is a writer, or a musician, or someone who hasn’t yet bothered doing either thing but could if he or she wanted to. And the mayor runs the bookstore, and in Faulkner’s house you can read the plot outline he wrote in pencil on the wall, and you can see the can of dog repellent he kept by his desk, and the sun shines a lot.)

It’s a strange experience, reading Ken Dornstein’s memoir immediately after I’d finished Into the Wild, because there were occasions when it seemed as though Dornstein and Krakauer were writing about the same young man. Here’s Chris McCandless, the doomed explorer, at college: “During that final year in Atlanta, Chris had lived off campus in a monkish room furnished with little more than a thin mattress on the floor, milk crates and a table.” And here’s David Dornstein: “David’s room was a classic writer’s Spartan cell—a desk, a chair, a mattress on the floor, books stacked all around.” Both David Dornstein and McCandless spend an awful lot of time underlining meaningful passages in classic literature; these passages will later be discovered by future biographers, and both of these young men seemed to presume that there would be future biographers, because they left hundreds of pages of notes. David Dornstein, who wanted passionately to write, frequently imagines that his future biographer will have to piece together his work from these notes (chillingly, more than once he imagines himself killed in a plane crash); McCandless refers to himself in the pseudonymous third person—he was “Alexander Supertramp.” Both of them have a taste for a slightly affected mock-heroic voice. And both of them seem doomed.

David Dornstein wasn’t doomed in the same way as Chris McCandless, of course. McCandless chose to walk almost entirely unequipped into deadly terrain in order to live out some half-baked neurotic Thoreau fantasy. David Dornstein simply got on a routine passenger flight from London to New York, but what is remarkable about Ken Dornstein’s memoir is that his brother’s tragic and ungovernable fate seems like an organic part of the story he’s telling. Someone sent me a proof copy of The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky a while back, and I didn’t think I was going to read it, partly because I couldn’t imagine how it could be a book. To put it crudely and brutally, my anticipated problem was all in the title: whatever David’s story was, it would be ended by a random, senseless explosion. (I’d been afraid of exactly the same thing with my brother-in-law’s novel Pompeii—how can you create a narrative arc when you’re just going to dump a load of lava on people’s heads?) I don’t know whether it’s tasteless to say that the end of his life makes sense, but that’s the unlikely trick that his brother pulls off.

Creating narrative coherence out of awful accident is, I suppose, a textbook way of dealing with this sort of grief (and grief, of course, is mostly what this book is about). It’s partly Dornstein’s skill as a writer that makes the raw material seem tailor-made for the form he has chosen, but the lives examined here are also freakishly appropriate for this kind of examination. It’s not just the notes that his brother left, the half-finished stories and abandoned novels and instructions to literary executors, the letter to David from his father that explains and explores the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Ken ends up married to David’s college girlfriend, but before they get there the two of them have to work out, slowly and painfully, whether there’s any more to their relationship than a shared loss. And David wanted Ken to become the writer he feared he would never be, so the very existence of The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky provides another layer of complication. It’s a compelling, sad, thoughtful book, and I’m glad I picked it up.

Sixty passengers killed in the Lockerbie bombing fell onto the roof and garden of one particular house in the town. (The woman who lived there, perhaps understandably, moved away.) We can’t imagine horror on that scale intruding into our domestic lives, but in Doctorow’s novel The March it happens all the time. A still, hot morning, everything in its place, and then suddenly the sound and soon the sight of an avenging army come to fuck up everything you own and hold dear, and then the flames, and quite often something worse on top. And of course one has every right to be troubled by everything being held dear Down There, but this ­needn’t prevent a sense of wonder at the sheer scale and energy of the devastation. (One of the things I kept thinking as I read the novel was, How on earth did you manage to create a country out of this mess?) In Doctorow’s novel, Sherman’s march absorbs turncoat soldiers just trying to get through, and freed slaves, and bereft Southern widows, and cold-eyed surgeons; they’re all eaten up and digested without a second thought. The violence, and violence of feeling, in this novel is on occasions so intense that it becomes kind of metaphysical, in the way that the violence in King Lear is metaphysical; the pitiful soldier with a spike protruding from his skull who has no memory of any kind, who lives every single second in the now, takes on an awful weight of meaning. And he ends up killing himself in the only way he can.

Lincoln turns up at the end of the book, as he has to, and in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I bought a used copy of his letters and speeches. He must have been an annoying person to live with, no? Yes, there’s the Gettysburg address. But there’s also this letter to a young family friend: “I have scarcely felt greater pain in my life than on learning from Bob’s letter, that you had failed to enter Harvard University…. I know not how to aid you…” [itals mine]. Come on, Abe! Is that really true? You couldn’t pick up the phone for a pal? You can take this “honest” stuff too far, you know.

It would be easy, if unfair, to parody the ­post-Gladwell school of essays (and it’s not unfair to say that The Tipping Point and Blink both paved the way for Freakonomics). You take two dissimilar things, prove—to your own satisfaction, at least—that they are not only not dissimilar but in fact more or less indistinguishable, suddenly cut away to provide some historical context, and then explain what it all means to us in our daily lives. So it goes something like this:

On the face of it, World War II and Pamela Anderson’s breasts would seem to have very little in common. And yet on closer examination, the differences seem actually much less interesting than the similarities. Just as World War II has to be seen in the context of the Great War that preceded it, it’s not possible to think about Pammie’s left breast without also thinking about her right. Pamela Anderson’s breasts, like World War II, have both inspired reams of comment and analysis, and occupied an arguably disproportionate amount of the popular imagination (in a survey conducted by the American Bureau of Statistical Analysis, more than 67 percent of men aged between thirty-five and fifty admitted to thinking about both World War II and what Anderson has under her T-shirt “more than once a year”); both World War II and the Anderson chest are becoming less au courant than they were. There are other, newer wars to fight; there are other, younger breasts to look at. What does all this tell us about our status as humans in the early years of the twenty-first century? To find out, we have to go back to the day in 1529 when Sir Thomas More reluctantly replaced Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chan­cellor in Henry VIII’s court….

They’re always fun to read (the real essays, I mean, not my parody, which was merely fun to write, and a waste of your time). They pep you up, make you feel smart but a little giddy, occasionally make you laugh. Freakonomics occasionally hits you a little too hard over the head with a sense of its own ingenuity. “Now for another unlikely question: what did crack cocaine have in common with nylon stockings?” (One of the things they shared, apparently, is that they were both addictive, although silk stockings were only “practically” addictive, which might explain why there are comparatively few silk stocking–related drive-by shootings. ) The answer to the question of whether mankind is innately and universally corrupt “may lie in… bagels.” (The dots here do not represent an ellipsis, but a kind of trumpeting noise.) Schoolteachers are like sumo wrestlers, real estate agents are like the Ku Klux Klan, and so on. I enjoyed the book, which is really a collection of statistical conjuring tricks, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what it was about.

I don’t think I have ever had so many books I wanted to read. I picked up a few things in U.S. bookstores; I was given a load of cool-looking books by interesting writers when I was in Mississippi and or­dered one or two more (Larry Brown’s On Fire, for example) when I came home. Meanwhile I still want to go back to L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy, but Hartley seems too English at the moment. And I have a proof copy of the new Anne Tyler, and this young English writer David Peace has written a novel about 1974 as seen through the prism of Brian Clough’s disastrous spell in charge at Leeds United. (Brian Clough was…. Leeds United were…. Oh, never mind.) So I’d better push on.

Except… a long time ago, I used to mention Arsenal, the football team I have supported for thirty-eight years, in these pages. Arsenal was occasionally called in to provide an excuse for why I hadn’t read as much as I wanted to, but up until a month or so ago, they were rubbish, and I couldn’t use them as an excuse for anything. They weren’t even an excuse for a football team. Anyway, now they’re—we’re—good again. We have the semifinals of the Champions League coming up in a couple of weeks, for the first time in my life, and I can see books being moved onto the bench for the next few weeks. Ah, the old dilemma: books versus rubbish. (Or maybe, books versus stuff that can sometimes seem more fun than books.) It’s good to have it back.

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