Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2012

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2012

Nick Hornby
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  • Cheryl Strayed—Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Glenway Wescott—The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story
  • Janie Hampton—The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948
  • Jane Austen—Persuasion
  • YY—XX
  • Selina Hastings—Rosamond Lehmann
  • Mary Roach—Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex


  • Cheryl Strayed—Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Ben Fountain—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
  • Glenway Wescott—The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story
  • Janie Hampton—The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948

Here’s the thing: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five or ten years, up there with David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, and Mark Harris’s Scenes from a Revolution, and Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, and Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang—or rather in there, because whereas the former preposition indicates some kind of indefensibly objective ranking system, the latter more accurately reflects what happens to our favorite books, I think: we separate them from the other books we’ve read—the ones we liked but didn’t love, or admired but didn’t connect with, or hated and didn’t finish—and we place them on a special and infinitely extendable shelf somewhere within our souls. So Wild is now in this personal library, which consists of probably three or four hundred books, a number I intend to add to as often as I can for the rest of my life; it’s “mine,” in a way that Sullivan’s Travels is mine, and the first Ramones album is mine. In other words, it’s not mine at all, but such is my affinity with it that I’ve somehow ended up embarking on long and expensive legal battles in an attempt to get myself a co-credit. (Preston Sturges, by the way, is not an easy man to deal with, if you’re thinking about going down that road yourself with The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story.) Anyway, we’re lucky if we find one of these a year; my admiration for Wild means that this was a very good reading month, whatever else happened.

I put down Strayed’s book and picked up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and suddenly a very good reading month turned into a very difficult one. The problem was this: I loved Fountain’s novel as much as I had loved Wild. So suddenly, all was chaos. Is it possible to read two modern classics back-to-back, without anyone having mentioned that they’re modern classics? Did this mean that my standards were slipping? Did it mean that times are so tough in publishing that only modern classics are being published? Had I gone mad? And, more pertinently, what was I going to read next?

This last question became particularly troubling, not only because I was unlikely to be lucky a third time, and would thus end up feeling itchy and dissatisfied by anything that attempted to occupy the time happily devoted to Wild and Billy Lynn, but because I had this column to write. Younger visitors to this page may not recall the Believer’s legendary and entirely laudable no-snark rule: the Polysyllabic Spree, the seventy-eight stunningly attractive but dismayingly solemn editors of this magazine, are constantly on the lookout for slighting references to writers and/or works of literature, however carefully encrypted. (Seven of the Spree are employed full-time on this task.) And this was why I was so upset by the brilliance of Fountain’s novel—how could I avoid incurring their wrath now? Any praise for the next books I read was likely to be faint by comparison, and to the collective mind of the Spree, showering a book with faint praise is like peeing on it. (And just in case this simile leaves any room for confusion in the minds of our more “artistic” subscribers: they’re against peeing on books. I’m pretty sure they are, anyway. TBC.) My subsequent fear and indecision resulted in a lot of books being purchased and a lot of books being abandoned after a couple of pages. And we also have a first in one of the lists that introduce “Stuff I’ve Been Reading”—an anonymous Book Bought.

Here’s how that works. I think carefully about the next novel I’m going to read. One in particular comes highly recommended, by two different friends whose taste I trust. I buy it, and resolve to read it next, and then I walk into a party and a third friend with impeccable taste asks me whether I’ve read XX by YY, the novel in question. I tell her I haven’t, and am about to launch into an explanation of its sudden importance in my life, and she makes a face. It was a “Meh” face rather than a “Bleeeugh” face, but even so… There was no way I could persist with XX after that. I’d be reading it in the wrong spirit, and in any case I needed a cast-iron, superstrength guarantee of brilliance, and I hadn’t got it. I still haven’t read a word of XX. In desperation, I turned to Persuasion, but it didn’t have the tremendous kinetic energy of the Fountain novel, and its careful moderation wasn’t likely to give me the bare-knuckle punch of Strayed’s memoir.

In the end, Glenway Wescott and Janie Hampton dug me out of a hole. Wescott’s slim novella was published in 1940, and in any case has already had classic status conferred upon it, by both the NYRB and Michael Cunningham, who in his introduction calls it “a work of brilliance”. Plus, Wescott died in 1987, and the Spree don’t seem to care much what I say about dead authors – I remember being underwhelmed by Voltaire without receiving so much as an admonitory email.  Nobody around here cares what I think of ‘The Pilgrim Hawk’, which is why I bought it in the first place. It’s really good, though, odd and shape-shifting and compelling, despite having to labour under that deathly plain title. The narrative is simple: the narrator, Alwyn Tower, is staying with a rich expatriate friend in a French village; one afternoon they are visited by an Irish couple, the Cullens, and Mrs Cullen’s hawk Lucy, whose eating habits and occasional bates tend to dominate the social occasion. The relationships between the characters are subtle and labyrinthine, however, and Tower is an acute observer, not only of his companions, but of himself: one of the joys of ‘The Pilgrim Hawk’ is the way that the bird’s moods and appetites provide an opportunity for a dense and surprisingly melancholy internality. ‘The Pilgrim Hawk’ is subtitled ‘A Love Story’, but there’s a lot more about love’s impossibility than its joys.

By the time you read this, the 2012 Olympics will be over, and Londoners will have literally nothing to look forward to ever again. Janie Hampton’s ‘The Austerity Olympics’ is a straightforward, cheerful, frequently amazing account of the last time my city hosted the games, in 1948, when food was scarcer than it had been during the war, British athletes were obliged to take a day’s unpaid holiday to compete in their events, and, with air travel not yet an option, the New Zealand team took five weeks to get here. (The ship’s carpenter built for the one Kiwi swimmer a cabinet that was filled with sea water every day, so that she could train; the cabinet was a foot longer than she was.) The first gold medal of the games was awarded to Micheline Ostermeyer of France, a discus thrower who had picked a discus up for the first time a few weeks before the event – but then again, her day job as a concert pianist had probably taken up a lot of her time and attention. 1948 was the last time medals were awarded for artistic endeavour – Stravinsky had judged the music category in the 1924 games – although most of the competitors had to settle for Honourable Mentions, due to the dismal standard of their entries. The temperature in London on the day of the 10,000 metres final was 94 degrees, the hottest recorded since 1911, and seventeen of the thirty-one runners collapsed – hardly surprising when you learn that the prevailing nutritional wisdom of the time advised athletes not to drink in the twenty-four hours before a race. These events took place nine years before I was born, in a city I live in, and yet they seem to have happened in a parallel, and much less knowing, universe.

So both Hampton and Wescott did a magnificent job for me in very trying circumstances, but at this point I feel should turn my attention, reluctantly, to the books that gave me all this trouble in the first place. Strayed started it, with ‘Wild’, and I really didn’t think she was going to cause me any grief, despite the inspiring, life-changing review by Dwight Garner in the New York Times that made me order the book in the first place; when it arrived I noted darkly that a) it was a book about hiking and b) that it seemed to be a “decide-to” book – as in, Cheryl Strayed decided to walk the eleven hundred mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State, and then write a book about it. There are a lot of “decide-to” books: people decide to have sex three times a day for a decade, or decide to marry the first person they see in the morning, or decide to eat an entire car, and the reason that they decided to do these things can never be articulated in their narrative: it’s because they could get an advance from a publisher. Good luck to them and all, but I’ve never really wanted to read about the car-eating that they’re being paid to do.

If this was ever Stayed’s intention, she was playing a very long game. She walked the PCT back in the mid-90s, and, as this extraordinary and unforgettable book makes clear, it was because she had no real choice: she’d been destroyed by the premature death of her beloved mother, but also by a difficult childhood, and by being married too young to a man she loved but didn’t know how to be with, and by her subsequent drug abuse and promiscuity. The opening section of Wild is harrowing, but it convinces you of its authenticity and its necessity. And in those early pages, you also come to understand that Strayed was no hiker – that she was as directionless and damaged and unfit as just about anyone who reads this magazine regularly. Her incompetence for the task in hand is one of the themes of this book, in fact, and it gave me a way in. I’m pretty  sure I’ll never walk my own height on the PCT, and I’m just as sure I wouldn’t be able to. But then, that was pretty much Strayed’s position before she set off.  And as a consequence, a lot of this book is funny, in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect if you  had mis-shelved it in the po-faced women’s inspirational non-fiction section of your mental bookstore.  Strayed’s inexperience results in such spectacular overpacking that she literally cannot lift her own backpack; after she has invented a complicated calisthenic system whereby she winches herself onto her feet, she persists with it anyway. Among her vital supplies is a hopeful pack of twelve condoms, which she throws away when a stern old hand at a rest-stop forces her to lighten her load. (While his back is turned, she slips one of the twelve into her back pocket.)  I loved ‘Wild’ for its humour, but I loved it for a lot of other reasons, too. I loved the way Strayed conveys the glorious feeling of a shower hitting your body when your body is filthy and sore, for example, and what a drink feels like when you’ve been wondering where the next one is coming from, and (condom spoiler alert, almost) what sex feels like when you’ve been lonely. Wild is angry, brave, sad, self-knowing, redemptive, raw, compelling and brilliantly written, and I think it’s destined to be loved by a lot of people, men and women, for a very long time.

‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ contains pretty much exactly the same tonal palette, and maybe one of the reasons it took me so long to find a book to replace it was that I had no need to read for a while, just as I’m not hungry straight after a big meal. Fountain’s novel is about Iraq, really, but despite being populated mostly by men, it’s not one of those guys’ novels that strains to be definitive about the way we live now – this one’s got soul , and an overwhelming empathy.

In his book about hip-hop, ‘Where You’re At’, Patrick Neate quotes an observation that  black kids in the Bronx “have more cultural capital, and less actual capital, than anyone on earth’, and though the observer maybe needs to get out of North America more, you can see what he means. In ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’, the same point could be made about Lynn and his colleagues in Bravo Company, who have been flown back to the US for a triumphant series of meet-and-greets after their part in a fire-fight. Half of the entire country, it seems – the red half – has something invested in Bravo’s heroism; meanwhile teenage Billy has nothing, and is a matter of hours away from returning to the front line. There are many judicious decisions that Fountain has made, but one of the best is to write an Iraq novel set entirely in Texas: it’s an act of creative genius which enables him to examine both the bewildering set of projections Billy’s country shines on him, and his haplessness, his doubt and despair.

This will be sold to you as the ‘Catch-22’ of the Iraq war, and certainly Fountain has the satirical chops not to be flattened by the comparison. His approximation of the language of Texan patriotism post-9/11 –  “wore on terRr”, “double y’im dees”, “dih-mock-cruh-see”, the words and phrases that Billy hears over and over again until they no longer make any sense to him – is funny and pitch-perfect. And there’s a very good running gag about Hollywood interest in Bravo, with a scarily credible producer who’s sharp, cynical and defeated, rather than just loud and dumb. (That’s the thing about Hollywood which literature rarely gets right. These guys aren’t stupid. It’s not as simple as that.)  But the satire isn’t the whole novel, not even half. Billy Lynn broke my heart, and I think about him still.

So. There you go. And as I have said before in these pages, I don’t know you, and I can’t really tell what books you’ll connect with and what you won’t, and if what you take from this column is that you really, really want to read a book about the 1948 Olympics, then I’d be delighted, and I’d feel that my time here hasn’t been entirely wasted. But I’d probably also end up thinking that you were a little obtuse, too.

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