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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Summer 2024

A quarterly column, steady as ever

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Summer 2024

Nick Hornby
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Books Read:

  • Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne—Katherine Rundell
  • Small Mercies—Dennis Lehane
  • Now Is Not the Time to Panic—Kevin Wilson

Books Bought:

  • Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne—Katherine Rundell
  • Small Mercies—Dennis Lehane
  • Now Is Not the Time to Panic—Kevin Wilson 
  • Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World—Naomi Klein
  • Happy All the Time—Laurie Colwin

People couldn’t sit still for so long, so there was moving, rustling, eating. Rowdy episodes could break out: it was recorded that one of the aldermen… suffered when ‘somebody most beastly did conspurcate and shit upon his gown from the galleries above… some from the galleries let a shoe fall which narrowly missed the mayor’s head’… Boys peed on the floor and used the slippery surface as an ice rink, adults scattered food or turned up drunk.

Welcome to the seventeenth-century churches of England, as described in Katherine Rundell’s brilliant book about John Donne, Super-Infinite. I think we can all agree that these are services we can get behind, right? Lively, fun, funny? Well wrong, clearly. Americans don’t agree. You couldn’t cope. You all threw a hissy fit, sailed away on the Mayflower, and had no fun whatsoever. And there is a great irony in this, when you think about it. Within a few hundred years, our enjoyment of mob scenes and shit-flinging produced, to name just a few notable Britons from history, A. S. Byatt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vivien Leigh, Declan Rice of Arsenal, Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, Emily Blunt, all four of the Beatles, and Princess Diana. I could go on. But the only notable Americans I can think of are Donald Trump and Barbi Benton, ex–Playboy bunny and onetime star of The Love Boat. (I don’t actually need to tell you who she is, of course. You haven’t got anyone else.) Weird how things turn out.

Super-Infinite (and the compound adjective was one of Donne’s, used by him frequently) is a book by a superfan. Of course, Rundell is intimately familiar with Donne’s poems and sermons, but there is a chance she has read both Pseudo-Martyr, his 1610 smash hit arguing that Catholic recusants were effectively committing suicide, and his book about flattery, Ignatius His Conclave. Pseudo-Martyr, says Rundell wearily, is “so dry and relentless that it has a dust-storm quality to it”; in the bibliography, she says it’s “difficult to recommend that anyone read Pseudo-Martyr, except under duress.” So at least he has a couple of blurbs for the paperback. But this kind of bafflingly impenetrable obsession is part of Donne’s mind, too—an important part—and one of the joys of Rundell’s book is that she captures his unique, extraordinarily complicated and conflicted mind with sympathy and acuity.

His was a remarkable journey. I knew only that he wrote strikingly original love poems, difficult to prize apart, super-imaginative, and that later he turned to the Church; I did not know he had been imprisoned for a socially inappropriate relationship with a young woman who was not of age, or that he had fought against the Spanish Armada as part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet. And I didn’t really understand that joining the Church was not quite the act of repentance for past worldliness that it appeared to be. The deanship of St Paul’s Cathedral was “a fantastic piñata of a job: hit it, and perks and favours and new connections came pouring out.”

And an incredible thing: Donne’s poems were carelessly preserved. We have only one written in his own hand. “When you quote a Donne poem, you are in fact quoting an amalgamation, pieced together over four hundred years from various manuscripts of varying degrees of scrappiness.” His poems effectively went viral, passed from hand to hand. There are more than four thousand copies of his individual poems, and many of them differ from one another. Textual precision is therefore impossible, and the titles of the poems—“The Flea,” “The Anniversary”—are likely to have been bestowed by fans rather than by Donne himself. It is extraordinary to think it is only the appetite for his work that has kept it alive. Super-
Infinite
is a joy: fresh, smart, human, and genuinely illuminating—not just about Donne and his times, but about life and, especially, death.

This column and its proprietor (although he could easily be tempted by a best offer—DM me) are huge fans of Kevin Wilson. The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here are two of my favorite novels of the twenty-first century, and Now Is Not the Time to Panic is another modern classic. I cannot be alone in wishing that more people wrote novels like this: smart, accessible, unusual, with narratives so fresh and unexpected that if someone pitches you a one-line synopsis, you laugh and want to read it. Nothing to See Here: two children repeatedly and spontaneously burst into flames, without harming themselves but causing chaos everywhere they go! The Family Fang: the adult children of two committed performance artists have to deal with the fallout of their long, over-imaginative careers!

Wilson is drawn back to the subject of art—why we make it, and the profound effects it can have—in Now Is Not the Time to Panic. It’s a good subject for him: he writes with such simplicity and humor that it feels like he’s doing something nobody else has quite done before. Who, after all, can write about the profundity of art without sounding like an arse, at least sometimes? (I experimented with both spellings of ass/arse, but it seems clear to me that the English variety is the mot juste. The American spelling refers to either a backside or an animal, I believe, whereas here in the UK it can be used to refer to an idiot or a pretentious art critic.) Anyway. Wilson is decidedly not an arse.

Now Is Not the Time to Panic is about a specific panic—the Coalfield Panic of 1996. You won’t have heard of it, because Wilson made it up, but it’s so singular that you may be tempted to wiki it at some stage during your consumption, not least because the author himself refers to its Wiki entry at one point in the book. It’s a complete world that he has imagined, which is one of his many strengths: the Panic is so strange, but so carefully constructed, that its reality is both eerie and indisputable.

Wilson’s central character, Frankie, now a writer and a mother, is jerked back to the summer of 1996 by a journalist’s phone call: the journalist has discovered Frankie’s key role in the Panic. Frankie is sixteen and geeky—she can name-drop Dorothy Allison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lester Bangs, and she is writing a book about a girl criminal mastermind and spends that dead-end Coalfield summer with an equally geeky boy called Zeke, who is an artist. There are some teeth-clashing make-out sessions, but really they are bound by their creativity, and eventually they arrive upon an art project they can do together. It’s a poster, with drawings by Zeke and words by Frankie, words that come to her in a moment of mystical inspiration: “And then I wrote. The edge is a shantytown—and I took another deep breath, realized I hadn’t been breathing that whole time. My vision got all fuzzy. Zeke touched my shoulder. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked, but I was already writing more—filled with goldseekers.” Eventually, she adds another sentence: “We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” One wonders how long Wilson spent on these words—whether they came to him quickly, as they do to Frankie, or whether he was working on them throughout his entire writing process. Either way, they work perfectly. The Coalfield Panic requires him to repeat them many, many times—I have only a hard copy of the book; otherwise, I would be able to confirm that the author has broken the record for the most uses of the word goldseekers in a single volume. I’m not going to count them. I’m not paid enough.

Zeke and Frankie start to copy their posters on an old copier Frankie has in her garage at home and then put them up all over town, and the results, eventually, have a baffling and profound effect on the people of Coalfield. Some of these people are quite literally driven mad by them. They’re advertising a satanic metal band. And then they are the product of a satanic sex drug cult. And then the police get involved. And people die (accidentally, but nevertheless it’s an indication of the scope and depth of the panic). The posters are everywhere, more and more and more of them, and the mystery is too much for the people of the town—which is in itself a kind of tragedy for the smart and imaginative young people who have to live there, surrounded by parents and teachers who cannot accommodate a couple of Blakean lines into their everyday lives. And the journalist’s discovery—because nobody can believe it’s a couple of awkward teens who are responsible, so it remains a secret—provokes a sweet, sad reunion between grown-up Zeke and grown-up Frankie. I suppose Now Is Not the Time to Panic is a coming-of-age novel, but you’ve read plenty of those before. I suspect you won’t have read anything quite like this.

Dennis Lehane’s hard-as-nails, uncompromising Small Mercies also deals with the subject of frightened locals reacting with anger and incomprehension to a change in their environment. The novel is set during the Boston busing crisis of 1974–76; the crisis went on much longer, but this period was particularly intense. The Great Coalfield Panic, the Boston busing crisis… It’s almost as if Small Mercies were the evil twin of Wilson’s novel.

I am (as I might have mentioned at some point in the last twenty years) English, and though I knew about busing, I hadn’t known how bitter, divisive, and violent the protests against it were. Maybe you don’t, either, although you might have seen an iconic photograph that captures the shocking bigotry of the times. Stanley Forman’s The Soiling of Old Glory shows a white teenager using an American flag to attack a Black man, and if you are interested enough, as I was, to investigate the crisis, you will learn that this photograph is totemic rather than definitive—by which I mean that Forman might have captured this ugliness at any point in those two years. Interracial stabbings, a three-day fight at South Boston High in 1975, a white mob chasing a group of Black Bible salesmen off a beach with pipes and sticks, a pitch battle between Blacks and whites involving six thousand people… The scale of the hatred is shocking. (And if you are prone to romanticize the 1970s, with its punk rock clubs and its smart New York City discos and its enthralling independent cinema, Small Mercies is a useful reminder that those 1970s happened to about twenty-three people.)

What makes Small Mercies both admirably brave and sour is that we are inside the heads of the white bigots in Southie (South Boston) for the duration of the novel. Lehane’s people are poor, desperate, old before their time; their endemic racism is an inevitable product of their environment, as are the drugs and the organized crime that disfigure their lives and their neighborhoods. Lehane’s Mystic River—which remains, I think, the best crime novel this column has read since we started this malarkey—has already proved he has chops, and this novel reminds you of them: his depictions of social deprivation, and the minds and mores that result, are almost Dickensian in their detail, but that’s only the beginning of it. This is still a crime novel, with a gripping, if devastating, narrative, apocalyptic in its almost complete lack of hope. Lehane is very good at combining what is normally the preserve of literary fiction with the genre excitement of an airport thriller. And if you think that sounds like eating vegetables and dessert at the same time, then I suggest you rethink your entire biblio­-culinary diet.

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