Picture, as a backdrop, one of those primitively drawn 19th-century mourning paintings with rickety white gravestones and age-worn monuments standing under the faded green canopy of a couple of delicately sketched trees. Add…some Edward Gorey-style ghosts, skittering across the landscape -- at once menacing, comical and slightly tongue-in-cheek — From The New York Times Review of George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo It was an uneventful evening, much like any other. roger bevins iii Mr. Bevins and I were reflecting upon the sounds the branches made as the night wind gusted through the premises. hans vollman Quite dull, really. roger bevins iii As we spoke, Mr. Bevins held up a hand, bidding me to fall quiet. A number of his ears seemed to strain. Someone is coming, he said, his voice low. And I, too, heard a visitor’s approach. hans vollman It was a man, not young, rambling down the path in a state most aggrieved. roger bevins iii It was clear to Mr. Bevins and I that he was from the other place. hans vollman Even from a distance, I comprehended that I had never seen a man such as this. roger bevins iii As he neared, we were able to hear his diction, such as it was, with greater clarity. hans vollman Gotta get out of there, he said, struggling for his wind. Gotta get away from everything. Mr. Vollman and I looked upon one another with bemusement: get out of where? What was meant by gotta? roger bevins iii He sat heavily upon the steps of Mr. Carroll's white stone home, emitting a sound of pained satisfaction. hans vollman I heard the commotion and run-skimmed to Mr. Bevins and Mr. Vollman as rapidly as I could manage. When I arrived, they were standing before a most disagreeable creature. the reverend everly thomas Even in the gloom, his skin held an unhealthy rusty glow; his hair, if one might call it that, had an aspect of spun sugar, though it did not appetize. hans vollman There was the look of the beast about him, but there was little in his eyes. the reverend everly thomas Smell of stale perspiration and soured milk. hans vollman Necktie so long it seemed an extra shirtsleeve. roger bevins iii We regarded him with cautious wonder. hans vollman We have witnessed many visitors, but there was something unsettling about this one. roger bevins iii From his suitcoat, he retrieved an object the likes of which I had never before seen. hans vollman A glowing, black-edged thing, the size of a pocket-Bible, though thinner. the reverend everly thomas I’ll tweet at those bastards, he said, and I thought he might commence a little birdsong, right there, on the steps of the white stone home. roger bevins iii I moved towards the man, my better instincts failing me. In the light radiating from his -- what was it? A hand-lantern of some kind? -- in that light, his countenance was positively mad. hans vollman Mr. Vollman stood above him, looking down at the queer little lamp, and said, He appears to be writing a missive of some kind -- directly upon the light! the reverend everly thomas What a marvel! I leaned in, further laying aside my native revulsion, to obtain a more advantageous view. What I saw staggered me: he used his thumbs, it seemed, to rap out a series of words -- right upon the glowing pane! How could he hold such an object, I wondered, without burning up his palms? hans vollman Given Mr. Vollman’s intrigue, the Reverend and myself dared to gather near, taking care to ignore the rankness of the man’s odor. roger bevins iii Though it was difficult to keep my eyes upon the fire-bright band of light, I discerned the following words as they flashed forthwith: When Russia fake news goes away, I will make America great! As promised! President of the people! The man then said Tweet! — again bringing to mind a horrible overgrown bird — and slid the thing into his suitcoat, muttering all the while. hans vollman He seemed to be laboring under a great strain. Yet I found I could not pity him. the reverend everly thomas His lamp safely stowed, blessed darkness returned. roger bevins iii What was that thing? Mr. Bevins asked. And whatever is Russia fake news? the reverend everly thomas Something to do with the Emperor Nicholas? I ventured, yet my answer did not satisfy. We watched the visitor, in hopes that he might resolve our queries, but he remained in a sitting position, inspecting a nostril with what I judged to be an unusually short index finger. hans vollman Given the overall size of him, you see. Proportionally. roger bevins iii After a period of silence, Mr. Vollman whispered, Who would make America great? Who is the President of the people? We mulled this over for a time. the reverend everly thomas Zachary Taylor was President; it could not be this man. roger bevins iii The President was Polk, of course. Of that much I was certain. hans vollman It was then that our visitor drew forth his hand-lamp and, again using his thumbs, pressed more words into being. the reverend everly thomas It’s hard to be President, he wrote. President written with two t’s. hans vollman The words It’s hard to be President leapt upon his strip of light. I believe he wrote President with an extra t. roger bevins iii It’s hard to be President was the phrase I saw. President was misspelled. the reverend everly thomas Then he again called out, Tweet! And again slipped the peculiar object into his suitcoat. roger bevins iii He lay against the wall of the white stone home and hummed a tuneless little song, again picking at a nostril, this time with his pinky-finger. hans vollman Is this man… Mr. Vollman trailed off. the reverend everly thomas You don’t suppose, Mr. Bevins asked. hans vollman It wouldn’t be possible that… the Reverend said. roger bevins iii Our visitor gazed up at the stars, at one point placing the contents from his nostril directly upon his tongue, seeming to savor the saltiness of the morsel. hans vollman Plainly, this was a low breed of fellow. the reverend everly thomas Could he be… the President? Mr. Vollman said, utterly incredulous. After an uneasy period -- the only sounds the water rushing through the creek and the incomprehensible murmurs of our visitor -- I replied, with equal incredulity, that it must be so. roger bevins iii I gazed at the fool before us, and thought with sadness of Presidents past. George Washington, John Adams. It could not be helped. hans vollman Could this man occupy the same lofty position as Thomas Jefferson? James Madison? roger bevins iii Why had he, above all others, been thusly elevated? the reverend everly thomas Wish I could just go back to my tee vee show, the man moaned. roger bevins iii Whatever that meant. hans vollman Being the President is no fun, the man said with a petulant whimper. roger bevins iii It was thus verified: this was America’s President. hans vollman We were thunderstruck. roger bevins iii What, by the grace of God, was transpiring in that other place? the reverend everly thomas For the first time since I had come to know him, Mr. Vollman’s impressively engorged member began to lose its heft. roger bevins iii I understood that when I returned to health and rose from my sick-box, this man would endeavor to be my leader, and the leader of my fellow-men. The sadness went all through me, including my protuberance. hans vollman Our visitor sat, the three of us hanging about, for what might have been minutes, or perhaps even hours. He took out his hand-lamp a number of times, as if compelled, staring at it, making shapes move with his thumb. At one point he offered an opinion, aloud, about people of the Muslim faith that I shall not repeat. the reverend everly thomas He struggled to his feet, loosing a great burst of flatulence. roger bevins iii Back to the G—damned White House, he said. What a bunch of s—t. And then he stumbled off. hans vollman I have never been more pleased to witness the departure of a visitor. the reverend everly thomas I felt sullied somehow, just having been in his presence. roger bevins iii The Reverend, Mr. Bevins and I were at a loss for words. I was again aware of the wind rustling through the trees. hans vollman After a time, Mr. Vollman said, If that man is the President, I believe I would prefer to stay on here. To remain within my sick-box, apart from the other place. The Reverend and myself, I am saddened to report, were obliged to agree. roger bevins iii Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jeff: So, yeah, I wrote a novel called Tender Moments -- or at least that’s its working title. I also might call it Eternal Remembrance or Hey, It’s Gary Time! But that can be sorted out later, by Random House or Knopf or whoever winds up publishing it. Steve, friend: I knew that Jeff was working on something, and I knew he liked to write. Like, his Facebook posts are usually kind of funny, I guess. But I was surprised when he told me that he’d written an actual book. He never struck me as the creative type. Jeff: It took me about seven years to write -- you know, whenever I had the time, or whenever I couldn’t find a show to watch. I definitely took a break when Stranger Things started streaming. There was also a couple of weeks when I watched every episode of Chicago Hope. It was pretty weird. But, long story short, it’s finally done! It’s 171 pages long -- y’know, with the double-spacing and the margins and everything. Amy, ex-girlfriend: He was working on it when we were going out, but I think he was sort of embarrassed by it. Every once in a while, he’d take the laptop into the bathroom, very quietly, that sort of thing. Jeff: I think I read somewhere that Philip Roth did most of his writing in the bathroom, although I might’ve gotten some of the details wrong. Maybe it was John Updike? Steve: When he first told me about it, I’d have to say I was…a little bit confused, based on his description of it. I just couldn’t understand what it was about. And I don’t think that he knew what it was about. Amy: At one point he told me it was, like, a crime thriller? Like Elmore Leonard? But then at another point, it sounded like he was writing a comedy, but with sports in it. And then he said it was an “elegiac meditation on life,” but when he said it, I’m pretty sure he mispronounced “elegiac.” Jeff: I had a little trouble keeping it focused, sure. But to me, that’s part of its charm. It’s “sprawling” -- like David Foster Wallace or something. Steve: When he was talking to me about it, it just sounded like a fucking mess. Like David Foster Wallace or something. Jeff: When you get right down to it, the book is about my relationship with my dad. [Pauses, becoming emotional.] We’ve always had kind of a…a difficult relationship. [Gathering himself.] And it’s also about pee-wee football and the government’s abuse of power. Kyle, co-worker: I didn’t know what to think when Jeff asked me to read his book. We don’t really talk that much, but I guess he’s seen me reading in the breakroom and whatnot. To be honest, I barely know the guy. But I figured, what the hell, you know? How bad could it be? Amy: Jeff and I are on good terms, even though I broke up with him, so I was happy to read his book. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word. “Willing?” Maybe that’s more accurate. “Begrudgingly willing?” That feels right. “Begrudgingly willing.” Steve: When he told me he’d finished it, I was like, “Hey man, great, that’s awesome.” But the whole time, I was like, Fuck, please don’t ask me to read it. Jeff: Everyone seemed pretty eager to get their hands on it, I think -- y’know, to see what I’d been working on for so long. It was kind of validating. Brent, Amy’s current boyfriend: I saw it on her nightstand and I was like, “Tender Moments? What the hell is that?” And she goes, “Oh, it’s a book Jeff wrote.” And when she said it, she seemed a little sad. Amy: Jeff doesn’t have any formal training as a writer, and I know that’s not always a bad thing. But, you know. It’s not always a good thing, either. Kyle: Actually, the first chapter started off okay. It was about this guy named Gary whose girlfriend had just broken up with him, and he was all upset. And so Gary goes to visit his parents, and then his dad tells him that he was adopted. I think that’s when it started to go off the rails -- that was probably around page four. Steve (reading from book): “‘Gary, you’re adopted,’ his domineering father said harshly, taking a hearty drink of the beer that he always had on hand, due to his alcoholism. ‘And also, this whole time, I haven’t been who you think I am. I’m a CIA agent, Gary. So there’s also that, as well.’” Jeff: So the hook is that Gary learns that his dad is a secret agent in the CIA. I thought it was a cool metaphor for how, like, people aren’t really who you think they are. Brent: I read the first 10 pages, just out of curiosity, and…holy shit. For one thing, why was Gary’s response to finding out that he’s adopted -- and that his dad is a CIA agent -- to start coaching a Pop Warner football team? Jeff: My elevator pitch when I was first writing the book was sort of, like, Friday Night Lights meets The Bourne Identity -- but without all the amnesia stuff. But also, it deals with adoption. And then, obviously, there’s all the deep-sea fishing towards the end. Steve (reading from book): “And as Gary looked out upon the grassy football field, a tear came to his eye and rolled down his cheek like a liquid raisin of sorrow. A great emotion swelled in his breast, and he thought, ‘What is grass? And why must it be so emerald?’” Jeff: The grass is a metaphor for his birth parents. It’s kind of a thinker, but it works. Amy: It’s the…I don’t want to say it’s the worst book I’ve ever read? But at the same time it’s…okay, it’s the worst book I’ve ever read. Steve: I love Jeff, I really do. I’ve known him for years. But I’d rather undergo a back-alley colonoscopy than have to read that thing again. I’m fucking serious. Even a page of it. Kyle: He gave it to me two weeks ago, and I’ve only been able to read maybe…I don’t know…30 pages? And the worst part is, I’ve had to avoid him at work. Instead of going to the breakroom, I’ve been eating lunch in my car. I put the sun visor over the windshield, just in case he walks past. Amy: Tender Moments, or whatever he calls it…it just doesn’t make sense. And not in, like, a cool William S. Burroughs way. It doesn’t make sense in the way that a toddler doesn’t make sense. It just goes from one thing to the next. Steve: I’ve been avoiding his texts and calls for the past couple of weeks. My doorbell rang the other day, and I had to Army-crawl around my living room because I thought it might be him. It wound up being the UPS guy, but I was still pretty freaked out. Jeff: I’m really looking forward to hearing what everybody thinks about Tender Moments. I’m sure I’ll have to make a few changes here and there, which is fine -- I’m not going to be precious about it. The important thing is that it’s almost done, and I can get it out into the world. Kyle: I hate to say this, but he should delete the file, burn any printouts he’s made, and start over. Or maybe he could find something completely different to do. My dad used to have model trains in the basement. Maybe Jeff could do model trains. Or woodworking. Or anything besides writing. Steve: I had a dream the other night where Jeff had both hands bitten off by a shark, and he wasn’t able to write anymore. It was sort of scary, but when I woke up, I was kind of disappointed that it hadn’t actually happened. Jeff: Right now, I’m just a guy in a cubicle, y’know? But when my book comes out, all that’s gonna change. There’ll be a book tour…maybe a movie or a TV show. To be a published author is going to be amazing. I just need to tighten it up a little, get an agent, and find a publisher. I guess I’ll need an author photo, too. Maybe I’ll ask Amy to take one for me the next time I see her. Although it’s weird: she’s not responding to my texts. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When I was in my early 20s -- still youthful enough to consider myself an angry young man -- I discovered the novels of Sinclair Lewis. My father had had an old slipcased edition of Main Street alongside titles like Omoo and Wuthering Heights -- so I’d always thought of Lewis as too musty to bother with. Yet when I finally read one of his books -- Babbitt was the first -- I was shocked by how modern it felt. Despite the references to derbies and pipe tobacco, it was as indignant and cynical as I was. When you’re an angry young man, this qualifies as a good thing. I soon read Lewis’s other classics -- Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, Dodsworth, Main Street, and It Can’t Happen Here. Lewis’s skepticism, his disdain for hypocrisy, and his ringing pessimism felt in step with a hypocritical and pessimistic world: it was the early 2000s, and George W. Bush was dragging us into war. Given the timing, It Can’t Happen Here's dystopianism struck a chord with me. In the book, Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the presidency through a mix of populism and economic promises, then promptly turns the country into a fascist hellscape. Though the book was published in 1935, it felt as if it had been written just before I read it: the conflict in Iraq was at its height, and Bush had, like Windrip, gone from folksy numbskull to leering warmongerer. Bush was Buzz; Lewis had seen our future. I pressed the book upon friends, as if reading it would somehow change the country’s predicament. Thanks to the United States’ latest predicament, It Can’t Happen Here has become a back-catalogue hit; Donald Trump’s election has made it Amazon’s top-selling American Classic, and 22nd-bestselling book overall. Americans seem to be reading it as something like non-fiction, more Michael Lewis than Sinclair Lewis. On its surface, this seems reasonable: like our new president, Windrip rails against the media and intellectual elites, and Windrip’s white supporters -- who mass to hear him talk of restoring America’s greatness -- lash out at minorities. Windrip even employs a Steve Bannon-like propagandist who sneers at supplying “ordinary folks” with “true facts.” Once in power, Windrip jails dissenting congressmen, abolishes the states, and opens concentration camps, among other general horrors. And this is where It Can’t Happen Here lost me in 2004, and loses me today: it becomes so relentlessly, cartoonishly grim that its prescience is dimmed by its alarmism. Which begs the question: do we need It Can’t Happen Here for this? We seem to be depressing and alarming ourselves without any outside help; thanks to social media, we’ve become a nation of hissing cats, our backs perpetually arched. There’s another Lewis novel that describes a Trump-like figure’s rise with none of It Can’t Happen Here's Hunger Games hyperbole: the religion-deflating Elmer Gantry, written in 1926. While It Can’t Happen Here posits the aftermath of a false prophet’s ascent, Elmer Gantry is a complete portrait of such a man -- and, in our present moment, strikes me as the far more useful book. Elmer Gantry’s titular character is a boozing womanizer who, as a college student, learns “the intoxication of holding an audience with his closed hand” in his public speaking class. Yet he shunned the debate team because “he viewed as obscene the notion of digging statistics about immigration…out of dusty spotted books in the dusty spotted library.” Gantry chooses a life in religion more out of lassitude than belief -- his mother, “owned by the church,” “had always wanted Elmer to be a preacher” -- though he was “a little too much tempted by the gauds of This World.” As he moves up the ministerial ladder -- beginning in lowly Banjo Crossing and grinding towards the metropolis of Zenith -- he preaches against personal ambition, though he “advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap.” He rails against immorality, though he’s a Ku Klux Klan admirer and a sexual predator. He’s too hypocritical to consider his hypocrisy. None of this bothers his followers; all they want is a good, fiery show -- never mind that he considers them “pop-eyed and admiring morons.” “He had a number of phrases -- all stolen -- and he made his disciples repeat them in chorus, in the manner of all religions,” Lewis writes. In different circumstances, Gantry wouldn’t hesitate to lead chants of “Lock her up” or “Build the wall” -- regardless of whether he believed in the words or their consequence. Unsurprisingly, Gantry fixates on his audiences’ sizes, not any good that he might do: “The crowds do seem to be increasing steadily,” he tells an associate. “We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening…and during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred!” Indeed, he has the bigliest crowds around. In It Can’t Happen Here, Buzz Windrip emerges from the traditional architecture of American politics. He’s a despot but he’s also, first and foremost, a politician. Gantry, though, is more Trumpian, a fraudulent fish-out-of-water who makes it up as he goes. And, like Trump, he knows that truth is no match for style. Elmer Gantry ends with the preacher thundering to a crowd of 2,500, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!” -- though he has just emerged from a sex scandal involving his secretary. The lesson of Elmer Gantry -- and, perhaps, of Donald Trump -- isn’t that terrible people succeed. It’s that good people enable them by hearing what they want to hear. If you want to read a nightmare about the havoc Donald Trump might wreak, then pick up It Can’t Happen Here. But if you want a guide to how we’ve come to find ourselves in such a bewildering, dangerous place —-- and to how we might, in the future, avoid such empty hucksters -- choose Elmer Gantry. It’s one of Sinclair Lewis’s best. And it’s the story of Donald Trump.
In the summer of 2000, two friends and I embarked on an epic cross-country drive. In preparation for the journey, we rented a Dodge Caravan, stocked up on peanut butter, and debated where to go. Using a Rand McNally map book, I laid out our path in pen, drawing lines from campsite icon to campsite icon across America and back. We planned to leave from Delaware, where I was a senior in college, in late June, and return in mid-August -- in all, six weeks of whiskey-addled, open-skied adventure. For the quiet moments -- of which there turned out to be few -- I brought along a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joads, we were also striving for California -- but with more Led Zeppelin CDs in tow. That month and a half became one of the fullest periods of my life, with one exhilarating escapade after another: outracing tornadoes in Kansas, nearly freezing to death in Yosemite, close calls with bears in both Sequoia and Glacier National Parks. We hiked and camped and ate our peanut butter. With cheap snapshot cameras, we ran through dozens of rolls of film. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, we forswore bathing, a foul contest of wills. It was all very stupid and perfectly glorious. It was, as they say, a formative experience. Afterwards, we made a pact to do a similar expedition every year, but outside of a few days in West Virginia in 2001, our oath died on the vine. As I progressed through my 20s, though, I still thought of myself as the same daring moron who once pushed a minivan to 110 on a Montana interstate. My girlfriend and I would go on long drives just to see what we could see; we hiked with the same questing spirit I’d carried on my trip. Once, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, we became covered in deer ticks -- and as we scraped them from our shins, laughing in horror beside our car, I had the feeling that, uncomfortable as I was, I remained on the proper track. You can’t get covered in bugs if you don’t enter the woods. As time went on, I began to read about people who, I flattered myself to think, had a similarly -- if more pronounced -- searching spirit. There was Percy Fawcett of The Lost City of Z, who rambled through the Amazon as if it were Central Park. And Into the Wild's Chris McCandless, whose fatal Alaskan trek was equally noble and misguided. I became a sucker for such narratives, subscribing to Outside magazine for its pieces on doomed hikers and wayward canoeists. Most know Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for the creepy 10-toe running shoes it helped to popularize, but I was more taken by its description of Mexico’s Tarahumara and their daunting mountain races. To write Savage Harvest, about the 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, Carl Hoffman traveled to New Guinea -- just as I would have done, I thought as I read. After all, I was pretty intrepid myself. Except that I wasn’t; not anymore. I was now married to that girlfriend, and had become both a father and an eternally fatigued commuter. Any journey I now took was occurring inside my skull: instead of going on spontaneous road trips, I was reading Charles Portis’s Norwood. Instead of hiking until my feet bled, I was reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Instead of tearing across Montana, I was reading Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. I had outsourced the work of outdoor experience to various authors, my risk limited to paper cuts and coffee spills. It had happened slowly, imperceptibly, until the transformation was all but complete. The version of myself who “got out there and did things” had been replaced by a softer, safer, far more boring person. In short, I was spending too much time reading about interesting people and almost no time being one -- an insight that recently hit me with depressing force. I’m not sure what spurred the revelation -- perhaps it was the contrast between the solitude of reading and the chaos of what I read. Maybe it struck me that I’d just read two books about people surviving deadly cold (Crazy for the Storm, The Shining) and was, absurdly, preparing to read two more (The Revenant and Alone on the Ice). Whatever it was, I’d become unhealthily comfortable; to quote an old Radiohead song, I was now a pig in a cage on antibiotics -- or, less dramatically, a guy in cozy slippers whose vitality had slipped away. This suspicion was soon confirmed by a family hike -- the first my wife and I had been on in years, despite the fact that the woods are a short drive from our house. Though we only walked for two hours or so, and the air was getting cold, the forest quietly filled a need that, in recent years, I had learned to ignore. We marveled at trees that intertwined like rope, gazed at a creek as if it were a national landmark. We inhaled, exhaled, looked for the paint blazes that marked our path. We were again away from everything, and it felt really fucking good. That was a month and a half ago, and that feeling -- the recognition of some innate inner need -- hasn’t faded; it now seems to burn within me, steady as a pilot light. I’ve resolved to reclaim myself -- my old self, tick-stippled and chased by bears, a person who’d do most anything for the sake of doing it. In a way, it’s already happened; we’ve since gone on another such hike, and we’re planning a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go trip to Tennessee in the spring. Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there -- or so says the internet -- and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors. There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet -- save for the waft of classical music -- lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap. On one of my few trips there -- I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me -- I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author -- Kurt Vonnegut-- and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book. Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works -- The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders -- wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never -- and still have never -- read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style -- that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision -- but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world. Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others -- and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about -- something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become. And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it -- this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine -- at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable -- so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously -- judging by its swift closure -- there weren’t enough of us. That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together -- and for that, I can only offer thanks.
I took The Shining down from its shelf a few days before Halloween, as it seemed a seasonally-appropriate read. It had sat there for years, Danny Torrance’s blank face staring out from its silver spine, asking me what I was afraid of, what I was waiting for. This will be much different from the movie, it said. Everybody knows how much Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s film. “I think he wants to hurt people with this movie,” isn’t that what King said? And besides, it went on, you haven’t seen it in 15 years. Book-jacket Danny had a point. And not only was it almost Halloween, but I’d just finished Jack Handey’s brilliantly asinine, irresponsibly funny The Stench of Honolulu. Among the books I’d recently read were Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara, and Bill Beverly’s Dodgers. None of these were exactly “fun,” but they were entertainments, with none of the claustrophobic dread I associated with The Shining. I needed a change of pace, and I couldn’t avoid King’s novel any longer. It was time to get down to brass tacks. And within the first few chapters, it became clear that The Shining was all brass tacks -- sharp, blunt, and efficient. I most enjoy King when he scraps his leavening impulses -- inexplicable mysticism, mediocre humor, saccharine endings -- and lets the darkness rip. The Long Walk and Gerald’s Game are two of his best because almost no light shines through them, and even The Stand -- in which, after a trillion pages, good ultimately prevails -- ends on a demoralizing note. As a fan of Kubrick’s film, I knew what I was getting myself into, but King’s book was entirely different, a much more human -- and therefore, more unsettling -- family drama. As I made my way through, another unsettling drama -- the 2016 presidential campaign -- was mercifully winding down, and until election night, The Shining was just a way to escape the noise. What better way to distance myself from Donald Trump’s noxiousness than to read about an eerily quiet, snowed-in hotel, written decades before the terms “basket of deplorables” and “nasty woman” entered the vernacular? Then, early on November 9th, Donald Trump fucking won. I was about 80 pages from the end of The Shining, and like everything else -- large and small, consequential and irrelevant -- in the hours and days afterwards, the tenor of the novel changed. I was so unmoored by his victory -- by the very notion that someone so vile could be so richly rewarded -- that the book and reality engaged in a queasy merge. In The Shining, King conjured a world -- albeit limited to the grounds of the Overlook Hotel -- in which everything was wrong. Hedge animals came alive; dead guests reappeared; fathers tried to kill their families. Having a sociopathic pussy-grabber as president had more in common with that world than the one I’d been living in. The Shining is about many things -- parental love, the strictures of family, alcohol abuse -- but it is mainly about the perils of the mind. In The Shining, there is nothing more dangerous than an unstable thought allowed. And in the wake of the election, it became clear that our minds -- both individually and collectively -- had become territories as unsafe as anything King could muster. Trump’s more cartoonish supporters had become no less delusional than Jack Torrance, who spends the latter part of The Shining piss-drunk on imaginary gin. Those voters’ nihilism “sent a message,” we were told -- as if that message would improve a goddamn thing. Those of us crushed by the nation’s turn, meanwhile, became dazed Wendy Torrances, at once unwilling to believe what was happening and unable to dismiss it. The hornet’s nest that had sat empty and fumigated -- The New York Times puts Clinton’s chances at 85 percent, you know -- was suddenly abuzz. All of us -- Trump and Clinton supporters both -- had become untethered from reality. Or, more accurately, we were all now yoked to a reality that couldn’t possibly be real. In the end, King’s Shining was much more hopeful than the film, the shadow of which it deserves to escape. This isn’t surprising; King seems, at heart, a warm and caring person, while Kubrick was by all accounts a petty tyrant of his own. So amid my post-election grief, I was heartened by the novel’s ending, which qualifies as “happy” without, as often happens in King -- I’m looking at you, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon -- cheapening its preceding horrors. And that seems about as good as I can ask for from the next four years: to emerge from the ordeal damaged but still whole. This is the limit of my optimism at the end of 2016. Because we’re all in The Shining now. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? 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Writing is hard. Everybody knows that. And one of the hardest things to write -- and write well -- are similes. So, as a public service, I’m supplying the general public with the following fair-use similes. That’s right: these are 100 percent free to use. Sprinkle them throughout your own writing -- your emails, your letters, your ham-fisted dystopian romance novels -- and be amazed by the lift in the overall quality of your work. You can thank me later. 1. The sun descended toward the horizon like a fried egg sliding off a fat man's naked thigh. 2. Her smile was as wide as the Mississippi River, with none of the intractable benzene pollution. 3.They made love as frantically as a weasel trying to escape from a linen closet. 4. The child, in knee socks and culottes, was as carefree as Ed Gein before he exhumed all those corpses to make pajamas from their skin. 5. He felt as hopeless as a fishmonger at a Missouri nudist colony. 6. His love for her was as true as a correct answer on a true/false test about truth. 7. His penis stood at attention like a nervous soldier on his first day of basic training. The penis even wore a tiny camouflage helmet and, somehow, combat boots. 8. "How dare you?" he exploded, like a rotten cassava melon thrown at a passing tram. 9. The dog tilted its head quizzically, as addled as a sleepy toddler in a Yale robotics colloquium. 10. His voice cracked like an egg that would then be fried and inexplicably placed on a fat man's naked thigh. 11. The room grew as dim as the dark side of the moon, which is also the title of Pink Floyd's best album, and if you're going to say Wish You Were Here is better, man, go back and listen to Dark Side. I mean, do yourself a favor and really listen to it. 12. The moment was as disappointing as arriving at the Sizzler hot bar with an empty plate, only to find that the whole damn place is plumb out of corn fritters. 13. His shoes squeaked on the tile, as distracting as a dreadlocked busker playing ska-inflected Dave Matthews covers at your great-aunt’s funeral. 14. Sadness ripped through him like that weird chest pain you always get after one too many gluten-free toaster waffles. 15. He stood tall as he glided confidently across the crowded room, like Manute Bol on rollerblades. 16. It was eerily quiet in the forest clearing, as if God himself had been all, like, "Dude, shut up, I think my parents are coming!" 17. The emotion that filled his heart was as pure as water poured from a PUR 7-Cup Water Pitcher. (This simile brought to you by PUR.) 18. Shaken, she felt as fragile as an egg that would then be cracked, fried, and inexplicably placed on a fat man's naked thigh. Image Credit: Pixabay.
With Halloween upon us, now is the perfect time to curl up with a good, scary book. But if you’ve already read such standbys as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Shining, you might be in need of a suggestion. With that in mind, here are five absolute chillers that will have you turning pages deep into the night -- and are guaranteed to have your teeth a-chattering as you pray for the sun to rise! Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom The elderly, disease-wracked Morrie is dying -- immobile and helpless in what is soon to be his deathbed. Outside his New England home, the pained echoes of atrocities past --- witch burnings, the slaughter of native peoples -- can still be faintly heard. Once each week, as regular as the doomsday clock, he is visited by a much younger man -- a man known, terrifyingly, as “Mitch” -- who has arrived from the murder-pocked wastelands of Detroit. Mitch hovers above Morrie’s bed, extracting stories, memories, and anecdotes from the elder as if withdrawing his very blood. Morrie, unsurprisingly, withers as Mitch’s visits mount. Is Morrie’s terminal illness sapping his will to live? Or is he a victim of Mitch’s vampiric need for enough material to fill an easily giftable book? It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow In It’s All Good, a pallid wraith of a woman named Gwyneth, all eerie eyes and jutting bones, drags us into the depths of her madness -- a state in which simple, good-hearted folk might gobble down such witchy horrors as preserved lemons and quail eggs. Early on, we learn that Gwenyth shuns red meat -- it is, perhaps, too close to the taste of human flesh -- and any poultry raised inorganically. Her goal, she proclaims, is to “cleanse” her “system.” This obsession with scouring her bowels of the merest impurity raises a troubling question: what is so vile within her that it must be so harshly scrubbed away? And if we read her book, are we just as poisoned as she? Crippled America by Donald Trump In Crippled America, a glaring, angry madman called Donald guides us through a harrowing realm of poverty, violence, and ruin -- a shattered deathscape that, if viewed through a certain prism, can begin to look like our own. As in other works of dystopian horror, Crippled America is vague on what has brought such pestilence, and at times Donald’s prose, as H.P. Lovecraft’s, becomes difficult to follow (“If you have laws that you don’t enforce, then you don’t have laws,” he writes. “This leads to lawlessness.”). At other times, however, he is as convincingly menacing as the Cryptkeeper himself -- as when he declares his lunatic intentions to rule this ravaged land. It’s a far-fetched bit of plotting, to be sure -- but just plausible enough to send a shiver down your spine. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen Like Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Chicken Soup for the Soul is a collection of stories that, taken as a whole, form a mosaic of punishing psychological horror. Taking place in an eerie world in which humanity’s quirks and edges have been worn away -- shades of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives -- Chicken Soup for the Soul pounds the reader with sun-dappled tales of love, flowers, and workplace hugging. Chicken Soup for the Soul succeeds in terrifying by relentlessly piling false “goodness” upon false “goodness” -- and for the quivering, goose-pimpled reader, the effect is that of being forced to eat an entire sheet cake at riflepoint. The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell A modern classic of terror, The Carrie Diaries tells the story of Carrie White, a fragile teenager who is born with telekinetic powers -- powers that, as she matures, will allow her to avenge the high-school abusers who torment her endlessly. Bushnell controls the action with a firm and expert grip, allowing the horror of The Carrie Diaries to slowly build, a sense of dread permeating each page, until a catastrophic climax that stands as one of the...wait a minute — what? Oh. Really? Oh. Okay. So then..what’s The Carrie Diaries? Oh. Like a Sex and the City prequel? For fuck’s sake. That’s even scarier than whatever the hell it was I was originally talking about. Image Credit: Pixabay.
I’m not sure how I knew when Doggystyle would be released. The debut album from Snoop Doggy Dogg -- as Calvin Broadus, Jr. was known before changing his handle to Snoop Dogg, then Snoop Lion, then Snoop Dogg again -- came out in November of 1993, and I can’t imagine that I read about it in any of the newspapers or magazines that cluttered my parents’ house. We didn’t have cable TV, so Kurt Loder didn’t tell me about it, a cartoon globe spinning behind his head. I can only assume that my friends were talking it up: "Snoop Doggy Dogg, from The Chronic? I heard his album’s coming out next week." That was how information spread in 1993. I was 14 years old. I was also a huge hip-hop fan, with a long and checkered history of signing up for BMG and Columbia House, receiving the first shipment of CDs or cassettes -- nine or 10 of them, an impossible bounty -- before writing them frantic I’m-just-a-child letters when they later demanded their cash. I would buy whatever I could with whatever money I had -- A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A, Tim Dog; it didn’t matter much. And although I don’t recall loving Dr. Dre’s The Chronic at the time, I must have been taken by the then-obscure Snoop, who appeared all over it, his silky nihilism leavening Dre’s stern-uncle delivery and the album’s squealing synths. Or maybe I just got swept up in the hype. Either way, I had to have Doggystyle. There was a CD store one town over that managed to seem simultaneously new and run-down, as if its owners, after hustling to finance its opening, had been too exhausted to properly set it up. Its interior was heavy on milk crates and cardboard signage. It was open for a few months at most, and none of my old friends remember it; when I bring it up, they frown as if I’m describing a poltergeist. But I know that it existed, and that it was open for business on the week of November 23, 1993. I usually got my music from a shopping mall a few miles out of town, and I’m not sure why I didn’t go there for Doggystyle. I wouldn’t have faked an illness to stay home on the Tuesday of its release -- I only did such a thing once, in the second grade, to obtain a few packs of Garbage Pail Kids’ long-awaited third edition -- so I must have waited until that Saturday, only to find that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t hitch a ride to the mall. I had to take matters into my own smallish hands. I’d only been in the store once or twice before, and I’d never bought anything there, but it represented my best chance at obtaining Snoop’s debut. My father had recently upped my allowance to a Zuckerbergian $20 a week, so I didn’t have to go through the ordeal of scraping up loose change -- which I’d once done to buy a Bon Jovi cassette (the unlistenable 7800° Fahrenheit). Cash in hand, I likely lied to my parents about where I was going -- playing basketball with friends, not searching for murder-and-misogyny-filled music -- and set out. It was about a mile and a half to the shop from my childhood home, but as I remember it, the walk had an epic, questing feel. I crossed the busy street perpendicular to my own quiet one and proceeded down a hill that bottomed out near the entrance to a soccer field. On game and practice days, the rutted, tree-hung drive to the field fills with cars; you can hear cheers and murmurs from the open space beyond. But it was too late in the year for soccer, and the place was desolate. The drive peters out at the lip of the field, where the trees recede and the sky seems suddenly huge above the expanse of grass. My first burst of vivid memory of that day occurs here: me, alone, walking towards the woods on the field’s far side. When I think of Doggystyle -- and even when I think of Snoop Dogg -- I think of myself, simmering with teenage need, moving across that empty field. A slim path wound through a patch of woods into which was hacked the Department of Public Works, its snow plows and pickup trucks parked beside a junk-strewn creek. I curled around an abandoned, graffiti-wracked DPW outbuilding and climbed the metal steps of a bridge that led to a surviving copse of trees. The area had a forgotten, suburban-outlaw feel, the sort of hidden place where '90s kids smoked joints and '80s kids got drunk and — if the tabloids were to be believed — sacrificed their weak in praise of Great Lord Satan. An overgrown path led through a second field -- three baseball diamonds the merging outfields of which created another soccer pitch -- until I got to the first street, the first real bit of civilization, in the neighboring town. I was almost there. A left, a right, and I was at a car-choked thoroughfare lined with shops. My objective sat wanly on the other side. I crossed the street and entered the store. A little bell might have rung. Of course, I was the only customer. As I recall, the person behind the counter was a light-skinned black man who wore a tight paisley shirt and oversized glasses, like Get Up With It-era Miles Davis. Though there was never a guarantee of finding what you wanted there, I quickly located Doggystyle — success! — paid, and hurried out, excited to get home and listen to my treasure. I’d like to say that I recall tearing up to my room, ripping off the disc’s cellophane, and blasting “Gin and Juice” and “Who Am I (What’s My Name?),” but that would be a lie. I have no recollection of actually listening to the album once I returned, or what I even thought of it in subsequent days and weeks. I probably thought, as I do now, that the record was crowded with filler, with too many lackluster skits and too many subpar guests. I don’t know. As is so often the case -- as is maybe always the case -- the getting of the thing was more important than the thing itself.
On three previous occasions, I have confronted the thorny -- yet seemingly obvious -- question of whether or not picture books are leading our precious, innocent, impressionable, doe-eyed youth down a skull-strewn path to ruin. I had (naively) thought that three installments would be enough to successfully confront the problem -- yet, alas, there are simply too many books on our children’s shelves that, through deceptively cheery artwork and sly subversion, are destroying our tots from within. Here are four of the worst offenders I’ve recently had the displeasure of reading. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury At first glance, this rollicking chant-along seems inoffensively silly, as it follows a family’s “bear hunt,” its sights set on catching “a big one.” But the merest analysis of the story is enough to make one’s blood run cold: a father has recklessly dragged his four young children (and seemingly terrified dog) along with him -- yet has brought nothing to defend them with once their quarry is reached. They trudge through woods, mud, high grass, and shallow water on their idiotic mission, and are woefully unprepared for each. When they finally reach the bear’s cave, they are chased back the way they came, frantic and breathless, violent death certain for any family member who happens to fall behind. The story ends with the relieved, chastened hunters hiding beneath a blanket in their safely-locked house -- as if all is now somehow well. But what scarring and post-traumatic stress have the children suffered at the hands of their sociopathic father? And is it any wonder that their mother has abandoned him? Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats has the distinction of being this country’s longest-running in-print children’s book -- and it also has the distinction of being the most hellish murderscape to ever plague the minds of America’s youth. When a lonely elderly man surprises his equally lonely wife with “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats,” it seems that the couple will live out their days in a state of fuzzy kitty bliss. But this is not to be. The felines, whipped into a frenzy by the question of which of them is “the prettiest,” proceed to slaughter one another until only one remains. Though Gág shrewdly omitted steaming mountains of viscera-strewn cat carcasses from her crude illustrations, the reader can’t help but picture the mind-bending kill, the simple fields and hillsides soaked with calico gore. The reader is invited to rejoice in the remaining kitten -- but how can one rejoice in the wake of such annihilation? Did the lone survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre later see her time in Leatherface’s femur-hung terrorhouse as somehow heartwarming? Sadly, Gág died in 1946, so we can never ask her that question -- but after enduring her relentless horrorshow, one suspects that her answer would be yes. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst Is there any character in modern literature more detestable than the sulking, selfish, egomaniacal Alexander? Why would any parent read this petulant saga to his or her child? As the monstrous title character stomps through his miserable day, he subjects the reader to a litany of problems that are nearly all of his own making. They include -- but are by no means limited to -- sleeping with gum in his mouth and waking with it in his hair; being criticized for not participating in class; being told that he has a cavity -- perhaps because he sleeps with fucking gum in his mouth -- and angering his father by visiting his office and destroying everything in his path. To Alexander, the day’s greatest indignities are that a schoolmate demotes him to his fourth-best friend, and that the family cat chooses to sleep with his brother instead of him -- as if there is any reason for anyone to cozy up to such a vile little turd. Throughout, Alexander keeps threatening to move to Australia, to which I say: fucking go! Half a world away seems a sufficient distance from this disgusting brat’s scandalous self-absorption. Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi Apparently, some believe that Everyone Poops is a simple masterpiece of early-childhood body-awareness, as it teaches youngsters that there is nothing shameful or odd about defecation -- as “everyone,” Gomi tells us, from mice to whales to humans, does it. But here’s the problem: everyone does not poop. I, for one, am 37 years old, and, to my knowledge, I have never felt the urge to do that filthy bit of business. I suppose it’s possible that I may have “thrown heat” as an infant -- nobody’s perfect, after all -- but for as long as I can remember, my body has converted its waste into pristine, renewable energy. So while I may tolerate the practice by my family members and peers, I see nothing to praise in it. Am I simply a missing link, a representative of a brighter, less-malodorous future? Probably. And in light of such advances, Everyone Poops seems akin to celebrating the burning of coal or the extraction of Canadian tar sands. We can do better than poop -- of that I am certain.
A couple of weeks ago, finding myself between books, I went to my shelves in search of something to read. After a time, I came to a copy of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime that I’ve had for years, but never got around to reading. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate is one my favorite novels, and I recently enjoyed his Homer & Langley. That settled it: Ragtime it would be. However, when I opened it that night, I let out a disappointed groan. Highlighter marks were everywhere; on the first page of text alone, seven words (among them “stouter” and — snort — “steamers”) were underlined in neon blue, and the sentence “There was a lot of sexual fainting” had been, for some reason, parenthesized. I flipped ahead, and the blue marker was even thicker on subsequent pages. Though I’ve occasionally read secondhand books that previous owners had scribbled through, Ragtime was far too damaged to read. There was practically more highlighter than printer’s ink. The handwriting had a bouncy innocence to it, leading me to believe that it had come from a high school student, maybe a freshman or sophomore. It also seemed to have come from a female, though the vandal’s gender is immaterial. Do I have this right? I’m asking you directly, teenager who ruined my copy of Ragtime. Have I identified you correctly? By now, you’re probably in your 30s; I’ve had the book for at least a decade, and it was old when I got it. Since so much time has passed, then, I hope you won’t be upset with me for pointing out a few absurdities in your novel-wrecking note-taking style. You destroyed Doctorow’s masterpiece; the least you can do is understand my frustration. First: when you highlighted a word, did you look it up soon afterward? Or did you wait until much later, seeking the definitions of 50 or 60 words at a time? I’m genuinely baffled by your approach. For example, the word “vaudeville” is underlined three times in the first six pages, and “vaudevillian” is marked not long after that. Did you ever look up “vaudeville,” or did you just keep underlining it in manic exasperation? You underlined “affidavit” three times in the same paragraph. Wouldn’t one mark have sufficed? Or did you just think that the blue looked neat? And could you really not figure out what a “sexologist” was? Was it that difficult to parse? Wouldn’t a “cheeseologist” be someone who studies cheese? Chapter three ends with the sentence "And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish." A highly evocative passage, seemingly straightforward enough. Yet you drew a bracket around “fried fish” with an arrow pointing to a plaintive question: “Why?” Why? Why would the smell of fried fish rise through the slum alleys? Sadly, I never had the chance to meet Doctorow -- he died in 2015 -- so I’ve never been able to ask him what he meant by this riddle. But I'd guess -- and mind you, it’s only a guess -- that it had something to do with the fact that SOMEONE WAS FRYING FISH. A similar conundrum confronts us on page 17, where you wrote “what year is this???” I assume you’re asking in what year Ragtime takes place -- not that, addled by the book, you forgot what year you were actually living in. Operating on that assumption, we can see that, on the first few pages alone, Doctorow secreted a number of clues as to when his story occurs. First, there are references to Harry Houdini, Jacob Riis, and to the shooting, years before, of “the steel millionaire Henry Frick” -- so anyone with a decent grasp of American history might begin to infer an answer. Ragtime also depicts European immigration to Ellis Island and Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Still, one can’t be sure. Yet there is a tantalizing nugget that, if looked at in the proper way, could answer your thrice-punctuated question. It’s buried deep within the very first line of Ragtime's very first chapter: In 1902… Again, though, one can’t be sure. “In 1902.” What does that even mean? At the bottom of page 25, you scrawled “what kind of jail is this?” I assume you’re referring to the prison that Doctorow described Houdini escaping from, but there’s an existential poignancy to your question that I can’t fully shake. Is Ragtime itself -- assigned by some tweedy English teacher; full of arcane terminology and long-dead characters -- the jail you were referring to? If so, you pulled your own shrewd Houdini move, didn’t you? Because just eight pages later, the highlighting ceased. The rest of the book is blessedly free of your scrawlings, as unmarked as the day it came off the press. It appears that you escaped the novel, mad with glee, never to blue its pages again. I truly wish you the best. I hope the time you spent trapped in Ragtime didn’t scar you too much, now-aging teenage highlighter. Hopefully, you’re now a well-adjusted adult -- and aren’t the sort of almost-middle-aged crank who complains incessantly about trivial matters like, say, highlighter marks on an old paperback. That sort of person can seem like an irritating character in an old vaudeville show, don't you think? Warmly, Jacob Lambert