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Welcome to On the Road

Many years ago I wrote a newsletter column called On the Road. The column lusted after literary credibility by borrowing (stealing) the title from Jack Kerouac's novel. But in fact, it sunk to the rambling and muttering that is the fate of virtually all running-related writing.
The rambling and muttering continue here in quasi-blog form. My writing and interests (links) are random, personal, and ad-free. Dave Smith.

Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice-weasels come. [Matt Groening] [more quotes]

April Quartet

"His memory, when it wasn't failing him utterly, was suspiciously selective." [Chances Are ..., Richard Russo]

Richard Russo published his relatively slim (302 pages) Chances Are . . . in 2019. While it's rich Russo, with delicious prose and a crafty plot, this should not be your first Russo novel. His sprawling sagas are full-course literary meals. This one is a fine choice off the desert cart. The title does refer to the Johnny Mathis iconic song.

Russo slowly builds the story of 3 college friends, now 45 years after graduation, and meeting for perhaps a final reunion weekend. We get to know them for 200 pages, or we think we do, until the last 100 pages swirl our assumptions aside. We don't always know our friends or even ourselves.

More from Chances Are --

"'The thing to understand about your father,' Lincoln's mother had explained when he was in high school, 'is that you always have a choice. You can do things his way, or you can wish you had.'"

"Instead of going directly to Marty's office, he'd stopped to buy a large roll of them and a package of Wet Wipes, having managed to splash his loafers. Had Anita been along, this errand would have been unnecessary. Being a woman, she always carried both mints and wipes in her purse. Not being a woman, he had no idea why they would imagine that at some point during the day you just might, for example, vomit onto your shoes and need them."

"I'm envious, actually. Your parents both cared about you enough to give you bad advice."

"Nothing you want matters as much as you think it does."

Lady in the Lake was my first Laura Lippman novel. In addition to being a new writer on my reading list, Lippman introduces Baltimore as a story setting. This is a good break from the many New England and New York based stories I read.

Lippman writes well, and her storyline avoids obvious flow. I could not predict the next stage in the plot. So I kept reading. And that's the mark of good writing. More Laura Lippman awaits.

"No, here. I'm sorry - when New Yorkers say 'the city' they always mean the island of Manhattan."

Michael Gruber published The Book of Air and Shadows in 2007. This 466-page novel uses the discovery of an unknown play by Shakespeare as the reason for gangsters, scholars, lawyers, booksellers, and bystanders to behave badly. Well, the gangsters from Israel, Europe, and the U.S. were simply being gangsters. Everyone else was off the rails. Shakespeare will do that to you.

For readers who like to identify with a favorite character in a story, this would be a tough read. There's not a single "golden" player in this play - all are tarnished. And why? Money. The discovered Shakespeare play is worth, or would be worth, millions if not billions.

More Gruber --

"The problem with evil people is that they can see only evil in others."

"It wouldn't be the first time, however, that the fate of nations swung on someone wanting a piece of ass to which they were not strictly entitled."

"You're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior."

J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in book form in 1951, although parts had been published in 1945 and 1946. It's about teenage angst as experienced by a 17-year-old boy, and it's narrated in 1940s teen vernacular by the "author," Holden Caulfield. The author is not only Caulfield but Salinger, who, in his own life, never escaped his identity with Holden. Their lives mirror each other, and we might follow the fictional character after the story ends by looking at Salinger's life.

I bought my Signet paperback copy for 50 cents (new) on September 17, 1963, and read it while I was in college. I just re-read it on the way to and from San Diego in early May 2022.

The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most banned books in American literature. I imagine the arguments against it are related to language (some naughty words), sex (oh, please, just get over it), and Holden's angst. Perhaps if we ban this book, teens will be happy all the time and not think of their peers and adults as imperfect humans. Yes, let's legislate Human Perfection.

[May 8, 2022] [top]

Winter Reading

"If you save someone's life, you are responsible for them." [Billy Summers, Stephen King]

In many stories, a good guy who does bad things dies in the end.

If you are trained in the military to kill, and then you take that skillset back to civilian life, and you are paid by bad people to kill other bad people, you are a killer. Billy was a good person, and a killer. There could be no escape for Billy.

We do bad things for good reasons, and we do good things for bad reasons. King explores the former moral dilemma.

"But what did it mean, really? There was no way for me to know, only to speculate. I'm not an Egyptologist. My previous studies of comparative religion have been confined to medieval Christian variants prominent in the Germanic and Mediterranean regions during assorted state-sanctioned periods of witch and heretic hunting, when ecclesiastical nuance determined the destiny of illiterate, cowed populations. The Inquisition is an archetypal instance on non-secular terrorism - it's a template for institutionalized cruelties that have abided throughout modern history." [Elect Mr. Robinson for Better World, Donald Antrim]

Although Pete Robinson was correct about almost everything, he also was insane. He lived in a world that was only a smidgen less sane than our own little neighborhoods, where perhaps we would not draw and quarter the mayor, using 4 cars, and that mayor would not have fired a Stinger missile into a crowd of townspeople. We are very far from that. Are we? How fine is the line between societal sanity and insanity?

The Harry Hole novels are exhausting to read. That's not a negative assessment. Exhausting activities are often ones we seek. The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo was my 3rd Hole novel. There will be more.

"It was not the first time he found actual equality difficult to bear."

"'She's such a sweet person,' Edith said. 'She's especially moved by bad paintings because she feels such embarrassment for the painter, even if he's dead.' It's true. There wasn't a decent painting in the bunch of Kurt Winters; she had bought his very worst."

"'Edith is most attracted to things that are unfamiliar to her.'"
The 158 Pound Marriage. John Irving

This is a very early Irving novel, and a short one, only 158 pages. Did he intend to match the page count with the title? It was published in 1973, only five years after John Updike's Couples. On the surface both novels use suburban sexual freedom to carry the story. It was a time of free love, drugs, and partner swapping - or at least it was a time when fiction writers jumped on these themes that now were publishable. I remember being disappointed in Updike's book. I had read everything he had written up to Couples, but after finishing what I sensed at the time was a lazy book that pandered to a new-found sexual freedom, I stopped reading Updike.

Irving's book also carries a stale flavor, but he's such a good writer that The 158-Pound Marriage is worth reading.

After finishing a book I'll sometimes check the "critical assessment" of what I've just read. One critic complained that Irving included too much about wrestling. Well, since wrestling was the framework for the story, I'm not sure the critic read the book. Would an art critic complain that Renoir spent too much time fiddling with colors?

Someone asked me which Robert Parker novel she should read. I didn't know. I mumbled "all of them" or maybe I just mumbled. Ask for an Elmore Leonard recommendation and I'd be mumbling again. They're all good, or mediocre, or bad. Your choice, your taste. Glitz was my 19th Leonard novel.

Have you read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood? If yes, you have a head start on Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Humans in power use powerless humans as they wish. In The Handmaid's Tale, it's males using females. In Never Let Me Go, it's "naturally born" humans using cloned humans.

Atwood's women and Ishiguro's clones are human. Although the clones cannot reproduce, they write poetry, create art, make love, are kind, petty, happy, sad. There is no human emotion or ability that is beyond them. They are human. They have souls. But . . . . They were created to be harvested for body parts that cure cancer and other diseases. When they reach maturity, they begin making "donations" and they die after the 2nd or 3rd. Rarely, a clone's death is not until the 4th donation.

When it was understood that the clones were fully human and they were being killed for body parts, one might think that the whole thing would be stopped. But no. Once a cancer cure is discovered, can it be taken away? In Ishiguro's story, the answer is no.

As one might expect, Never Let Me Go received scathing reviews from many readers, who were horrified by the story. The book is narrated in the voice of one of the clones. It moves slowly and repeats many moments where the characters (and the reader) "sit on" what is discussed. And then it ends. There is no grand finale, beyond death, no magic revelation to make us smile about our happy lives.

I will read more from Kazuo Ishiguro.

I finished Billy Summers in February. I read Antrim, Nesbo, Irving, Leonard, and Ishiguro in March. It's been a long winter.

[March 30, 2022] [top]

Everybody's Fool

"One of these locals was Carl Roebuck, who most people were surprised to learn was an entrepreneur, having known him all their lives as a con man and an asshole."

Richard Russo published Everybody's Fool in 2016, twenty-three years after Nobody's Fool. It was 10 years later in the story, the cast was the same, and the fool was indeed a fool. But no less lovable for that. The fool, by the way, was not Roebuck, but the policeman who had shot at Sully in Nobody's Fool, and became the police chief in Everybody's Fool.

More from Russo:
"At fifty-eight, he was as determined as he'd been at thirty to corner the market in broken, worthless crap, to bring it all home, take it apart and leave the pieces strewn over every flat surface in the house."
"Knowledge was not a state to which he'd ever particularly aspired, much preferring the bliss of ignorance."

"No one could have fathomed what a life he'd led, for it was chiefly a life lived in his mind. Possibly what passed for his tiredness was nothing more than the cost of his considerable imagination, which had never found the outlet that it sought."

This passage is near end of A Son of the Circus, John Irving's 633 page story of Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, who lives in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Toronto. He's Indian but not, Canadian but not. His wife is Austrian. He lives his life as an immigrant, which means he belongs nowhere. It's a story of India, but not. This story includes circuses and dwarves, a vast variety of sexual themes, twins separated at birth, Jesuits and other religions in their best and worst behaviors, murder, and disease. I hesitated to start reading this heavy book, especially given Irving's slow pace. But it's a great story.

"'Do you love him, fru Molnes?' In the ensuing silence he listened for a fanfare. 'Love him? What does that matter? I'm capable of imagining I love him. I think I could love anyone who loves me. Do you understand?'"

Jo Nesbo's world is not the world of Russo and Irving. Harry Hole is a Norwegian police inspector. My earlier Hole adventure had him in Australia. In Cockroaches he's in Bangkok. Bad stuff happens.

"Everything goes to hell if you wait long enough."

Cogan's Trade was my 5th George V. Higgins novel. Higgins was an Assistant Attorney General and then an Assistant United States Attorney in Boston. He taught Creative Writing at Boston University. And he was a prolific novelist. His work features dialog by Bad Guys in their Boston-accented vernacular. What's Cogan's trade? He's a hit man. Paid killer. And he's the hero of this story. Sort of.

Mild autism is the key to Temperance Brennan, the central character in the Bones novels by Kathy Reichs. In the TV series based on the Bones stories, the actress Emily Deschanel mastered this quality, which made the episodes so watchable. In the written/printed stories, Dr. Brennan's mastery of bones combined with her social awkwardness is more of a challenge. Brennan is incapable of "reading" people, which often puts her at risk. 206 Bones, published in 2009, is a good example. The reader wants to yell at Temp - "it's your lab assistant!!!" But she's oblivious to all living, human clues, while being a master of scattered bones.

I suspect some people don't' read these books because perhaps 50% of the words are detail about forensic anthropology and - basically - bones. Or readers skip all the technical parts and only follow the story. Well, I love all the bone talk. I learn a lot. But don't quiz me on it.

I finished Cockroaches in December and Everybody's Fool in January, followed by A Son of the Circus, Cogan's Trade, and 206 Bones in February.

Irony note: currently reading Stephen King's latest novel, Billy Summers. Billy is a hired killer.

[February 15, 2022] [top]