Saturday, March 31, 2007

Read our Manuscript, Please

Book manuscripts are large, unwieldy, ugly and frequently riddled with typos. It's not often that I'm willing to venture into the belly of one of these double-spaced behemoths, made even more intimidating because only one side of the paper contains print. What will eventually be a slender 250-page novel, appears to be 500 pages in manuscript form.

I receive a handful of these overgrown, bound term papers each year at the store. They are usually by authors that I've shown a great fondness for, like Wendell Berry. I gaze longingly at these works, and my wait for the hardback book is all the more painful knowing that my guru's words are sitting right on my desk but in a form that I can't bring myself to read. Occasionally, the manuscripts are by unknown writers and come festooned with candy bars, playing cards or perfumed sachets with frilly ribbons. Once the extras have been doled out among the office staff, a debate usually ensues about whether or not the manuscript can go into the paper recycling with the binding still intact.

About six weeks ago, I received the manuscript of Brock Clarke's forthcoming novel, An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England. I had responded to an email from an acquaintance at Algonquin Press looking for readers. I'm not sure why I said I'd be willing to look at the book. Perhaps, I feared that some day I'd be stranded, penniless, in North Carolina and would need a job. Where else, but to Algonquin, could I go in that situation? If I could just get the bus fare to Chapel Hill, I'd have a favor to call in. I'd be saved.

Clarke's tome arrived, and it terrified me. It is almost the exact same dimensions as the Boulder phone book -- that's the white and yellow pages combined, with listings for Louisville, Longmont, Nederland and a half-dozen more towns. How could I possibly read this? I did the only rational thing possible; I hid the book beneath of pile of reader's copies (that I also would never read) on the side of my desk. There it languished, nearly forgotten, until another email showed up a couple of weeks ago reminding me that Algonquin's sales conference was approaching, and whenever I had any feedback, even if I detested the book, I should send it along. That part about detesting it meant there was no way to get out of this gracefully. My God, the woods of North Carolina were closing in. If I ignored this latest email, I would somehow be sentenced to a lifetime of menial labor in Charlotte or Durham as poetic justice. I swiftly emailed that I was just getting started on Clarke's potential magnum opus and that I'd have a quote soon.

That night I began reading An Arsonist's Guide while lying in bed. My wife looked askance at the huge weight pressing the covers down over my chest. She wanted to know if I was really going to "read the whole thing." I told her that it wasn't as long as it looked and sighed as the spine pressed into my sternum. I stared up at our immaculately painted ceiling and thought about the last manuscript I had read in its entirety.

We were having the ceilings and hallways of our condo painted a couple of years ago. The lead painter, Robert, was an ex-New Yorker. I liked his brash, direct manner and the confidence that he had when advising us on color choices. We were thrilled by how much nicer our condo looked when the painting was completed. As Robert and I were doing a final walk through, he asked me about all the books we have. I told him that I was the buyer for the Boulder Book Store. His eyes lit up and an almost impish grin crossed his face.

Robert was a writer. I shifted my weight from foot to foot as he described his different science fiction novels and their new-age tilt. I scratched my head when he inquired if there was a market for them. I almost jumped out the window when he asked if he could give me a manuscript to read. I was a bit surprised that he really had a manuscript. Most writers that I meet like this (well, not quite like this, but people at parties, in bars, at the gym), haven't exactly finished their masterpieces. Robert, however, had a half-dozen finished novels that I could choose between. After imploring me to "read just 50 pages" and strongly hinting I could get a deep discount on having my cabinets painted, I told him I wanted his most down-to-earth manuscript. That was a tough request for a writer who's "out there" in more than one way.

A few days later, he showed up at the bookstore carrying a large black binder. His manuscript, The Astral Imperative, was clamped in a hardback case that could serve as a book cover or be opened like a clam shell and taken off, leaving just the loose manuscript pages. He spent an awfully long time making sure I knew how to operate this marvel of technology, and after accidentally clamping my finger in the case, I assured him I'd read the first 50 pages and get back to him.

I ended up reading his whole book. It was a fascinating look at a manned mission to Mars in the near future. His characters were believable, his writing fluid and his plot riveting. My favorite part of the novel was a computer game that picked up on the thoughts of the astronauts and projected them onto a holographic image of the red planet. It was meant to be a way for them to work through the anxieties and expectations of their mission, but it soon turned more sinister.

I don't read much science fiction, but I can honestly say Robert's novel was better than two-thirds of the novels I've read over the past few years. That's saying something, because I'm often reading fiction that is highly touted by reps I trust, by editors I respect or by rave reviews in the The New York Times, The New Yorker or Harper's. Perhaps it is my lack of familiarity with the genre that led me to such a high opinion of The Astral Imerative. Maybe many other science fiction novels are well-written, thoughtful, realistic looks at the near future. Somehow, the lurid covers featuring bizarre aliens and absurd titles make me think that's not really the case. Now that I think about it, maybe I'd read more science fiction if it came coverless, like a manuscript.

I did everything I could to get Robert published. There's not a whole lot I can do since I don't know any agents. I gave the book to a few reps, and I talked it up to a few marketing people, but it never really got anywhere. Looking back, it's hard not to think of the irony of these two manuscripts. Algonquin is trying to get bookseller quotes for a novel that they are already committed to publishing, while my toiling painter has a manuscript with a great quote and the full endorsement from a bookseller, and he can't get a sniff from a publisher.

Anyway, back to Brock Clarke's novel. As I waded into the world of Sam Pulsifer, Clarke's narrator, and the man who accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson's house, I was struck by the even tone of this absurdist story. Pulsifer is always doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. He casually explains this away with assurances that he is a born bumbler.

There were aspects of the novel I dearly loved, including the idea that there are people all over New England who would love to see a famous writer's house burned down because they either hate the curator or tourists tramp through their yard to get to the house. I recently visited Faulkner's house outside of Oxford, Mississippi and noted how isolated it was from most everything else. But in New England, as in my home town of Philadelphia, the historic house might be the one right next to yours.

I also enjoyed the playful allusions to the different writers, and Pulsifer's mother's take on different works of literature. The poor woman is an English teacher who has to endure the mortification of knowing that her son burned down a literary landmark. Entangled in all of these literary wanderings is a mystery. More writers' homes are burning down, and Sam is not responsible, although he is acting guilty.

I was reminded of Marisha Pessl's marvelous first novel from last year, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, with its numerous references to real and imagined books, and also it's unravelling, mysterious plot. Both novels also have a visual, almost cartoonish, appeal. At times I thought Clarke's novel could work better as a graphic novel. In Special Topics, Pessl includes drawings and illustrations to illuminate what mere words can't do. Perhaps both of these books will find their way into the movie theater.

In the end, I guess I felt that An Arsonist's Guide was an engaging and thought-provoking read, but that it needed some work. The characters seem too thinly drawn even for a satire, and I got really tired of all the silly drinking that went on. About midway through the novel, the characters just drink lots of beer, and it makes them pretty stupid without contributing much to the plot. I was tempted to mark things in the margin and send it back in, but then I realized I'm not being asked or paid to play editor. I'm being asked to send in a quote.

I was able to send a positive blurb because I did enjoy the book, and I do think it will appeal to many people. I managed to read it in just a couple of days, and my motivation for finishing it that quickly was the writing, not the weight of the manuscript.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reading in the Middle of Nowhere

Each winter, I ski into one of Colorado's Tenth Mountain Division huts with my wife and group of good friends for a long weekend. These huts are only accessible by skis or snowshoes (although hardly anyone ever snowshoes) and are usually three to seven miles away from the nearest road. The huts are set in beautiful mountain meadows with fantastic views of rugged peaks. In these mountain retreats, you truly get the feeling of being away from the world. There are no phones, televisions, radios, computers or newspapers in these overgrown log cabins.

Of course, it's not completely rustic. The huts are more like chalets. At night we play cards beneath lights powered by a battery that is recharged every day from the abundant solar energy. We cook our meals over propane burners in cast iron cookware; we heat the cabin with two large wood stoves (that definetly were trucked in); and when nature calls, there is a spacious outhouse that doesn't even smell that bad in the dead of winter. The real selling point for the huts, though, is the living rooms, with their large windows and comfortable benches covered with mattresses and pillows. Ahh . . . it's worth hauling a 35- to 40-pound backpack up a mountain when you know a warm fire and spectacular views are waiting.

Each year, I spend more time fretting about what I am going to read than about any other aspect of the trip. The young, strong guys, like my friend Ram, just bring whatever they happen to be reading, even if it's a hardback economics book. One year, our group included a high school senior, an excellent skier in fine shape, who thought nothing of carrying up a few text books so he wouldn't fall behind on his homework. That's not for me. I scan my bookshelves looking for something small and sleek. I haven't gotten so weak that I prepare for the trip by shopping for Dover classics yet, but once I did end up bringing a Dover edition of Henry James' Turn of the Screw.

Other than the weight factor, I've come up with a few rules for my hut trip books. These trips are incredibly social, and most of the reading is done in small snippets of time between conversations, bridge playing, bringing in snow to melt for the hut's water, cooking, cleaning and skiing. Complex novels and theoretical nonfiction don't work well. That eliminates all Faulkner, physics and philosophy for me. Anything with arcane language is going to be tough, unless someone in your group wants to schlep the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary up a mountain so you can decipher James Joyce. It was for this reason that my foray into the Jamesian ghost story was a failure. I find that contemporary short stories, humorous essays and entertaining short novels work the best.

The two best hut trip books I ever read were Steve Kluger's wonderful baseball novel Last Days of Summer and Hash by Torgny Lindgren. Kluger's novel, which I read in its hardback form over 10 years ago, consists of letters, quizzes, clues, postcards, lineups and news articles. It was easy to cease reading at any even given moment, and its young protaganist was both heartbreaking and entertaining. Lindgren's Hash was a rather bizarre novel about two men, one the Nazi, Martin Borman, searching for the best hash (a dish consisting of hooves, offal, entrails and grain) in rural Sweden in 1947. The narrator was an ex-reporter, who at the tender age of 107, was determined to finish his ultimate column. Hash also featured fabricated news stories and a huge dose of humor.

This year, as I searched my shelves, I came up with two titles (yes, I bring two books -- if you are stuck with a lousy title, you are really stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to read.) I selected an old out-of-print book, Howe & Hummel: Their True and Scandalous History that I needed to read for a book group that I am in. We usually don't read out-of-print titles, but the group's average age is about 70, so I wasn't going to argue with the choice. Just in case that proved to be unreadable (I was rather worried about getting through a 60-year-old book about two criminal attorneys from 19th century New York), I also threw in William Boyd's slender collection of short stories, The Destiny of Nathalie 'X'.

I felt that both these books fit my criteria. Howe & Hummel is really four New Yorker pieces by Richard Rovere that were written in the 1940s and compiled into a book in the late 1940s. I have a Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition with an introduction by Calvin Trillin that was reprinted in 1985. I hoped that Rovere's articles would read like pithy essays. My other choice, the short story collection, is by one of my favorite writers, and this particular book by Boyd features a wide variety of topics and styles. Well, I never dipped into the Boyd because I was so enthralled by Rovere's accounting of the two slippery attorneys.

William F. Howe and Abraham H. Hummel were the two most notorious lawyers of their day. In appearances, they were a study in contrasts. Howe was a large, flamboyant man, given to wearing lots of diamonds (cufflinks, buttons, etc.), while Hummel was a small, almost deformed man, who preferred to work behind the scenes. Rovere tells how they came to represent virtually every New York criminal (their offices were right across the street from the jail, and it was often the first stop for escaped convicts) and also how they came to dominate the show business litigation.

These guys basically got away with murder. Hummel had a whole business where he would send detectives into the back rooms of theaters looking for show girls that had slept with rich men. When they found one, they took an affadavit from her, stating that the man had bedded her under false pretenses. Hummel would then summon the man, show him the affadavit and say that unless he settled for a large sum of money, there would be a breach-of-promise suit. The men always settled, and Hummel got half the settlement money.

Howe litigated the criminal cases. He had a whole host of actors on hand to play the accused person's wife, children, devoted parents or any other relation that might help his client in court. They would cry, swoon or just look plain miserable as the jury tried to decide the case. He conjured up entire families that would go destitute if his client were put in jail. Usually, the famished family had never laid eyes on the accused man until they entered court on the day of the trial.

Coming from a family of lawyers, I absolutely loved the accounts of these two guys' shenigans. They even had a code of ethics that they would not deviate from. Hummel would never let a woman threaten the same man twice with a breach-of-promise suit. He had the showgirl sign a self-incriminating statement once the settlement was made. If he heard that she was trying to sue again, he would forward the statement to the man's lawyer.

When there was nothing in the law to enable them to win the case, Howe and Hummel invented new things. Howe pioneered the insanity defense as a way of representing killers who couldn't claim their crime was an accident, suicide or a case of self-defense. Howe also came extremely close to getting everyone on New York's death row freed due to a technicality in a new sentencing law he discovered. Only an emergency measure passed in Albany stopped it from becoming open season for first-degree murderers.

This is a perfect little book, and it saddens me that it is out of print. Rovere's articles aren't padded with unnecesary filler or ornate prose. It's hard to imagine a lawyer, or anyone interested in urban history, that wouldn't enjoy Howe & Hummel. It was certainly a balm to me on this year's harder-than-expected hut trip.

We were at the Tenth Mountain Hut, which is usually an easy three-mile ski from near the old mining town of Leadville, but the weather conditions were just atrocious. It was a cold day, and the temperature kept dropping as we headed up the trail. It was so cold that it was dangerous to stop and eat. When I did manage to take a few bites of my sandwich, I found that it was more like a popsicle. It was also a constant battle to keep the tube of our Camelbak from freezing up. For the first time on a trip like this, even the water in our regular Nalgene water bottle froze. Usually, the problem with these trips is that you are too hot, skiing uphill with a pack on, and you constantly have to strip off layers. This time, when we got to the hut, I was wearing all of my clothes: it was 5 degrees below zero, windy and snowy. I needed a warm fire and a good book. Luckily, this year I had both.