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.

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