So tell me: What are you reading?

It’s November, it’s dark, I have to scrape the effing windshield to drive to the dump, and life is only just barely worth living until March.  So let’s talk about books.

I’m just coming off of a long, ugly stint with Taylor Caldwell’s ridiculous novel Answer As a Man.  Oh, that woman is embarrassing.  What a waste of plot!  I think she took a writing class called “Show, don’t tell,” but someone told her it was Opposite Day.  I’d show you a passage of what she tries to pass off as character development, but not only did I already throw the book away, I dumped coffee grounds on top so no one would fish it out of the garbage.

Caldwell seems to have heavily consulted The Comprehensive Thesaurus of Tedious Irish Stereotypes.  For openers, she turned to the  entry for “bitter old man who loves and hates with equal ferocity,” and proceeded to copy out all the adjectives she thought the reader would understand.  And that, thought Caldwell, made chapter one.   I read the whole thing because — I don’t know, I guess it’s like getting on the merry-go-round.  It’s not as if you’re going to end up somewhere unexpected, but you already paid for your ticket, so you might as well sit there until the ride is over.

Then I picked up Watership Down, and promptly fell asleep.  I don’t know if it was that boring, or I was just too tired, but it fell behind the bed and I can’t reach it now, so that’s that.

Then I picked up Clockers by Richard Price. Okay, now we have a novel.    The narrator understands his characters, and they are real people, who might do anything.  They might be angry at themselves, or feel ashamed, or feel unwarranted pride, or not understand why they do what they do — but it all feels like real life, down to the last detail.

Here’s an early example:  Strike, a 19-year-old low level drug dealer, drinks vanilla Yoo-Hoo throughout the book.  He has a stomach ulcer, and the vanilla cools the pain a little.  This kind of detail tells you so much about the guy:  that he’s a child, that he suffers like a man, that he tries to heal himself, that real medicine (for the body and for the soul) is just not available to him. At one point, he finds himself in a bar, and not knowing what else to order, he asks for vanilla Yoo-Hoo.  The bartender offers him a glass of non-dairy creamer.  This is how the world treats Strike and his ulcer.

This book just bleeds sympathy.  For everyone, even the evildoers.  That’s what a great novel does:  it understands.  That’s what separates Dostoevsky from Tolstoy:  Tolstoy understood, all right, but as I get older, I see his contempt for his characters more and more, and it kind of takes the edge off.  Dostoevsky, though, the reader feels, is on his knees the whole time he is writing.

Richard Price (okay, I’m not saying he’s Dostoevsky or even Tolstoy.  He has really got something, though) doesn’t gush or manipulate or wallow, but the prose cleanly and steadily offers up real people for us to see.   This author is so confident of his skill, he doesn’t need to tell us everything we need to know up front — because when does that happen in real life?  We learn what the characters are capable of little by little, at the same pace as they learn about themselves.  I’m sorry I’m just too darn lazy to pick out passages to quote, but take my word for it, this guy knows what he is doing.

Lots of profanities, obscenities, and violence in this book.  But I don’t think it’s disgusting, and so far, it’s not depressing.   The tone isn’t marinating in that inexplicable, sadistic animus against the reader, like so many modern novels (The Corrections, Geek Love – -why do I read these things??).  I’m about halfway through, and have high hopes (if you’ve read it, please don’t give anything away!).  I have a hard time putting this book down.  Great plot, incredible dialogue, twists and turns, and the author never takes the easy way out — but it’s all so natural.  Really amazing skill.

So what are you reading?  Do you plan to finish it?  Is it a book to be tossed aside lightly?  Or should it be thrown with great force?

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