These days, I read almost exclusively new books. This kind of comes with the territory as a bookseller – the combination of a desire to bring the best new titles to customers and the fact that we are very lucky to receive advance copies of lots of the best new stuff out there. But recently, during a week off, I tackled some old books that had been gathering dust on my bookshelves. And I have to say it was both refreshing and very rewarding.
You wouldn’t think reading about a brutal pandemic while living in the throes of a brutal pandemic was the smartest idea – in fairness it was only after around 40 pages of William Maxwell’s ‘They Came Like Swallows‘ that I realised that’s exactly what I was doing. But there is nothing to fear from this sumptuously written classic of the Spanish Flu. Maxwell was a titan in the book world for decades. As fiction editor of the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he shaped the prose and careers of a host of literary giants including J.D Salinger, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever and Eudora Welty. But he also wrote six gorgeous novels which have never seen the acclaim they deserve.
‘They Came Like Swallows’ paints the picture of Elizabeth Morison, an ordinary woman seen as extraordinary through the eyes of her husband and two children. To her youngest, Bunny, she is everything and everyone. To Robert, she is someone who needs protecting from the ills of the world. And to James, her husband, she is the rock upon which their entire existence is built. This beautiful, moving portrait is placed against the backdrop of the coming pandemic, which is seeping its way into this family’s everyday life. What I thought could be too close to home right now proved actually to be just the tonic – despite its tragedies it is comforting, warm and was a timely reminder that generations of humans have been through times like our own before.
‘The Real Cool Killers’ by Chester Himes is the second in his eponymous Harlem Cycle, featuring the ever violent, ever wild detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. It starts with a knife fight, the swing of an axe and a chase down a packed Harlem street, and proceeds through a madcap manhunt to it’s inevitably violent conclusion. The writing is so hot , so fresh, I kept quoting sections of it at my friends and family. The real genius of Himes was his amazing ability to nail characters and locations down in just a savage line or two. And his view of raucous, wild Harlem is brilliantly realised – something no-one save Ralph Ellison ever matched him in.
‘The Real Cool Killers’ is a supremely tough, violent and very funny thriller that carves itself a hole somewhere between Ed Mcbain’s police procedurals and Elmore Leonard’s cool capers. If you have never read him before, you can easily start right here – or begin with ‘A Rage in Harlem’, the first in this awesome series.
And last of all, we come to ‘Fup’ by Jim Dodge, which has become the first book all year to force its way straight onto my personal ‘favourites’ shelf in the bookshop.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across ‘Sombrero Fallout’ at the local library; so began an obsession with the absurd comic genius of Richard Brautigan. Ever since, I have kept an eye out for someone I thought may write in a similar way. If you have ever read Brautigan, you’ll know this was an insane idea. I’d kind of given up. Until now.
‘Fup’ is a glorious, joyous piece of writing; hilarious, touching and totally off the wall. Grandpa Jake is pushing 100 and, after a lifetime of gambling and drinking, has settled on his ranch with his huge grandson Tiny. He brews his own super-strength whiskey, watches his grandson put up fences they don’t need and spends a great deal of time mastering the art of staying still, doing nothing. That is, until the pair find a peculiar, curious duck one day – a duck with a taste for pound after pound of sausages (and just about anything else it can get its beak on, including the liquor).
Told in the deadpan style of the great American yarn-spinners – a tradition that stretches from Mark Twain, through Larry McMurtry to Annie Proulx – but with that Brautigan-esque splash of absurdity, it is a glorious fable and a magical reading experience. I can’t remember a book making me smile so much in a very long time.