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The one that got away
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
We're deep in the midst of the "Summer Beach Reading Season," the time when many Americans use their hard-earned vacation days to finally escape into the solitary pleasure of reading some big, accessible, time-killer of a novel that's been dominating the nation's Best Seller lists. On airplanes and in the hideaway cottages and luxurious hotel rooms you'll see numerous copies of Dan Brown's Inferno, the writer's latest historical/conspiracy thriller, or recent works by familiar mega-sellers like James Patterson, Stephen King, Sandra Brown, David Baldacci, Carl Hiassen. Mystery and romance titles tend to dominate the season's reading, with occasional non-fiction writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Erik Larson placing books in the hands of summertime vacationers.
Since reading usually constitutes a big part of most of my days anyway, I don't change my habits too much for the summer season, though I have noticed that recently I've been using the long daylight hours to finally run down those books that I've been avoiding for years. Two summers ago I buckled down and read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's terrific book about Simon Bolivar, The General in His Labyrinth, a book that I had purchased a dozen years previous but had yet to finish. I'm not sure exactly why it took me so long to get around to reading it — I like Marquez, I loved One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, but for some reason every time I approached The General I couldn't find my way into it. Over the years I had probably made 4 abortive efforts to read it, but I simply couldn't budge it. It's probably like this for most readers--there's always that book that you know you'll like but for whatever reason you're just not ready for it. You know you'll get to it, eventually, but the stars have to align before you actually conquer reading it.
Last summer it was Budd Schulberg's cynical 1941 Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? — again, another book I had owned for over a decade, and again, another book that I had wanted to read but simply couldn't find the time for. After reading it, I had to wonder what took me so long — I love Hollywood novels and hardboiled writers and Schulberg's punchy prose was right up my alley. And What Makes Sammy Run? is not exactly a gnarly, twisty read; it's not Faulkner, for heaven's sake, it's built for speed. But something kept holding me back and it wasn't until I actively forced myself to sit down with it that I was able to experience the myriad pleasures of the novel.
This year, my "bete noire" book was The Circus in Winter, Cathy Day's 2004 debut novel about that exotic, fantastical land of Peru, Indiana. When the book was published I had recently gotten close to an elderly woman who was a native of Peru, a woman who told me countless anecdotes about the rich circus world that Day used as the backdrop for her novel. I thought it would be a kick to read the fictional version of the land that I was already quite familiar with from my friend's stories. (An interesting side note: my friend had met Peru's most famous son, Cole Porter, on several occasions, and knew his family quite well. When she went to college at Indiana University, she happened to meet Bloomington's most famous son, Hoagy Carmichael. I'm sure there were some people who knew both of these iconic Hoosier songwriters, but probably not many.)
Surprisingly, though, even with my personal interest in the milieu of Circus in Winter, I found I was reticent to read the book. Part of it was simple Hoosier inferiority — though the novel received generally favorable reviews, I was afraid that I would discover that Day, a fellow Hoosier, would turn out to be a hack, and that concept was just too depressing for words. For though I like to champion the artists from my city and my state, I still have this innate, irrational fear that Hoosiers can never really measure up as top-tier writers, performers, musicians. And also, I was a little afraid that Circus in Winter would give off that hokey, "Americana" feeling that always drives me crazy — I was afraid it would be like the movie Hoosiers, where the complexities of the people of our state are whitewashed and the storyline invariably turns everybody into a bunch of bucolic clodhoppers.
Fortunately, though, when I finally plunged into Circus in Winter this summer, I discovered that none of my fears were warranted. The book is terrific. In the Afterword for the book (which Day calls the "Backlot"), the writer mentions here reverence for the writer Sherwood Anderson, and you can surely see the influence: Circus in Winter is told like Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, in that each chapter is a short story that features a character who lives in the town. The stories and characters intertwine and though each chapter could stand alone (and indeed, most of the chapters were previously published as short stories), the cumulative effect of the beaded stories is dazzling. And thankfully, there's very little small-town "preciousness" to be found anywhere; Circus in Winter is complex, surprising, profane. It kills me that it took me 9 years to read it.
There's still a book on my shelf that is mocking me, however, a book that I'm grimly starting to realize will forever remain the one that got away. 2013 marks the 16th anniversary of the day I purchased (in hardcover) Underworld, Don DeLillo's sprawling, 800 page post-modern masterpiece, and though I've read the magnificent opening ("Pafko on the Wall") a number of times, I simply can't get past the rest of it. God knows I've tried, but the book is, well, DeLillo: impenetrable, exhausting, overwhelming, with all the characters sounding exactly the same. (Alex Pappademas, the writer for Grantland, nailed it: he described DeLillo's Libra as a book where JFK gets killed by "a bunch of guys who talk like Don DeLillo.") The dust on the jacket of my copy of Underworld continues to grow as I write this, and the huge book continues to dwarf and menace the other, lesser novels on my shelf. I'd like to think that eventually, I'll get to it, but I don't want to lie. "Maybe next summer," he says, shaking his head.