My summer reading list is usually kind of a bummer; during the warmer months I naturally gravitate towards stories of disease and disaster and suffering.
Perhaps it’s because I was raised in a Puritanical part of the country, where unadulterated leisure is considered a sign of weakness, or it’s just harder, for serotonin-related reasons, to stomach the grim stuff when I’m shivering and holed up in my apartment and getting less than eight hours of sunlight a day. Last summer, camping next to a graveyard in the eerie, sparsely vegetated part of Maine, I finally got through Blood Meridian. The summer before that, laid up in a hospital bed, I have hallucinatory memories of reading a North Korean interrogator’s detailed account of torture in The Orphan Master’s Son, a not-insignificant amount of fentanyl coursing through my veins.
The simple explanation in the summer of 2019 might be that our current reality is so senselessly awful I’m finding solace in doomsday scenarios with tidy narrative structures and merciful endings. Unfortunately, I think I’ve been like this since I was eating Fun Dip and reading The Diary of Anne Frank by the local pool, circa 1998.
I find it useful to have one long endless bummer of a read, interspersed with shorter, tidier stories of immorality and death. One of the nice things about purchasing the “complete and uncut” version of an already long book is that you have the opportunity to give the original version the benefit of the doubt. When it was first published in the late ‘70s, The Stand ran a little over 800 pages; Stephen King’s more-or-less original manuscript, published about a decade later, runs 1,150. I got to the cash register with the latter, and later learned that the expanded version is, bafflingly, the only one still in print, even though there’s a wordy forward from King apologizing to readers for his own verbose self. “If you have bought [this book] already, I hope you saved your sales receipt,” he writes. Reader, I did not.
So far, my central experience of The Stand is enjoying trying to guess which passages King’s long-suffering editors cut—that and carting the whole tome around to various establishments on a recent rainy day I spent in New Orleans. People see you reading The Stand and really want to talk about it, I’ve found: An elderly personal injury lawyer in a Hawaiian shirt told me it was his favorite book, and I had a long, convivial conversation with a bartender in the Marigny who said he used to cater King’s private parties at the author’s mansion in Bangor. To my extreme disappointment, all my new friend would say about the author was that he was a really nice, goofy guy—just kind of your average dad. Though, to be fair, he said the same thing about Dan Brown.
In my personal, imaginary version of The Stand—the one I’ve edited down to a manageable 800 pages or less—there are fewer sex-crazed teenaged girls hanging around, swooning and shrieking and taking cover. The 108-year-old benevolent black woman who has yet to appear by page 400 but visits characters in their dreams to bake biscuits and sing, is significantly more realized. The good dogs who survive the plague and the long grisly passages in which most of humanity chokes to death on their own fluids are all definitely still in there, as is the once-nixed chapter about the idiot 16% of Americans who survive the initial culling but die anyway because they are too soft to live, eating poisonous berries and falling asleep with lit cigarettes and attempting to hook up generators but frying themselves instead.
As always, Stephen King’s obsession with his home state of Maine is basically self parody (if you haven’t read the Toast bit on this, please do, it’s perfect): A Los Angeles party boy dreams of getting himself a big bag of cocaine and hoofing it up to party in Bar Harbor, a town I doubt was much more than a couple of antique shops and whale-watching stands, even in 1978. King’s characters, in between nightmares that foreshadow some evil they’ve yet to encounter, travel up and down Maine’s coastal highway, the U.S. 1, stuffing blueberries into their mouths and gazing at out at the choppy Atlantic in some vaguely symbolic way. Everyone is sort of unlikeable—I think I’m supposed to be rooting for Nick, the deaf-mute kid of humble origin, but he’s just another horny apocalypse guy endlessly congratulating himself for doing the right thing. As in nearly every book in this genre written by a man, in The Stand’s world the bloody main event has kindly spared one hot lady for every able-bodied and virtuous dude.
The closest I’ve come to identification is with Glen, a character who has mostly ambled around eating looted snacks and drinking Narragansetts he keeps cold in a creek. “Now that I think about it, I am dancing on the grave of the world,” he tells another character after a monologue about the inevitability of mass purges every few centuries or so. “Another beer?” It’s July, I’m about halfway through the book, and Glen comes closer than anything to my current summer vibe.
I started on a light note with Karen Russell’s newish book, Orange World, one of the best story collections I’ve read this year. It describes sinister scenarios—a teenaged boy falling helplessly in love with a calcified corpse, a woman living in the hull of a ship in the toxic flood of climate change-ravaged Miami—with such fanciful, perfect remove they take on the appearance of myths intended for a civilization far more enlightened than ours.
On the vaguely and unsettlingly parallel-with-reality front, one Sunday at the park I went through Nazi Literature in the Americas, by my estimation the best Roberto Bolaño book, for the second time. Originally published in English in 2008, it’s an excellent compendium of the sorts of narcissists and opportunists who encounter fascism and consider it, at best, an edgy addition to their existing literary style. Written as a series of short encyclopedia-style entries about a network of imaginary far-right writers—but situated in our reality, with cameo appearances from Allen Ginsburg and Octavio Paz—it’s a real carousel of horrors, a look at social climbers and literary types either so disingenuous or so stupid they have abstracted the Third Reich’s influence into a self-congratulatory series of literary salons and poetry magazines purporting to uphold principles of formal beauty and truth. I can’t say exactly what drew me to it for a second time, but I will say that the book is cathartic, in that I don’t think many writers living or dead have as much unadulterated distain for two-bit intellectuals and posturing writers as Bolaño did. It’s wickedly mean and funny as hell, though definitely uncanny and rather chilling at this particular moment in time.
Next was Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital, the epic piece of reporting that came out of Sheri Fink’s 2009 New York Times Magazine story about the choices doctors made at Memorial Hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: When the hospital’s back-up generators failed, thousands of patients were stranded there with no electricity, little clean water, and unusable medical devices. Doctors and nurses used a triage system to decide, essentially, who had a chance of making it out. Forty-five people died, and the decision to euthanize or drug critically ill patients during those five days resulted in criminal charges against a handful of people.
Fink’s accounting of those days and the legal battles that followed is breathtakingly thorough, and more of an indictment of the bureaucratic machinations and private interests involved in the rescue effort than the medical professionals stranded in the flooded hospital. In researching the book, Fink interviewed more than 500 people and inspected nearly every document available over a period six years. When she attributes an emotion to someone at Memorial, she writes in the forward, it is only because they told her that was exactly the way they felt in that moment. When so much literary nonfiction is opaque—or lazy—about the distinction between truth and creative license, Fink’s thoroughness is particularly remarkable. It’s a great book.
Five Days at Memorial’s epigraph is a quote from the Jose Saramago book Blindness, which seems appropriate given my recent magical realism kick: I just finished Stories of Your Life And Others, the Ted Chiang collection on which the movie Arrival was based—the one about angels of death visiting earth is quite good—and am halfway through We Cast A Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, a near-future sci-fi story set in an America just slightly more racist than the one we inhabit. One major difference is that in Ruffin’s world, high-end plastic surgeons make a killing turning black people white.
Next I’m thinking about reading Madeline ffitch’s Appalachian pioneer novel Stay and Fight, a book about the grim realities of modern living off-the-grid. Sincerely, I do hope everyone is having a good summer and enjoying their fleeting time at the beach.