Not That Stephen King

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:
read a lot and write a lot.”

This past month, after much hesitating, I read Stephen King’s novel, Billy Summers. I looked up which books of his have sold the most copies and it looks like The Shining leads the list, followed by Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Misery, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, The Dark Tower series, and The Green Mile. Of those, I have read one and seen movie versions of three. I don’t think that qualifies me as a fan and certainly not as a King fanatic.

As you’ll see, my favorite Stephen King is not the famous mystery, horror writer that people know. Not that Stephen King. If you asked me what are my favorites by him, my short list would include the short stories “Stand By Me” and “The Shawshank Redemption” which are two that many people would not know were written by him. Both became quite beloved films.

From the top 10 list, The Green Mile is the only one I have read and I only read it after seeing the movie. I recall when it was originally published in 1996 that it came out in six self-contained monthly installments. That seemed like a Charles Dickens experiment or a publishing gimmick which I found unappealing. I read the volume that combines all six parts, but in 1966 the individual volumes were all on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously, so I guess it was a good idea. The movie came out three years later directed by Frank Darabont who was known for some horror-ish films but also directed The Shawshank Redemption. The performances by Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan were excellent and so it sent me to the book, which returned to the bestseller list with the movie’s release.

I was able to borrow the audiobook of Billy Summers. I prefer that medium for most of my book reading these days. I used to listen to books on tape or on CDs during my car commuting days. Now, I listen on walks and while working outside in the garden.

I was first interested in King after I found out that he had been an English teacher like myself and was writing in his free time. I had seen a story or interview years ago that said he was frustrated and blamed teaching time for his lack of getting published. I did that too back in the day. His wife made a deal with him that he could take a year off from teaching to write and submit his manuscript. If he succeeded, great. If not, he would go back to teaching. Carrie was published. Goodbye to teaching. I searched for that origin story a bit online and didn’t find it, so maybe I imagined it.

Carrie is a horror and supernatural novel and I think qualifies as gothic fiction. He originally meant it to be a short story since that was all he was getting published. He wrote a longer novella version that he didn’t think was good. When he was writing this novel, he was living in a trailer in Hermon, Maine with his wife Tabitha and two children. He was teaching at Hampden Academy. He had published short stories in some “men’s magazines.” His wife and others rescued the manuscript by making suggestions for changes. It became an epistolary novel with “official” reports and has a framing device consisting of multiple narrators. The book sold so-so in hardcover but much better in paperback editions and much much better when the film came out in 1976. That’s when I discovered King.

The last King novel I read before Billy Summers was 11/22/63. A friend who is a big King fan recommended it because he knows 1) I love time travel stories 2) I’m still fascinated by the Kennedy assassination. This is a book King apparently thought about a long time ago but he didn’t feel he was ready to write. The short description is that it is about a man who goes back in time to save JFK. Of course, it is way more complicated than that. (I wrote about the book in an earlier post.) It is a love story too. To travel in time here is easy but to actually get to 11/22/63 and stop the assassination is not easy.

It’s a long book and I always think his long novels need some cutting. The love story of Jake, Sadie, and her ex-husband could be a novel by itself. I wasn’t a fan of the ending, but overall I did like the book. That’s my mixed recommendation, but I would recommend it if you meet one or both of my time travel and JFK interests.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story.
When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

But my favorite King book isn’t fiction. It is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This short book (right there not typical of King) is, as the title says, both a memoir and a craft book. His advice comes from his life, starting with childhood and into his established writing time. King had a near-fatal accident in 1999 and it is very much linked to his writing which is linked to his recovery.

This book got great reviews and I would add my own recommendation to those reviews. As King was recovering (and at first he could not physically do any writing), he did a lot of thinking about writing and his life. That’s why the book is a memoir about writing. It does have a lot of advice in “toolkits” about writing and even about a good life.

Is it worth reading if you don’t consider yourself a writer? I think so. I think it can be inspiring, even if all you plan to write is a journal for yourself. Can we all be “writers?” He says “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Bildungsroman

bildungsroman shirt
Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include the early novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts, and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming of age has a lot to do with the family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good material for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex, and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age are being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle-class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They are boomeranging back to their parent’s residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

Old Man Hemingway

Henry “Mike” Strater and Ernest Hemingway with an “apple-cored” marlin. Bimini, Cat Cay, 1935. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain

In September 1952, Ernest Hemingway’s last novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was published. It was the last novel published during his lifetime and it was cited when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

I read that book in eighth grade. I had an overly ambitious or optimistic English teacher who had bought copies of that novel and Steinbeck’s The Pearl and The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Orwell’s Animal Farm and other “short books (novellas) by great authors.” She wanted to introduce us to literature and famous writers before we went to high school. I read all of them that year. I didn’t understand all of what I read, but it was influential. And she loved me for reading them.

It worked with me. I went on to read several other books by those two writers on my own that year and many others in the years that followed. I recall liking The Red Pony as I was going through a horseback riding phase and the other two books seemed a bit preachy to me. I went back to all three books eventually and Hemingway’s novel now is the one that is the strongest.

Ernest Hemingway had been working on a very long novel that he called The Sea Book. It was inspired by that WWII period when he was on his Pilar fishing boat looking for submarines in his attempt to be part of the war. That original manuscript was in three sections: “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.” It had an epilogue about an old fisherman.

Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream (1970). Hemingway also mentions the real-life experience of an old fisherman that seems almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” published in Esquire magazine in April 1936.

He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn’t seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue on its own which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

The novella begins, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” It tells the story of Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea was written while Hemingway was living in Cayo Blanco, Cuba, and Santiago is an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba.

I have always thought that this old man’s struggles had to be connected to Hemingway’s own struggles as a writer and with the deep depression at the end of his life. Without getting all literary symbols about it, I think the marlin is his writing career as he tries to bring in one more “big book” and goes a long time without doing so. The little book he does publish is good but, like the remains of the marlin that makes it back to Cuba, it is just a part of a much larger work.

The novella is not my favorite Hemingway writing, but it is a good first read for someone who has not read him and wonders why he is considered such an important American writer.

This Jest Seems Infinite

I finished Infinite Jest. It took me five years. I’m proud that I kept at it and didn’t quit, but I am not happy that it took that long or that I am in a minority of readers who didn’t enjoy it.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s most famous work. It was published in 1996 and was a best-seller and widely praised. It is more than 1,000 pages long. It has 100 pages of footnotes.

The only thing I had read by Wallace before was his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I liked.  Infinite Jest is nothing like those essays.

hatI have a few friends who rate it as one of their favorites and a few more people I know who were unable to finish reading it.  I’m not alone as shown by the fact that you can buy hats and t-shirts stating that you’re in that group (seen above). 

I never got past page 100 in the book and had to return it to the library. I might not have ever picked it up again but I was gifted some Audible books and so I figured I can certainly make it through the other 900 pages as an audiobook.  Sadly, the Audible version didn’t make things much easier.

I started reading in January 2017 and finished in January 2022. Now, that it was a solid five years of reading and listening. According to my Goodreads account, there were more than 200 other books I read during that time period. 

I didn’t enjoy the story or footnotes at all, so what compelleded me to keep going?  I’m not sure. I wrote earlier about the same situation with a John Irving novel and Irving is an author I very much enjoy reading. But it is very rare for me to walk out on a movie or give up on a book once I start reading.

The novel’s structure is unconventional and it includes endnotes (388, including some that have their own footnotes). The novel’s primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House which are near each other in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I am hard-pressed to summarize a plot. The multiple narratives are somewhat connected via a film, also called Infinite Jest, and sometimes known as “the Entertainment.”

I suppose I kept picking up on the novel because some friends liked it so much and the very positive reviews. It made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.  

The novel’s title is from Hamlet in that famous scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” 

Hamlet is a sad man. Lots of death in that play. Not a lot of joy in Infinite Jest or Wallace either. David Foster Wallace battled devastating depression his whole life and committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011. I don’t think I’ll start that one.

Love At First Glance

woman with parasol
Woman With a Parasol, Claude Monet

The idea of “love at first sight” originates in Greek and Roman literature. Images of love arrows from the God’s Eros and Cupid causing someone to fall in love with someone upon meeting them for the first time have survived over the centuries. The Greeks used the expression theia mania, meaning madness from the Gods.

It seems that the expression “love at first sight” makes its first appearance in 1598 in English literature with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander.”  Marlowe, a friend and rival of Shakespeare, is concerned in one section of the poem with how Fate influences our life choices.

It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-rulde by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially doo we affect,
Of two gold Ingots like in each respect,
The reason no man knowes, let it suffise,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberat, the love is slight,
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

hero and leander
Hero and Leander, 1801, William Hamilton, PD

Although you have certainly heard tales of people who had an instantaneous attraction to someone, most people dismiss such things as not being true “Love.” In modern times, you might even hear someone say about a house or a car that it was love at first sight.

When I saw the film Citizen Kane at age 16, I had already experienced not only love at first sight but also what I call love at first glance. I identified immediately with a scene in the film in which old Mr. Bernstein tells a story. Here’s the dialogue (clip at the bottom)

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

That kind of phenomena is what I call love at first glimpse because the sighting is probably one-sided, brief, and with no possibility of any further interaction. It is a phenomenon because it is a situation that though it happened, its cause or explanation is in question.

I can think of many examples in my life. It is the woman I see pass my sidewalk cafe table and continue down the street. The waitress who I saw and immediately was attracted to and see occasionally and who seems flirtatious beyond trying to get a good tip is not love at first glance (though she might be at first sight).

In Milan Kundera’s novel (also a good film) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes about how love heightens all of our senses and how the novel’s protagonist, Tomáš, finds himself in love with someone he barely knows.

He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger… But was it love?… Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?… Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.

When I first confessed to my mother at age 13 that I was in love with a girl from my class who I had never even spoken to, she dismissed it as “puppy love.” She said you can’t fall in love just by seeing someone.

My mother was not a believer in love at first sight or first glance. Hero and Leander’s love story didn’t have a happy ending. But Tomáš’s object of love does become his wife.

Science and love don’t usually mix very well, but decades of research have led psychologists to suggest that the notion of love at first sight is a myth. True love, as my unscientific mother told me,  takes some time to develop. One study described love at first sight as a “positive illusion.”

Love at first sight suggests a possibility – a possibility that that might not really be possible. Love at first glance offers no possibility – and therefore no chance of failure. I’m with Mr. Bernstein.

Mr. Bernstein

The Mystic of Mysteries

Navajo Beautyway Teachings
Image by Dine’ Navajo Wayne of a Spiritual Awakening of Walking The Corn Pollen Path that leads upon the Rainbow Path

Tony Hillerman was an American author of detective novels and nonfiction works and known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.

He was not a Native American. Tony Hillerman was born and raised in Oklahoma. He did not have Native American ancestors but attended elementary and high school with Potawatomi children and that certainly influenced him. Potawatomi people were from the Great Lakes area, but many Potawatomis were relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma during the Indian Removals that began in 1830. His writing took a different, sympathetic approach to the portrayal of Native Americans that is unfortunately not always been the case with non-native writers.

I started listening to his novels as audiobooks, but I had gone through earlier mystery novel phases in print. In high school and college, I was reading hardboiled, noirish classics by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and others and then I went to some more “literary” ones, such as those by Graham Greene.

I got into audiobooks in my teaching years and the attraction of listening to a book while driving or on my long walks has remained. Generally, I finished a book in less than two weeks – something I no longer am able to do reading on a page or screen.

I started borrowing cassette tapes from the library and listening in the car commuting to work. I worked my way through contemporary authors that had a number of books on the shelves – Ross MacDonald, the Sue Grafton alphabet, and Harlan Coben (who had been a student of mine.) And I discovered Tony Hillerman.

His novel The Blessing Way was the first book in his series of Navaho Reservation mysteries featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navaho Tribal Police and it was the first of his I read since I wanted to read them in order. The library had his first four novels on the shelf when I started.

In this novel, an anthropology professor is interested in Navajo witches and the role they play in the culture. As one might expect, there is a murder, but the corpse has a mouth full of sand and there are no other clues. Leaphorn, a modern law officer, still considers what he knows of his people and considers the possibility of a killer involved with the supernatural. The pursuit of a Wolf-Witch mixes mysticism and murder.

What I liked about the novel and the ones that I have read since is that I learned things about the cultures of the Navaho, Hopi, and Zuni and the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. Most of these murder mysteries touch on the mystic aspects of the word.

I went on to the second book, Dance Hall of the Dead, which is about the disappearance of two Native-American boys who “vanish into thin air” leaving a pool of blood behind.

One of the boys is a Zuñi and the laws and sacred religious rites of the Zuñi people are a mystery in themselves and not to be revealed to others which impedes the case.

Tony Hillerman was a decorated combat veteran of World War II, attended the University of Oklahoma, married and have one biological child and five adopted children.

He worked as a journalist, but in 1966, he moved his family to Albuquerque, where he earned a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico. He patterned his fictional Joe Leaphorn on a sheriff he knew from Texas. He started writing novels while teaching journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. That is where he lived with his wife of 60 years until his death in 2008.

18 of his 30+ books are in his Navajo detective series. Joe Leaphorn was eventually partnered with the younger Jim Chee who was introduced in the fourth novel, People of Darkness. The two first work together in the seventh novel, one of the best in the series, Skinwalkers.

Although Hillerman credits Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and Raymond Chandler as influences, his main influence did not come from those popular writers. He credits the mysteries by British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield. I’ve never read any of them but they are set among tribal Australian Aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. Upfield’s indigenous character and the harsh Outback geography are much like “Hillerman country.”

Hillerman said, “When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony [Upfield’s protagonist] made 50 years ago.”

This fall I returned to Hillerman country and started listening to the novels where I think left off years ago with book #11, Sacred Clown. It begins with the murder of a scared clown being killed at a Tano kachina ceremony. The brutal bludgeoning is the same as what happened to a reservation schoolteacher who was killed just days before. The book gets into the closely guarded tribal secrets and also crooked Indian traders, in sacred artifacts.

“Mystery” has an interesting etymology. Though today we mostly think of it as a fiction genre, in Middle English it had more of a sense of a mystic presence. It was associated with hidden religious symbolism. It comes from Old French mistere and before that Latin mysterium and Greek mustērion. Hillerman’s novels, in using the beliefs of native peoples, come closer to the mystic sense than most modern mystery stories.