Monday, November 10, 2008

Lolling About

During our weekend lull in activity level, I lolled about (to use the Sweet Potato Queen term) and read a couple of books, and they were about right for lolling. Neither one was absolutely great or horrifyingly terrible; they were just okay. I'd read about Alive in Necropolis on Devourer of Books and had to read it to see if it would be good to send to my friend Miriam, who came to visit us once when she was living in LA and exclaimed, on the way to our house from the airport, "what vast necropoli!" as we passed graveyard after graveyard in the rural countryside.

Alive in Necropolis, by Doug Dorst, is a kind of ghost story, but probably unlike any you've ever read. My favorite part was the occasional look at a convenience store clerk who never became part of the main action:
The overnight clerk at the Zes-T-Mart prepares to go home. He is a heavily tattooed young man whose pierced ear and nose are connected by a length of steel chain, and he wears the afternoon-shift girl's name tag because he liikes to head-fuck naive customers into wondering if his name really might be Mindy. He notices that, once again, several cartons of Chesterfields have vanished on his watch. He blames their disappearance on ghosts. He will never inform his manager of his suspicions, and he will never ask to see the surveillance tape to test his theory. This coming afternoon, though, he will crawl out of bed and join his four roommates around the house bong (a complicated maze of Habitrail tubes that once housed a gerbil named Happy), and while watching smoke plumes rise from the mouthpiece, he will dreamily remark, "Dudes. When we die, we'll all smoke Chesterfields." And although his friends will burst out laughing, thinking it's just stony talk, he'll find himself happy to believe in ghosts who jones for nicotine and remain brand-loyal. It's the one belief he has that is unique and private, and thus absolutely unassailable.

Aside from passages like this, however, the story bogs down in the mundane and slightly boring story of a new policeman named Mike Mercer, whose life becomes entwined with the plight of the ghosts on his beat, ghosts who are being terrorized and "killed" by outlaw ghosts. Despite the potentially fascinating premise, the pace is so slow that it kills all but the minimum of interest. Even a cat lover like me will bog down after enough pages of Mike's former girlfriend mourning for her dead cat (who manifests no ghostly tendencies).

The other book I found good for lolling about with was Chris Crutcher's new book Deadline. The premise of this one is that the protagonist, a senior in high school named Ben, only has a year to live, and wants to live it to the fullest. He goes out for football, wins the girl he wants, and takes other chances. There's no surprise ending, and not a lot of depth to his metaphysical thinking, considering his situation. When asked to make a list of things he wants to do before he dies, Ben says he wants to know whether it's true that "in 1960 a young author named Lee Harper wrote a national best seller about a man who imitates and taunts birds of prey, called To Mock a Killing Bird."

My favorite part of Deadline was the bit about book burning. Ben has an unrealistically understanding and wise English teacher/ football coach who, when faced with a student who thinks The Autobiography of Malcolm X should be burned, takes a copy out of the library and burns it in front of the class. The student says:
"A lot of good that did. There are three more copies in the library and you paid for that one. They can just buy another one."
"You want to burn them all?" Coach says in mock surprise. "Oh, that's different. I don't think I can get behind that. I mean, when somebody burns a flag, they just burn one or maybe a couple. They don't try to burn them all."
"You can say what you want, Mr. Banks, but what's in some books is poison. There have to be books that you think are trash, too. I mean you might not say that to us, but you know it's true.
"You're wrong," Coach says. "I would say it to you. There are a lot of books I wouldn't recommend to anyone. I mean, there's a book in the Old Testament--which if memory serves from the last state senate campaign is a big book in your house--that says we're supposed to kill active homosexuals. My younger sister is a homosexual. Active, I think." He waves his hand over our little band of book burners. "And if statistics bear out, so are one and a half of you guys. It just doesn't seem right to kill you."
"This is so stupid," Sylvia says, but Coach ignores her.
"But I don't want the Old Testament banned," he says, "for two reasons. I don't want a bunch of parents coming after me in the middle of the night with torches, and more important, I'm pretty sure you can read that book and not go out and kill homosexuals, because you have other information that tells you that's not okay and because you have a brain."

The irony, of course, is that Chris Crutcher's books regularly appear on lists of "challenged" books, including here in my small town, where I found Deadline on the shelf of new YA titles at the public library. Alive in Necropolis was on the shelf of new fiction, and both of these were worth reading, if not worth buying. They were worth the free time I had this weekend. So if you have time to loll, you could check one of them out.


Libby said...

Ooh, Deadline sounds like a good one for me right about now. Thanks for mentioning it.

Jeanne said...

Someone who works for Chris Crutcher emailed me after reading this post and inquired about the status of the challenge, offering to file a report with the Freedom to Read Foundation. Since nothing else has been said about the proposed list of banned books since August, I said it doesn't seem to be a serious threat. But isn't it nice to see an author patrolling the internet that way?