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Reading – Part One: The Drunk

I’ve hinted before that a drunk and a pair of guys who taught college are greatly responsible for the fact that I read anything after high school. I’m not sure if this is absolutely true, but it’s good for a narrative. If we say it’s true to its narrative, that doesn’t make it a lie, but rather a formed truth. That’s all blogging is anyway, and I’ve spent the last week watching and then reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So take this for what it is. One part Gonzo Journalism, one part underground literature class, two parts gin, one part vermouth.

So let’s begin with the one you all worked out a long time ago, who is The Drunk? The drunk is one Dashiell Hammett, a man so intoxicated he needed a couple of drinks inside him before he could start drinking. Hammett may not have been much of a novelist, but rather the earliest Gonzo Journalist, since many of his stories have an autobiographical ring to them. Read any of the Continental Op stories and you quickly realize that it was merely because he’d put his name on the cover that the character’s name is never said inside the books. I’m not saying the books are embellished a bit, but I am saying that most of them ring so true that they could only be from experience. He only wrote a few books, although there are a wealth of short stories, but we’re going to focus on the book that made me step back from The Brink.

Now, this is where the tale gets a little muddled. See, I never really stopped reading exactly. I always sort of read, and I always listened to audiobooks. The audiobooks thing became a dual cure when it was discovered that both ADD and dyslexia were real things that hampering the fuck out of a young boy with a curious mind. And there comic books, but lets ignore those for the moment. Audiobooks will often come up because I have hundreds upon hundreds of them. I was a member of one of those Columbia Record Club style audiobook clubs. That will come up later, so let’s leave it to one side for right now.

Besides I didn’t read this book in audio format. I don’t remember how I got it into my head to read the book, but I did. All I can think is that I was getting tired of reading The Shadow novels, which I was starting to find irritating. Tolkien no longer appealed and I was probably going through my first period of having an issue with Stephen King. I had seen The Maltese Falcon and I recognized the name on the cover as the writer of that, even though it would be years before I read that book. No, instead I saw a title and decided to try and read the book for some reason. I have a feeling that I was sitting there, thinking that reading and me were going to give it one more try and if this book didn’t turn out like I wanted then I would bullshit my way through the rest of my life pretending I’d read stuff.

So I get started on The Dain Curse and… just wow. If anyone had told me that while I was being forced to read mind numbingly pointless shit like Gentlehands, that were books out there that had stuff like this in them, I would have slapped them in their lying mouths and told them to stop lying like the lying motherfuckers that they were. See, I had been forced to read such complete and utter shit in school that I was compeletly and utterly turned off the idea of trying to read anything that didn’t have elves, dragons, machine guns, zombies, or hot Victorian sex in it.

Now, The Dain Curse has a few juicy murders, but that is so not the point. Imagine if you, that you’re an impressionable young lad, maybe 17 or so. You’ve had boring, pointless shit like The Grapes of Wrath rammed down your throat for years, although to be honest you were a little distracted by the turtle in the first chapter and kept wondering when it would return before you worked out that the turtle couldn’t help you. Five points if you understood ANY of that btw.

So, you’re about 17 right? You’re male, right? And you’ve almost come to the conclusion that comics might be the only books you read from now on, right? The Old Man and The Sea has done nothing to inspire confidence in the world of the written word, you’re done with this whole reading thing, right? Okay, now imagine reading this story where a young girl is being held quasi-hostage by charlatans posing as religious figures and cult leaders. They’ve been shooting this girl up with morphine, they kill everyone around her, they’ve fucked this little girl’s head and the only person who can help her is a guy who might not give a fuck if the world ended tomorrow.

That, perhaps, more than anything else was the thing I really liked about the book. The main character isn’t classically likeable. Oh sure, you come to like and admire him, but not in the pandering way that most writers use to get you on their side. Most writers let you know who your hero is, and that he’s the hero right away. You’re sympathy is with them from the word go, unless you’re dealing with a tedious piece of “literature” and then the character is unlikeable from the word go. What I found interesting about Hammett, is how disinterested he is in what the hell you think. His characters aren’t likeable, unlikeable, or anywhere in between, they’re people. Granted, I would later find this trick used by dozens of hard boiled writers and of course most the good film noir characters are like this too, but this was my first. You always remember the one that popped your cherry, you know?

This is also a drug book, but without the tediousness of having to read about some asshole cramming everything he can get his hands on into every orifice they’ll fit in. Sorry Hunter, enjoying your book and all, but seriously. Most your drug books are tediously annoying because they’re written from the point of view of the junkie. I can’t even remember what that piece of shit our 11th grade teacher made us read was called, but it was a book about a boy all fucked up on smack. It was from his point of view and it was all “Drugs are bad M’Kay?” and it rang about a true as a bell made of marzipan. You want a drug book? How about a description of bringing someone down of a morphine addiction? From the point of view you’re most likely to be in? “Friends help friends come down off smack, and it kind of sucks.” You sort of feel like he’s been there, like he’s describing a situation he remembers exactly what the skin of a dope fiend looks like.

I remember the light bulb switching on over my head when I read this book, because it said that you didn’t need monsters to have an interesting book. There was nothing fantastic in this book, just a lot of stuff that could really happen in real life. No ghosts, no monsters, no pen names come back from the dead to avenge themselves on the writer who killed them, just drugs and sex and madness and money and murder.

I also remember sitting there and asking aloud, “Why the hell did no one tell me there were books like this out there?” I remember being fairly offended that we’re been given unreadable shit to try and wade through… and The Great Gatsby*, while there were books like this in existence? People who wrote like this were around and we were wasting our time and effort on the crap we’d been wasting our time on? I was now offended about how English class had treated me up until that point. I could begin to comprehend the reasons as to why no one had ever given me a glass of ilk this book.

And why not? Hammett was a dead white guy, and he wrote books. He wrote books about the human condition, and about people being shitty to each other. All the things my English teachers seemed to love! Hell, there was even pretentious stuff in the narration once in a while. Why the hell didn’t we read him in class? Was it because they were afraid we might enjoy something and take up a lifelong joy of reading? That was the only answer I could come up with. Many, many mystery books, audiobooks, and movies would soon follow. I can’t say my life long addiction to mystery stories started here, because that germ got started way earlier, but it helped.

And for that, we have a drunk who wrote trash to thank.

*Forgot the foot note! I actually liked The Great Gatsby, although I maybe the only person I know who does.

January 28, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment