Only a few anonymous strangers know what really happened to the former bookseller who was beaten and tossed into the Yazoo River; but first we should speak of our own modest attempts to read and understand the same book that brought them together that night by the river (see photo), a night which ended so terribly for our friend. After all, it was that unfortunate and besodden former employee whose clumsy indiscretion revealed to us the time and location of the Secret Book Club's last meeting, from which we'd been banned and which we, harboring resentment, exposed on this very blog, an act which no doubt earned our friend his aforementioned humiliation and for which we humbly beseech his forgiveness.
It all goes back to the week after the last meeting of Greenwood's Secret Book Club (SBC). We noticed an unusual spike in sales for Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and guessed that it must be their next selection. Several of us, still a touch perturbed by our exclusion from the reading club, took it upon ourselves to read the novel. We'd hoped to crash their discussion and impress the club members with our trenchant reading of the imposing material. But weeks and months passed without sign of an SBC meeting, so we met ourselves in the desperate, after-hours gloom of the Turnrow cafe and discussed the novel over beer and Hostess cakes.
Certainly the most obscure of the SBC's selections heretofore, The Third Policeman is a posthumously published novel by the Irish trickster Flann O'Brien, one of many pseudonyms used by beloved Dublin columnist Brian O'Nolan, a contemporary of James Joyce. The novel, published in 1967, is narrated by a young scholar who lives on the farm of his deceased parents with the caretaker of the family business. In order to get money to publish his exhaustive biography of a maverick philosopher named de Selby — whose bizarre theories are patched into the novel — the young writer hatches a scheme with his roommate to murder a neighbor and steal his bank. From this promising and relatively normal beginning, a series of bizarre occurrences puts our hero in the local police barracks, where he meets with and engages in stymieing conversation with two officers. From here the book plummets and bounds through a playful series of ideas and diversions, finding little or no grounding in reality as it threatens to send less patient readers into book-tossing hysterics.
The novel's reputation has increased in recent years due to its well-documented influence on the popular and similarly confounding television series Lost. That, perhaps, and the high praise paid it by Jack Pendarvis, a popular writer in these parts who has mentioned it at his blog and during recent visits, influenced the SBC's decision ... we can only assume, not being members ourselves, you understand, which is why we formed our own shadow club.
Reviews among our own secret ranks ran the gamut. One despised The Third Policeman as utter nonsense, while another lofted it into his top-ten books of all time. Yet another appreciated the idea of it more than the reading experience, and still another found it tough going but appreciated the ending, which brought the whole book together into some closer semblance of meaning. Half the members vowed to re-read it at some later date, the other half asked that it never be mentioned again. For those uninitiated readers who are curious about O'Brien, we found valuable profiles and analyses by John Updike and Jim Ruland, available for your free perusal.
Flash forward to this past weekend. A staff member was gassing up in Winona and caught sight of our man P—, the former staff member who infiltrated the SBC. Once a genial bookman and part-time college student, he was now dipping chicken sticks at the Pump-N-Huff. A bit skittish on first glance, P— finally warmed up and admitted that he'd moved away from Greenwood after the ugly incident at the book club meeting for The Third Policeman.
P— recalled the incident painfully while on smoke break. He'd received an email instructing him to ride his bicycle down to the boat landing on the Yazoo River in Greenwood at a specific hour on a specific night. Bicycling was requisite, as the policemen in the novel have a peculiar obsession with this mode of transportation. Not owning a bike, P— showed up in his Buick, squealing tires and Van Halen blaring through the windows.
There he found the club members sitting in a circle on a large blanket, a candle burning in the middle. He was asked to dump out his cocktail (Jagermeister and Redbull) and quietly join the group, where he then endured insinuations that he'd known we were eavesdropping on their last meeting at the bookstore and had conspired to make fools of them all.
After an awkward series of accusations and dismissals, the discussion turned to The Third Policeman and all the oddities that arise in the novel's second chapter, continuing until the end when the story's true nature is revealed. They swapped some mad chatter about bicycles and eternity and the various undiscovered realms of the world, and P— finally spoke up. "I think y'all are reading too much into this. This was a fairly straight forward thriller, and I figured it out halfway through the book."
The group rebutted with sighs and groans, and the leader said that the murderer's identity was not in dispute, but the story's inherent mystery was in the consequences. Only then, after P— replied with his own aimless theories about the book, was it revealed that he had read 3rd Degree by James Patterson.
That did it. The SBC's discussion leader jumped up and began wailing on P— with his booksack. Two other members jumped up and approached the crazed leader, to pull him away, P— supposed. Instead, they joined in the punishment by dragging him to the bank of the river, which was running high that night on account of recent torrential rains. According to P—, they whipped him with a cane pulled straight up from the banks, then chased him out into the river until he was carried off by the current. As he drifted away, he heard one of them yell, "You're out of the club, turncoat!"
P— could swim, but the swift current got the better of him. At one point he feared he would drown, but just in time, a cooler floated by and he managed to grab it and hold on for safety. He drifted nearly a mile downstream before he could reach the bank. He came ashore in a cotton field and had to hike back in wet shoes and swarms of mosquitoes. By the time he got home, his pride and crotch were chafed, and he vowed then and there to never read another book again.
What an odyssey! It seemed like fiction but clearly it was true. P— had the mosquito bites and a water-logged copy of Patterson to prove it. We were nearly ashamed to be book folk after hearing this tale of pagan rituals and irate book discussion, and yet there was something oddly endearing to know that, in our quiet little town in remote Mississippi, such a ruckus had been raised in the name of literature.