So, we'd pretty much given up on Secret Book Club.
Our shadow reading club had drifted apart. There were things we asked ourselves, not as a group but separately, maybe.
What is it like to read, truly, if one were to say it plainly, as if to someone who doesn't or simply couldn't be bothered to?
What is secret anymore? What's so wrong with reading as a lonesome pursuit?
Why are you even reading this? Are you still?
How about now?
And then out of the blue one day our old friend O the German sent us a message, requesting that we order several copies of The Quick & the Dead by Joy Williams. Some friends would be in to pick them up, he said, and then he advised us to read it too, and take notes if we had plenty of paper and pens on hand. We knew what this meant.
O, to our best surmise, was the new de facto leader of the Secret Book Club, and the fact that he invited us to read along and record our impressions hinted of our ultimate and long-sought inclusion in this most secret of local book clubs, if he wasn't just toying with us, which was a distinct possibility given the club's past behavior. With this momentous new development, our interest in Secret Book Club sprouted afresh in the torpid haze at the ass-end of a ruthless, puke-hot summer.
Our knowledge of the SBC — limited as it was, though still more profuse than anyone else's in town — gave us some insight into the decision-making process that selected this peculiar novel, a 2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Apparently the club's female membership had been lobbying for more women writers — any women writers, in fact — and it seemed that they'd finally found one everyone could agree to read.
Williams' novel follows three motherless teenage girls and their random encounters, both separately and together, with a deeply eccentric supporting cast of characters in the desert southwest United States. This isn't realism but a kind of contemporary patchwork absurdism, highly acclaimed for its strange, dark wisdom.
The worst thing was, none of our clique really loved the book; one actually hated it, another was bored by it and one was merely complimentary of its quirks and invention. There was some mild concern that it might be bad form to come out and openly reject the thing at our first meeting. No doubt the sensitive women among them would have loved the book, out of obligation if not some innate quality endearing it to their gender, something we'd missed through fault of our genes.
We finally received word from O that the book club would meet at a tin hut in the hills outside of town. On the assigned night, we followed O's driving directions deep into the adjacent county, a place of deep exclusion and mystery, where strangers were loathe to tarry. We navigated the spidering gravel roads as described and searched for the promised blue pyramid of garbage cans, either a monument or indictment of man's wasteful nature, we could not decide. These hallmarks led us down a particularly dark and menacing road, without streetlights to mark our progress. We finally noted a spare flickering candleflame in the window of the little hut, which must have been someone's hunting cabin. We had arrived at our destiny.
There was no one to welcome us. We felt our way cautiously up the front steps, knocked and received no answer. We entered with trepidation, passed through a short foyer and into a broad living room with high ceilings and sofas and wicker chairs arranged in a circle around a coffee table with a telephone in the middle. About seven people were sitting there. They each straightened up and their eyes grew wide as we entered. It was apparent they were not expecting us.
Oddly no one said anything or stood up to greet us. "Hey," one of us said, offering up a pathetic wave. They judged us quizzically; nodded, squinted, whispered to each other. It was downright funereal. There were a few of us and a few more of them: a sullen young man, a couple of professor types, a nondescript man fidgeting in the corner, a goofball wearing a Kangol hat and a desperate goatee, and then, surprisingly, only two females. One was Mary Brooke, the young co-ed who had approached us last year, our first unsolicited contact with an SBC member. The other woman was familiar, a quiet, wiry artist-type dressed in black, who'd been in the store many times before, always eschewing our recommendations, requesting obscure European literature we didn't keep, almost as if she was trying to stump us or point out glaring holes in our stock.
Our group, all guys, took the only remaining space, a love seat on which we huddled together uncomfortably. No one offered drinks or snacks. No, What are you doing here? No ice broken at all.
And then suddenly the phone chirruped, cutting the silence like a samurai. Mary Brooke flinched at the ring, lunged for the table and mashed the speaker button on the phone. Hello, it was our host, the mysterious Professor O, who welcomed everyone with his German cheer and brought the meeting to order.
The sullen young man, sandy-haired in half repose across the full-sized couch, tossed his paperback copy onto the coffee table with smug contempt. "O, out of all the novels written by women, what in the hell made you choose this one?"
The professor gave a thoughtful if somewhat academic disquisition on the merits of Joy Williams' fiction, describing her as one of the great chroniclers of our discomforting age, "wielding intellect and irony with equal aplomb." She possessed, he believed, an insight both keen and off-kilter to the inner workings of the female mind, which would suit our dual aims as readers of diverse books and outsider art. "Also, I met her once at a literary conference in Arizona," O added. "We shared a cocktail and discussed Russian literature. Fascinating woman, truly."
Later, we learned that the women in the group had staged a mild revolt at the last meeting, threatening to boycott the club unless a woman writer was chosen. This was after two previous meetings that had completely eluded us, one in which each member chose any book by the late Barry Hannah, and the other for Padgett Powell's novel Mrs. Hollingsworth's Men. The latter selection was at least narrated by a woman, albeit a hallucinating and half-hysterical one, and the lady members liked it well enough but insisted on the real thing.
The sullen young man, who shall be called Sam for the purposes of this narrative, said, "Well, I don't get it. There's absolutely no story, too many dangling dead ends, so much irony even I was put off. I finished reading it last night and couldn't tell you one thing I remember about it."
"Doesn't sound like you read it carefully then," the dark artist type, who we'll call Sue, replied.
"Yeah, but stuff was happening there," said Sam. "Here, it seemed to me like the author set up scenes so that her characters could engage in clever banter. It reminded me of that movie Juno, which I hated."
"Oh, so sorry that the 'stuff' you claim this novel lacks is not sitting on the surface so you can scrape it off and study it up close," Sue bellowed. "Get wise, man. It's stuffed into every sentence, into every observation, description and odd little diversion. Not so different from your precious Ray [by Barry Hannah], which you insist is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. I thought this was quite reminiscent of your man Hannah, in fact. Only Williams comes from the intellect rather than the guts, or worse, the genitals."
"Don't even go there!" Sam cried. "Hannah is eons ahead of Joy Williams! Eons!"
One of the quiet, professorly gentlemen chimed in, trying to be diplomatic. "I agree with you about the story being absent. But let's suppose for a moment that the author intended it that way. Given that, it is rather reflective of the sparse and flat desert setting, to which there are so many references. Also like the wayward nature of these characters. The author may be suggesting that most lives have no story arc. They are just lives, lived from point A to point B with little rise and fall."
"Yeah, I think if you want a straight story, go read James Patterson," said Mary Brooke. "This is one of those books that just washes over you. I mean, the writing is just so incredible! Look, every page I found something to highlight which struck me as just ... momentous." She turned her well-worn copy to us and flipped its page. Sure enough, they were streaked with yellow marker.
Sam and Sue continued to levy insults and accusations at one another, the latter dignifying the former's moronic disavowals with a barrage of informed rebuttals, each glancing off without making a dent, like the jackass who only flinches dumbly with each lash of the whip. There was something deep and personal in their tête-à-tête that made us all uneasy and expectant, as if they might leap at one another suddenly and commence outright coitus before the club. You can never be sure what might occur when you come to such a forest shelter so far away from the eyes of society.
Asserting command proved a bit challenging for O, speaking from his anonymous location somewhere far off in the wee hours of a German tomorrow. Tried, though, he did. "What do our visitors think of this novel?" came the accented voice over the phone, the sage voice of patience, a voice emboldened by free international minutes on nights and weekends.
"It was okay," one of us said. "I think it was lessened by the fact that I just read Citrus County, which was also about wayward teens. But it was just somehow more straight-forward and powerful, which I think made it deeper, more disturbing."
"I'm like this guy," offered one of our less polished members, pointing to Sam. "I thought it pretty much sucked. Just chattering and pointless."
"But hey, Flannery O'Connor's a great writer," said another.
Mary Brooke threw in. "Flannery O'Connor's not even a contemporary woman writer!"
"Whoa, Flannery O'Connor's a woman?" chimed the goofball in the Kangol.
"I just read a contemporary woman," said another of us with pride. "A French lady. I can't remember her French name. The book was called A Novel Bookstore, and I enjoyed it a sight more than Williams'. I might've remembered her name if it had been American or British." (Laurence Cosse, ed.)
"Nationality is a perfectly viable angle from which to judge this work," said O, trying to nudge the conversation.
"Why bother?" said Sue. "Your arguments are flimsy. Can you not take The Quick & the Dead on its own merits without untrousering and measuring up to each other?"
In the long run, it really didn't matter if the authors were men or women, Sue insisted. The real fact of the matter was that there were too many men in the group, and something about their combined testosterone made them say dumb and pointless things, as if their tribal gruntings could not attune to a more evolved wavelength so that their "brainfart musk might be obscured by the deodorant of social convention." She implored us not to get our "skivvies in a twist," because women did the same damned thing in large groups.
Then she called us out. "What about you guys? We didn't even ask you here, but maybe you'd be more welcome if you'd brought some of the women who work at the bookstore. I know they're there. I've seen them. So why didn't they show up? Diversity is key to getting well-rounded opinions."
"I think you guys are just afraid to admit that women can write," Mary Brooke added.
Sue sighed and shook her head. "That this conversation has devolved into an argument about gender is embarrassing. What it boils down to is this: books are more interesting when the characters or the narrator say things that you don't hear in the course of a normal day, in normal conversation. Good books express the things we want to say but either don't have the courage or ingenuity to say."
"Then what does it matter if a man or a woman writes it?" Sam demanded.
"This is the worst book club I've ever joined," Sue replied.
One of us got the bright idea to mosey. We stood and slipped through the tangle of their ire, unnoticed, into the blackest, shrieking dark of the forest night. Its vertical majesty was absent to us, only the scrambling leaves describing its margins as we felt our way back to the car.
"But look," one of us noticed. A small corona of light coming from the woods. We were drawn like doomed insects to the glow, crunching our way to the end.
A young guy dressed head to toe in camouflage, toting a rifle, waved a spotlight into the trees. He turned and nodded. "S'up fellas?"
"Not much, just finishing up book club," one of us replied. "What are you doing?"
"Huntin'," he said.
"What's in season?"
He was watching the trees, sweat beaded across his face like cling-wrap pulled over his skin.
"Anything you want. Mostly coon tonight." He pointed to a string of four or five dead raccoon hanging from a nearby tree branch.
We watched him, intent in his work, and wondered why anyone would bother camouflaging in pitch dark.
"I used to read with that club," the hunter volunteered. "Got too damn ridiculous though. Something to be said for reading as private sport."
We looked at one another, all shrugs and pivoting eyebrows.
"Besides, I prefer redder meat anyhow." He reached into his vest pocket and tossed a paperback our way. Bukowski.
He shut off the spotlight and we stood there, edgy in that naked darkness where we were all the same, every sexless one of us, and somebody wondered what it was like to eat raccoon. We heard the hunter lick his lips while he considered this. "Not the worst meal ever. Fry him up with a little bacon, maybe some home fries and an egg."
Something scurried through the leaves, and we tensed instinctively.
"If you really want to get fancy, a little mesclun salad and a nice rapeseed vinaigrette."
Faint shouting was heard coming from the hut. They could all be beating each other, or be getting mauled by animals, it was tough to tell at this distance. We were not immune from any possibility. At this point, so far from the course of anything normal, we were not even possible.
To be continued....