Let us now tell you what happened after attending our first official meeting of the Secret Book Club, a disaster in the woods that degenerated into highly unliterary screaming and ranting, punching and kicking and ideas unraveling into bitter chaos.
We came back to town and everyone lived their lives a little more, and then we got our next assignment from the girls in the club: read a novel called Pornografia by a Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz. Okay. They didn't have to twist our arms on this one. We'd just read it and show up like they asked … to Webster's Food and Drink, an old house in Greenwood that had been converted years ago into a bar and grill and was a kind of local institution, a place where many of the young people in town hung out in the evenings and talked and drank cheap domestic beer, sometimes listened to music and tried to pick up one another, like you'll find in any small-town bar frequented by youths in any town in America. It was probably safe to assume that Webster's hadn't played host to many book club meetings, but that was okay. We could sip and smoke and banter about any old sweet damn thing we cared to mention. We were young and smart and well-read. It was still America after all.
We, the bookstore division, new initiates to the Secret Book Club, made a controversial decision by inviting a new guy to come with us, a fellow we'll call Ricardo, a sliver of a man, tall, lean, a straight arrow in only the most physical sense, wearing his white shirt and suspenders and twill slacks like a man from a bygone age. He wore his hair in a military style, and angry green eyes belied his constant grin. He had originated somewhere up east and was in town for a few days, indefinitely, unable to commit to staying or going, unwilling to confirm or deny that he had someplace worse or better to be … and he'd been hanging out in the bookstore, slurping espresso like water, asking questions, always provoking us into conversations about books and buying a whole bunch of them, anything we told him … so we felt obliged to bring him along, to be nice, of course, and to redistribute the discomfort we felt sitting with this group to whom we'd so longed to belong and now dreaded seeing again. Also, he was a real character, reliably strange, always saying strange things, always telling stories that we didn't believe but were entertaining for their novelty. He hadn't read Pornografia, said he couldn't be bothered to read Polish fiction, but maybe he had read it and wouldn't fess up to it, maybe he actually loved Polish fiction … he was strange that way.
"There are plenty of topical books out there right now," said Ricardo, "so why this one? Why settle on this little piece of obscure scrit? What's there to say about it that hasn't been said about a hundred other books a hundred thousand times already?"
The girls had chosen this book to get back at us, that's how we figured it. Let's make the men think they're going to read a pornographic novel, critically acclaimed, 1960s Europe by way of Argentina, oo-la-la, a work that maintains the dignity of classic literature with a heaping of eroticism, and while we're at it, let's stick it to that high-minded professor, the German, the de facto leader of this secret club, who may not really be the leader, for how could you lead a club from halfway around the world, where mutiny was only a hang-up away, and let's see what that nationalist bastard thinks of the novel's anti-German overtones … let's make them read this and watch when they come back scratching their heads, unsure of what happened, unsure of what didn't happen, unsure about who did what to whom, and why there was no pornography, not in the usual trashy sense anyway, not the slightest hump, bump or rump, and let them tell us what any of it had to do with these ridiculous issues of art and gender that were hampering the club, clouding judgments, making friends enemies, making mad the like-minded.
But the joke was on them! We all read it and enjoyed it famously … at least those of us who leaped astride the beast and buried our hooks deep into it and would not be tossed off by the tumble of words … the "verbal burlesque," as John Updike described Gombrowicz' prose style … that ultimately gave way to a story, a genuine romp, in which two sudden friends travel from the hubbub of wartime Warsaw to relax with a friend at his farmhouse in the country. Once on holiday, their attentions are diverted by their host's nubile young daughter, who is engaged to an older, more practical man but is much more suited, they decide, for a roguish young farmhand and ex-soldier hanging around the place. They attempt to create several titillating situations to help the young pair recognize their compatibility. At the same time, their host is hiding a deserter from the military resistance and has been ordered to murder him, a crime in which the entire household must become complicit. It has a theatrical appeal, as if Samuel Beckett reworked one of those comedies of manners, presenting a thoughtful if warped meditation on the aged's desperation for youth.
Ricardo quizzed us on the particulars of the novel on the ride to Webster's, cataloguing our impressions, marrying our opinions of the book with his own opinions about all books and all life and the compendium of pornography he had perused … "in my youth, friends, only in my youth," he admitted, "for simulation bears no stimulation for me now, in my maturity, when only flesh in the flesh provides pleasure" … he was quite the talker in this way, like a character out of a book almost.
We arrived at Webster's and found our contacts among the swelling melee of a Friday afternoon, all seated around a table off to the side of the bar, throwing curious glances and rays of suspicion our way as we approached, still unsure why we were part of their club or who had invited us. We ordered drinks to be sociable. "Caffeine's my poison," insisted Ricardo and entertained a mug of stale coffee while we inquired about the bar's stock of Polish beer, and after being roundly dismissed, settled on a regionally brewed Hefeweizen.
Eager for quick acceptance among the skeptical book knowers, Ricardo lent his cellphone to the cause, calling O all the way in old Germany. He activated the loudspeaker and placed the phone in the middle of the table and bowed to us ... a signal to begin the discussion! O answered furtively and after customary greetings began his usual explication, offering a brief bio on Gombrowicz and the significance of the book in the historical and cultural context of war-torn Europe, though he was decidedly more reserved in his appraisal, and the reception was in and out anyway, such a clamor in the room that scant could be made at last of the poor professor's knowledge. Finally Ricardo leaped up and clapped the phone shut. "Who needs Mr. Professor to tell us what we think of this book anyhow? What is your opinion of it then?" He pointed to Sue, only one of two women in the club, who had no doubt been responsible for selecting this crafty novel. Ricardo had her instantly on the ropes, forced at once to express her feelings on this novel she had tricked the boys into reading, and either the tables had been well turned on her or she hadn't read and made sense of it herself, and Ricardo, all the while having no idea what sort of agile social parry he had made.
After stammering Sue, shy and deflective, Ricardo wasted nary a breath, moving the conversation clockwise round the table, calling on the sandy-haired sullen Sam, who had seemed to enjoy it, especially the lively prose and translation by Danuta Borchadt ... found in the recent Grove Press edition, and really where else would you go but Grove for genuine '60s literary Euro avant garde? Sam had hoped for a little more "porno" and perhaps a little less "grafia" but referenced a great Gombrowicz quote ... "I do not believe in a non-erotic philosophy. I do not trust thought that frees itself of sex..." ... before Ricardo countered, "Bravo! Great memory" and continued working around the table, moving quickly ahead whenever someone fell short of an assured opinion, and as he made his way to the various members, roving and motioning like a conductor, he reached down and sipped from one idle beer, and then another and then another ... anyone not clutching his or her own drink was due to have it filched by this supposed teetotaler, who sipped, then swigged, then gulped his way around the table, his vociferous drinking serving only to illuminate his teetotalism.
None but our few seemed to notice what he was doing, so rapt were they in the scene he was creating, firing off provocative questions, pitting opinions against each other then recasting them in harmony … even roping disinterested third parties who had wandered out of the restroom into the discussion, tipsy and ever ready to lend some off-the-cuff remark about Polish pornography, which, taken with Ricardo's slantways perspective, inspired some pretty entertaining verbal frolickery, if we are to be honest.
The discussion ultimately came back around to the book, specifically the two main characters and their attempts to milk the eroticism out of the most innocent interactions between the two young subjects, citing a scene where the older men spy on the teenagers crushing earthworms together, or the girl rolling up the boy's pant cuffs, both of these things making the old pervs so hot and bothered, and Gombrowicz really laying into their desperation so cleverly.
"But it's so chaste!" cried Ricardo. "What does this mean to us today, after all?" he said, half-standing and half-sitting, something slightly more decent than a squat, and gesticulating wildly, strangely. "You there," he pointed to Mary Brooke, the club's other female, and snapped a quick photo of her with his phone, "what would it say to you if I confessed that the simple act of your gently stroking your sweaty beer bottle with your painted fingertips is making me intolerably excited?"
The whole time he'd been crowding against sandy Sam, nudging him closer to Sue, his arch book nemesis, as if he sensed between them a roiling sexual tension fueled by ego and intellect. As he addressed Mary Brooke, he would film Sam and Sue with his phone, moving the bar nuts close between them and hoping to catch them reaching in together and touching hands.
Meanwhile the bar crowd was coming alive like a many-headed hydra of unbookliness, and we could hardly hear each other any more, could only observe Ricardo's maniacally intentioned gesticulations and the earned responses from his marks, and it all became very clear that we had no part in any discussion of literature, that we were mere extras in some low-rent, beer-fueled drama ... though quieter than our previous alcohol-free meeting.
In our realization and subsequent embarrassment, we drew up and pouted. We came here to talk literature and not to carouse. We like our carousing, mind you, but must prepare ourselves for it. One cannot come to a former house, now a restaurant that shifts over to a bar at an indeterminable hour, and carouse when one has mentally prepared for deep book talk.
And dammit all, what fools we felt like to come here and talk books at all! At such a riotous place, at such a jovial hour! These are matters for cabins in the woods and broom closets and quiet boat ramps in the dead of night!
We were gathering our particulars in shame and preparing to dash either from the bar or toward the grill when we looked across the table at our party, and they looked at us, and for a revelatory moment, with no sign of Ricardo anywhere ... he had vanished, leaped the fence on the patio and tumbled into the ferns! ... we smiled and shook our heads and knew in our laughing hearts that we would never read together again.