BY DAVID DUHR
Here’s part 6 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.
Having just moved from Boston to the Atlantic coast of Florida, my ideas of beach reading will have to be redefined. Until now, the term has been synonymous with “vacation reading”—books I want to bring with me to places that are warmer and happier than all the cloudy northern cities I’ve called home. It’s not the beach itself that matters, it’s the atmosphere. Las Vegas, situated squarely in the middle of Hell, is where I’ve done the lion’s share of my beach reading. Now, with actual beaches just down the block from where I lay my head at night, every book on my shelves has the potential to be a true beach book.
Here are five that made the trip with me:
The Fool’s Progress, by Edward Abbey
The great Ed Abbey called this book his “fat masterpiece.” Fat it is, checking in at just under 500 pages. Read them all. In order. And then read them all again, because this is my all-time favorite novel, and it very well may become yours, too.
Published in 1988, this is Abbey’s swan song, a book he poured himself into for years. It begins in “the dim inane of Tucson, Arizona,” where Henry Holyoak Lightcap, whose wife has just split on him for the last time, raises a .357 Magnum and blasts away at his loud-running Frigidaire.
Henry, with nothing left to lose and hiding a dark secret inside himself, decides to embark on one final trip back home to Virginia, an odyssey that takes him from his beloved Southwest through the middle of the country and into the Appalachia of his youth. In his dying truck with his dying dog, Henry stops to say last goodbyes to friends along the way as he reflects on a life full of love found and lost, authority scorned at every turn, and an abiding love for and awe of nature.
This book will make you laugh and cry at the same time. This is as close as Abbey got to autobiography, so if you’re fascinated with the real-life character, then you’ll feel the same about Henry Lightcap. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Living to Be 100, by Robert Boswell
I’ve gone on and on about this book and this writer before, even on Chamber Four, but that’s not going to stop me from putting this on my list. Of the eleven pieces in this story collection, five of them are memorable after just one read. But you won’t read them only once. Pay special attention to “Glissando,” “Brilliant Mistake,” and the title story. Then read the rest of Boswell’s oeuvre, starting with the novel Crooked Hearts and working your way to his new story collection, The Heydey of the Insensitive Bastards.
City in Love, by Alex Shakar
Here are seven stories set in New York City in the year 1 B.C., each of them a “modern” spin on a book from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Junk Man in “A Million Years From Now” builds a sculpture of his ideal woman and falls in love with it—instead of ivory, like Pygmalion, he builds her out of trash he finds on the city streets. Danny Waxman in “Waxman’s Sun” learns that his father is a sort of Sun god, but instead of driving the sun chariot like Phaeton, Danny conducts his father’s superheated subway car through the city’s tunnels. Ceyx and Alcyon were turned into birds, but Lou and Fiona become alligators who roam the city’s sewers in a father/son tale entitled “On Morpheus, Relating to Orpheus.”
(I realize that the above makes it sound as if I’ve read Ovid. Far be it from me to rob you of that belief.)
The idea sounds cutesy, but the execution is not. Shakar shows us that humanity’s desire for love, our fear of loneliness, and our penchant for tripping ourselves up hasn’t changed since Ovid’s time. Although the stories are set two millennia ago, Shakar’s city is instantly recognizable, a present-day New York filled with modern people longing for more from life. Like Howie in “The Sky Inside,” who escapes into a natural history museum at night in a moment related to us by the Chinese man who operates the planetarium projector: “And he say, You know something wrong when you have to go inside building to see star at night. It is all ass on backward, he say, forest inside, jungle inside, sea inside, sky inside.”
If you enjoy this collection, check out Shakar’s novel The Savage Girl.
On Writing, by Stephen King
This is one of King’s best books, part memoir, part how-to guide. King tells us of his humble beginnings as a writer, how he endured all of the rejection and humiliation that we all must go through to make it in this business, and then he takes us briefly into his successes before getting into the meat of the book—his ideas on what every writer needs in his or her “toolbox.” King states his basic premise thusly: “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
It’s a quick and entertaining read from a writer who, say what you will about his work, knows a thing or two about how to write readable fiction. At the very least, you’ll come away from it thinking twice about those disgusting little adverbs.
Where Is Joe Merchant?, by Jimmy Buffett
In a little-known repercussion of Y2K, Jimmy Buffett decided to cash in on his own legacy and become all about the Benjamins (go ahead, check out his disgusting slot at your local big-chain record store). Before that, though, the man made some fine music—and wrote one hell of an entertaining novel.
Frank Bama, a seaplane pilot still in love with the one that got away, is in such financial straits that he can barely afford to gas up his plane, when along comes Trevor Kane, heiress to a hemorrhoid ointment empire (“the asshole fortune”) and sister of Joe Merchant, a rock star who is presumed dead but pops up Elvis-like in the most unusual places. Trevor wants to hire Frank to help her track down Desdemona, a psychic who claims to know Joe’s whereabouts. The only thing that keeps Frank from leaping at the opportunity is that Trevor Kane is his one that got away.
Beach reading + Buffett = cliché, but I don’t care. This is a damn good book. It’s light and airy, laugh-out-loud funny, and filled with colorful characters that come alive on the page. They’re not thin, flat, or shallow—we really get to know Frank and Trevor as they bounce from one Caribbean island to another, and with them we get swept up in the tide of, as the book jacket reads, “psychos, whackos, pirates and dictators.”
I’ve read this novel six or seven times, and will continue to return to it. If you like Buffett’s style, check out a piece entitled “Take Another Road” from his story collection, Tales From Margaritaville.
And then avoid anything else he’s published since.