Monday, February 21, 2011


Ron McLarty is an actor. The name may not strike a chord but his face almost certainly would, it did for me. As soon as I saw a picture of him, I said, "Oh, yeah, I know who that is." He's a well-cast character actor in Spenser: For Hire, Rescue Me, The Practice, Ed, all of the Law & Order spin-offs and even Cop Rock; on the big screen he's in Heartburn, The Postman, The Flamingo Kid and many others; and has narrated over 100 audiobooks.

McLarty has carved out a nice little niche for himself, it seems. He probably gets a nice paycheck, without too much stress and responsibility, for doing something he loves.

Oh, and he's also a novelist. I've just finished reading Traveler (2007) and I've previously read The Memory of Running (2004). I enjoyed them both.

Traveler is the story of Jono Riley, an off-off-Broadway actor with a few commercials and primetime television shows under his belt. He lives in New York, has a girlfriend who is a firefighter and spends much of his time tending the bar at Lamb's. The action begins when he's informed that a childhood friend has died in his hometown of East Providence, Rhode Island.

His late friend, Marie D'Agostino, is his first true love, the sister of one of his best friends and then there's the connection of Jono's presence when she was shot in the back as a young girl. She didn't die then, but the .22 caliber bullet would lodge too close to an artery to be removed and years later would "travel" to her heart and kill her. Jono returns home to pay respects and, in doing so, becomes caught up in the past, in his days with his buddies and family and of the rash of shootings. It becomes a mystery that Jono works at with all the gusto of the one-character plays he specializes in back in Manhattan.

The book is a trip through Jono's past and a sentimental portrait of the mid-sixties just the way those who came of age then like to remember it - wide-cuff blue jeans, t-shirts, crew cuts and smokes with doo-wop, girls in skirts, baseball and tough-love parents. It's all there and, though we've read and heard the stories thousands of times, manages to come off as genuine, we get the sense that McLarty is describing his own childhood, his own friends and the neighborhood in which they ran.

They mystery of the shootings is there and Jono manages to become embroiled - he never really actively figures it out, though it is revealed in the end - with the help of a retired cop from the neighborhood, a priest, old friends and his girlfriend. It's a thriller without the whodunit being overbearing. They question of who shot Marie and the others is there throughout, a subplot interwoven into chapters that flip-flop from the past to present.

Though my retention for most of what I read is embarrassingly nonexistent, I do remember enjoying The Memory of Running as one of those books you come upon and don't expect much from, but find yourself enthralled by what you're reading. It's like someone giving you a gift you didn't even know you wanted. So when I came across a first edition Traveler hardback on the bargain table at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, I couldn't resist. It only cost a dollar, but would have been worth the full price of $25 (there were a couple of others at this price and may still be there if you hurry).

I went to McLarty's website and found the story of his first being published:

Beginning with the early years of his career, McLarty’s passion for writing led him to completing 10 novels, in addition to his plays but his efforts to interest a publishing house were unsuccessful. Several years ago he was able to persuade Recorded Books into producing his 3rd novel, The Memory of Running, directly onto tape as an audiobook. It is believed to be the first recorded audiobook of an unpublished novel. Stephen King listened to it in 2002 and wrote his entire column “The Pop of King” about Memory calling it “the best book you can’t read”. This lead to the publication of The Memory of Running in the USA and fourteen other countries around the world.

I envy McLarty his niche, both in the worlds of acting and writing. He may not be setting either of those worlds on fire, but he's making a living and, obviously, loving what he's doing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chronic City

For the past couple of weeks I've been carrying around Chronic City (2009) by Jonathan Lethem. Ever since finishing it yesterday afternoon, I've been carrying it around still, trying to make sense of it all, trying to figure out if I even like it or not. I think it's only gotten heavier since finishing.

I suppose I do like it, there are plenty of books I haven't finished because they didn't hold my interest. I liked his earlier novel, Fortress of Solitude (2003), and loathed another, the name of which I can't even remember I disliked it so much (he's written many others, try one of them before reading the one I can't remember).

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
I'm realizing that my uncertainty about Chronic City isn't new, that I didn't just close the book and then attempt to consider its worth, but that I've read it entirely in that state of confusion. I kept trying to figure out what it's about, because certainly the characters, their relationship with each other and the places they inhabit must be about more than just what Lethem has put on the page. He's an enigmatic writer and I questioned throughout whether I'm smart enough for his literary enigmas.

It's the story of Chase Insteadman, a former child star living off royalties and making his way through Manhattan society and simple afternoons spent in diners and staring out of his bedroom window at a flock of birds that habitually buzzes a church steeple a few blocks away. He befriends, through happenstance or by design (ah, the conspiracies abound in the City of Chronic), Perkus Tooth, a former rock critic and all-around pop culture savant. Through their world, spent mostly in Perkus's cramped, darkened apartment listening to obscure cassette tapes, watching Marlon Brando movies and smoking dope, traipse Oona Laszlo, Richard Abneg and Georgina Hawkmanaji. An inordinate amount of time was spent by me trying to figure out what these names could mean, whether metaphors or anagrams (this book itself was borrowed from a friend - Mitch Major - someone who could have lent his own name to a Lethem character).

In and out of the daily lives of this group walks a giant tiger (or is it?), a lost love orbiting the planet (or is she?), chaldrons ( or ... you get the idea ...), Gnuppets, the mayor and the topic of rent control and eminent domain, virtual worlds and a three-legged dog.

He's a deep writer, Lethem. The prose is layered in adjectives and metaphors. He may have used all of the words of description Hemingway once shaved from his own paragraphs. Perhaps those words were in the suitcase, folded like so much laundry, that Hadley Hemingway lost at the train station and have remained lost until recovered by Lethem.

Hemingway's lost suitcase full of manuscripts is one of my sole, semi-obscure pop culture reference, yet Lethem is a master at the dropped name, the long-forgotten novel or album, the illicit relationship whether fact or implied, and I'm sure I only recognized (or at least understood) a fraction of them.

It is this confusion by me as a reader that would normally leave me with a quarter finished book place back on the shelf, dismissing the writer as too pretentious,  too intent on trying to impress rather than entertain the reader. But Lethem is good enough and the stories in Chronic City are compelling enough to keep me reading.

I also read this book while chest deep into my own novel and when I would pick up Chronic, it was with an eye toward structure, how Lethem made it from point A to point B, or from point C back to A via B. It's a tedious way to read a book, so I admit that part of the problem I had with it may have been my own doing, but so be it. I feel that, along with being entertained, if not somewhat baffled, I may have just learned a thing or two.

So, there you have it. I like this novel and it only took me two weeks and one day to figure it out. Better late than never.

*I just looked it up and the name of the Lethem novel I dislike so much is You Don't Love Me Yet (2007).

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A Moveable Feast

Each weekday morning there's a lull in my routine after the older kids leave for school and the youngest wakes up and needs breakfast, dressing or just to sit on the couch with me for a snuggle and to watch Dora. In this time between the rush of lunch-making and dashing off to daycare, I've been reading Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

Or, I should say, re-reading it.

When I was younger, in my early 20s, I read it probably almost a dozen times or so. After buying a little retail business and becoming mired in that day-to-day, same four walls existence, I found no time to write. For almost a decade I didn't write anything of any substance. In that time, I couldn't even think of reading A Moveable Feast, the story of Hemingway's early years in Paris (1921-1926) when he pursued the noble vocation of writing, recounting those days when he would forgo food and live in near poverty if it meant the time to write a good story, or even one true sentence. Romantic, I know, but I couldn't think of the memoir without thinking that I should have worked harder when I was younger at what I knew deep down I wanted to do. Not necessarily as a career, even, but just something I wanted to accomplish - a novel, a story, one sentence.

So I set the book aside, though I always knew where it was. The copy I have is an old paperback Scribner Classic published by Macmillan Publishing Company. It's unremarkable except for the well-worn creases in the spine, dog-eared pages and the underlining of favorite passages, not just of mine, but of my good friend Jim Phillips. When we were roommates for so many years long ago we would both read the same copy and make notes of particularly noteworthy sentences or paragraphs. Jim is a songwriter in New Mexico now.

"on the train"
Several years ago, my sister Elizabeth was going to Paris for a vacation and I loaned her my copy (I wasn't going to read it) and she made it even more special by taking photographs of areas or landmarks Hemingway mentions, cut them out and placed them in the appropriate pages within the book. So now it's a treat to read:

Now you were accustomed to see the bare trees against the sky and you walked the fresh-washed gravel paths through the Luxembourg gardens in the clear sharp wind.

And tucked in there, between pages 10 and 11 is a little two-inch by three-inch picture of just that scene and with her handwriting on the back, "fresh-washed gravel paths."

Or, on page 179, to find a photo of a street sign marking rue de Tilsitt and reading that this is where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived.

They are little treasures in a book filled with treasures. Hemingway began writing this in Cuba and there are mentions of his working on it, worrying over it as he did, all through A.E. Hotchner's wonderful biography of his later years, Papa Hemingway. He eventually set it aside to write The Dangerous Summer which would become Death in the Afternoon, and Feast wasn't completed until after his death.

It's romantic, I know, this notion of squirreling away in a Paris flat, eating mostly bread and drinking in cafes, lighting a wood stove to keep warm in the mornings while you hammer away at the great American novel. But so what. It's a pleasant thing to read and I'm glad I'm in a place where I can do it without wondering "what if" and having that depression set in when there's something I know I should be doing, but am not. And, anyway, writing should be romantic. So should reading.

I read one chapter each morning and it gets my blood flowing and my brain working and puts my heart into whatever I have to do that day. In the book, Hemingway talks of how he would prepare himself each day to write, this is how I prepare myself.

(I'm nearly finished re-reading A Moveable Feast. What's next? What other books of inspiration are out there?)