Thursday, June 27, 2013

Following Richard Brautigan and Corey Mesler

This is a work of fiction.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead or in-between is coincidence. Even those folks you think are real are as phony as music mingling within a dream.
-- Copyright page of the novel FOLLOWING RICHARD BRAUTIGAN

My confession is that I had no idea who Richard Brautigan was. Indeed, even as I read the novel FOLLOWING RICHARD BRAUTIGAN by Corey Mesler (2010; Livingston Press, The University of
West Alabama), I had no idea if his character was an actual person or a fabrication of Mesler's rich mind. Neither did I search to find out the truth (or untruth) as I read, but relished, instead, the image presented on the page. It wasn't until just now, when I looked him up on Goodreads and Wikipedia, do I see that Richard Brautigan was an actual living, breathing and writing man. Who knew?

Corey Mesler knew and has incorporated fact with fiction into a novel that carries the reader from Oklahoma City to San Francisco and back again. It's a road book and I love a road book. Mesler breaks up his story into tiny little chapters as though we're driving down the highway and stopping every once in a while to look over the edge of a cliff into the bluest ocean or to snap a picture of a reddish butte at sunset or to eat some mushrooms. Mesler tale is constructed in a way some of us may not be able to get away with and each tiny little chapter has its own heading. It seems appropriate, though, as the protagonist, Jack Morton, is a romantic and adventurer, and everything a romantic and adventurer does will (and should) inevitably have its own heading.

Would-be writer Jack Morton travels to San Francisco in an attempt to find his hero, Richard Brautigan, not knowing for sure if the man is dead or alive (he's dead, both Mesler and Wikipedia say). He doesn't locate his traveler, of course, yet does find a young woman, another treasure of a sort. His heart is broken, as is also endemic of romantics and adventurers, though it is mended by a visit from the ghost of Richard Brautigan who leads his protegé on another cross-country trip. This trek is full of strange places and even stranger people and Jack Morton becomes close to the beat icon while remaining physically distant, separated by mortality and one car length.

In the end, Jack Morton seems to find what he needs. He takes something from the counsel of Richard Brautigan and from the journey itself that helps him to repair his heart and find what it is within himself to go on writing.

Mesler's relationship with the pop culture of the 1960s and '70s is an intimiate one, yet the bits and pieces of music, fashion, film, literature and politics don't come across as mere props. He has a talent for putting it all in a context that makes it seem as natural as a well-researched prop in a movie or television show. It adds to the story rather than overshadowing it. It's a magic trick and Mesler is an adept magician.

(I don't know what Mesler's process is for writing, but I imagine him in a darkened room with three separate desks. On each desk sits a psychedelic-colored typewriter and in each typewriter is a sheet of yellow paper and on those sheets of yellow paper is a poem, short story or novel in progress. In my imagining, he types at one until an egg timer in his mind dings and he moves to the next. For twelve hours a day he does this and, once finished, he watches a movie with his daughter. It's a Fellini movie. As each poem, short story or novel is finished, of course, it is published. At the end of Corey Mesler's typewritten journey is our own treasure, dear reader. Now go and find it.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kids in cars getting coffee

Alec Baldwin & Jerry Seinfeld get coffee

Years ago, on our way to daycare, I spontaneously decided to give my daughter, G, the day off. We went, instead, to Café Eclectic where we spent the morning sipping coffee and chugging chocolate milk while picking at various flavors of doughnuts. I sat on a sofa and G walked around, talked and sat on the floor. It's a morning she talks about to this day and it's a memory we both cherish.

For that one lovely time, there have been another dozen that I've taken these four misanthropes to a coffee shop and it's ended in arguments, pouting, spilled beverages, uneaten food and complaints. And those times are the basis for today's Because I Said So column.

Of course there have been good times, but what's so funny about that? It's tragedy-plus-time that makes comedy. Granted, there hasn't been all that much time since our last coffee shop visit, but I needed a column and this was it.

I'm a big fan of the "Seinfeld" series, still watching episodes to this day when I come across a rerun. Likewise, I could watch "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" again and again. "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" is Jerry Seinfeld's latest venture and the title explains it all. It's just begun its second season and is mostly found only on the internet (it's also on a channel called Crackle which I found on my Roku.)

While watching the first episode of the new season with guest Sarah Silverman the other night, it struck me how very different the show would be if, instead of a famous comedian, Jerry Seinfeld had four kids in car seats with him. It would either be hilarious or very, very uncomfortable.

I've experienced both and today's column is a little slice of that.

Children stir jolt of reality into midlife café dreams 
I’m a fan of the show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” It boasts an elegant look and simple premise: Jerry Seinfeld and another comedian drive around in a nice car and then go for coffee. They talk, they share, they laugh; simple and funny. 
What’s not so simple and funny? Kids in cars getting coffee. Though it sounds entertaining, children all hopped up on espressos and cappuccinos is more irritating than amusing. They run in circles, talk incessantly and eventually drop to the floor and quiver. People turn from their laptops to stare disapprovingly at such behavior. 
The problem is that I love coffee shops. I love the café culture of sitting idly, reading and sipping a drink I didn’t make. I’ve spent loads of time at Otherlands, Bluff City Coffee, Poplar Perk’n, Republic Coffee and Café Eclectic. I have penned this very column over their brews. 
And, to their credit, they’re all extremely kid- and family-friendly. So maybe it’s I who am not. I’ve found over the years that when you add a 2-, 3- or 6-year-old to the mix, what you get is a powerful concoction of caffeine, frothy milk and sugar spilled all over your book and the floor. 
It’s not just sitting at a café table, either. The short ride there has become a time of disagreements and petty arguments. Being strapped in with seatbelts is not enough to keep them from picking at each other. 
I’ve never seen Jerry Seinfeld with coffee on his pants. I’ve never seen him with any kids at all, come to think of it. He has three children of his own, but as the second season of his Web-only show begins, we’ve yet to see them. Neither does he drive a minivan with a busted side door and 100,000 miles on it, opting, instead, to chauffeur friends like Larry David and Alec Baldwin around in a 1970 Mercedes-Benz SL or a 1969 Jaguar E Type Series 2. You can’t even fit a car seat in those, which may be the point now that I think about it. 
My life is not sitcom fodder; it’s real. In this reality I find myself attempting, more and more, to sneak out of the house alone. What does it say about me that my midlife crisis manifests itself in wanting a peaceful hour in a local coffee shop? There are no
dreams of a motorcycle or skydiving. My heart didn’t even leap at the sight of that sleek silver Jaguar rolling through Manhattan. What did Jerry Seinfeld long for during his crisis? He wanted to go get coffee with a friend. Maybe we’re not so different. 
Don’t get me wrong: My kids have spent their fair share of time at Café Eclectic and Otherlands, but such outings aren’t as funny to me as they once were. We’ve turned a corner in my kids’ entertainment value, and there was an inviting coffee shop on that corner. They have reached the age of awareness, and they are aware now of white chocolate syrup, packets of raw sugar and doughnuts available all day. 
You blend in that amount of sugar and caffeine with the normal, everyday insubordination and chatter I contend with, and not even Jerry Seinfeld could find the punch line.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Path of Minor Planets

THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS (Picador, 2001) by Andrew Sean Greer is a book about time. It's the story of how people might go away and then come back, how they change or how very little they change over that time.

The book opens in 1965 on the small island of Bukit in the South China Sea where a group of astronomers has gathered to witness the return of Comet Swift and the meteor shower it promises to bring with it. There are Eli and Kathy Spivak, Denise Lanham, Dr. Manday, Professor Jorgeson, Dr. Martin Swift, the discoverer of the comet twelve years earlier, and his 5-year-old daughter, Lydia. The occasion for this gathering is near perihelion, that moment when an object comes closest to the Sun. The mood is light, the tropical air is hot and bodies, the Earthly sort, move closer to each other in their own, needy perihelion. When the meteors become visible, the scientists take up their posts with excited shouts of "Time!" echoing from the observation deck of the sultan's castle high above the beach as they attempt a precise record of the shower. But when things change, when a small boy falls from the deck to his death far below, there is no record and everyone's lives, like the comet as it comes in contact with a larger celestial object, causing it to waver and wobble, will find their own orbits altered.

The second part of the book takes place in 1971, and a party at Swift's farmhouse to celebrate Comet Swift's near aphelion, the point at which an object is furthest from the Sun. It's a time of uncertainty, the comet possibly lost in space forever, a fact which won't be known for some time. The characters, six years older now, have changed and there is an air of uncertainty in many of their lives as well. They've grown, they've parted ways or had affairs or fallen in love. There is some talk of the boy who died on Bukit, but even exactly what happened that night is uncertain.

The story goes on this way, leapfrogging through the years, six years at a time, as the comet approaches and then recedes from Earth. It's a wonderful way to frame a story and Greer is adept at weaving his language from the scientific to the poetic. The relationships of the characters with each other come and go like the comet, and they are at just as much risk of exploding or fading away. There is loss and death and near misses. In the span of time, from 1965 to 1990, there are children born, friendships ended and rekindled, secrets found out and others kept for eternity.

I read THE PATH OF MINOR PLANETS while on vacation at the beach with an expanse of blue sky as a backdrop during the day and an untold number of stars against the black night. I absolutely love this book. Greer's storytelling is powerful enough to make us look to the sky and wonder at what might be there and to look within ourselves to see what it is we're made of.

(Andrew Sean Greer's new novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF GRETA WELLS, comes out June 25, 2013. I'm a big fan and have enjoyed previous novels THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI and THE STORY OF A MARRIAGE. If you haven't read him, treat yourself today.)