Denis Johnson is dead

May 26th, 2017

When someone close to you ceases to be, there is a numbness that comes on: if they are foundational enough, the fugue time may last years, or hang in like an annex that surprises you some days, for the rest of your time. The love will never be again something that exists between you and that other person. You will forever only talk to them in your head, unanswered.

When it’s someone you didn’t know personally, but whose work or vision became part of who you are, it’s slipperier. But still, the silence of shock. (And like with the loss of someone close you see your own end draw nearer and flutter each few seconds between panic and calm acceptance, neither lasting long enough to form a thought.) But I think that it is incumbent on anyone in my position – a bookstore owner, a reader in the last decades of the 20th century – to try and lay my thoughts down, which only come as I now try to find them.

For that dark decade at the end of the Cold War, when nearly all media was just a one-way flood of lowest common denominator noise, Denis Johnson’s early novels were like communiques on the battlefield of that now lost America. They pulled you in and pulled at you, like the kind of dreams you wake from with your head feeling like freshly plowed earth and with some untraceable confidence gained in that magic chamber. There was ‘Angels’, whose raw beauty seemed to find the hidden truths deep in the distracting mess of the country, to strip its gears naked to watch them go. Years, then ‘Fiskadoro’ – and if you were my age you found that one first, in its Vintage Contemporaries new wave jacket – where he dared to look under the nightmare we all lived in the shadow of, and imagine the Hendrix-worshipping survivors of the nuclear apocalypse, in Key West (renamed Twicetown, for two dud Cuban nukes towering out of the sand). This was long before ‘The Road’ or Atwood’s deep forays into futurism: books then either were well-written and about bric-a-brac, or badly written about the great fear that held us in thrall. ‘The Stars at Noon’ was already out, harder to find, and immediately I was hearing lines from the book I’d just read come out of the stereo speakers in the voice of Kim Gordon (“To the extent that I wore skirts and cheap nylon slips, I’ve gone native. I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell… Does this sound simple? Fuck you! Are you for sale? Does fuck you sound simple enough? This was the only part that turned me on, that he was candy all over… Come on down to the store, you can buy some more, more, more, more…”)

More years, and shocking reportage from the front of the Gulf War, and ‘Resuscitation of a Hanged Man’, which perfectly painted a doomed narrator whose finger seemed to point out of the book and say “you’re next”. Very soon after, Johnson cooked his product down to a slim volume of very short stories that became like samizdat in the recently dissembled Soviet Union, passed hand to hand, read aloud over the radio, the telephone. (“That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”) ‘Jesus’ Son’ became a phenomenon, and a movie, and a kind of pocket dream-life for people who balanced on the high wire edge of drugs and alcoholism, with just enough instinct for self-preservation to avoid jail and the streets. Its success brought out a collection of the free verse he’d written in the years before the first novel, when he’d been a poet.

I had the only copy in a hundred miles of the book that came five years later, ‘Already Dead (A California Gothic)’ when I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference the summer of 1997. Writers put their nose to the ground, have shitty taste in music. The teachers and students who enviously eyed my new Johnson as I sprawled rapt in the heat staring into it were a kind of cognoscenti. The following year I happened to be driving though Austin on the very day he was to read at UT. I called a friend I’d lost track of, who’d been a noble and dear lover, who the person who answered the phone told me was dead. I was in desperate mourning my traveling companion could not alleviate. And Johnson was reading: we went. His ultra-casual style of presentation led him to offer to take requests. I asked for the long poem ‘The Skewbald Horse’ and for the next half hour he read that weird period piece with its sad, existential close, and we poured out into the Texas summer night. (Ten years later, in a bizarre, Johnsonian turn of events, I found out I’d been pranked: my friend hadn’t died at all.) I cannot help reflect that Johnson was then the age that I am now.

And then, there was a falling-off. A dull novel about academia, and then the thickest of his works, a sprawling mess of a Vietnam War prequel to the first novel that won the National Book Award for no other reason than it was high time. But meantime there were plays, that took place in motel rooms at the possible literal end of the world, boiling his trademark rants and word salad into the finest, hair-raising concentrate. And almost as soon as he seemed washed-up, three great short books of the kind that made his reputation: ‘Nobody Move’, ‘Train Dreams’ and ‘The Laughing Monsters’.

Johnson wrote about hard-luck cases with a Catholic’s belief in redemptive suffering. Not a big interview-giver, living in Idaho, the writer was always something of a mystery. He wasn’t, as was rumored, Catholic – or maybe he was! – after finding his books in a gay bookstore in the early 90s I mistakenly believed for years that he was gay. The time he put in, hospitalized for alcoholism time and again through what sounds like a very rambunctious early adulthood, dabbling in heroin and the ‘hard drugs’ laid the carpet for the liver cancer that killed him. Drugs, drink, and writing, music and dance and the plastic arts, are how the most world-wounded get by. There is some wide scale pan on which that early hardcore boozing sits with his sobriety and his books to form some unaccounted equation. The scroll is put away and we file behind him to move out of the world, shining the while as best we can. Such terrific books.

Tlaloc the Tease

May 19th, 2017

It’s been a week of weird, hot and dusty nights in the city like I’ve not seen in ten years mostly spent here, storms crossing the valley with horizontal lightning leaving only a scatter of drops as if Tlaloc the rain god were some great control domme priming the pump for eventual release that will bring people from the houses in rejoicing. Prognosticators of doom say it could be June before we are given relief, by which time dry it would be record-breakingly hot. We wait under his command and will see.

But June will bring at least something if not rain, and that’s the first (and only?) iteration of the Whatchamacallit Literary Festival, on Wednesday and Thursday June 7-8.

Andrew Paxman, historian, presents his new book ‘Jenkins of Mexico: How a Southern Farm Boy Became a Mexican Magnate’ published by Oxford University Press, on June 7 at 7 PM. Oxford doesn’t mess around. This is the real shit.

The following evening brings two local anglophone poets to our premises: Robin Myers presents her new book of poems in both English and Spanish en face, ‘Amalgama/Conflations’ published by Ediciónes Antìlope, and Dylan Brennan (who we’ve been pleased to host before) with a new poem ‘Guadalupe’ and a selection from his book of two years ago ‘Blood Oranges’, which is so highly regarded “there are no un-owned copies”. Sad face emoticon, bespectacled librarian-type checking his phone emoticon. The poets will read at 7 PM, and there will be an independent evening of punk vinyl in the Legiòn Americàna bar for which all attendees are invited to stay. No cover for either night.

Please respond to our Facebook invite here: okay, clearly Grandpa can’t figure out how to add that feature, use your thumbs – and thus grease the gears of that weird machine the internet toward the perpetuation of book culture. Which seems to be doing just fine, by the way.

There are some 600 new books in the store as of last week, with another big delivery to come this summer. The shipments will come more often in smaller quantities, as your proprietor now spends most of his time in Tijuana, where the air is clean, on the edge of the great cheap used book paradise that is the California Republic.

TrumpLand got just a little bit darker tonight with the Detroit hotel suicide of Chris Cornell, the singer of Soundgarden. I bought my last album of theirs in 1989, but you can’t argue with the majesty of ‘Black Hole Sun’. We have many mutual friends and my condolences to them. As someone who has walked the territory, I would only say to all those despairing in that black valley before the final act don’t let the civilized, anxious, self-hating human kill the noble, healthy animal that is you. The animal wants to live. Let it. Peace to his soul.

Take care of yourselves and each other out there, these times are strange. And I know, it’s been forever. I’m BUSY.

1. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

2. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

3. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño

4. First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, Capital of the 21st Century, by David Lida

5. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

6. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

7. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

8. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

9. Collected Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges

10. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

The Hot 50

March 16th, 2016

Get 70 pesos cash or 100 pesos credit for these titles.

1. Selected Poems, by Malcolm Lowry
2. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
3. Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
4. The Neapolitan Tetralogy, by Elena Ferrante
5. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño
7. The Mexico City Reader
8. The Colour Out of Space, by H.P. Lovecraft
9. First Stop in the New World, by David Lida
10. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
11. Stoner, by John Williams
12. NW, by Zadie Smith
13. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
14. The Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz
15. Collected Stories, by Claire Lispector
16. The Changing Light at Sandover, by James Merrill
15. Collected Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges
16. A Frolic of His Own, by William Gaddis
17. Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexevich
18. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
19. White Noise, by Don deLillo
20. The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace
21. The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
22. Selected Poems, by Ezra Pound
23. The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
24. Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
25. The Romantic Dogs, by Roberto Bolaño
26. Tears of the True Policeman, by Roberto Bolaño
27. Mexico City Blues, by Jack Kerouac
28. Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin
29. Carpenter’s Gothic, by William Gaddis
30. Submission, by Michel Houellebecq
31. The White Album, by Joan Didion
32. Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot
33. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
34. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
35. Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson
36. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
37. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
38. El Narco, by Ioan Grillo
39. Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever, by Wallace Shawn
40. A Void, by Georges Perec
41. Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio
42. The Butterfly Stories, by William T. Vollmann
43. War Music, by Christopher Logue
44. Platform, by Michel Houellebecq
45. Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi
46. El Monstruo, by John Ross
47. My Struggle (1-5), by Karl Ove Knausgaard
48. Midnight in Mexico, by Alfredo Corchado
49. Girl With Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace
50. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

Top 10 Most Wanted

September 21st, 2015

We still have the biggest selection of titles in English you’ll find between Oaxaca and San Antonio, but we’re always looking to backstock our biggest sellers. We offer the most generous terms in cash and book credit you will find ANYWHERE – and we gratefully accept donations.

#1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Has there been a more solid twofer than this Nigerian-American’s debut ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ and ‘Americanah’. No. That’s why we don’t have them in-store right now, and they are badly missed.

#2. Jack Kerouac: Visitors coming through town make a beeline for his geographically apt volume of poems ‘Mexico City Blues’ and, because a young man’s gotta dream (and get mired in cliche), ‘On the Road’.

#3. Sylvia Plath: Her novel ‘The Bell Jar’ and stunning thin volume of poetry ‘Ariel’ disappear almost as soon as we get them in. Keep ‘em coming.

#4. Roberto Bolan(y)o: His executors are still publishing found files, obscure stories and novels that make an art of being unfinished. We want them all.

#5. Elena Ferrante: Her autobiographical trilogy of novels has just been completed in English translation. We only have the first.

#6. Edward St. Aubyn: Same kind of thing. People are crazy for these books and loath to part with them. Maybe they should talk to Mr. Benito Juarez?

#7. Jonathan Franzen: Nobody seems as flat-out ecstatic about ‘Purity’ as the previous two books, but we’re still eagerly awaiting this one’s arrival.

#8. Philip Larkin: If you want to fall in love with a poet, Google this man’s name and ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ – or if you’re in a vulgar mind, ‘This Be the Verse’. His substantial recent resurgence has yet to land his Selected or Collected in our hands.

#9. William T. Vollmann: We are slowly accruing this most prolific of living American authors’ oeuvre, but still lack the five published volumes of the ‘Seven Dreams’ series, his National Book Award-winning ‘Europe Central’ and his raw punk semi-fiction opus ‘Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs’.

#10. Geoffrey Hill: This English poet, little-known beyond academia, deserves a bigger audience for his deep-rooted strangeness, guttural, Saxon lines, and long-range historical vision. You see it, grab it: I’ll buy it.

Get your Face in a book

August 4th, 2015

So… We’ve made the plunge. Your proprietor is no longer on Facebook. The store page is still active, under other and extremely loose management, as a signpost to tell people who look there where we are. I’ll just say that’s a damn enchanting app Mr. Zuckerberg semi-not really invented, and while not as deadly to the organism as the titular tech of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ certainly something like what he had in mind. It’s incredibly useful and endlessly entertaining, and was working to the detriment of my reality. So farewell.

We spent all of June and half of July on the biggest book run since our inauguration, from New Orleans clear to California. We will no longer be sourcing in Texas and driving the long miles in between (thank heaven) but instead in Southern California and the Bay Area and shipping our stock home from Tijuana. I’m from L.A. And I find Tijuana endlessly fascinating, so I’m personally glad for the change, and you’ll find if you come by the store you’ll be happy with it too. Our collection has never been this diverse and of such high quality. And there are another 600 titles coming in September. Our overstock of top sellers is deep, and while a few writers are difficult to keep in the quantities our customers demand (Kerouac, Nabokov, Murakami are the three that come quickest to mind) we’ve a got a pretty full selection of even those writers right now, and hundreds more. We are still offering the best prices and the most generous trade credit for the books you bring in that you will find just about anywhere on the continent. The excellent bar and restaurant downstairs is open from 2:00 daily except Sundays and Mondays. What else can I say? Abandon Facebook and read!

Boxes are opening

July 14th, 2015

Back from the States and it’s crowded in here – boxes blocking the way, the soon-to-be-retired (disintegrating) rug folded back to roll up as bookcases fill and empty and refill in our general expansion and reorganization. Not quite the expansion you might have heard about: the store recently entered into a partnership that will eventually put us in a new location with many more volumes, but as it turns out that change won’t come as soon as expected. We will remain in the upstairs of the American Legion until further notice.

Still we are acquiring titles at an unprecedented rate, and with a fine-tuned attention to our customers’ wishes honed as never before. Our buying has picked up and moved wholesale to Southern California, and the resulting abundance of shopping choices has already borne fruit. Come see us and get the new stuff fresh outta the boxes!

Planned Inobsolecence

March 28th, 2015

Just thinking on my way to the store today – we’re closing tomorrow for Semana Santa, so hurry over for those beach books – about the inobsolescence of the book, and of literature itself, contrary to popular opinion. Sales of e-books peaked two years ago, and I can’t tell you how many owners of the device have expressed their final frustration with and abandonment of it – except for when traveling. (Another broadly held misconception, that our clientele are largely travelers and expats. But I’ll address that another time.)

You hear it all over, from cultural alarmists in schools and bars to our reigning titans Roth and Franzen: the novel is dying, or at least becoming the interest of a tiny cult, like we are headed back into a lost Middle Age. The very electronic culture we are so suddenly deep in was given its metaphors, it’s very language, by novels – specifically those of William Gibson and Philip K. Dick – and its favorite nightmares are those glossed two generations ago by Richard Matheson. How much more incomprehensible 9/11 would have been had we not been let in on the new world it made by Don DeLillo. Heaven forbid the same might be said for Cormsc McCarthy’s recent work.

Literature isn’t a weather forecast, but a constant and roiling two-way mirror. There still isn’t a better guide to choosing a life partner than George (Mary Ann Evans) Eliot’s Middlemarch. And though poetry in English lost its way fifty years ago, Whitman is still calling Americans to their better natures and shouting the broken dream at the heart of that experiment. Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens are still the strongest hallucinogens available on non-absorbent paper. And there are living poets – Dylan Brennan’s is the only volume we have in stock right now, but that’s soon to change – who are writing after hiphop and taking that genre’s sound sense and zero patience for whiners to remake and revitalize the discipline.

We are working on the small scale here, hand-to-hand, cash-only, and analog. But that doesn’t mean the Long Tail isn’t at play. The crack of a bullwhip begins with a hiccup in the wrist. From small things, baby, big things one day come.

We close for Semana Santa. If you can’t make it here today, we’ll see you on the 6th.

I was too angry to write this yesterday.

Three weeks ago, novelist Ryan Boudinot (author of the 2011 novel ‘Blueprints of the Afterlife’, a dazzling book the National Book Award jury surely hadn’t heard of the year they took the unprecedented step of bestowing the prize on …nobody) published in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, an article titled ‘Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now I No Longer Teach in One’:

http://www.thestranger.com/books/features/2015/02/27/21792750/things-i-can-say-about-mfa-writing-programs-now-that-i-no-longer-teach-in-one

The piece expressed, within a spirit of sympathy and friendship for his former (anonymous) students, some raw truths that are too little heard: desire and hard work aren’t enough to be a writer – a fair amount of natural talent is required too; no one who isn’t a devoted reader who enjoys being challenged and stretched has any business writing; a tragic tale poorly told shouldn’t find a publisher; and, in the MFA industry, these eternal truths must be put extremely gently if at all by any teacher wanting to keep their job.

The wounded, angry and hysterical comments in the blogosphere and on Twitter were instantaneous. Another Stranger feature followed immediately by a student from Boudinot’s workshop, taking reasonable – if unreasoned – offense with the piece. Soon enough, the board members of a civic effort spearheaded by Boudinot to make Seattle a UNESCO ‘City of Literature’ demanded he retract and apologize for the article. Boudinot refused on principle, whereupon the entire board, in classic Seattle politico chickenshit fashion, resigned.

This all made me so angry because it hit home deeply, for a couple reasons. The barely relevant one is that I spent fifteen years in that city’s civic affairs, and I know too well how terrified of criticism and original thinking the members of its political/nonprofit class are. The uncompromising stands that must be taken in politics translate poorly to the give and take of arguments about art. But I had cringed a little when I initially saw that Boudinot was taking his crusade to City Hall. I felt simultaneously like, that’s nice, and, keep me a million miles away.

The more relevant cause is that the intellectual cowardice that has sprung Boudinot’s crusade out back to where it belongs, away from the phony patronage of power, and multiplied on the interwebs like a fungus of boohoohoo, is epidemic. The reasons for the dumbing down of the larger culture are multiple, but working together. The Right impoverished education financially in the interests of corporate domination, and the Left impoverished it intellectually in the interest of equality. Both put us where we are now, with democracy nonexistent as the great mass of citizens can be convinced of almost anything, and the direst challenge facing humanity (global climate change) believed to be fiction by one-third of Americans, and not as the result of human action by another third.

Our present situation is a Huxleyan/Orwellian mix – Campechano, we would say in Mexico – entertainment is king, and reigns because the very language itself in its strongest strain has been exiled from the mainstream. Writing as it is known to most people has become a form of therapy. The automatic setting for the tone of a writing workshop outside the academy has long been one of sensitivity rather than rigor, that the pain which participants bring to their work is the thing being criticized, not the technique. Now it seems this approach is that of the standard MFA program – and how could it not be, with such programs numerous as they are? How much writing makes it into a book? How many books ever published are even worth reading?

Below our space is a bar in which a poetry group meets – mostly, people writing in or who at least speak and read English – drawing a dozen or two dozen people, once a month, evenings. I used to stay open for the event, waiting for them to finish, and come up to dive deeper in, to hook up in the constant orgy which is the writing life, which is primarily composed of reading. One participant, a high school drama teacher, climbed the stairs to the store. Again and again the others, having expressed their feelings and heard those of living, unpublished and unknown writers, packed their things at the end and left. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is where the culture is now.

Given the level of discourse that passes for debate on the Internet, it’s not surprising that one commenter accused Boudinot of “wishing more suffering on” one student of his who the writer assumed was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. For clarity, let me quote this subtitled section (nearly) in full:

No One Cares About Your Problems If You’re A Shitty Writer 

I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry… For the most part, students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.”

Pretty rough, right? Though this is perhaps more than a joke: the profoundest suffering cloaks itself in silence, is unspeakable. There is a reason a memoirist like Cheryl Strayed can artfully narrate a difficult year two decades on, during which she went off the rails a little before coming back. The worst experiences derange their witnesses past easy autobiography. As the White Stripes sang, ¨Truth doesn´t make a noise.¨

There’s a story I always tell my students on the rare occasion that I am invited to teach a workshop. (It has happened, and I’ve been paid, though with just a bad unpublished novel, a bad filmed screenplay and a decent but semi-self-published volume of poems to my name, I feel like something of an impostor when I do it.) I will change the names of the people in this story out of respect for their privacy, though I very badly want to find my old friend I have not seen in nearly thirty years.

I heard this story, first-hand, when I was studying at Cal State Northridge, in the 1980s. My friend was at once a companionable and somewhat mysterious figure in the dorms there where I lived after my father died. (A large commuter school, CSUN’s dorms were small, and attracted an odd and entertaining crowd of Japanese exchange students, deaf kids – it was a deaf magnet school – and older students going to college late wanting the classical college experience at an institution which then mostly catered to suburbanites’ professional studies.)

Jacob Stein was thirty-three, a grad student in linguistics, unmistakably distinguished by horrible, disfiguring facial burns; one  hand was a three-clawed, red thing. More than once someone in the dorms had unkindly referred to him as Freddy Kreuger, and though this met with humorless approbation because we loved and respected him, the comparison was no exaggeration. Jacob was sober, in a social atmosphere that modeled itself on the movie ‘Animal House’, and chain-smoked Camels and drank Classic Coke, the retrenchment branding after the failed New Coke. He had been a glam rocker in the wave of L.A. bands that followed Bowie, and between study sessions, certainly staving off a backslide into his worse habits, he stalked the dorm halls, Coke and cigs in hand, looking for company.

He was, I will tell you, legendary: the tragedy which lay on his skin, his epic style of storytelling, segueing into free association, lost lyrics of pre-punk bands, a kind of universal radio. But also, beneath this, a kind and intelligent soul, and a good friend. People secretly taped him, and the tape was copied and passed around, and gave a tiny culture a hoard of private catchphrases, quoted hilariously but respectfully, in a kind of friendly, historical awe. A buddy in my writing workshop wrote a story he presented to the class in which Jacob was the principal character. I don’t know where he is now.

Jacob’s parents met, at sixteen and fifteen, the last survivors of their respective families, in the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Think about that. Would that not be enough of a story?

When the camp was liberated they stayed together, each other’s only world, and were married, and emigrated to America. Jacob’s father’s name was Howard. I met him only one time, in the parking lot of a Sam’s Club, somewhere in the Valley, where Jacob had asked me to drop him off. His father had the blue tattoo of numbers, on his forearm, and though I now calculate he must have been less than sixty, he looked thin, bent and old. I don’t remember, or didn’t know, Jacob’s mother’s name. Howard and his wife emigrated to America, and settled in Los Angeles: Van Nuys to be precise, where my Dustbowl grandparents came over the hill after the war to buy a house on a green lot with a swimming pool. I imagine their situation was much the same, with darker roots.

Jacob and his twin Albert were born, and when they were seven years old, the family took an outing by boat on some Southern California lake. The boat’s gas tank, for some reason, exploded, and both twins fell into the burning gasoline. Jacob lost two fingers and was severely burned over much of his body including his face, and spent six months in the hospital and endured a lifetime of skin grafts. His brother was just as badly injured.

Nevertheless both boys, recovering, had a kind of classic mid-century American suburban childhood: Albert was high school valedictorian, Jacob captain of the football team. Albert was the youngest graduate in the history of the UCLA Medical School, and on leaving school was immediately offered a position as a surgeon at a prestige Los Angeles hospital (I believe it was Mt. Sinai) paying one hundred thousand dollars a year. On the strength of the offer he borrowed the money to buy a house, and packed and moved in. In the living room of his new house, surrounded by boxes, he received a call telling him the job offer had been withdrawn, and he hanged himself. Jacob, his twin, broke down and was committed to a mental institution, from which he had only emerged when I met him.

I tell my occasional students that when you write, you are writing to Jacob’s father, Howard Stein. You cannot impress him with your traumatic childhood, your sense of exile and woundedness. The ostracization you have suffered in this society, your difficult childhood, gives you no authority with him. Those who have pilloried Ryan Boudinot, who have said he is abusing the (very real) privilege of white maleness in this context, that he has been insensitive – these people don’t understand what literature is, nor its purpose. They certainly have no business trying to make art.

1. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

2. Middlemarch by George Eliot

3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

4. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

6. Infinite Jest and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

7. Final Harvest by Emily Dickinson

8 Aunt Dan and Lemon by Wallace Shawn

9. The White Album by Joan Didion

10. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

11. The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens

12. Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson

13. The Keep by Jennifer Egan

14. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

15. IQ84 and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

16. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

17. Murcian Hymns by Geoffrey Hill

18. Post Office by Charles Bukowski

19. Ariel: Poems by Sylvia Plath

20. Angels in America by Tony Kushner

21. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

22. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

23. The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

24. Dispatches by Michael Herr

25. Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

26. Selected Poems and Collected Poems by W.H. Auden

27. Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

28. Europe Central and The Rainbow Stories by William T. Vollmann

29. The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

30. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles