I love books that show up out of nowhere and strike you across the face with their brilliance.
There are two books in my life that I have serendipitously plucked from a bookstore shelf, taken home – where they absolute blew my mind and which I have consequently re-read every year and will continue to forever and forever, amen.
The first book was found just as I was about to leave for college – The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis. (That’s my much loved copy pictured above) I had never heard of it, but the cover design and title intrigued me and I felt pulled to it. It ended up totally and completely rocking my little socks right off. I had never read a writer with such a natural, casual voice and Ellis’ use of the multi-narrator format in the book opened my eyes to non-traditional narration. He doesn’t use it in a heavy-handed Crash kind of way, but allows the readers to piece together a truth for themselves from the varying snatches of reality from each of his characters. It also allows for a richer narrative, letting the reader into the thoughts of several of the characters, instead of just one.
A few years ago, there was a bit of a ruckus amongst Twilight fans when Stephenie Meyer’s half-finished manuscript for her novel, Midnight Sun, leaked online. She retaliated by announcing that she was abandoning the novel, to much disappointment from fans. Midnight Sun is Twilight told from Edward’s point of view, and from what’s available on-line, it’s really enlightening. Like everyone else, you may have asked “Why is Edward such an over-controlling asshole?” – being privy his thoughts, emotions and motivations in Midnight Sun make him seem more like a man in desperate love than a mind reading psycho. The publication of Midnight Sun would have changed people’s feelings on the whole series. In any case, I think it’s a majorly cool idea to write a novel in a series from a different characters point of views.
I have probably read The Rules of Attraction more times than any other book (with Valley of the Dolls coming in close second). It blooms and gets richer with every reading – references within the different narratives begin to overlap. All of Bret Easton Ellis’ books take place in a demented universe of his own creation; most of his characters criss-cross wonderfully, often popping up in one, if not all, of his novels. For example, Sean Bateman – one of the three main narrators in The Rules of Attraction – is younger brother to Patrick Bateman, aka American Psycho. They each cameo in the other’s books as background players. Ellis has built such a big world for himself to play in, its fun to see where he’ll go next.
Also, I love Ellis’ books because his characters are appalling awful – cold, vain, heartless bisexual nymphomaniac drug addled blood sucking vampires (sometimes literally). His characters are the complete opposite of me and I am fascinated by their twisted world. Ellis probably based most – if not all – of his characters off of people he knew in real life, including himself, god bless him. Go on wit yer bad self, Bret Easton Ellis.
The second book that I found – the one alluded to in the title of this post – only a month ago. I was intrigued by the title and cover, but the killer copy on the back cinched it for me:
“You hold in your hands a true lost classic, one of the most legendary cult books ever published in America. Jack Black’s autobiography was a bestseller and went through five printings in the late 1920’s. It has led a mostly subterranean existence since then – best known as William S. Burrough’s favorite book, one he admitted lifting big chunks of from memory for his first novel, Junky. But its time we got wise to this book, which is itself a remarkably wise book – and a ripping true saga. It’s an amazing journey into a hobo underworld; freight hopping around the still wide open West at the turn of the century, becoming a member of the “yegg” Brotherhood and a highwayman, learning the outlaw philosophy from Foot-and-a-half-George and The Sanctimonous Kid, getting hooked on opium, passing through hobo jungles, hop joints and penitentiaries. This is a chunk of the American story entirely left out of the history books – it’s a lot richer and stranger than the official version.”
William S. Burrough’s favorite book? Hop joints? The Sanctimonious Kid?! Sign me up! (Well done, copy writer at AK Press!)*
You Can’t Win is an autobiography by Jack Black (not that Jack Black) published in 1926. Jack dropped out of society at 14 in the late 19th century and grew up learning underhand skills like home burglary, safe cracking, opium smoking and rail riding from folks with names like Smiler, Soapy Smith and Salt Chunk Mary. “Blacky”, as he was called when he was on the road, was one of the “Johnson Family” and was a staunch member of the Yegg Brotherhood of Criminals.**
You Can’t Win follows Blacks journey in and out of jails (escaped from in both the USA & Canada), successful and failed burglaries, his decade long crippling addiction to opium and finally his friendships with fellow hoboes in jails and bum conventions throughout North America. That in itself would be an incredible book, but the craziest part (and this is no spoiler, he begins the book with this information) is that unlike most of the people we meet with Jack in this book, he was able to reform, become an upright citizen and end up as a writer and librarian.
Instead of spending his life wasting away as a hop head or getting blown away in a botched robbery attempt like most people he knew, Black realized that he could do society a service by putting his years of wrong doing to use by writing a book which laid out, in plain language, what was going through the heads and hearts of societies dropouts, and to remind people that in the end, even the lowliest criminal need love too.
Black writes in an efficient and conversational manner, and doesn’t sugar coat. He never tries to come off as the “hero” and tells his story with fondness and heart. Black gives a speech at the end of this book that may be one of the best end-of-book-speeches ever.
I loved this book so much that I knew as soon as I finished reading it (and re-read that fantastic speech a second time) that I must tell the world of my new-found favorite book. Please let me know if you read either or both of these and what you think of them. Also, I would also love to know about what books have rocked your world.
I’m always looking for a good book.
*The company that published You Can’t Win, AK Press, aka Nabat Books, is amazing and where I am going to be spending all of my birthday money. They’re so cool that prisoners can get any of their books sent to them for $10 and this is their bitchin’ manifesto:
“Nabat books is a series dedicated to reprinting forgotten memoirs by various misfits, outsiders and rebels. Nabat books are based on a few simple propositions:
That to be a success under current definition is highly toxic – wealth, fame and power are a poison cocktail; that era of triumphant capitalism that enshrines the most dreary human pathologies like greed and self-interest as good and natural; that the “winners” version of reality and history is deeply lame and soul-rotting stuff.
Given this it follows that the truly interesting and meaningful lives and real adventures are only to be had on the margins of what Kenneth Rexroth called “the social lie”. Its with the dropouts, misfits, dissidents, renegades and revolutionaries, against the grain, between the cracks and amonst the enemies if the state that the good stuff can be found.
Fortunately there is a mighty underground river of testimony from the disaffected, a large cache of hidden history, of public secrets overlooked by the oppressive conventional wisdom that Nabat books aims to tap into. A little something to set against the crushed hopes, mountains of corpses, and commodification of everything. Actually, we think this is the best thing western civilization has going for itself.”
** The Yegg Brotherhood is the idea that criminals aren’t lowly, brainless animals but men with character. Black says “The thief who goes out and steals money to pay back room rent rather than swindle his poor landlady has character. The one who runs away without paying her has no character…In the underworld one has good or bad character as in any other layer of society. The thief who pays off borrowed money, debts, or grudges has a good character among his fellows; and the thief who does the reverse has a bad character.” Fascinating stuff, honor amonst thieves…