If you’re starting to think longingly about killing fourteen or fifteen people with an ax just as an activity to get you out of the house, chances are you’re coming down with cabin fever. It’s one of the nastier side-effects of Wuhan virus, always assuming you don’t actually have the virus, in which case, from what I understand, there isn’t anything much nastier.
There are only two ways to take your mind off your current troubles—the world’s current troubles. One is to read or watch something that makes you laugh; the other is to read or watch something that makes you realize your troubles maybe aren’t as bad as they could be.
I’ll cover the “watching” part some other day. Right now, I want to very briefly review three old books I have only recently read as part of my Wuhan-virus-isolation-forget-the-world prescription. Two have been around for forty or fifty years, the third one was published, and highly praised, about fifteen years ago. One is humorous in the cozy, gentle British manner. The other two will make you feel glad and lucky to be isolated in your home, rationing toilet paper, and watching reruns of the Jerry Springer show. All three of these books should at least take your mind to other realms.
The humorous one is The Last Chronicles of Ballyfungus, by Irish-American novelist, playwright, screen writer, and film critic Mary Manning, not to be confused with any number of contemporary authors, painters, and illustrators with the same name.
I probably shouldn’t even bother to mention this book to you, because the odds of your finding a copy are slim to none and Slim’s left town. It’s one of those gently wacky books that come out of England and Ireland as regularly as rain, peopled with a cast of eccentrics who range from the kind of person you’d love to have a pint or a glass of port with (port refers to the Anglo-Irish eccentrics, obviously) to the kind you’d happily schedule a root canal just to avoid. The plot revolves around the increasingly desperate efforts of some of the more loveable eccentrics to stop the planned raping and pillaging of the local countryside in the name of quick profits by an industrialist incapable of recognizing beauty when it’s under his nose, even when it’s his own daughter. Nothing turns out as expected, for the eccentrics, the industrialist, or the reader; in fact, it wouldn’t be untrue to say the denouement comes as a bit of jolt. Ballyfungus is not up to the level of Sommerville & Ross, P. G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, or Roddy Doyle (The Barrytown Trilogy, of course, not his more serious, but coruscatingly brilliant Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha, a Booker Prize winner,or his incredible and compelling study of a battered woman, The Woman Who Walked into Doors) but it is the kind of book that will take your mind off the Wuhan virus, especially when read with a cup of tea in hand.
The Unforgiven was written by the great Western novelist Alan LeMay who also wrote another classic Western, The Searchers. And right now would be a good time to say, by all means watch The Searchers, starring John Wayne; it’s a great film, one of the greatest Western films of all time, based on a fabulous book. On the other hand, while The Unforgiven is an excellent, harrowing, hair-raising book, the movie is… Well, let’s put it this way: the scuttlebutt from Hollywood insiders is that director John Huston got so fed up with the production company and with their insistence on great stars who were totally inappropriate for their roles (seriously, do you buy Belgian-born, British-raised, Dutch Baroness Audrey Hepburn as a barely educated half-breed?) that he, Huston, turned the directing over to his assistant director and spent all his time in the local Mexican town, Durango, drinking and gambling. I hope he won at the tables, because the movie lost money and is best not seen.
So much for the film. The book, however, is a first-rate page-turner. Mr. LeMay knew his craft, and from the opening pages, where the young heroine is looking out the window of the fortified sod home, “…low and lonely, backed like a badger into the hill…” and sees something, the tension never lets up.
“Just as she turned away from the lookout, something out there changed, and she looked again without knowing what she had seen […] It looked a little like a scorched rock; only it had never been there before. She tried to see it better by looking beside it, instead of straight at it; she looked away and glanced back; she moved her head in circles, as an owl does, when it is trying to give shape to something unknown.”
That perceived but unknown threat is just the beginning of a high-tension Western yarn with a serious riff on racism, specifically as directed against Native Americans, yet no one in the book, Native American or Anglo Saxon, comes away with clean hands.
The third book is The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. No true and honest soldier’s memoir about war, any war, makes for easy reading, but John Crawford is a hell of a writer. His account of his experiences during the invasion of Iraq made me very grateful a broken back kept me out of the Army during the Vietnam era. And his descriptions of the unending filth reminded me of something my friend the German dog breeder and trainer, the late Bodo Winterhelt, once told me about fighting on the Russian front during World War Two. Bodo said it wasn’t the Russian soldiers, or the cold, or not having the right equipment or the right uniforms or the right weapons or even the supplies that might have kept those things functional, it wasn’t any of that that beat them; it was, he said, “the goddamned lice” that undermined morale and will more than anything else.
Crawford manages to capture the macho camaraderie of soldiers in combat, the insane and irresponsible behavior young men engage in under those circumstances, the contempt of proud young lions for the donkeys that lead them, and the unrelenting stress of a life that combines the maximum of boredom with the maximum of danger. More than that, he manages to capture the anguished guilt too many of these young men have to live with later, precisely because they are still alive.
He also captures some of the negatives that frequently get ignored, negatives just as damaging as physical wounds, sometimes more so.
Back in America he writes, “I went to the gas station yesterday to buy some cigarettes. An Arabic man was working behind the counter. He turned when he heard the door chime and gave me a broad smile. I walked out. I never wanted to hate anyone; it just sort of happens that way in a war.”
Talking of his aimlessness after returning, drifting from apartment to apartment, crashing with friends, he dreams, “My wife was on my arm, telling me that no matter what, she loved me. We would have children soon, and the rest of my life would be wonderful…[ ]…In my dream, my wife never told me that things would have been better off if I had just never come home. In reality, I agree with her.”
Fortunately for Mr. Crawford, he, unlike so many of his contemporaries, had a skill set that allowed him an outlet.
“We all did things at one time or another that defied logic. Sometimes you start to feel like someone is just in your head screaming at the top of his lungs so that you can’t think. Whatever stops, or at least muffles it, is worth a try. This book is a direct result of my attempts to stop the screaming.”
Stay safe, stay healthy, wash your hands.