Friday, November 26, 2010

One. Last. Book.

With nothing but thanks to my good friend and Pulitzer Project brother-in-arms, Joshua Riley, I am now one last book away from having a complete Pulitzer collection. Of course, so is my good friend and Pulitzer Project brother-in-arms, Joshua Riley. Just like I did with Honey In the Horn, Joshua used the Internet to find a first edition of Upton Sinclair's Dragon's Teeth in Mishawaka, Indiana. By some bizarre twist of fate, they also had a second copy of it, plus Ernest Poole's His Family!

In the meantime, I walked down the used bookstore a few blocks from my apartment, Howard's Books, and found an elegantly-bound edition of Margaret Ayer Barnes' Years of Grace. Then, I drove myself down to Printer's Row in the South Loop of Chicago and found a second copy of Years of Grace!

That's when a deal was struck: Joshua would buy Dragon's Teeth and His Family for me if I bought Years of Grace for him. So guess what happened next...

One. Last. Book.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Two Down, Four to Go

I have finally found one of the white whales of this Pulitzer journey—Harold Davis' 1935 Pulitzer-winning novel, Honey In the Horn. It was quite the adventure to find it, but I found it. Thanks to this modern marvel known as the Internet, I was able to do a search of booksellers all around the world to find this novel; I really didn't want to resort to the Internet because there was a part of me that felt that it would be way too easy to find these books and, thus, take all of the adventure out of the project. However, after almost a full year of not being able to track down a couple of them, I decided it was time to up the ante.

After typing and clicking around on Google and eBay for the better part of an hour, I finally located a seller who had a copy of Honey In the Horn for ten dollars relatively close to me—in Omro, Wisconsin.

From Chicago, where I live, it took me about three and a half hours to get there—three and a half long hours of winding, hilly roads that took me through some of the most picturesque farmland you'll ever see.

Omro is a really small, sleepy town in central Wisconsin, a little outside of Oshkosh and about an hour southwest of Green Bay—a town so small that, if you're driving through it and blink, you'll probably miss it. As the flag in the upper left hand corner of this picture indicates, Omro is the epitome of Small Town, America—a perfect example of Americana. The downtown area lasts all of a few blocks and doesn't have much more than a bank, a gas station, a few bait shops, a corner grocer, and a drugstore—all of the businesses are one side of Main Street. The other side of the street is residential. These are smaller, nuclear-family homes that haven't been updated or remodeled since the 1950's. I can just picture the Omro High School marching band—with all 15-25 members—marching down Main Street on the Fourth of July while kids follow suit with their sparklers, senior citizens lining the sidewalks on their lawn chairs, blue skies and the July sun smiling down upon them all.

These are the kind of people I expected to find in this town when I rolled in—people who knew all of their neighbors and waved "hello" to everyone passing through. And when I rang the doorbell of this seller's house and was greeted by a tiny 80-plus year old woman who was every bit as delightful as I had imagined the townspeople would be, I felt safe and at home. She greeted me at the door and, in her quavering old voice, inquired, "May I help you, son?" "Yes," I replied, "I've come in from Chicago; I was supposed to meet someone at this address who was going to sell me a book?" "Oh, yes, do come in and I'll fetch him for you."

I walked in the door and was amazed at the interior of this house—it was obviously a storefront at one time, as it was located on Main Street on the commercial side. The exterior of the building even had the frame of an awning still in place. The interior of the building had a wide open space, a big room that was probably, at one time, a store of some kind—I could imagine it being a pharmacy or a bakery, where a counter would have been installed along the left wall. However, this building had been converted into a home and, over the course of a few decades, had been again converted into a storage space for a massive personal library. The main room was filled with books—books in piles, on shelves, in boxes, covering the floor, covering the walls, stacked to the ceiling... Thousands of books! I stood in the vestibule of their home and just stood there, mouth ajar, ogling all of the books before me.

The little old woman said, "Now, you wait here, I'll go find Joel for you," and she left me to dumbfoundedly gape at the massive collection.

After a minute or so, I heard the little old woman coming back with her son and I overheard her saying, "The boy from the Flatlands is here to see you." She turned the corner of the hallway and found me, introduced me to her son and then said, "I thought I heard a knocking on the door, but I wasn't sure. Anyhow, he knew to ring the doorbell, so he must be somewhat intelligent!" and gave me a big, toothy grin that had a certain air of superiority to it and, just like that, my ideas of Americana perfection were shattered. I gave a nervous laugh and attempted to play it off, but I knew what was going on.

See, Wisconsin and Illinois have a bit of a rivalry that runs deeper than merely football—the citizens of both states, for whatever reason, have an intense dislike for each other. We're like the Hatfields and the McCoys; the Kiwis and the Aussies; the Brits and the Micks. Wisconsinites call us Illinoisans "flat-landers" or "low-landers" and we refer to them as "cheeseheads"—no matter where you go in Wisconsin or Illinois, you'll find locals ribbing their neighbors with such juvenile taunts and I'm really not sure why. They hate the way we Chicagoans drive, and we Chicagoans hate their insane state roads; they hate our accents, and we hate theirs. Really, I think that Wisconsinites are just jealous of the fact that we have Chicago, the greatest city in America and, despite their proximity, they can't have it nearly as much as we can.

Regardless, I was far from home, a stranger in a strange land, and had suddenly become the victim of a geographical slur. The tiny old woman gave me that smug smile and waddled off into another part of the house and left me there with Joel, who gave me a firm handshake and invited me a few steps further into the house. Now, I kind of knew what to expect from this guy purely based on the couple of emails we had exchanged prior to this meeting: I sized him up to be kind of a blue-collar, tough guy. As it turned out, my estimation wasn't too far off—he greeted me wearing a pair of faded navy blue Dickies, construction boots and a ratty old sweater that was coming apart at the seams.

Apparently, in Omro, he's a bit of a local celebrity and professional fisherman—he owns his own ice fishing venture and rents out fishing equipment for a living. He's also appeared on ESPN and made a couple instructional fishing videos. He was a rough guy, which I also induced from our correspondence: the first time I wrote him, I told him all about the Pulitzer Project and the rules that Joshua and I have set up for ourselves and explained that I needed this book, but had to buy it in person. I asked him if he could help me out and he wrote back "Ummmm??? Sounds like you are either gonna have to lie and cheat your ass off by hitting the "buy it now" button -or- Drive a hell of a long way to come pick it up....."


I wrote him a second time and told him that I'd be available to pick it up on Tuesday and he replied: "Sure, I'll be here with a good psychologist for you."

Fair enough.

He handed the book to me and a well of joy burst inside of me; I told him, "Joel, you have no idea how amazed I am to be holding this book right now." He chuckled and quipped, "Man, you are a fuckin' freak, dude!" Of course, I was a little taken aback by his completely inappropriate response, so I had to ask, "What makes you say that?" He replied, "Shit, man. You drove almost four fuckin' hours, out to the middle of fuckin' nowhere to buy a fuckin' book. You are a straight-up book FREAK!" and chuckled to himself again. I bit the bullet and admitted, "Yeah, I supposed you're right there. But I have to ask—how in the world did you end up with this book?? I have been searching for it this entire year and until last week, I had never even seen this guy's name in print!" "Huh," he replied, obviously uninterested. "I don't know, man. All of these fuckin' books are my parents' and my grandparents' shit. They've been collecting all these damned books for fuckin' years and years and I don't give two shits about readin' so I'm just selling them all online. I'm gettin' tired of packin' all this shit up and moving it all the time so I just want to see it go."

This made sense to me: the thousands of books that lined the walls, floor, and ceiling of the house had been collected by two generations of a family for the past hundred or so years. Most of the books were bought decades ago, read once, and have been sitting in boxes ever since. The copy of Honey In the Horn was printed in the 1960's and is in almost mint condition—it doesn't look like it's even been read! I was probably the first one to crack the binding of it since the day it was bought almost 50 years ago.

Joel told me that he needed to look something up online for it and invited me to his office so I asked him, "Is it cool if I look around? I need five other books and, from what I've seen so far, I think it's a fair assumption that you probably have a couple that I need in this massive collection of your's." He shot me a very serious look and replied, sternly, "No way dude. Nuh-uh. I can't let you do that." I thought he was kidding, so I laughed it off a bit, until he said, "No, really. I can't let you look at my books." Obviously I was dumbfounded and had to ask why. He said, very matter of factly, "Every now and then, I get a freak like you in my house, wanting to look at all my books. I used to let people do it but then it became a problem. I'd have people browsing around my house, looking at all these damn books like they're getting off on it and I'd have to kick them out because they'd just look around for a couple of hours. I don't want you fuckin' book weirdos in my house lookin' at my shit!"

I really couldn't believe the lack of respect I was being shown. This guy was ridiculing me right to my face and all I was doing was trying to give him money!

"You want some books?" he asked, in a smug way. "Here: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Haven't listed it yet. It's your's, free. Here have this one too," as he tossed to me an old Roald Dahl book. "The Honey book is ten bucks, but I should probably just give it to you for free, just for being such a fuckin' book freak, driving all the way up here from fuckin' Chicago!" At least he had courtesy enough to write down the titles of the last couple books I need so that he could browse his collection for me. "You're right," he said, "My folks have been collecting this shit for years, so they probably have whatever you need."

Before I knew it, I was back on the road, bewildered at the interaction I drove three and a half hours to have, but brimming with joy for being the proud new owner of Honey In the Horn. I drove alone, through the hilly farms of central Wisconsin to the sound of gunfire, echoing from the woods and fields, all around me. Old men in camouflage and bright orange vests toting shotguns around, firing at pheasant and turkey and flat-landers like me.

Since I was in Wisconsin anyway, and heading back to Chicago, I figured I might as well stop in Madison for an hour or so. When Joshua and I were in Iowa for the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, we were told a few different times that Madison, Wisconsin was a bibliophile's paradise, so it's been our goal throughout this journey to eventually make our way up there. Unfortunately that opportunity never came, so I took matters into my own hands and went by myself—an action that Joshua is still upset with me about.

I only went to three stores, since it was getting close to 6pm—a time that I've discovered is fairly characteristic for used book stores to close shop for the evening. The first, Avol's, while a great store, didn't have at all what I was needing. The second, Book Browser's (or something like that) was a really great store and I had two near misses with Ernest Poole and Upton Sinclair (as usual). The third, however, Paul's Book Store, provided me with my second find of the day...

After browsing around fruitlessly for about 20 minutes, I finally asked the owner if he could help. I told him the list of books that I need and he quickly replied, "All Pulitzer winners!" "Yeah, they are actually... How did you know that?" "Well, I recognized a few of the titles—a couple came here last week looking for all these same books, but we only had Willa Cather's One of Ours." As it turns out, the owner of the store is an incredibly knowledgeable gay man who teaches Best-Selling Literature at the University of Wisconsin, so he was very familiar a few of the winners. 

The two of us couldn't find any of them on the shelves, but he informed that he had a basement full of old books that hadn't been priced and shelved yet, but that he'd go look for me. I perused the shelves and sipped at my coffee while I waited and about ten minutes later, he emerged from the basement with a first edition copy of T.S. Stribling's The Store. He handed it to me and said, "Does $12 sound fair?" I gave him $15 just for being amazing.

I now have only four books to find to complete my Pulitzer collection: His Family by Ernest Poole, The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson, Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, and Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair. Joshua has three remaining: Dragon's Teeth, Years of Grace, and Honey In the Horn. These are our remaining white whales. However, after finding my copy of Honey In the Horn, and finally tracking down The Store, In This Our Life, and Guard of Honor, I'm finally feeling like we'll able to finish this collection before the end of the year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Entry 22: "Now In November" by Josephine Johnson (1935)

Now that November is drawing to a close, Joshua and I decided to tackle a novel that would hold up a mirror to our Pulitzer journey; what better novel to do exactly that with than Josephine Johnson's 1935 Pulitzer-winning Now In November? It's probably a trite and cliche decision on our parts, but I've never been more satisfied with being cheesy after having finished the novel. It took me all of a mere couple of hours to read it, but that isn't to say that I was just breezing through it for the sake of getting it done—the truth is that Johnson's writing invited me to enter a world that I didn't, for the life of me, want to ever leave, even in spite of the tragedy, heartache, and drama that pervades every single paragraph throughout. Much like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I was left absolutely mesmerized at the end of each chapter and really should have stopped to catch my breath by the sheer beauty Johnson's words created in the ashes of her story, but I couldn't tear myself away from it. It was like being a marathon runner that hit the proverbial wall, but being so high on the thrill of the race, had to press forward without stopping to reflect on what I had already accomplished. I completely lost myself in Johnson's November, and am, even now, hoping and praying that December never comes.

To be honest, I didn't really have high expectations for this book. For one thing, I had never heard of Josephine Johnson and, so, had nothing in mind to form an opinion of her; secondly, this is a novel written in the 1930's, and, as I have made you well aware by now, most of the novels from the first 20 years of the Pulitzer Prize really haven't done anything for me. However, I am more than pleased to report that I have never been more surprised by a novel.

Joshua said it best: "This book wins the 'Diamond In the Rough Award.'"

Even a day after having finished it, I am still hypnotized by its raw beauty, its brutal honesty, and the hints of mystery and magic that wind their ways through its pages. When I finished the last paragraph, laying on my couch—my familiar reading position—, I closed the book, laid it on my chest, and just stared up at the ceiling, meditating on everything that I had just read, until I fell asleep, drunk on beauty.

Now In November is the story of a poor farm family in Anywhere, USA—the setting and time are never specified, but it is safe to assume that it is set in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. This family owns a farm that is wracked with debt and they are struggling to survive a massive drought that is destroying their land, their crops, their livestock, their farm, and even their family. The cracks in the hardened, clayey ground are indicative of the cracks growing between each member of the family. With all of the tension being imposed on the family by the threat of failing crops, foreclosure on their farm, homelessness, and even death, rather than coming closer together to lift each other up, they tear apart at the seams. It's almost unbearable to join them as they trudge through their lives, but with her intoxicating words, Johnson beckons you to come along so convincingly that you can't stand to turn down the invitation.

The novel is written in the first person from the perspective of Marget, the second-oldest of three daughters. It really seemed like Now In November is written less like a proper novel and more like a personal journal. The entries are short, concise, and written very "matter-of-factually," though contain these occasional bursts of sheer literary brilliance that are so magical, you almost have to stop reading to shake your head in disbelief: How is this woman coming up with such wonderful phrases? Johnson's novel is such a marvelous revelation.

 "We have no reason to hope or believe, but do because we must, receiving peace in its sparse moments of surrender, and beauty in all its twisted forms, not pure, unadulterated, but mixed always with sour potato-peelings or an August sun."

I have a feeling this is mostly true. There have been so many days in the past several months that I felt like I was suffering through my own personal drought—I've felt so unbearably dry, cracked, and barren inside. It's been as if there haven't been any rains and my spirit has been slowly withering away. I've been parched, thirsting for something meaningful and promising in my life—something that will inspire me and bring me back to life. Josephine Johnson, with these words, reminded me that all is not lost—all is never lost. She reminded me that, in spite of all the difficult circumstances I've been through in my life; in spite of all the pain and tragedy that surrounds me, and all of us really, that even if we cannot find, hard as we may look for it, reason to hope or believe, we must press forward. At the end of every hard-earned day, we must find some reason to believe.

Now In November brings to mind a poem that I read several years ago that I have been in love with ever since—"Try to Praise the Mutilated World," by Adam Zagajewski:
Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Ballad of Great Finds, Chance Encounters, and Near Misses

Yesterday, Joshua and I both had a much-needed day off of work, so we decided to thank the gods for the opportunity to catch our breath by setting out on the open road and heading downstate, to Champaign, Urbana, and Bloomington—three cities smack-dab in the middle of Illinois—to continue our search for the final few novels we each need to complete our Pulitzer Prize collections. He started the day off needing a mere three novels, and I needed eight; at the end of the day, Joshua hadn't found what he needed and I had come two novels closer to having a complete collection.

The story of our day together, however, would have made for a great story—even if neither of us hadn't found anything.

We headed out early, anticipating the nearly hour and a half drive ahead of us to get from Bradley to Champaign. We smoked some cigarettes, shared some laughs, discussed art and language and religion and literature (our usual conversational stomping grounds) as my tiny little car, weighted down with boxes upon boxes of books yet unpacked from my most recent move, ambled its way down Interstate 57 to the tunes of Tears for Fears (of all things). I had guessed that the day set before us was going to be absolutely ridiculous, and I couldn't have thought of a more ridiculous band to listen to in order to prepare ourselves for it.

The reason we set out in the first place was for one book—James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor, a World War II novel which won the Pulitzer in 1949. For some reason, in the eleven months that Joshua and I have been doing this project, I have not been able to find this book anywhere. One would think that living in Chicago, one of the country's greatest cities for used book stores with stores like Powell's and Myopic, that I would have had an easier time finding it—one would, in this case, be wrong. Although Joshua found it very early on in the journey, I didn't have any luck until a few days ago, when we haphazardly found it on On this website, you can search for a specific used book and find sellers all over the world who have a copy of it that they are wanting to sell. A couple of days ago, Joshua was perusing this site and discovered that the nearest Guard of Honor was waiting for me at JBL Books in Champaign. We called the owner and learned that his business is based out of his home and he sells from his own private collection on the Internet; since the Net's inception, this trend is growing more and more popular. Booksellers no longer have to pay rent in a store front or have a payroll; rather, they can post their entire library on the Internet and let people shop their stock that way.

Sooner or later, I think this whole Internet thing is really going to catch on...

So we drive to his house, a humble, lovely little ranch style home in Suburbia and John, the seller, let us inside and led us up the stairs to his collection (which was impressive, albeit modest). He pulled Guard of Honor from the shelf, handed it to me, flashed a big toothy grin and said, "This must be for you." Though it sounds trite, cliche, and melodramatic, I am not ashamed to say that joy welled up in me to have finally found a copy of this book—this book that has, I feel, unnecessarily eluded me for eleven months. I attempted to explain how happy I was at finding this book, but couldn't really choose words that wouldn't make me sound crazy. "Well, you see, sir—I have set up a challenge, a challenge with absolutely ridiculous rules and regulations and guidelines that I have imposed upon myself, and, apparently, you are the only person in all of Illinois that has a copy of this damn book!"

The edition which he sold me is an elegant leather-bound edition of the novel, so he naturally asked me if I were looking specifically for rare editions of it, and felt like I seemed crazy enough when both Joshua and I tried to explain that we were, actually, looking for any copy of that particular book, as long as it was used. This, of course, led to our having to explain, in its entirety, The Pulitzer Project to him. He seemed rather impressed with our undertaking and informed us that he knew a lot of private booksellers in the area that might be able to help us; then, this sweet, kindly old man pulled out his rolodeck and phone book and made several phone calls to associates that he's met along his own book collecting journeys. Unfortunately, he couldn't get a hold of any of his contacts, though we were still appreciative of his efforts.

He did, however, inform of us a used book sale at Urbana Public Library that was going to be held from 5-8pm.

Since we were in the area anyway, and it was only 11am, we decided that we'd spend the rest of the day hunting in used book stores and antique shops; so we did a bit of research and came up with a pretty healthy list of places to visit. Say3 Books in Champaign was our next stop. We pulled in the parking lot, where we were greeted a giant neon green awning displaying the words Say3 Books, in Comic Sans font, over the front entrance. I turned to Joshua and said, "Josh—this place is not going to have what we're looking for." "You don't know that, man. Come on, let's go inside." When we walked in the front door, we were greeted by a middle-aged woman, the store's proprietor, and her tiny little Yorkshire Terrier. The walls were outlandlishly colored, adult-contemporary blues music was playing on a purple boombox, and the front display in the lobby was covered with dog books. I turned to Joshua again and have him the look. You know—the look that silently says, "I really don't think you're right about this one."

The owner asked us if we needed any help, so we told her what we were looking for; she replied, "So you're looking for, like, fiction books? I'm not sure if I have anything you're looking for, but you'll find some fiction books in this room, around this table, over here in this room, and in the back room. Let me know if you have any questions," and returned to her desk. We walked into the rooms that she pointed us to and were horrified at the lack of organization—there were piles upon piles of books everywhere, from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. It was as if a giant truck, filled with books, backed up to the store, the roof were lifted, and these books were just dumped into the store.

We looked around for about 20 minutes, but obviously, this store did not have what we were looking for. However, all that being said, I don't mean to say that the store was by any means a bad place to shop for books—it just wasn't the type of place where we were going to find what we needed. They had a lot of really great books that, were it not for the task at hand, I would be very interested in. So, we piled back into the car and left the store behind. Our next stop would prove itself to be the second-greatest used book store in Illinois, and the greatest source of our frustration along this journey...

Jane Addams Book Shop, in downtown Champaign, is three floors of book-browsing magic, specializing in rare books. As soon as we walked inside the shop, and saw the neatly organized aisles and shelves, completely stocked with extremely old volumes, Joshua and I knew we had come to the right place to properly ensue our day's hunting.

We made our way over to the fiction section of the store and separated so that, in the unlikely event that one of us found something, we'd be able to beat the other person to it. Of course we're best friends, and are partners, traveling companions, along this journey, and of course we want each other to succeed, but it is also a matter of course that we are men—competitive men—and both of us want to be the lucky man that completes the journey first.

I was scouring the P section of the shelves for Poole's His Family, and my entire chest seized up when I actually say the name "Ernest Poole" gracing the spine of a novel. Then, to my horror, I discovered that the novel I found wasn't His Family at all, but his ironically more famous work, The Harbor. I almost refused to believe it, turning the book over in my hands and inspecting it, as if I might discover that the book had been tampered with and was actually His Family, but in a clever disguise! As I was doing this, I heard Joshua exclaim, very loudly, from the next aisle over, "Noooo!! Come on! You have got to be kidding me!," followed by a bunch of unintelligible, un-spell-able growls, and, possibly, a slur of profanities. I hustled around the corner of the long shelf, worried that something unspeakable might have happened, and found Joshua crumpled up on the floor, a wreck, clutching a first-edition copy of Margaret Ayer Barnes' Within This Present—a novel which, unlike another work of her's, 1930's Years of Grace, did not win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. My heart broke again, and I related to him that the same thing had just happened to me with Ernest Poole.

He looked up at me, with a sudden glimmer of hope in his eyes, and silently exclaimed, "Drew—this store has at least one of the books we're looking for. I can feel it." I smiled mischieviously and slowly replied, "Yeah... We are." He must have seen what I had in mind on my face when he said that, because he scrambled up to his feet and we both raced to the S section and frantically scanned the shelves for "Sinclair." Aha! There they were! Upton Sinclair's books! Oil!, no; The Jungle, no; A World to Win, no; Jimmie Higgins, no; World's End, no; Between Two Worlds, no; Wide Is the Gate, no; "Singer." Wait, what? That's it!? Where is Dragon's Teeth??

For the third time that day, we had been thwarted by a near miss and for the second time in as many weeks, we had come so close to finding Dragon's Teeth—the third book (and 1943 Pulitzer-winner) in Upton Sinclair's 11-novel "Lanny Budd" series—; the first near miss we had with this book came a week earlier at Ravenswood Used Books in Chicago when Joshua, while perusing a completely unorganized "classics" shelf, haphazardly stumbled across Dragon Harvest, the sixth book of the same series. After these two adventures, we have now seen five of the eleven books in the series, but not Dragon's Teeth, a book that hasn't even been printed since the 1960's. It's weird—as popular as Upton Sinclair is in 20th century American literature, I really didn't think his books would be too difficult to find; I figured Dragon's Teeth would be tough to find, just because neither Joshua nor I had even heard of it, but I've been shocked to find that the only three books we've been able to consistently find by him are Oil!, The Jungle, and A World to Win—especially when one considers that his body of work includes over 100 titles.

I couldn't dawdle in agony any longer blankly staring at the name "Sinclair" on the spines of books, so I ran over to "D" and once again cursed the sky when I found, not Honey In the Horn, Harold L. Davis's 1936 Pulitzer-winning novel, but Harold L. Davis's Land of a Thousand Harps. None of the three books Joshua needed were there, but I still needed to find a couple for myself, so I made my way over to "G" and, once again, had to bite my tongue to keep from swearing out loud when I found five Ellen Glasgow books—none of which being her 1942 Pulitzer-winning In This Our Life. The same fate, of course, awaited me when I returned to "S" to search for T.S. Stribling—rather than finding his most famous work, the 1933 Pulitzer-winning The Store, I found The Sound Wagon.

We were outraged—and rightfully so! I really can't recall a time in my life when I felt so completely and entirely ripped off. One of the store's owners, a younger lady, greeted us at the desk when, heads hung low, we shambled back to the door: "Any luck?" We recounted to her the fate that had just befallen us and she couldn't help but sympathize for us; then she suggested that maybe, just maybe, there is some other person out there who's doing the same thing Joshua and I are—collecting all of the Pulitzers. This, of course, makes a lot of sense: how could it be that a bookstore, specializing in rare books, has literally all of the authors that we are looking for—three of which we had never seen and were seriously starting to doubt if they even existed—, but not their most famous work? That is unless, of course, there is someone else out there doing this same project and beating us to the punch.

If you had told me what was going to happen next, I wouldn't have believed you. Even after experiencing it, I still can't hardly believe it happened... 

We left Champaign, feeling a little deflated, but, in a strange way, inspired now that we had at least seen some of the author's names that we saw. We hopped on Interstate 74 and headed west to Bloomington, IL—our first stop as we entered the downtown area was a store that will, next month, be closing its doors for good: About Books.

This shop wasn't quite as prestigious as Jane Addams Book Shop, but not nearly as familiar as Say3 Books—it was somewhere in the middle of the two. It had its fair share of trade-size paperbacks, but it had a back room and basement with some real gems—some really rare gems too. The back room housed most of these books. Since the owner is retiring, she hasn't bothered to organize any of the books in the back room and they are scattered all over the place—on wooden racks, metal storage shelves, table tops, sawhorses... Everywhere. So Joshua and I, seeing that these books were really antiquated volumes, set out to scour through them in hopes that somehow, somewhere, we'd find something we needed. The fact that we were finding a lot of Tarkingtons, Bucks, Wouks, Wilders, and Ferbers was encouraging anyway.

Now, having the experience we had at Jane Addams Book Shop, where we found literally every single author we needed but none of the right books, was a total fluke. Neither of us had anticipated having that much (un)luck and both of us knew that experience was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that would never happen again.

Until it happened again.

Once again, three first-edition Ellen Glasgow books that weren't In This Our Time; a Margaret Ayer Barnes novel that wasn't Years of Grace; a Stribling novel that wasn't The Store; a Margaret Wilson book that wasn't The Able McLaughlins; an Ernest Pool novel that wasn't His Family; several Upton Sinclair novels that weren't Dragon's Teeth; and, most unbelievably, another Harold L. Davis novel that wasn't Honey In the Horn.

This was becoming increasingly infuriating.
The afternoon was plodding along and we had just time enough for one last store before we headed back to Champaign for the Urbana Public Library used book sale. So we headed into downtown Normal to pay a visit to Babbitt's Books—another store specializing in used, rare, and collectible books.

This store was very similar in selection and quality to Jane Addams Book Shop and other bookshops with this specialty that Joshua and I have been to over the course of our lives; and, I can freely admit, that Babbitt's Books is one of the better stores either of us have been to (and, between the two of us, we have been to several hundred used book stores—so this quite a feat on their part).

We didn't have quite as much bad luck with near misses as we did here as we did in the other stores, but our streak of finding wrong books by the right authors continued. Finally, after 20-30 minutes of searching, I decided to approach the front desk to ask if they had an inventory of their stock, where they could look up some titles for me. As it turned out they do, and I proceeded to rattle off all the titles to the young lady sitting at the computer, a pretty girl named Sarah. Every title I said out loud was followed by the click-click-click of her fingers on the computer's keyboard and a "Nope." When I got to title #7, I said, "Okay, well—I'm assuming you won't have this one either. But, it's Ellen Glasgow—the title is In This Our Life."

This title, however, was met with an excited shout from the other end of the counter, where I turned to find an older woman, Kathleen, jumping and exclaiming, with giddy excitement, "I have that one right here in this pile! It just came in this morning!" I turned to Joshua with the juvenile expression of a kid in a candy shop plastered to my countenance. He gave this sort-of half-grin and held out his hands, as if he were a butler escorting me into a giant castle; and, just as the juvenile expression I displayed suggested I would do, I eagerly reached out to Kathleen and she, ever so obliging, handed it off to me. There, in my hands, was the first edition of Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life—my second find of the day, and the 78th of this journey.

Kathleen asked the two of us why we were searching for the Pulitzers, so we, for at least the fifth time that day, explained the entire story of the Pulitzer Project. However, this time, rather than being met with an almost insincere "Oh, neat," or "How interesting," our story was met with robust enthusiasm! Kathleen asked if we were going to write a book about the experience, and we told her we had planned on it originally, and she encouraged us to press forward with that idea; she asked us if we were blogging the experience, and we told her we are, so she wrote down our blogs' web addresses, and has even subscribed to both and is already actively directing her traffic to us; she even shared her blog with us and wrote up a little paragraph about the "two young search of some of the hard-to-find Pulitzer Prize winning  novels for a blog project they are doing together." If that weren't enough, she has even offered some career insight to me!

What a swell lady! The coolest aunt I never had.

We headed back to Champaign for the Urbana Public Library sale around 4:30pm with renewed energy, renewed hope, renewed ambition. We finally got back into around 5:30pm and discovered that the sale was only open to "Friends of the Library" and, in order to become a "Friend of the Library," a $10 entry fee for the book sale was required." I had already found two books, so I let Joshua be the one to go in while I perused the library itself and stole their Wi-Fi.

While perusing, a strange thought popped into my head: "I wonder if they have Dragon's Teeth here..." As I was about to go looking for it, Joshua called my phone and distracted me. "Hey man. Where are you?" "Oh, I'm upstairs looking around." "Okay. I need to show you something. Be right there." *click*

I thought he had found something... I thought his search was over... I thought maybe he had found some of the ones I needed... When he found me browsing all the aisles, I saw that he was empty-handed and my heart shrugged its shoulders Oh, well.

"Drew," he said in a short, curt manner. "I need to show you something." He turned and walked down one of the aisles and I followed eagerly behind as, soon, the author's last names on the book spines started being spelled with an "S." "Sa," "Se," "Sh," "Si," then, there it was—the 1942 first-edition of Upton Sinclair's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Dragon's Teeth. Even without its dust jacket, even with the coffee stains on the first few pages, even with the library card pasted inside, and the ragged edges of the hard binding, it was beautiful. It was everything I dreamed it would be. Euphoria washed over me when I held it.  

At last, I thought. Here it is. Here it is in my hands. Now I know—a physical copy of this book really does exist.
Now, you may be thinking that this trip was kind of a loss. We did, after all, spend 12 hours on the road while never leaving the state; we did, after all, spend 12 hours on the road and over $80 on gas, food, and expenses while only actually finding two books. And all of that is true and, in a way, I guess it was kind of a loss.

But if you're going to set out on a journey with your best friend, you need to do it right. And we did yesterday right. We found two books, we found two amazing book stores, we met the sweetest kooky old lady we'll ever meet, and we pursued, even further, the Prize set before us.

This was a good day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Entry 21: "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck (1932)

Since moving to Evanston, my reading pace has slowed down considerably and this has become one of my greatest sources of frustration. Never mind the fact that I currently don't have an unpredictable living situation, am working full-time for the first time in almost two years, am still trying to get adjusted to a new life in a new town, still trying to develop a routine... In all these sweeping life changes, the thing that is plaguing me most is that I'm having difficulty finding time to read.

Does that make me a nerd? Probably.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that I have just finished my 25th Pulitzer, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

How many times has this story been told?—a poor and humble man who lives his life in moral upstanding, then resorts to desperate measures to provide for his family during an economic crisis, then comes into a bit of money himself and rises in the community to a level of respect among his peers, only to let his new-found social and material wealth corrupt him. It's a rags to riches to rags story that has been told and time and time and time again, and will be continue to be told as long as there are storytellers. This particular story kind of story is one we all know too well, because it is a part of the fibers of our being—the human condition. We are born into nothing, we live our lives as prosperously as we can, we die, and we take nothing with us. The futility of this is what Jesus was talking about when he said, "What good is a man who gains the whole world and loses his soul?"

Wang Lung, the main character in The Good Earth, is a poor farmer who starts off this novel with a tract of land that brings him enough money to earn a bit of money. Over the course of the next few decades, he buys up a lot more land and makes even more money. By the end of his life, he becomes an incredibly wealthy man, with a family, and a palace all to himself; but, in the last couple pages of the book, when his sons decide that they're going to sell the land he owns once he dies, he falls to the ground in a fit of rage and takes up the soil in his hands, clutching it tightly, and shows his true nature—a man who has gained the whole world, but is still clinging tightly to nothing more than clods of dirt.

This is a pretty bleak view of the human experience, but it is pretty accurate.

What I found most interesting in this novel is Wang Lung's slow decline into immorality. When we first meet him, he is a good man—an honest, upright citizen. He marries and has children and works his farm so that he can provide for them. It is when a famine comes that his life gets way off track—he takes his family to a wealthy area in the south of China and they resort to begging so that they can eat. When that isn't enough, he haphazardly gets involved with a gang of bandits who loot a palace and he steals a healthy sum of money after threatening a man's life—Wang Lung's wife also steals jewelry from the palace. This event in his life is what sparks his downward spiral; from this point forward, he becomes a man who is obsessed with wealth and "image," he forsakes his wife and children, he gambles, he spends nights in whorehouses, he cheats on his wife, he beats his children, dabbles with opium—all the while, never once thinking that what he's doing might be wrong. His actions weren't deliberate outbursts of bad behavior—he actually just haphazardly walked into that sort of life.

It was as though he were a blind man, meandering down a path and getting further and further away from it.

This is a story that has been told time and time again, but Pearl S. Buck tells it well. Unlike a lot of the writing that came out of the 1920's and 30's that I've read so far, The Good Earth doesn't hide anything behind flowery language and pointless narrative. Buck just tells the story the way it is, and I cannot even begin to explain how refreshing this was for me. More than anything in this journey, I have been dreading books from the first 20 years of the Pulitzer Prize because some of the ones I've read thus far have been absolutely excruciating to get through.

I'm really hoping that Now In November, by Josephine Johnson—which I'm going to begin tonight—will follow suit.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Entry 20: "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole (1981)

Please forgive the tardiness of this entry—the past three weeks have been an absolute blur in my life. I moved up to Evanston, IL from Bradley and have been struggling getting acclimated to my new environment, my new job, my new absence of social life, my new absence of community. In the midst of my several panic attacks that I endured, I probably should have been reading to calm myself down, but I just couldn't focus longer than a couple of pages at a time. So I spent a lot of the time I usually spend reading Pulitzers in prayer, in playing my guitar, in watching television, in nights of debauchery (a funny story, in retrospect), and in calling several different people on the phone on a daily basis.

However, once I got a little more settled in, and a little more settled down, I once again committed myself to reading and have finally produced a finished novel. Twenty-four novels down, sixty to go; and, as it turned out, I needed to read this book at this time in my life—if for no other reason, to cheer me up and keep me preoccupied.

I'd like to know why John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1981—this novel is quite unlike all of the other novels which have won since the Pulitzer's 1917 inception; in fact, it is quite unlike a lot any of the novels I have ever read. Whereas all of the Pulitzers I have read thus far on this journey are deeply serious and deal with the entirety of the human condition, with all its dramas, tragedies, and perplexities, A Confederacy of Dunces is romping comedic farce.

In fact, I daresay, I would go so far as to give it a label that my reading partner, Joshua, and I have never quite understood: this book is a "rollicking tour de force." I have read reviews of so many books where the reviewer actually used that phrase, and I have never been able to wrap my mind around it—it's just such a bizarre collection of words in one phrase; however, I can think of no other way to describe A Confederacy of Dunces. The reviews collected on the back of my edition are quite similar:

"A corker, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book."—The Washington Post

"A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing less than a grand comic fugue."—The New York Times Book Review

"An astonishingly original and assured comic spree."—New York

"...the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures."—Chicago Sun-Times

I'd like to add "'A rollicking tour de force.'—Drew Moody" to that list of accolades.
Let me first say that this is the funniest work of fiction I have ever read. Of course, in my world of fiction, I can only really compare it to Nick Hornby or Christopher Moore; be that as it may, I cannot fathom a comedy out there that's funnier, nor more well written than John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. The dialogue in this book is so clever, so wrought with wit and hilarity, that it is nearly impossible not to actually laugh out loud at every turn of the page. With Olive Kitteridge and Gilead, I had to put the book down every couple pages because the drama was so intense I had to catch my breath; with A Confederacy of Dunces, I had to put the book down every couple of pages because I had to catch my breath from laughing so hard. In fact, Joshua just texted me a little while ago and told me he was having trouble reading the book while substitute teaching during study hall because he couldn't stop laughing.

Here's just a small collection of some of the lines that had me in stitches:
  • "I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip." 
  • "'It smells terrible in here.' 'Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate.'"
  • "Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today's employer is seeking."
  • "I suspect that I am the result of particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner."
  • "Between notes, he had contemplated means of destroying Myrna Minkoff but had reached no satisfactory conclusion. His most promising scheme had involved getting a book on munitions from the library, constructing a bomb, and mailing it in plain paper to Myrna. Then he remembered that his library card had been revoked."  
  • "Apparently I am pushing a jinx about the streets. I am certain that I can do better with some other wagon. A new cart, a new start." (this said while being questioned why he hadn't sold any hotdogs in his new profession as a hotdog street vendor)
  • "... I tried to end our little duel. I called out pacifying words; I entreated; I finally surrendered. Still Clyde came, my pirate costume so great a success that it had apparently convinced him that we were back in the golden days of romantic old New Orleans when gentlemen decided matters of hot dog honor at twenty paces."
  • "Employers sense in me a denial of their values...they fear me. i suspect that they can see that i am forced to function in a century which i loathe."
Now, if you go back and re-read some of my previous entries in which I transcribe direct quotes from the novel which I was reading, you'll find that these lines are entirely unlike anything else I've read along this Pulitzer journey. All of the other books, although at times very different from each other, still possess enough similarities to each other that it's no wonder why those particular novels won. In one way or another, they all deal with Americana, heartache, tragedy, society, war, family values, politics, etc. A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing like that—while it does share a big focus on family dynamics with its Pulitzer counterparts, it is more about a big, fat, slobbering, oafish gargantuan of a man who can't hold down even the easiest of jobs, is wildly pigheaded, self-righteous, and, possibly, insane. Furthermore, rather than approaching his subject matter in a highly serious, almost reverent manner, Toole instead approached these subjects in a manner of high-octane comedic calamity.

So, then, I'd really like to know the reason why A Confederacy of Dunces won the highest accolade in American literature. Could it be that, in 1981, the Pulitzer committee ignored subject matter altogether and instead actually rewarded outstanding writing? As aforementioned, this book is extremely well-written and the dialogue, and even the narrative, is so fastidiously crafted that one can't help but marvel at the book's rich complexities. As a side note, I'd like to add that if you're looking to advance your personal daily lexicon, I highly recommend reading this novel and keeping it close by. While reading it, you may also want to have a dictionary or thesaurus readily available.
Now, if this book weren't interesting enough on its own, the stories surrounding the book certainly are...

The novel is autobiographical, in a sense, of John Kennedy Toole's life. Not all of the accounts are true to his life, but the characters in it, the emotions and attitudes, and the situations in which the characters find themselves are very similar to Toole's life. Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of the novel, isn't quite a spitting image of John Kennedy Toole, but is similar enough for the reader to know they are meant to be one in the same. Even though the character was initially based on Toole's friend, Bob Byrne, even Byrne has admitted:
Ken Toole was a strange person. He was extroverted and private. And that's very difficult. He had a strong...desire to be recognized....but also a strong sense of alienation. That's what you have in Ignatius Reilly.
Toole was an interesting character in his own right—a university professor that was heralded and acclaimed by his students for his grandiose and comedic lectures, a wildly talented writer, by all appearances from an outsider's perspective, a fairly successful man. But his personal life was wrought with horror—he suffered from extreme paranoia and self-loathing, he was reclusive, and his interactions with the outside world were shrouded in mystery. Nobody quite understood the man and attempting to understand him was entirely futile.

Over the course of a few years, he had written A Confederacy of Dunces and submitted it to multiple publishers around the country, but never had any luck. Rejection after rejection were the result of his efforts to get his novel published, and these rejections only added to his paranoia and self-loathing. He was humiliated by rejection. All of the publishers were encouraging in their rejections, reminding Toole that he was very talented as a writer, and that the book showed a lot of promise, but none of them could consciously publish the original manuscript as it was. They all wanted him to revise and revise, and perhaps rewrite the book altogether, but Toole wouldn't hear of it.

All of these rejections eventually led to Toole's suicide in 1969 at the young age of 31. Suffering from depression and feelings of self-persecution, Toole left home on a journey around the country. He stopped in Mississipi to end his life by running a garden hose in from the exhaust of his car to the cabin.

Toole's mother, however, was not satisfied with the demise of her son (and justifiably so). During the two years following her son's death, she also suffered from depression, but then decided to once again having his manuscript published believing it would be a monument to her son's talent. She spent the next several years taking the manuscript to smaller publishing houses around the country and was met with the same rejection her son faced. However, she eventually found an interested person in the renowned novelist Walker Percy. Percy read the novel begrudgingly, only to get Mrs. Toole to stop constantly pestering him to read it. He was shocked to find that he actually loved it: "In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good." Percy spent the next three years pitching it to agents and publishers before finally finding a publisher in Louisiana State University Press in 1980. John Kennedy Toole's single claim to fame finally came, eleven years after his suicide.

The first run of the book was only 2,500 copies and, at first, it generated very little interest with the public, despite the amount of the attention it was getting from the literary world. A year later, in 1981, Toole was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize—that's when A Confederacy of Dunces really came to life and became one of the most revered and popular books in Southern literature in recent memory, having sold more than 1.5 million copies and having been translated in 18 different languages.

This story's story doesn't end there, however...

After the novel started to become wildly popular, deals were slated to turn it into a feature film. Once a script had been drawn up, and a deal was reached with a certain studio, casting took place: for the role of Ignatius J. Reilly, John Belushi was cast; however, two days before the meeting with Universal executives to finalize the deal, Belushi died of a drug overdose. Interestingly enough, Richard Pryor was also initially cast to play Burma Jones, another character in the novel. Five months after Belushi's death, the woman who led the Louisiana State Film Commission was murdered by her husband, which brought the efforts to shoot the film in New Orleans—and the production itself—to a halt. A few years later, plans were made to attempt making the film again and John Candy was cast to play Reilly—he too died. A few years later the same fate met another actor cast as Reilly—Chris Farley. Once the 2000's came, and A Confederacy of Dunces had still not been made into a movie, the studio once again pulled it from the shelf to once again attempt making the film. Will Ferrel was a favorite to play Reilly, and all lights seemed green to go ahead with production; that is, until New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

There are those who believe the novel is "cursed," which is reason for concern for me. I've always had an unfounded superstition that I wouldn't live to see the age of 30. I don't know why—that's just how I've always felt for as long as I can remember. While reading this novel, bearing these stories in mind, every time I straddled the seat of my bicycle and rode to work, a delivery van or a CTA bus would swerve without signaling, coming within mere feet of flattening me and the thought "This is how it ends" would flash through my mind. In my adjustment to this new city, this new way of living, I have become a bit of a recluse, never venturing outside my apartment unless to go to work, just like John Kennedy Toole.

I'm probably reading way too much into this. But what if I'm not?

No... I'm reading way too much into this.

But what if...