Newspaper journalists are often consumed by the world of words. The power of language to re-process human experience, and the ability of books to open doorways of the mind, are typically a major inspiration for reporters who work in printed media. For our summer reading issue, the Press Tribune and Granite Bay View’s staff writers Scott Thomas Anderson, Andrew Westrope, Matt Kramer and Steven Wilson share their favorite novels to crack open in an air conditioned coffee house or under the blue skies along the lake.
Scott Thomas Anderson’s pick: Warlock by Oakley Hall
Writers, like cowboys, can find themselves pinned-in. They get locked in corrals of category. They get trapped in steel chutes of expectations. They find themselves steer-wrestling the book industry’s numbing shadows. But sometimes an author climbs bareback onto the force of his own will and takes a running jump over the fence of genre, escaping its trap in a hard gallop for unknown creative territory.
The late Oakley Hall seemed determined to buck the expectations of what books belonged on which shelves. He knew the best novels tear the fabric of a reader’s reality, lassoing them into a landscape of words and images so evocative, sonic and rich that it presents of the mirage of a second life. Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock is a pathfinder in this sense, a bold re-execution of the American Western that’s sweeping yet personal, poignant yet ethically challenging, plot-driven yet stoked with personalities breathing on the page. It is dirt and dust you can taste in your mouth; it’s welling corruption felt under the ribs.
The novel is centered on the merchants and citizens of Warlock, a fictional silver-mining town, who feel helpless and at times humiliated by the acts of lawless men. Pushed to desperation, the people of Warlock appoint professional gunfighter Clay Blaisedell town marshal – thus pulling the mercenary and his killer friend Tom Morgan into political struggle across the entire county in which few hold a moral high-ground. The cowboys tormenting Warlock live by intimidation; but Blaisedell and Morgan live a colder existence by the gun. The ensuing confrontation probes the realities of finding freedom through violence and declaring civilization through illusion. Warlock is, for my money, simply one of the most teleporting books written about California’s dark memories.
Hall had a similar achievement in 1978 with his ranch-war novel The Bad Lands, a remarkable exploration of greed, ambition, naivety and betrayal – betrayal not only committed by men against other men, but betrayal of the entire American West by the decimating forces of progress. “The Bad Lands” is one of those rare novels that leaves a reader with equal parts of hope and emptiness. After years of being out of print, The Bad Lands will be re-issued in paperback this October. Hall was a mentor to countless writers, including award-winning novelists Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan. However, he used to refer to himself as “the most famous writer you’ve never heard of.” With Warlock having been re-published by New York Review Books Classics in 2005 and The Bad Lands returning to stores this fall, maybe this author who questioned the concept of frontier justice will finally get his own.
Andrew Westrope’s pick: On the Road by Jack Kerouac
If you read one classic every year for the rest of your life, you could live to 100 and still leave the bulk of great English literature untouched. That being the case, this summer – why not this summer? – is the time to indulge that part of you that longs for the horizon and light out, for 307 breathless pages, with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Exhilarating and melancholy in equal measure, On the Road is a roman à clef, a semi-true story embellished with fictional names, based on Kerouac’s own cross-country travels during the infancy of America’s highway system. Arguably the defining work of the postwar “Beat” and counterculture movements, it is known to most people for the way it captured the restless ennui and freewheeling ambitions of a new generation, and for its wide-ranging impact on cultural legends that followed – people like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson.
Reputation aside, this isn’t homework or a history lesson but a livewire piece of deeply personal literature, a story rooted in 1950s underground America about two friends, four road trips and a whirlwind quest for some abstract thing to fill the void within. It’s a brisk read, the prose style loose and informal, like jazz: Kerouac famously wrote his rough draft in three weeks of furious typing, on a 120-foot scroll of tracing sheets taped together, and the result is one of the great stream-of-consciousness narratives in modern fiction.
Glorious and wild as it is, though, readers who take On the Road as a wholly romantic view of the vagabond lifestyle miss half the point. Kerouac knows that for all its intoxicating freedoms, which he renders in vivid detail, a rootless existence is also inseparable from loss and loneliness. The quest of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty (wonderful names abound in this book) is both wish fulfillment and fool’s errand, fraught with broken hearts and missed connections, a search for something none of us ever really find – a search for something that might not exist.
That the book acknowledges conflicting truths about giving in to youth’s reckless abandon – the wonder and the tragedy – is one of its great strengths. That it contains passages like this is why it will mean as much to our grandkids as it did to our grandparents:
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
Matt Kramer’s pick: VALIS by Philip K. Dick
Before the Wachowskis made us do a double-take on reality with the Matrix trilogy, there was Philip K. Dick. Perhaps best known today in popular culture through the films based on his work such as “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall,” Dick’s writing is characterized by an insistence that the world, as first perceived, is not what it seems. In his 1981 novel VALIS, Dick’s paranoid vision crashes to the fore through a series of technological and mystical events based on the author’s self-reported experience — an experience readers must ultimately judge for themselves as Gnostic revelation, fabulous literary device or schizophrenic delusion.
VALIS itself is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System; the significance of which becomes continually apparent throughout the novel, as Dick weaves a psycho-spiritual mystery centered on contact between VALIS and protagonist Horselover Fat. Dick shifts perspectives as narrator, continually blurring the lines between reported fact and fiction as Fat emerges as a fictionalized version of Dick himself.
As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Fat’s visions, whether psychotic or not, are carrying a significant truth ascertainable only through direct contact with the mysterious VALIS and the pink ray of energy it emits at those chosen as its prophets. The reader is dragged down a mind-bending rabbit hole at breakneck speed, plunging through layers of philosophy, Gnostic theology, Buddhist and Zoroastrian ideology, along with a torrent of Cabalistic rumination and purported secrets from Egyptian mystery cults.
Time and credulity are stretched parchment-thin in VALIS, as Dick’s own theories are incorporated into a semi-fictionalized narrative where linear time seems to have literally stopped in the first century A.D. Ultimately, after Dick draws the reader into his own paranoid reality tunnel, escape may become impossible. The pursuit of the meaning and mystery within VALIS will leave readers wondering where the lines of fiction and reality are drawn and if they can in fact be drawn at all.
Steven Wilson’s pick: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
A book that will give you chills, make you smile and clutch the binding on each hairpin plot turn, The Art of Racing in the Rain vividly dictates the life of an up-and-coming race car driver as seen through the eyes of his four-legged friend.
Author Garth Stein takes his readers down a series of twists and turns as Enzo, a sandy-colored Labrador, tries to make sense of the good, the bad and the unthinkable. Naming his main character after the founder of the famous Italian automobile marquee, Enzo Ferrari, Stein has re-envisioned his own experience in race cars onto the pages of a book.
He tells his story through a lovable dog who, thanks to many hours of watching TV and listening carefully to his own master, has gained insight into the human condition. Enzo realizes that life, like racing, isn’t simply about going fast.
In an attempt to help his owner, Enzo plays a key role in his master’s child-custody battle with his in-laws, and distills his observations of the human condition into the mantra, “that which you manifest is before you.”
A New York Times best-seller, The Art of Racing in the Rain will pull at your heartstrings, but leave you wanting more. Enzo’s insight into the absurdities of human life and rollercoaster relationships publicizes a compassionate, funny and uplifting journey, as only a dog could tell it.
Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at STA_reporter or on Facebook on www.facebook.com/STAndersonJournalist