The Ebb and Flow of Summer Reading


I started my summer reading early this year. Along about the first of May, when the weather finally turned consistently warm, I began spending Saturday afternoons in the backyard, letting the kids splash around in the little plastic pool while I caught up on some of the books that had been gathering around the house. First was Mickey Spillane’s “The Mike Hammer Collection” (Ballantine), an omnibus edition featuring “I, the Jury,” “My Gun Is Quick” and “Vengeance Is Mine!"--three mid-century classics of the hard-boiled form.

Then I moved on to a pair of books about Bob Dylan: David Hadju’s delightful “Positively 4th Street” (FSG), which chronicles Dylan’s early 1960s career through the filter of his relationships with the Baez sisters (Joan and Mimi) and Richard Farina, and “The Dylan Companion” (Da Capo), an uneven mix of essays, poems, reviews, and reportage, edited by Elizabeth Thomson and David Gutman. Although summer is often dismissed as a season for casual reading, I prefer to see it in terms far more eclectic, as a time to drift on the tides of literary imagination, to give in to a certain ebb and flow.

Because of that, perhaps, the new books that interest me this summer cover a wide swath of the cultural landscape, from fiction to criticism to reportage. There are small, personal bits of storytelling, such as Jim Heynen’s “The Boy’s House” (Minnesota Historical Society Press), a collection of 65 brief (one-to two-page) fable-like fictions, chronicling boyhood on a Midwestern farm. There are more substantial, sweeping efforts, such as “The Fourth Hand” (Random House), John Irving’s 10th novel, which moves from India to America, the global to the individual, in recounting the saga of a reporter who has his hand eaten off by a lion on live TV. “The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader” (FSG), a massive anthology edited and introduced by Gerald Early, also traces the line between public and private, bringing together memoirs, newspaper accounts, feature articles and essays in an attempt to cast our appreciation of its subject in a whole new light. Early opens the collection with a quote from Ralph Ellison--"The thing is to exploit the meaning of the life you have"--that rings like a clarion call throughout the book.

It also reminds me that one of my favorite discoveries of the summer is Ellison’s own “Living With Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings” (Modern Library), a posthumous collection of fiction, nonfiction, letters and interviews that, although for the most part reprinted from a number of other Ellison volumes, helps crystallize our sense of the author’s relationship to music--its importance not just to his writing, but to his life.

Speaking of reprints, Pantheon has just reissued two long-unavailable titles, “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” and “My Ears Are Bent,” by Joseph Mitchell, the late New Yorker writer best known for his small book, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” which was made into a movie a few years ago. Mitchell may have been the most underappreciated great writer in America, a man who focused on small moments, small visions, and made them stand for far more than themselves. These books are full of vivid accounts of pre-and postwar New York, including the original Gould piece, “Professor Seagull,” and “The Mohawks in High Steel,” a harrowing story of the high-steel Indians who helped build the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

When it comes to underappreciated writers, Mitchell is hardly alone this summer; there’s also Patricia Highsmith, who, although born and raised in Texas, spent most of her adult life in Switzerland. Highsmith’s novels have experienced a revival in recent years, spurred by the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” but she was also a chilling short-story writer, as the 64 entries in “The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith” (Norton) prove. Once you’ve read Highsmith, it’s just a short leap to the work of David Goodis, who in 1946 wrote the Bogart-Bacall vehicle “Dark Passage,” before disappearing into the mists of time. Goodis’ 1952 thriller “Of Tender Sin,” newly republished by Serpent’s Tail, is a fine introduction to his peculiarly obsessive perspective, in which all that can go wrong will go wrong, and the one thing we can never escape is ourselves.

If Goodis is the lost soul of American pulp fiction, he might find a kindred spirit in Emmett Miller, a Southern minstrel show performer who is the subject of Nick Tosches’ “Where the Dead Voices Gather” (Little, Brown), which merges memoir, myth and reportage to become some new form all its own. Tosches first heard of Miller while researching his early book “Country,” but he was frustrated by a lack of available (not to mention verifiable) information; a quarter-century later, he has uncovered, through a mix of research and intuition, something very close to a life.

Equally difficult to categorize is Richard Klein’s “Jewelry Talks” (Pantheon), a piece of fiction (or is it cultural criticism?) on the history of jewelry, from antiquity to the present day. Klein, a French professor at Cornell, is the author of “Cigarettes Are Sublime” and “Eat Fat"--this, then, rounds out his trilogy of vice. Of course, no discussion of vice would be complete without the vice of crime, which resides at the heart of “Fearless Jones” (Little, Brown), Walter Mosley’s first mystery in five years. Part missing-persons drama, part social commentary, the novel introduces a new detective, the eponymous Fearless Jones, and his friend, bookseller Paris Minton, as they navigate the labyrinth of 1950s L.A.

To be honest, I miss Easy Rawlins, and I wish Mosley would bring him back. “Fearless Jones,” though, is a worthy companion to the Rawlins mysteries, marked by the same slow-burning tension, the same sense of peeling back the surfaces of the city to find something both real and revelatory underneath. There are any number of other upcoming releases with which to drift through summer, from Susan Straight’s new novel “Highwire Moon” (Houghton Mifflin) to Philip Gourevitch’s “A Cold Case” (FSG), which traces the reopening of a long dormant New York double murder case. Nick Hornby’s “How to Be Good” (Riverhead) looks at the issue of goodness, real goodness, through the filter of a marriage whose rules have suddenly shifted; Evelin Sullivan’s “The Concise Book of Lying” (FSG) ponders why we lie.

Such books would seem to have little in common, but at the same time, if they engage us, what more do we need? The answer, I’d suggest, is very little: just a tube of sunscreen, a well-iced cooler, and a comfortable lawn chair.