Dispatches | April 29, 2008

I remember myself as a shy, soft spoken little girl, but the kid that appears in the home movies I recently inherited is anything but bashful.  My father filmed my dance recitals, a riot of miniature ballerinas dressed as pink shrimps, lightening bugs and yellow birds.  Clumsy and uncoordinated, my place was in the back row, but by the end of each number, I was center stage.  During curtain call, I bowed with broad, flourishing gestures.  Dancing, turning cartwheels, generally vamping for the camera, as a little girl I came across as a future sexpot not a book worm.     

People misremember books as well.  We often have ideas about novels that have little basis in reality.  Three obvious examples come to mind. 

The first is On the Road.  Because of its obvious association with the Beats, one might assume that it’s a road book more on par with Natural Born Killers than Going My Way.  But rather than being about sociopathic hoodlums joy-riding across America wrecking havoc wherever they alight, it is a novel about a group of sensitive, well-meaning kids who occasionally nick a tank of gas and a loaf of bread to keep on moving.  They’re not criminals but spiritual cultural seekers.  The book has a sad, sweet generous spirit, and the narrator Sal Paradise is certainly more angel than devil.

Bright Lights, Big City is reputed to be about sex, drugs and rock and roll.  Yet, the novel has three brief references to rock, despite a title borrowed from a Jimmy Reed blues song.  And as for sex, the narrator is all talk and no action.  Depressed over the desertion of his wife and the death of his mother, he lets his promising career at a New Yorkeresque magazine flat line and his sense of self-worth plummet.  The McInerney of Bright Lights is a precursor to today’s metro sexual.

And why does everyone think that Holden Caulfield is crazy?  Some fifty years ago, a rumor was spread that Holden tells his story from a mental hospital because he’s cracked up.  I guess that’s flashier than being in a sanitarium for TB.  Holden is certainly sad, alienated, and, at times, a real bummer, but he’s not mental.  Like the narrator in Bright Lights, he has a bad attitude because life has recently dealt him a harsh blow.  His younger brother, Allie, who he loved and admired, has died of leukemia. 

Perhaps, these mistaken reputations have done these books some good.  Selling a novel as a quiet, thoughtful meditation on loss and loneliness is certainly not going to get a lot of dates with readers.

But mean, brooding and sexy?  We’ll go out with that.