I was a bit of a latecomer to books. As a kid and through most of my teens I was much more interested in music, my buddies, and, as I got older, girls. Almost all of my information and entertainment came from movies and television. I didn’t grow up in a book-filled environment, but there were books here and there and I glanced at a few of them. Even doing book reports in high school, I would skim and jump around until I found a sentence worth quoting and running my mouth about, and I managed to pass the course. I don’t think I was fooling anybody, either.
I’m certainly not alone in this. William Styron once wrote that he barely read a book until college age.
Of course, my contemporaries were not what you’d call bookish. I hung, of course, with the bad boys in high school, and their idea of a good read was a hot rod magazine. I remember, at about 14, reading Studs Lonigan, that minor masterpiece of Chicago boyhood. I was really impressed, and told some of my buddies about it.
KEVIN: “Hey, man, I’m just reading this book, and it’s great! It’s about guys just like us, except it’s in Chicago in the 1930s. Like, you know, the Depression. The guy who wrote it was—“
SULLEN TEEN PAL #1: “Yeah, sure. A fuckin’ book? You were reading a fuckin’ book? Don’t you get enough of that from the fuckin’ teachers?
SULLEN TEEN PAL #2: Yeah. Whadja do, turn fuckin’ queer?”
KEVIN: “Er…ah…Aw, you fell for it. I was just fuckin’ pullin’ your leg. Fuckin’ A. So, tell me about the fuckin’ carburetors…”
It was not until I was about 18, living in a furnished room on Second Street, that, for some reason that I can no longer recall, I picked up a book and actually read it. And it happened to be one I picked up in a secondhand book store, simply because I’d heard of it. It was Anatomy of a Murder, uber-famous at the time, having been on the New York Times bestseller list for about a year. Written by a former Michigan Supreme Court justice named John Voelker, under the name of Robert Traver, it was a fictionalized treatment of an actual murder trial he had won, as defense counsel, in the early 1950s.
Reading that book was one of the most intense pleasures of my life up until that point. I liked the idea of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and I liked the insightful, humorous way Traver described it. I ultimately drove up there a couple of times, although it never occurred to me to track Mr. Voelker down and actually tell him how much I liked his work. Had it occurred, I would have vetoed it, as I don’t like to bother people. This is one of the many reasons I don’t have all that many names to drop…
I didn’t think much of his subsequent work, and most people agree with that. But his earlier books, especially Small Town D.A., really captured something. This was a book of anecdotes about his most interesting cases as a public prosecutor, circa 1940-1950, in the U.P.
One of his tales in that book really throttled me, I had to read it twice to actually believe it. It represented a depth of humanoid worthlessness that I’d never before imagined. I had seen a lot of depravity and senseless violence, of course, but to a city dweller that’s just regular day to day stuff, like auto fumes and jackhammers and muggers. The strain that Traver described went in a different direction altogether. It was incomprehensible; it was something you’d feel justified in scolding a hyena about:
The Ghost of Horseus
Wild, beautiful natural surroundings have produced, or attracted, a lot of anti-social misfits, but this one, the subject of the story, was unusually touched. He was an old hermit, living in a crumbling shack on a hill on the outskirts of one of those small Northern Michigan towns. The old man had built his shack adjacent to the municipal garbage dump, which put him in perhaps the only ugly spot for 50 miles in any direction. His house stank and he never left it. He also pasted newspapers over the windows, presumably to prevent the darkness and the stink from escaping. When some people rebel against the world they don’t know when to stop.
For a living, the old fellow sharpened an occasional saw. When a customer would come around the old man would furtively squeeze the door open, just wide enough to admit the saw, mutter something like “Is finish Monday,” and then slam to door on the world. On Monday the woodsman would return and knock and the saw was quickly thrust back outside. A slight bit of money changed hands, and our hermit, figuring that he’d had enough excitement and socializing for the day, slammed the door again. Not a guy you’d want to propose to the Lions Club, certainly, but that was his business. And, personally, after traveling through Asia by bus and train, fending off pointless chatter 40 times a day, I’ve come to appreciate a taciturn man. Fred Nietzsche was a lonely man, for instance, as was Franz Kafka. Jack London was taciturn, as were Gary Cooper and Marcel Marceau. And representing the other side, Hermann Goering was a regular old chatterbox, and so are all of the daytime television quiz show hosts.
The garbage dump smelled like any other garbage dump and was not popular among casual strollers, so the old guy was able to maintain his existence without too much effort. The only people that would otherwise come near the spot were, perversely, young lovers, protected from the stink by their car windows and the steam of their passion. I should mention that this is all taking place in 1949 or so, when it was perfectly acceptable to park in the moonlight and grope around, when small-town gossips were everywhere and the motels demanded marriage certificates. The backseat of a car was all they had.
The kids, however, found one thing really upsetting. The old man was playing a violin. He played a violin all night long, and the sounds he made were startling and upsetting–they described it as a horrible, painful moan, the kind of sound you’d get by combining fingernails, blackboards and Egyptian wailing women. This mournful music wormed its way inside their heads and gave them such a clear view of something dreadful that the girls, especially, kept losing the mood. This became intolerable. The guys had spent half the evening trying to get to their next base with those girls and here comes this half-crazed atonalist, making everybody feel creepy. Many of the kids took to parking closer to town, risking police discovery, rather than have to hear that anymore. Such are the powers of acoustics.
I found this very intriguing. This old man may have been a modern composer, one of the greatest in America. Who knows? You never know what puddles genius may swim in. To a bunch of small-town teens in postwar America, you would get the same reaction from the music of Charles Ives or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. But, to be fair, you could also get it from torturing a live mouse.
Finally, in the early 1950s, the music stopped. The folks that used to dread those scraping atonalities now noticed their absence and became concerned. One of them went to the police and suggested that the old man might be seriously ill or something, and the cops came by to investigate. Robert Traver was the district attorney at the time.
Traver has described the scene well in his book, and it’s enough for me to say that when the cops pushed open the front door, an overpowering stink came rushing out and they almost fainted. The smell was a dreadful mashup of 30 years casually placed garbage, the old man’s corpse–he was about as seriously ill as a guy can get–and 500 jars of poorly pickled fish. Fixing handkerchiefs–the p’liceman’s lot is not a happy one–they went inside.
Among the things that they found were a lot of complicated-looking musical scores, presumably for string instruments, one of which was titled The Ghost of Horseus. Alongside were about 45 pounds of paper, containing page after page of odd, endless mathematical computations. The cops, more interested in the cause of death and the possibility of foul play, put the papers aside and went on with the gathering of fingerprints.
The old man’s death turned out to be natural, the logical conclusion of 30 years of living like a wart hog. The foul play came later.
From this we can assume that the old man had put his papers in order, or at least his conception of it, and, having shown all the bastards in the world what he could do, calmly curled up and died. And his leavings could have been the outpourings of another Alan Turing and the sounds of another Arnold Shoenberg. Or, to be again fair, they could have been a hopeless muddle, the mad ravings and harsh melodies of a lunatic. But these judgments are for all the bastards of the world to puzzle over. One might even say that that is one of the primary functions of all of those bastards, to praise or criticize dead genius. But in this case they won’t get the chance. Because when the police left, they turned the case over to the town public administrator–whatever that is–an unbrilliant sort of guy who had grown fat and comfortable from 26 years of undistinguished paper pushing–and this chubby bureaucrat waddled over to the shack to take care of the paperwork.
He did a remarkable job of it. One glance at the papers convinced him that it was all a bunch of meaningless weirdo claptrap and he dumped them into the stove and burned them. Everything. He burned everything that this singular man had formulated and developed and possibly perfected over a lifetime, and then he turned to the more important business of counting the jars of pickled herring. When Traver, a civilized fellow, heard about this, he absolutely exploded. He called the administrator a “lard-brained hog” and considered shooting him. He didn’t, of course*, but if the fat man was looking for any further career advancement it would probably have to wait until Traver hit the lecture circuit.
*But you never know about those clever lawyers, either. A lot of them sit up late at night, reading mysteries. Are they plotting the perfect murder?
After that, Traver oversaw the housecleaning himself. They found no more music or math, but inside every jar, cached under a pile of stinking fish, they found large amounts of money or negotiable securities, all pathetically hoarded by this old nut that lived on slops and slept in a garbage dump. Now, this was something the local mind could understand, and the old man because a posthumous object of respect anyway. But not, we suppose, in the way he wanted.
No one brought out any terrific inventions based on his mathematical computations. No one’s life was ever enriched by way of his string quartets. He only attained a vague sort of anonymous posterity as a figure in an obscure tragedy because a best-selling author happened upon his remnants.
But, you know, how often does that happen?
End BOOKS INTERLUDE