Rather than make year-end lists, I follow them. I know, it’s a little silly. I’ve often confessed to my love of lists; in this era, there is so much stuff out there, I’m perfectly happy for someone else to do at least some legwork.
Naturally, I pay a price, especially for my childish insistence on trusting the NY Times “Best Books” list, which has proven time and again to be a big fat dud. I’m not even going to attempt to read the Stephen King tome; as my son says, “All Stephen King books end with ‘It was an alien, all along,'” something not really true, but that kid just makes me laugh. But diving into Swamplandia!, exclamation point mandatory, had me wishing for some sort of spaceman intervention. Over several tortuous nights, I tried to read it and kept falling asleep. The author’s sentences are microscopically crafted and no doubt strike some, including the venerable Paper of Record, as high art. They gave me a headache. Judge for yourself:
“The tourists moved sproingily from buttock to buttock in the stands, slapping at the ubiquitous mosquitos, unsticking their khaki shorts and their printed department-store skirts from their sweating thighs.”
It’s not awful, but it just never freaking ends. The characters have names like Osceola, Kiwi, and Hilola. There’s barely a chink of air anywhere. No wonder I’d fall asleep, I couldn’t get any oxygen to my brain. But I did think the culprit was me, and that I just needed a good run at the book to get some traction. An unexpected 30 minute wait with only the book for company proved me wrong, and at page 89, I officially threw in the towel, or as the author might say, the omnipresent terrycloth fabric remnant that dolefully circled my neck like a scruffy noose.
It’s too bad, because an alligator wrestling theme park on the skids seems like it could yield something rather fine. As a kid, I read somewhere about Weeki Wachee theme park, a magical destination somewhere in Florida that promised live mermaids who ate hot dogs underwater. (It’s STILL there; I just googled it to find the above link.) I also recall reading, not that many years ago, about the various mermaid ailments that were part and parcel of employment at Weeki Wachee, included some bizarre tail fungus that came from being in waist to foot spandex for hours on end. My friends, that is indeed grounds for a novel; well, more likely a novella. Ok, maybe only a story. A graphic one.
Anyway, Swamplandia! did not fulfill my expectation, which was not that it would be one of the Best Books of the Year! but that it would be at least fun and diverting. Ah, well. So far I’m having better luck with The Tiger’s Wife, by a 26-year-old Belgrade native who can, so far, really really write; she’s good enough that she’s not pissing me off, as 26-year-old publishing darlings tend to do.
Really, I have to stop checking the stupid Times Best Books lists year after year. Their shoddy treatment of James Wolcott’s terrific memoir Lucking Out and curious notion that first-class writer Laura Jacobs doesn’t exist are just the latest in a long list of misdemeanors. Dennis’s first book, Mr. Mike, was never my favorite – rather fraught was the personal life as he wrote that one, and I had a rough time separating the experience from the work – but it’s a serious, well-written study of a seminal comedy writer and deserved an incisive critic, not the smirking prat who wrote about it.
2012 is the year of breaking old patterns. Goodbye, NY Times list. You and your alligator wrestling treatise have pushed me beyond the pale. Here’s to a year of reading stuff that just looks interesting.