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April 12, 2010

Hello, Police? I Want to Report a Theory

Among the plethora of Nobel-Prize-potential ideas I've got floating around in my tiny brain is one that I've actually put into practice. I'll divulge it right here (and if any of you know a person or two on the Committee in Stockholm, a kind word or two about the concept would be much appreciated): Non-nutritive reading.

Although NNR (as history will call it) differs only slightly from the traditional rubric of "pleasure reading," the difference is crucial. NNR is based on the scientifically established dietary principle of consuming piles of non-nutritive fiber, so that the stuff can speed through your system like thousands (or tens of thousands, or millions, or whatever--I'm not too good at organic chemistry) of whisk brooms and keep your pipes slick and clean for the processing of healthful food. And NNR carries with it exactly that intent, so it's something more noble than your normal hedonist literary activity, such as reading, say, Kitty Kelley's Oprah bio over a latte and muffin in a Whole Foods booth. It's like taking a steam or a sauna at the gym--not exactly the hard part of doing the exercise you know you need, but still a justifiable aspect of putting your smelly sneakers into a backpack and forcing yourself to enter the chamber of grunts.

That serious-reading chamber for me is what Sandy Ballatore, a critic and curator in my L.A. days, wonderfully called "artblat"--that dense, dry, sociology-dissertationesque writing about art that all of us in the art-critic business have to dip into from time to time to see what's going on in the minds of people who speculate about what's going on in the minds of people who speculate about what's going on with artists. It takes a whole hell of a lot more than a spoonful of sugar--or, in this case, psyllium husk--to make this particular brand of medicine go down. (You try reading a 5,000-word essay, with no illustrations, on "situational aesthetics" or "picture theory" without casting longing glances at that stack of shelter magazines on your night table.)

And for me, literary fiber is mystery novels, particularly old hardbounds I find for a buck or two at thrift shops and book exchanges. (Once in a while, I plunk down full retail for a new one at Hamish & Henry, the local Catskills independent I want to stay in business.) But not just any mystery novels--I've standards and tastes, you know: no serial killers, no gratuitously gory sex murders (if I'm forewarned on the jacket copy), no kiddies in jep, no "medical thrillers," no plots to detonate atomic nerve gas when the President speaks at Davos, no Victorian period pieces, a slight bias against women authors other than Ruth Rendell, a slight bias in favor of the Brits and Scandinavians, and a heaving prejudice in favor of police procedurals. I cannot board a subway, train, bus or airplane without a mystery novel, and I frequently take them with me to overnight family gatherings where I can yell from the guest bedroom, "Gimme a minute, I'll be down shortly!" and squeeze in ten more pages. Usually, I even bring one into the sauna at the gym, which amounts to double-beneficial multitasking, or something like that.

No paean to mystery novels is complete, alas, without some recommendations. (I say "alas" because receiving mystery-novel recommendations is generally as tedious as getting tips on what to put in your Netflix queue or how to make your own marinara sauce.) One proviso, though: no pioneer novels now deemed bona fide literature, as with Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or (to my mind, anyway) Ross Macdonald. I'll keep it short: Hakan Nesser's "Borkmann's Point," which had a very satisfying wrap-up (of course, I don't recall the wrap-up itself, only that it was satisfying--this is non-nutritive, remember), Ruth Rendell's "The Water's Lovely" (man, can she do character!), and Bill James's entire "Harpur & Iles" series. That last item, now consisting of more than twenty novels, got me through a bit of a crisis a few years ago, and I was unusually absorbed by its alternative--albeit very, very dark--universe. In fact, I ran around saying at the time that James (an 80-year-old Welshman whose real name is James Tucker and who has written a reputable study of the novels of Anthony Powell) was the greatest living novelist in the English language. But don't hold that against him. And know that one of the books in the series, "Roses, Roses," is a deep piece of literary fiction and will disturb you far more than a paper-and-ink manifestation of psyillium husk really should.

"Deep" literary fiction is, incidentally, what I occasionally fall into when I find myself bereft of authentic NNR. That happened recently when I finished the Ngaio Marsh I'd happened upon in a church store in Youngsville, New York, looked around, and saw not a policier in sight. Desperate, I stood upon a chair to reach the "Neglected" section of my serious fiction shelves, and pulled down three serious subway-ride-mitigators. F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise"--a kind of Young Werther Lite--was disappointing. The protagonist reminded me of what a painter friend of mine says about certain solo shows by young artists: "You just wanna slap 'em." Czeslaw Milosz's "The Seizure of Power" sits unopened by my bed. The reason is because Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" absolutely stopped me in my tracks. For the moment, I'm still catching my breath, trying to decide whether to skitter right back to the jaundiced comfort of my mystery-novel NNR, or subject myself to the possible shattering profundity of another bit of genuine literature. I don't know if I could take it.

April 12, 2010 11:40 AM | | Comments (3)


Recognizing the addiction, I can't resist recommending back: Eliot Pattison's Tibet mysteries; John Connolly's Charlie Parker series; anything by Richard Price or George Pelecanos (literature alert, including Pattison) and Carol O'Connell's Mallory series, especially the bayou-noir homecoming of Stone Angel. And if you're a forme or neo-Floridian like me, and with John D MacDonald long dead (another MacDonald for the literature shelf) fishing lore and marine biology match up with the dark side in the Doc ford and Tomlinson novels of Randy Wayne White.

Mr. White (of the dance world, or somebody else?): Thanks for the comment and the recommendations. Here's one back: If you want Florida, weirdos, a preposterous satire of the preposterous art world, and an art-critic protagonist (not everybody's fave combo, I'll admit), try Charles Willeford's 1971 "The Burnt Orange Heresy." Not saying it's all that good, but you'll remember it.

One of the art history profs I had as an undergrad believed that anyone who majored in art history (as I did) had to love mystery novels (as I do).

Over the years, I had to refine my additction to only those that involve art in some way, because otherwise choosing is too hard. And it's always interesting to see what art stuff the writer gets right, and what they miss.

I look forward to finding and reading "The Burnt Orange Heresy." Thanks for the tip!

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