Discovering the dawn
In April I began working a few weekend hours in a bookshop in Asheville. Having operated my own bookstore for more than 20 years and having worked in bookstores for 10 years before that, I took up this newest position as a way of keeping my rather dusty, book-begrimed hand in the business.
Though I am paid only in books and compact discs - yes, I agree that such an arrangement marks me as a true bibliomaniac and that a 12-step program might be in order - the store, Reader’s Corner, is only two blocks from my apartment. The genial customers generally leave happily, and the store’s collection of used books is superb.
The staff at Reader’s Corner is varied in terms of personalities, age, and backgrounds. Our tastes are eclectic, our views on religion and politics vary (More and more these days, I find myself in league with Bogart in”Casablanca,” who, when interrogated by the Nazis about his political affiliations, replied, “I’m a drunkard.”). We all work hard to make the store a better place. Employees actually look for work, for ways to make the store cleaner, neater, more attractive. In that sense, I have never seen a better group of workers.
About every 10 years I will stumble across an author whose name I do not know but whose work takes hold of me forever. I recall, for example, the day some 12 years ago that I first opened Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset’s magical tale of medieval Norway and the tragic life of a woman there. I remember exactly where I was on the day I read the dream sequence from Joyce’s Ulysses, how I felt when I finished Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall, how I could hardly contain my delight when I finished John Gardner’s much neglected Mickelsson’s Ghosts.
While straightening the shelves of the biography section at Reader’s Corner three weeks ago, I had a similar sensation when I opened the pages of a book titled Dawn Powell by Tim Page. After vividly describing Powell’s burial in a pauper’s grave in 1960’s New York, Page spends the rest of the book telling us why we need to read Dawn Powell and why she is the most neglected American writer of the 20th century.
Having never heard of Dawn Powell (yes, I agree, for a bibliomaniac and book reviewer, I can sometimes be shockingly ignorant), I found some copies of her novels in Asheville’s Pack Library. Here I received my first shock when I discovered that the Library of America, which for nearly 30 years has published the most significant writing of our country, had collected the writings of Dawn Powell in two volumes.
I received my second shock when I actually began reading Dawn Powell’s novel, Turn, Magic Wheel. Here was a voice indeed: a writer who could snap and twist words with the ease and enjoyment of a 12-year-old popping bubbles from a wad of gum. The characters, particularly Dennis Orphen, his adulterous lover Corinne, and his older friend Effie, came alive off the pages. Powell’s take on New York, on literature, on love and business and sex seem as up-to-date as computers and Palm Pilots. Her pacing in this story of adultery, fame, and success is quick and true.
It is, however, in her language, in her diction and syntax, that Dawn Powell most strongly attracts our attention. Her love for language can be found in the zest with which she delivers words onto the page. Here, for instance, Powell describes a lonely Effie who has just made a disastrous phone call from a booth in a drugstore:
“Without warning, tears streamed down her face, she leaned her face against the telephone, mechanically pulled the booth door slightly open so the light would go off and hide her, she stood in there, receiver dangling from its hook, her body shaking. The soda fountain boy was looking at her. The marcelled blonde at the Helena Rubinstein counter was looking at her. The customer was looking at her. They could see through both glass doors, dark or light. They could see through long distance to the Bruster Company, Literary Agents, to Dr. MacGregor in the Hotel Rumsey. They could see through everything but she could not stop crying. She picked up her pocketbook, left the receiver still hanging with I’m-fine-I’m-fine and ran outdoors into brilliant sun.”
Finding Dawn Powell has brought me both chagrin and delight. I feel chagrin because I have never heard of this woman who writes prose like a wicked angel. (I must add that such humiliation strikes on such a regular basis that I suspect the universe has my number when it comes to pride.) Of course, the delight in finding Dawn Powell, as all readers know, is that I now have the enormous satisfaction of discovering and reading her other works.
As commencement nears, you may be thinking of a gift for your favorite graduate. Let me highly recommend two books. First, any graduate should appreciate - they should, but they may not - a copy of Bartlett’s Quotations. The copy my mother once gave me is now rough at the edges with dog-eared pages, but I still use it several times each month.
For any young men in your life - sons, grandsons, nephews, and so on - allow me to point you to Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. The more I read this book - I have read it twice in its entirety, and still pick it up several times a week for pleasure and for profit - the more I see that Helprin has written a primer on manhood itself. This story of an old veteran and a young man just beginning life is truly one of the great modern classics. Let me close with a quotation from the book, a letter written by the passionate woman who became the veteran’s wife, a quotation which my own son included in his announcement of graduation:
“As long as you have life and breath, believe. Believe for those who cannot. Believe even if you have stopped believing. Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe. Never give up, never despair. Let no mystery confound you into the conclusion that mystery cannot be yours.”