Sunday, August 07, 2005

Some books are just plain great

in a way that's beyond rational explanation, and I'm happy to say I've just read one of them, Prime by the lovely Poppy Z. Brite.

I really, really like her stuff--I missed out on the early horror books when they first came out because I was in the thick of the grad school thing--not to say I didn't read a lot of new fiction while I was doing my PhD, because I did, but my reading skewed very heavily towards what I could get at the public library (that big, rather beautiful one in downtown New Haven, a place I remember very fondly) because (a) I was incredibly broke and (b) I'm just a library kind of person, the first thing I do on moving to a new place is get a public library membership, that's what makes me feel at home, and I would die without a major university research library as well and you can get a huge number of novels that way too (in fact, this one I just got through interlibrary loan) but it's not the same as going and seeing the shelf of "new" (actually, year-old) hardcovers in the front of a decent public library branch.

One of the noticeable failings of public libraries, though (and I applaud the ones that are moving away from this outdated model), is that they purchase very conservatively--not a lot of paperback originals (though this is starting to change) or horror or alternative-y type stuff, much more skewed towards the main lists at the established houses. So you were not likely to come across a Brite book that way.

But the first year I was in NY I picked up the usual pile of $2 used paperbacks from the guy with the book table on Broadway at 113th St. and one of them was Drawing Blood. Nothing about the outside tipped me off to its quality, but as soon as I hit the first page I sat up and started paying attention, it was clearly something quite out of the ordinary run of middling-OK horror stuff. Brite is a smart and original and highly effective writer, and her real subject (the horror stuff was a bit of a red herring, it's great but it's far from being the only thing she can do) is chronicling relationships between two men who love each other. So what seemed like a "turn" (from horror to food mystery--the earlier two before Prime are The Value of X and Liquor--haven't read either, but can't WAIT to get them now) doesn't really seem that surprising, it's only the superficials that have changed.

Seriously, if you don't like horror (strange as it may seem, I do realize that some people just don't go for that stuff) and associate Brite with that genre only, you must reconsider & get these books--on the basis of this one, anyway, I can say that they are really funny, lovely, affectionately handled portraits of two guys living an ordinary but also remarkable life in New Orleans. (NB there is the occasional touch of the old Brite here--I particularly enjoyed one description of a celebrity chef as "a young man with a slightly unfinished look, pink and soft, rather like a large, unusually handsome fetus".)

One final thought--for some reason Brite is one of only a tiny handful of writers that I experience a super-strong identification with. She can't be more than a couple years older than I am, although she's published a truly enviable number of novels, and whenever I read something by her I get this strong sense of paths not taken. I would like to have written her books, and I also would like to have been the person who wrote those books instead of the person that I am--not that I'm not extremely happy with my life, I am, but I catch this glimpse of the different person I'd be if I was less of a school person and more of a world person, living in a small- to medium-sized city in the south and fully immersed in music and books and comics and the whole alternative (though that's a silly word--I always feel ridiculous using "indie" or "alt" or whatever) kind of thing and ... oh, it's hard to explain. If I was a person who went to the comic store and the used record place instead of to the public library, is another way of putting it. (Caitlin Kiernan's books give me something of the same feeling, a longing for that other life that my separated-at-birth twin might have; try Silk, if you haven't already.)

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't thought about it before, but I really don't know what constitutes "horror" as a genre. Does Frankenstein count? Is it some mix between sci fi and mystery? Is it a lot of blood and guts? I'm perfectly happy with old English mystery novels of the non-gory type, but I'm not sure how I'd do with anything more horrifying.

    And yes, I've found my public library!