Friday, June 1, 2012

Off the rack

I did not look forward to summer the way I believed most children did.

My family lived in the same house for all of my school years, and it was not within walking or bicycling distance of town, or much of anything else. There was a cornfield across the street. There was a Catholic seminary a mile down the road in one direction, and – no fooling – a prison one-quarter mile in the other direction.

There were six or seven other children close in age in the houses along the road, but most were deemed, by my parents, too unpredictable to play on our property, and the few exceptions would grow restless, as I did, trying to keep my wheelchair-bound brother amused, playing with action figures in the shade while the open spaces beckoned.

I missed the social aspects of school during the summer. Also, I had to work.

We had enough property that the job of mowing the lawn, which fell to me at a young age, could be finished, if the weather cooperated, just in time to start all over again. We had a vegetable garden, taking up about one-sixteenth of an acre, which needed to be tilled and planted and watered and hoed. We had neighbors who needed their horses fed during some busy time in their lives, or help masking a muscle car they were going to paint, and my parents made me available to them.

During the final weeks of the school year, I’d feel the haze and the isolation approaching, and have only one goal: I had to get to the Rexall drugstore, buy two or three paperback thrillers, and try to make them last all summer.

The newsstand at the Rexall was good for a Jack Higgins, a Dick Francis, an Alistair Maclean; John Jakes and Irwin Shaw (for grownups); the latest Travis McGee novel; the latest in numbered action series like “The Executioner” or “The Destroyer”; quickie Pocket books about sensational news stories of the day, like the Patty Hearst case, or quickie biographies of sports phenomenons like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych; a novelization of an R-rated movie I wasn’t allowed to see (but reading the book was okay), like Magnum Force, or a tie-in to a TV show, like “The Rockford Files.”

The Rexall was where I bought Black Sunday, Funeral in Berlin, Coma, Mortal Stakes, The Boys From Brazil – books I picked very carefully, because I knew I would wind up reading them more than once before the summer was over. (Without them, I would have spent all of my free time bouncing a hardball off the well house, like Steve McQueen in solitary confinement in The Great Escape.) 

For my classmates, summer may have meant Little League or the swimming pool, but I needed the cities of the world, mistaken identity and pursuit, the Fourth Reich, and underwater knife fights.

I went on to read more widely, but there’s still nothing that compares to choosing some crappy-looking mass-market off the rack at a pharmacy or a hospital gift shop or an airport bookstall.

Most popular thrillers today are nowhere near as reliable as the ones of my youth. For starters, they’re padded: Ira Levin’s entire career output would fit inside the pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They don’t leave you feeling wised-up, the way a really great thriller can. Most conclude with the opening chapter of the next book in the series, a hateful practice – oh look, the protagonist survives! – that reeks of publishers conceding, in a way, that television-watching is now the equal of reading. Eight out of every ten are (*still?) about genius serial killers. At the very worst, they can be riddled with business-action-verbs, and their plots might hinge on grand left-wing conspiracies. (“My God, they’re planning to…not torture Muslims!”)

Luckily, it doesn’t take much poking around to figure out what to avoid.


I’m starting the summer with Black Light, by Stephen Hunter (fifty cents; public library sale); Savages, by Don Winslow (movie tie-in mass market; CVS Pharmacy); and The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly (UK edition, received in mail from a friend; receipt from Amsterdam airport newsstand enclosed)…will debrief as necessary.

*I loved Black Sunday, and thought Red Dragon was even better, and I looked forward to Thomas Harris publishing one great thriller every five or six years, completely different in subject matter than the previous book, with a color in the title; The Silence of the Lambs broke my heart a little.

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