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Authors: Joel Yanofsky

Bad Animals

BOOK: Bad Animals
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Also by Joel Yanofsky

Homo Erectus . . . And Other Popular Tales of True Romance Jacob's Ladder

Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind

Copyright © 2012 by Joel Yanofsky
First published in Canada by Viking Canada, 2011

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Arcade Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

ISBN: 978-1-61145-414-7

Printed in the United States of America

For all those parents in the same boat

To Cynthia, with love, always

To Jonah, a most awesome guy



First Term


What You Need




Bad Day


Let's Talk About Complaining


Trouble Came


Variable Weather


Mr. Potato Head
Second Term






Old Sperm


Welcome to Autismland


Poor Us


Who's on First?


Zebras and Zebus


Bulletin Board






Selected Bibliography

There have always been too many books. When I was seventeen a shelf over the desk in my bedroom collapsed, more or less, on top of me. A three-foot plank of dark wood-stained laminate, supported by two flimsy metal brackets, which were, in turn, supported by four tiny plastic anchors, gave way under the weight of my evolving literary taste. The shelf was arranged alphabetically—authors from M to P—and my latest purchase, Thomas Pynchon's
Gravity's Rainbow,
proved too weighty. The avalanche of paperbacks—Penguins, Pelicans, Bantams, Signets, Dells—stunned me more than anything else. Some landed in my lap; most dispersed like shrapnel, taking out a lamp, a turntable, and a tennis trophy I won when I was eleven. I never imagined
Remembrance of Things Past, Volume One,
could cause so much collateral damage.

I should have taken the incident as a sign, a warning. Even then, I should have realized that my so-called library was conspiring to teach me one of literature's most enduring lessons—there's a price to pay for precocity, for our reach exceeding our grasp. And while I may have harboured a secret ambition to write at the time, I was young and oblivious to irony and metaphor. Who knew this was precisely the kind of stuff—stuff you couldn't make up if you tried—you were supposed to remember, take note of, cherish even? These silly, seemingly insignificant moments were, in lieu of something more dramatic or meaningful, what you were given as a writer and you better learn to make the most of it—lemons into lemonade. My mother heard the crash from the kitchen, gasped, and came running. Once she realized I was unhurt, only embarrassed, she covered her mouth to stifle a laugh. It was as if she'd walked in on the aftermath of some slapstick routine and was reconstructing it in reverse, as if she'd discovered someone lying on their back next to a banana peel. She could afford to draw her own conclusions. She wasn't complicit in this oddball preoccupation of mine.

My mother had been a serious reader once. That was when she still entertained dreams of finishing high school and attending college. Before she had to drop out and work for her older brother pressing shirts, she'd ordered a complete set of novels by the American social realist Sinclair Lewis—
Main Street
Elmer Gantry.
(I asked her once: Why Lewis? But she no longer had a clue. “There must have been a reason,” she said.) And while you could still find the occasional bestseller on her night table—
Mila 18
A Stone for Danny Fisher
—they remained mainly unread. My father didn't read at all, not even the newspaper. So, naturally, both of them were a little bewildered by my bookishness. They assumed it was a phase and I let them think so. But they must have wondered where it came from and, more important, when it would end. I wondered myself. (They must have also thought what all parents think eventually—
Whose kid is this?)
Our four television sets—one in each of our suburban bungalow's three bedrooms as well as one in the kitchen—were always playing in our house: soap operas, quiz shows, baseball games, old black-and-white movies. I watched as much TV as I wanted. Back then, no one could see the harm. My parents never read to me when I was a child either. As far as I know, they never considered it. Even if they had, there were no children's books around to read. I didn't discover the kidlit classics—Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss,
The Wind in the Willows, Where the Wild Things Are,
Shel Silverstein—until my son was born.

It didn't help that at the suburban high school I attended all my friends wanted to be dentists or, failing that, chartered accountants. Plans A and B. I seem to remember them just showing up one September determined to be solid citizens. Rather abruptly, they stopped wrestling in the halls and giving each other wedgies. It was like
Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
In the meantime, I was betting that my high-minded taste in books would make me unique, which it did—unique and isolated. As my must-read list grew longer, my social life dwindled, or perhaps vice versa. I didn't care about school either. I cared about life and love and literature. And it hardly mattered which came first—my chicken-hearted pomposity or my egg-headed awkwardness.

I'd spend entire summer vacations wrapped up in novels that were so far above my head I practically had to translate them line by line—from English into English. Still, on the last day of school, I trudged off to a neighbourhood bookstore (they had those then) where I'd had my eye on a copy of James Joyce's
I agonized over the enormous cost, nine bucks for a paperback, but then finally bought it. I'd spend all of July and August immersed or, more precisely, drowning in Joycean prose. I read and reread Molly Bloom's final monologue, never realizing it might be dirty. By the time school began again, I would be confused for weeks by my English teacher's comparatively simple assignments. I kept searching for layers of meaning that no one else cared about.

In university, my friends, who were studying commerce or science, teased me about never carrying a schoolbag. The only books I was ever seen with were ones that slipped easily into my pocket. It was the 1970s, a time for thin, revelatory, pretentious fiction: Herman Hesse, Richard Brautigan,
The Crying of Lot 49
Pynchon in a brief though no less bewildering mood. Why Pynchon? You could ask me that now and I would be, like my mother, hard-pressed to come up with a reason.

At home, I was spending more and more time banging out term papers with pretentious subtitles—
Resignation and Despair in the Comedies of Samuel Beckett
—on my manual typewriter. “What's he doing?” my father would ask my mother constantly. A sign painter, my father worked at home, in the basement, and the constant clacking noise from one floor up must have been unbearable. I can't know what he was thinking, but I'm in a better position now than ever to guess. Something like:
Is this why you have children? So they can drive you crazy and turn into someone you don't recognize?

I was, in my own low-key way, weird; saving my money to acquire six-foot-high bookcases as though they were precious collectibles. (Why didn't I want a car? Or a guitar? Or a girlfriend? Why didn't I backpack through Europe?) When I ran out of space for any more bookcases in my bedroom, they ended up in the basement. I spent long, lonely weekends assembling them. I became an expert with an Allen key. There are still dozens of those useless things lying around.

In her memoir
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books,
novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz describes her transformation in college into a proselytizing pain in the neck. She was appalled that her parents had never studied the great works of Western literature. Without them, no life could be complete, she pronounced. If she'd had a bumper sticker, she writes, it would have proclaimed, “Lit Saves.” My own expectations of literature were more modest and self-involved. I wanted it to save me, only me. From what exactly? Who knows? Likely it was a nagging concern about being average, typical, heaven forbid, normal. Literature honours the offbeat, the oddball; it thrives on idiosyncrasies. What would Captain Ahab be without his OCD? A regular, grumpy seafaring guy—think the Skipper on
Gilligan's Island.
Even writers who claim to devote their careers to championing ordinariness have their limits. John Updike talked a good game about his intention “to transcribe the middle”—middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middle-America—but in the
books, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is always going off the deep end or on the verge of doing so. Over the course of four novels, Rabbit remains a notable narcissist. “Harry, you're not actually the centre of the universe,” his ex-wife tells him in
Rabbit at Rest,
“it just feels that way to you.” Imagine Joseph K without his paranoia, Jay Gatsby without his self-delusion; or how about a happily married Anna Karenina, a well-adjusted Miss Havisham? What would they be? Good company at a dinner party or on a long road trip, and who's looking for that in a novel?

I didn't realize it then but I had nothing but time. So how come I always felt rushed? The extra Lit courses I took later in graduate school only made my sense of urgency worse. I began to realize I'd never be done, as one newly discovered author invariably led to another: Joyce to Flann O'Brien to Flannery O'Connor; Cheever to Updike to Anne Tyler to Alice Hoffman to Richard Ford. There was no end to the Russians and their doorstoppers. The same for the Brits, who, thank-fully, were more succinct: Evelyn Waugh begat Anthony Powell who begat Henry Green who begat Graham Greene. I made a resolution to get through the Old Testament, but kept finding myself stuck early in
on Abraham's decision to sacrifice Isaac. He was not the first inept asshole father, I'm guessing, but he blazed the trail.

Still, I was fondest of the writers I stumbled across on my own, non-household names like Stanley Elkin or Peter De Vries. I sucked up important literary and life lessons by osmosis. From De Vries's
The Blood of the Lamb,
I learned you could be irreverent and sad at the same time, as De Vries's usual clowning around and wordplay—”The only thing that keeps me from killing myself is the will to live”—morphed into a heartbreaking, barely fictionalized account of his daughter's death from leukemia. “The future is a thing of the past,” another father in the novel with a dying daughter says. And I laughed, though there's no chance I got this dark joke. Not then.

I went through my snobby phase, too. I remember auditing a course by renowned Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan and dropping it before the poor man's lecture was ten minutes old. I knew I'd never read
Two Solitudes
Barometer Rising.
It was the kind of snap judgment I would repeat often—later in print, in the book reviews I regularly wrote for newspaper book sections. Readers and writers have their pet peeves. Vladimir Nabokov detested italics. Elmore Leonard refuses to read any book that begins with a description of the weather. I had my own rule about dumping novelists who didn't crack a joke by the end of the first chapter. Whatever else he was, MacLennan was no kidder.

Later, when I did begin reviewing books on a regular basis for whoever would pay me a tiny, unchanging sum to do what I increasingly realized was the only thing I was qualified to do—read—I discovered new books. Brand new, I mean. These were books with pub dates and press releases tucked inside their dust jackets; books with authors in town, waiting to be interviewed. Books lined up on my desk, like widgets on an assembly line. They never stopped coming, nor did my hurried, slapdash opinions of them. Somehow, I found something to say about everything. Imagine that. I also discovered I didn't like the vast majority of the books I reviewed, but I read them anyway, right to the end. Every six months or so I gathered up a pile of review copies and sold them at a second-hand bookstore across the street from the newspaper I freelanced for. The owner of the store found the practice—mine and other reviewers'—morally dubious but good for business. There was no more room on my shelves. Besides, I wasn't an amateur any more. I'd gone pro.

I've been a book reviewer, now, for almost three decades. I've also interviewed and profiled several hundred authors. And while it's not the kind of work that makes you rich or famous or especially fulfilled—“Nobody needs to spend his life telling the world that this not very good book is not very good,” as Richard Ford once put it—there are worse jobs. I've been able to justify how little book reviewing pays and how little respect it has earned me by thinking about the ongoing education I've received from the books I've read and the writers I've encountered. “The important books will come to you when you need them,” said Joseph Epstein, an American essayist and critic, and, until recently, this seemed true. I wasn't just devoted to literature; I depended on it. I filled up memo pads with passages from famous and obscure authors: my own
Coles Notes
of how to live a good, self-aware life. “Ambivalent love, the only love worth writing about”—John Updike. Or: “The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy—that is every man's tragedy”—Philip Roth. I played hunches, too, guessing that one day I would understand George Bernard Shaw's aphorism about there being two tragedies in life: not getting your heart's desire and getting it. One day, I would understand.

Anyway, I must have believed everything I read then. I don't any more. My bookcases are in
basement office now, and sometimes I find myself staring at what is, at the moment, the unalphabetized chaos of my life. Sometimes, I flip through the books that were once important to me to see my scribbled notes in the margins, to wonder what I was trying to tell myself, what message I was sending. Maybe Joseph Epstein was wrong and the important book he promised isn't on its way. Maybe there aren't enough books, after all.

In any case, who has the time to wait around? Who has the energy or faith for clever quips or highlighted passages any more? Not me. I haven't for a while. Not since strangers, with their theories and their degrees in the social sciences, began telling my wife and me there was something wrong with our son Jonah; not since we finally noticed something was wrong; not since our world turned upside down; not since one word, not a metaphor or a turn of phrase or an illuminating passage, just one impenetrable word,
changed everything.

Now I'm clearing shelf space for a new set of books: manuals and memoirs and diet books, all with the same subject. I can't read them all; I certainly can't finish all of them. They infuriate me, bore me, make me scoff, make me cry, inspire envy, strike chords, ring bells, miss the mark, make no sense, make too much sense. Still, there are times I wonder if there might be one that might also make a difference, by which I mean an important difference. Nothing else is useful any more. I also wonder what would happen if I dismissed a certain book because the author was, let's say, a pretentious blowhard, or because he or she said something worth saying but said it ineptly. I'm preoccupied with my son and with autism now, not with prose style. I used to think the great advantage of studying literature was that no matter what, you could never be wrong. Your opinion was as good as anyone else's. The trouble is: I need to be right now. I need answers, not more questions.

BOOK: Bad Animals
6.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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