The Guy Can Write

            Many members of Buzz’s extended family made it to the memorial service, including his step-grandson Sam who flew out from New York.  I haven’t seen Sam in several years, although Sharon and his mother, Renee, kept us updated on things; his marriage, his career, his two kids . . .mostly stuff about the kids, of course, but a comment now and then about some award Sam had won somewhere.  You know.  Details.

            Sam is book reviewer for New York Magazine.

            I got a chance to have a conversation with him at the wake, which took place at Buzz and Sharon’s house after the service. He had pictures of Sara, his wife, and his daughter and son, including a tug-at-your-heart picture of his infant son seated on Buzz’s knee, smiling and reaching for the camera. 

            I had seen Sam off and on when he was a teenager because Renee would frequently come over when we were visiting Buzz and Sharon.  Sam’s brother Patrick is a musician, an extraordinary guitar player.  Sam, as I recall, was an athlete.  He was quiet. To be honest, I think my biases kicked in and I went, “Oh, a jock, not a deep thinker, then.”  One Thanksgiving when Buzz and Sharon were caretaking a private camp in the Sierra foothills, I went for a late afternoon walk with Sam and Patrick.  The day had been mostly clear and cool, the kind of day you see described as “crisp,” but it had rained a few days earlier and a soft mist gathered in the defiles and gullies. The house looked like a greeting-card cottage; a few battered but brave flowers out front, a tendril of blue smoke undulating from the chimney. We walked up the hills a little way, through the orange-red madrone trees, surrounded by the scent of pine, bay, and once in a while a spicy waft of wood-smoke. Brown mushrooms poked up amidst the damp leaves.  Overhead it was clear, and as we got up a bit higher, the rounded tops of the hills poked up out of a silvery disc of translucent mist.  Sam said, “I think this landscape is a metaphor for someone trying to live the Christian faith.”

            I said something elegant, like, “Hunh?”

            He waved a hand at the peaks.  “You know.  You can see where you want to get to.”

            “But you can’t see the pathway because of the fog?”

            He nodded.  “But that’s where the faith comes in.”

            Perhaps a deep thinker, after all.

            Sam grew up, went away to college, got married (a wedding in Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon) and ended up on the east coast. For a long time I only heard about him through Sharon and Renee.

            When Sam and I were talking at the wake, he said, “I remember you read a story of mine, once, a long time ago, one of my first stories.”

            I nodded.  I remember that I read the story; another Thanksgiving, at another house. I was starting to get tense.  Just what cutting, analytical, perfectionist suggestions had I made?

            He said, “I remember you told me that my prose was beautiful and that I proved I could do anything I wanted with words.  I always remembered that.  It really encouraged me.”

            I recovered and said something like, “And look, I was right.”         

            I asked him what the last book was he had reviewed.  It was 2666 by Roberto Balanos, a Chilean poet turned novelist.  Balanos worked on the book for ten years and died shortly before it came out.  “It’s nearly a thousand pages,” Sam said.  I mentioned that I probably wouldn’t be able to hold it.  He assured me that in addition to the hard-cover, there was a special edition, boxed with the book in five separate volumes, which is how Balanos has always envisioned it.        Since “writer” to me almost always means “novelist” I asked Sam if he was working on a book.  Not fiction, he said.  “I tried to write fiction, but it ended up being the same self-consciously literary nineteenth-century novel.  Or, well, the first chapter of the same self-consciously literary nineteenth-century novel. Then I picked up a book of essays and realized that was what I wanted to do.” He was thinking of a book of travel essays, not your standard travel book, though.  For example, when he was in England he visited Dickens World,” a theme park based on the work of Dickens, then under construction.  He rattled off a few things from the park– the Fagin’s Den children’s area, the Great Expectations dark ride, and I said, “I wonder what they did for Bleak House.”

            Sam said, “That’s the one book that’s not represented in the park.”

            He pointed out that the park was near Chatham, where Dickens spent part of his childhood.  “It’s funny,” he said.  “Chatham was quite economically depressed, so you could pay to see quaint Victorian poverty—“

            “Or you could have real poverty for free.”

            “Yes, but real poverty is scary.”

            I didn’t waste too much more of Sam’s time.  His sister Regan was there, and he hadn’t seen her in quite a while, and other family members needed time with him.  When we got home, I did go read his review of 2666.  Hey, you know what?  The guy can write. If he ever writes a book of travel essays, I will buy it.  I will be buying 2666 (although I may “train up” to it by reading a shorter work, Savage Detectives, first). And I may subscribe to New York Magazine, just to keep up with Sam’s reviews.

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