Emerson House On Perry Street

  • January 5, 2012

The first installment of a book club soap opera.

No one is exactly sure what goes on at the Emerson House or even if the folks that inhabit the beautiful, turn-of-the-century old structure can come and go as they please. Some are old, some young, it’s quite diverse and the building offers all sorts of amenities. One of which is the Emerson House on Perry Street Book Club. Rather than just signing up, one has to be invited to join. There are twelve members, one for each month. Getting them all together on a monthly basis is not very easy but their meetings are always interesting. Rather than introduce you to the members individually, I think you’ll get to know them. Below is their latest session, recorded on a most propitious date. As usual, some of the members are more expressive than others …

“It didn’t rivet, grip or twist me,” said Paul.

“Which book?” David asked, pretending, as usual, to be the moderator and arbiter. “Because they are quite unalike, one being popular fiction and the other, well really it resists a category.”

“Both. I like adventure and there wasn’t any real adventure in either of these two books.”

“Define adventure,” David asked.

“Adventure is following one word after another as it leads your eyes across the page. Reading, unless it’s your own words, is always an adventure and even then,” explained Tabitha.

“Well I like to be transformed, not nudged.”

“I’d say poked is a better word. Poked as a continual reminder to keep reading and then barely inched along. Both The Help and The Leftovers were slow,” described Malcolm Cheesedale, who preferred to be called by his entire name.

“Are you referring to the author’s gait, the unfolding or what little action there was?”

“Cliff, let Cheesedale explain what he means.”

“That’s Clifton.” Greeley didn’t like abridgements, to anything.

“The adventure is in the dialogue, between the words and your imagination, the place that you take yourself while reading.”

“Here we go. Ms. Tabitha Early,” Clifton Greely asked, “could we stick to the story we all read and not spend our time in Tabitha world?”

“I didn’t go anywhere either, but I got a little sweaty in The Help. Reading it made me feel like I’d dead-ended in a swamp. You know how they say if you dug up a swamp you’d find everything as if it had been frozen in time, all the old clichés, the people and even the history of a place!”

“No one ever seems to write books any more for a gender neutral audience. The Help had to have been dreamt up for a bunch of women, and maybe we fellows are supposed to get something but I didn’t get it. The author could have added a little something for the men, a sex scene, an argument. If you’re going to build an entire bathroom in a book for Christ’s sake the least you could do is provide some detail on the carpentry, or plumbing. How about some drywall specs?” Cheesedale continued. “Our group is composed of more men than women so how come we keep getting these gender audience based books?”

“There are six of each,” Miriam reminded him. “We can’t help it if not showing up makes you lose your turn to suggest. There were men in both stories and pretty much predictable ones at that. The Leftovers, first chance, Holy Wayne gets to be holy, what does he do, uses his new found divinity to sleep with young girls. In The Help, the black man was beating his wife and the white ones were ignoring theirs. Sounds a little too lifelike to me, like the 6:00 pm news on its 14th cycle around cyberspace with no updates. The least a writer can do is imagine a good man, that is, if they imagine anything at all.”

Clifton grunted before he asked, “When was the last time you read a book with a good black male character?” No one challenged Clifton Greeley on race because he might be speaking from experience.

“If we were to deconstruct this story –” began Miriam Manist (“Miss Double M”), the group’s grammarian.

“Every time you hear an author speak, he insists he began without a plan or structure, just an idea.”

“Deconstruction implies that the stories had a purposeful structure in the first place. I don’t think it’s true, not in any meaningful way. They are linear without an endoskeleton. If anything, maybe The Help can lend itself to the guilt manifest in continuing to live when someone close to you dies. But deconstruction, I never liked it anyway. It’s like trying to do an autopsy on a sand castle,” Riley C. answered

“Whether the thing is dead or not,” Harold added “sometimes a tuna sandwich is just a tuna sandwich.”

“You’re not a fan of information,” Miss Double M wondered.

“Not useless information.”

“Anyway, you mean The Leftovers, don’t you?” Riley C. asked. “I think it’s interesting that the women’s guilt traumatizes them and the men’s guilt seems to be a catalyst for change. Is this a gender statement that we’re meant to consider?” All gender issues rose and set with Riley, real and imaginary. (And to this day, no one really knew where Riley would go if the ladies were to sit on the left and the men on the right of the room.)

“Gender? What about manhood in general, or race for that matter? The only black man in all of the books was a wife beater but The Help‘s white guy was a coward. Poor average sods. So what?” Harold sighed loud and annoyingly. “Where is the villain that shortens life for everyone?”

“I know why life is short,” Jewell Prior spoke up.

“Oh no!” went the collective sigh.

“Free will provides no guarantees. The choice to do good, honor a savior, honor anyone or anything doesn’t seem to be the norm, not even in our literature.” Under her breath Jewell Prior mumbled something about “godlessness and heathens or maybe hedonists …”

“If you’re going to start with your oral flyers, Miss Jewell Prior, you’ll need to take it to the corner of the lobby where proselytizing is allowed.” Katherine Day only said this because she’d heard others say it to Jewell before. She wasn’t even sure if it were true.

“That’s why I think we should all read Shantaram. You want adventure, you want transformation, you want real good men and real bad men. Shantaram has it all. Tears, laughs …” Eventually, at every meeting, Paul always raised the subject of Shantaram. Everybody else rolled their eyes.

“When I hear it took something 13 years, I gotta wonder …?”

“Wonder what?” Tabitha asked.

“What else he must have been doing,” Harold answered.

“Maybe someone should have edited it.” David never agreed with anything Paul said, not purposely but as a matter of habit. “It would have been a far better book if he didn’t leave everything that popped into his head in the text. Like around here, sometimes, someone needs to be around just to shut someone else up, like a good editor.”

Shantaram is not on our list. Do we have to talk about Shantaram every time we have a book club meeting?” Clark Teddy asked.

“It’s that kind of book, it interrupts your life. That’s the kind of book I like to read. Keeps coming up, figures into most things, changes you a little. These other two, time you’d like to have back.”

“These books are like private clubs, nobody cares unless you’re standing at the door trying to get in and I’m not. It’s got a private audience and maybe they know what the author’s talking about, or they care. That’s The Help.”

“A good book has something for everyone.” Tabitha added sweetly.

“Precisely. We’re a club of how many? All different, I guess here for all different reasons with all different opinions,” said Paul.

David didn’t want to agree so he switched the subject. “I think The Leftovers was supposed to be a farce but no one got it.”

“Aren’t farces supposed to be funny?” Jack Unsy always had a question. “Is it The Leftovers or the Left Behind?”

“That’s the kids’ series.”

“You didn’t think it was funny?”

“You mean how funny it was that every single one of the characters was uninteresting?” Paul asked.

“I disagree. They were people in pain, experiencing loss in different ways.” For Tabitha, everything in any book was hers. She lived in everything she read.

“Unfunny ways.”

“Anybody pick any memorable lines? Recommendations?”

“Yes, I did.” Paul read his paragraph.

“The sun is bright but my eyes is wide open. I stand up at the bus stop like I been doing for forty-odd years. In thirty minutes, my whole life’s … done. Maybe I ought to keep writing, not just for the paper but something else … maybe I ain’t too old to start over, I think and I laugh and cry at the same time at this ’cause just last night I thought I was finished with everything new.”

“Well, what made that passage stand out?”

“It was the very last paragraph and I was happy the entire experience was over.”

“Anybody else?”

“Yes.”

“The sound was clearer now, like listening to a radio. The tapping was no longer faint or mysterious. It was a straightforward percussion, headboard against wall with an undertone of protesting bedsprings.”

“And?” Katherine Day was thinking of the book club meetings she preferred, in Jewell Prior’s apartment. She hoped she hadn’t insulted her earlier. Jewell made lovely creamy sticky buns that took so long to chew that Jewell, who never ate them, did most of the talking. Her voice was kind of soothing too. In fact, if she took up some space in the lobby, Katherine told herself that she’d try to go and listen.

“I think it’s an interesting way to handle a sex scene, don’t you?” Riley asked the group.

“Do you really mean that?”

“Maybe.”

“The funny thing is it’s two guys, in fact, that passage is two women listening to two guys going at it and shortly afterwards, one of the men winds up dead, just like the black guys in movies.” Sooner or later, sex turned up, generally with Harold.

“Yeah, well why not write off the character you don’t really know how to write about.”

“Maybe the gays are the new first-person-to-die like all the black guys used to be in the movies?” Greeley suggested.

“Is this the trend in contemporary literature? If there are any gays in a multicultural diverse story, they’ll die first?” Jack Unsy asked as if he’d unearthed a new and important trope.

“Lots of other people died earlier in this book.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t know them.”

“Oh, true.”

“I think it was profound.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re in this book club so somebody has to listen to your opinion.” One of the Jones twins, either Paul or David, and it didn’t matter which one, was always the last to insult.

“Isn’t it Riley’s turn to select the next book?”

“Jewell hosts,” Katherine Day happily remembered aloud.

Dear Reader,

We hope you’ve enjoyed meeting the Emerson House crew. Stay tuned for more meetings. Do understand that these are not the opinions of the WIRoB. The book club is a separate fiction.

Books mentioned:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Leftovers by Tom Perotta

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

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