There is one book I own that has never been on my bookshelf. Since 1984, it has been under the seat or in the trunk of every vehicle I have owned. In sequence, that includes: Toyota Pickup, Toyota Camry, Ford Ranger pickup, VW Passat, Honda CRV, Mini Cooper S, BMW 2 Series and my current VW GTI. (Clearly, I moved on from practical to happy cars after the Honda.) Every time I bought a new car, I dutifully moved the book to the new vehicle. It is worn, pages brittle and yellowed. I recall crushing it once sliding my seat forward. At some point, it got a little wet. Maybe because it was stored close to the rear hatch of the Mini Cooper, notorious for dumping water inside when opened. At some point, I think soon after I bought the tome; I read some of the essays. I don’t remember doing that but there are my typical vertical pencil marks in the margins. There is one note too “wcw.” That is not cryptic at to me. It means that a sentence reminded me of the poet William Carlos Williams. What in the world was the book doing in all those cars, and why has it made an appearance now?
For a few decades, I read little fiction or poetry. I think I decided that reality was strange enough, so why read things people made up. My academic writing, a memoir, dozens of essays and my newest book, a collection of essays, firmly entrenched me in reality. But I threw some internal switch after publishing the essay collection. You see, my first foray as a writer, decades ago was almost entirely focused on short stories and poetry. When I got a big career, I stopped writing those forms and mostly journaled. Three months ago, maybe because our real world is so vexing, I moved back to fiction. I knew I needed to break the linearity of my nonfiction mind, so I dove into Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and old science fiction by Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. I read the freestyle prose of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. It worked. Short stories now appear on my computer screen. Each one a muscle building experiment in style. Now, I spend my time making up worlds and attempting to report out what I find.
This all led me back to where I started as a writer. Way back in the previous century, I was taken with the work of Raymond Carver. I absorbed all of his works, short stories and poetry. His minimalist style grabbed me by the throat. His stories are like prose poetry about genuine people. The works are sad and vexing in that they leave you to fill in the picture he has sketched for you. My most common reaction to reading his work is to finish and say, “but…but…but…” because he did not tie up all the loose ends, much like life. With all the boldness of youth, I tried to write his style resulting in horrid experiments. Only now do I understand one must have enough scars and still oozing wounds in the psyche to mine the minimalist form.
Sometime in 1984, I bought his book, “Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories.” I have a vague memory of taking the new book to the coast for the weekend, just me and my epileptic Labrador. I read a few pieces, but it was the decision I made when I got home that is most curious. I didn’t take the book up to my apartment and finish it. I shoved it under the seat of my Toyota pickup where it became a car book. I actually know why I did that. Living with panic disorder litters one’s life with protecting talisman. One thing I most feared was being stuck somewhere, in snarled traffic or just broke down. Safety was all about my ability to move freely. I told myself that if that ever happened, my cars would always have a book I could read to distract and calm myself. The little paperback with a tattered cover was my mental escape hatch. Complex and absurd reasoning is something we all do to get through our days. For me, this idea made good sense.
It’s not surprising that when I returned to writing short stories I would return to my most loved mentor, Carver. He died suddenly at age 50 in 1988. I remember the shock. I have much of his small canon on my shelves and have reread most of those books. Looking for more Carver, in the early morning hours a couple nights ago, I paged through his publication list and there was “Fires” the book that had been my travelling companion for decades. I dressed, went outside and opened the hatch of the GTI. Buried next to the spare tire was an old friend. Reading it now, what had I forgotten is that the first essay is Carver explaining “why minimalism.” I got a shiver as he opened a small window into his mind.
There’s a notion, to which I generally don’t subscribe, that things appear in your life just when you need them. I have missed to many needed things in moments past to give that idea much purchase. Still, this book has been there all along and only came to mind when I needed, or was ready, for it. A guy has to wonder, but when I have what I need from this book, it is going right back into the car where it belongs.