And on a crass, commercial, mercenary note ... here's the link to my books on Amazon:
“Do you ever read any worthwhile books?”
“Some,” George answered, although he really didn’t. He had tried to read a book or two that Sophie had in the house but found he was in no mood for them.
— Bernard Malamud, “A Summer’s Reading,” 1956
“I don’t read.”
— Monroe Stahr, in The Love of the Last Tycoon, 1940, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Not long after we moved to Ohio in August 1956, I commenced my long stumbling stagger through the slough of adolescence. And by the time I entered eighth grade in the fall of 1957, I’d pretty much stopped reading books altogether. I recall no moment of decision, no Martin-Luther-moment when I nailed to the door my one thesis: I ain’t gonna read no more fucken books!
I don’t remember that I made any decision at all. What I do remember is that I quit reading books. And I remember my parents’ deep concern when they noticed the change—and my brothers’ be- and amusement.
What are you reading? my folks would ask me in the evenings.
Aw, I dunno.
Aren’t you taking a book along? they would ask when we left on trips.
Dick and Davi have their books. (Grinning gleeful brothers witnessing—enjoying—my discomfort, waving their books on high.)
You know that reading is important, don’t you?
You need it for—and here came the evil word, the word that became a refrain in our house during my period of voluntary illiteracy—BACKGROUND.
Sure, I know. Background. (Thinking: Fuck it! Who cares? Books are boring and people who read them are assholes!)
Soon, discussions ended. No one saw any point in them. I would sit sullenly in the living room, staring, while everyone else was reading, and Mom or Dad would see me there and just chirp, with an annoying cheery lilt, that single fucking word BACKGROUND!
And so I resolved to be ignorant for the rest of eternity. As I entered eighth grade, my reading narrowed to the sports pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the latest issues of Superman and Superboy, the photographs in Life, and the back of the Cheerios box where I followed the adventures of the Cheerios Kid, who regularly rescued Sue from danger. I wondered if, later, he fucked her.
But what was I doing instead of reading?
For one thing, watching more television—Cleveland had an amazing three stations! Because my parents carefully monitored our TV viewing, I often rode my bike up to the house of my friend Johnny to look at his penny collection, or, better, much better, to watch pro wrestling in his room. He was the first kid I knew who had his own TV set—a little black-and-white job with rabbit ears. His mother was weird, but she stayed in her own room most of the time, so Johnny’s house was a haven. No one judged me there. Asked me what I was reading. Chirped Background! at me.
Sometimes I played outside, bonding with Sooner, our dog, who also refused to read.
Or I’d just run around in the acres of woods nearby, playing Robin Hood, cutting stout oak staffs, thwacking imaginary foes, shooting arrows at birds, trying to found or find a new band of Merry Men.
Why Robin Hood? In my reading days I’d always liked stories about him—all the way back to The Anthology of Children’s Literature. I loved the old 1938 Errol Flynn movie that occasionally ran on television. And recently I’d been under the thrall of a TV show, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955–1958), a weekly half-hour series starring Richard Greene in the title role and the creepy Donald Pleasence as Prince John. It was filmed in England, starred English actors, and was often written, I’ve only recently learned, by blacklisted Hollywood figures Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McClellan Hunter. Each episode began with Robin’s notching an arrow, then firing it at a distant tree, where it stuck, quivering loudly.
Not long ago I watched again some old shows on that DVD I’d bought at that Elmira Wal-Mart on my Golden Summer quest. I was struck by the poor production values and pure implausibility of one of my favorite boyhood shows. Sherwood Forest had more fake plants than the lobby at a cheap Florida motel, and Richard Greene, though he had a perfect name and spoke English from the proper side of the pond, did not fit my conception of the dashing, athletic Robin—he was no Errol Flynn, that’s for sure. Still … some Robin Hood was better than no Robin Hood, so I watched weekly with a devotion I did not display for, say, school or church. Or books.
And then there was the Maid Marian question. Despite my fundamental, adamantine belief that cowboys and my other heroes of film, TV, the printed page should never kiss girls (especially on the mouth), I’d always liked girls myself. Always. I had a girlfriend in first grade—Sue Ellen. I probably had one in nursery school, too—I just don’t remember. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in my infant’s crib I dreamed not just of milk but of a girl’s milky skin.
I had several official girlfriends in elementary school. Back at Enid’s Adams School many of us Dicks and Janes established ordinal rankings for our opposite-sex friends. Among some old school photographs from the 1954–1955 school year (fifth grade), I found some pictures of girls in my class. I’d written 3rd in the top white margin of Linda’s picture, 4th on Judy’s. My list—a very fluid, highly changeable one—went as far as six or seven at times. Likewise, I appeared on the lists of others—usually at number two or below. All of us did this. It was no disgrace to be a two or a three—or even a four. What was a disgrace was to be a zero.
The demands of these relationships were slight, the romances for our idle hours only. I would have never invited a girl on a neighborhood adventure—or kissed her on the mouth while I was on duty, the way Hoppy, that gender traitor, had. My friends and I would do little more than show off to girls at recess, pair off with them while square-dancing during music period, rank-order our Valentines. Number One got a big fancy one with doilies and a gooey message; Number 7 got a little generic thing, with tiny, tiny hearts and a mere Be My Valentine. But my male friends and I didn’t need girls, understand … we just … you know … it’s complicated …
But now, as I entered … junior high school … the boy-girl choreography was much more intricate, more dangerous. When I explained the old Adams-School sex situation to some of my new Ohio friends, they looked at me as if I’d just told them of some bizarre coming-of-age custom on an isolated South Pacific atoll. You’re fucken kidden, right? Yeah, I was. Just fucken kidden.
Guys in Ohio were serious about girls. They battled one another like other young male mammals—and trained for the violence they expected and even enjoyed. I saw serious fistfights at lunch. With loud profanity. And blood. (No more rolling furiously on the playground and waiting for someone to cry Uncle!) Big guys practiced punches on smaller fry in the hallways and locker room. I was a smaller fry. And one humorless behemoth used to wait for me between classes so he could pound me in the shoulder as hard as he could. No matter which stairway I chose to descend or ascend, there he was, the Thor of the school, and I could do nothing, nothing, about the imminent blow. Any retaliation would have brought down upon me the full tonnage of Thor’s Hammer. I always smiled grimly at him afterwards, tacitly congratulating him on the viciousness of the punch, letting him know that he had achieved perfection. He really didn’t need any more practice. (Now, I realize, smiling at him was probably not such a good idea.)
At night, I fell asleep to the rhythm of throbbing shoulder muscles. And next morning, my stiff arms ached so much I could hardly pull a T-shirt over my head, or brush my hair. So I suffered. Endured. And Thor eventually tired of me and moved on to other anvils.
Back in Enid, one of my favorite songs on the radio had been “Ape Call” by a guy named Nervous Norvus (real name: Jimmy Drake). The song was one of his two big hits of 1956 (the other was “Transfusion”), and KCRC played it, or so it seemed, about ten times an hour. It was a song about how women, all through history (and prehistory), have made men go crazy, made them become animals, made them roar like apes. I quickly memorized the lyrics and delighted my uncle Ronald—an ordained Disciples of Christ minister and seminary professor—with the verse about Adam:
Adam was the first boy in the land,
A big malaroony daddy with an iron hand.
But when little Eva said, “Hi ya, Man,”
Aaaaah—eee—yaaah! [a sort of Tarzan yell]
Ape call, doodly—ah-bah,
Ape call, doodly-ah-bah,
Ape call, doodly-ah-bah.
Don’t be a cube, rube. Go ape!
Well, in Enid the song had been a joke—a novelty. But in Hiram it was a way of life. The guys were swinging through the trees, crying aaaah—eee—yaaah! Going ape for the girls.