There's a quote I've always loved from the book Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates: “Know what we did, Lucy?” Michael says to his wife. “We spent our whole lives yearning. Isn’t that the God damnedest thing?” The push-pull of yearning is at the core of most great writing, I think, the sense of longing so desperately for something that most likely can’t be attained. And if attained…well, what then?
Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, I was reminded of that quote when I read this stunning essay by novelist/writer Liam Callanan. I don’t want to wreck the experience by over-talking, so I’m just going to send you forward to read it…
…though not before noting that it may not be apparent from this lovely piece just what a funny guy Liam actually is—the good kind of funny guy, who doesn’t use humor as a way to hog attention or make a spectacle of himself. One of my favorite memories of my 2007 has to be a marvelous conversation over dinner with Liam, two other fabulous writers, and a delightful publisher/editor from Simon & Schuster during the Writers at the Beach: Pure Sea Glass Conference.
It was one of those magical nights where you feel grateful for the company you’re with because somehow their wit and intelligence is turning you far wittier and more intelligent than you’ve ever been before. You had to be there…and I sincerely wish you had been. Those are rare nights—just as Liam is that rare writer whose words can make you laugh until you cry, and who will then turn around and simply make you cry. I hope you enjoy his work.
In 1992, I was standing on the first floor of the Borders Bookstore at 18th & L Streets NW, in Washington, DC. I remember the spot quite specifically and could take you there by the hand right now: it’s in the southeast corner, across from where the store corralled its coffee drinkers,overlooking a stairway that ducked downstairs to fiction. I was looking at a book that had come out the year before, Maine Farm: A Year of Country Life, by Stanley Joseph and Lynn Karlin, and I was deciding, once more, that I couldn’t afford to buy it.
I don’t know why I thought this—or I do, I was just out of college, and had just bought a bike for $200, and was working at a job that paid me in the mid-teens—but I was also not yet at an age where a book, any book, seemed underpriced (I spend three years of my life thinking, typing; dozens more workers then enter the process; trees fall, presses roll, someone strains their back lugging cartons of my books up and down the stairs: that’ll be $20, please; a penny if you’d prefer someone else own it before you.)
But Maine Farm obsessed me. It’s a beautiful book. A kind of coffee table book that exults living off the land, but Lynn Karlin’s gorgeous photographs are coupled with a wide-ranging series of journal entries by Stanley Joseph talking about the quiet, gorgeous rhythm of the seasons on their farm in coastal Maine.
A book for dreamers, then, and I certainly was, am one. But back then I tended more toward nightmares: college was done, life had started, and I felt as though things were sputtering. I had a job, but not the right job, and I certainly wasn’t writing. And here were these people who’d not only created a life, a good life, but a book as well. It wasn’t that I envied them life on the farm—for all its beauty, Joseph and Karlin made clear that theirs was a rugged existence with manifold demands, whereas I’ve always considered my gardening chores done when the lawn is mowed—but I did envy them their smiles, their sense of accomplishment.
And maybe that’s what I admired most, what they had accomplished in that book: detailing their success without being smug, but rather with a sense of mildly awestruck wonderment. "We chucked it all," they seemed to say (Joseph had been a documentary filmmaker in Berlin; Karlin a photojournalist for Women’s Wear Daily and elsewhere), "and then found it all, all much better, right here."
Once or twice a week, when I was trying to save on the price of lunch by not eating lunch, I’d go by the bookstore, flip through the book--there was only the one copy left--and dream. And then one day, of course, the book was gone, and then I was, too, from that job in downtown Washington, and eventually, from Washington itself.
The book stayed with me, though, over the years. I never forgot the title, I never forgot the photos—there’s one of Joseph pruning trees, for example, whose colors I remember better than the colors of the rooms each of my daughters was delivered in (even the one who arrived three weeks ago).
I looked up the book once or twice in a library, but never tracked down a copy to own myself; I was too afraid. As much as I remembered the book, I remembered, too, the yearning that went with it, the desire to disappear into the pictures, the standing in a bookstore shelved with thousands of books that I’d not written, the looking across at a coffee bar whose lattés and cookies and midday treats that, like the book itself, I couldn’t quite justify purchasing, not that day. I didn’t want to get the book only to be reminded of such wanting, especially as my life, however it had progressed, hadn’t quite graduated to a state I admitted was good.
A few weeks ago, another beautiful, healthy pink daughter born to my wife and I in a new city whose summers are a wonder to behold, another novel of mine on bookstore shelves, another day in which my family compared notes and decided, to our diminishing disbelief, that our two-year experiment of abandoning our old life and salaries in DC for a place where we had no family or friends or 401-Ks, had turned out for the best, I thought: maybe I'm ready to buy the book? Not so much to compare notes, but more to have it challenge me yet again -- live better! -- and for me to finally be able to muster the answer, "well, I'm trying."
The internet had the book on my doorstep in days, festooned with no less than 24 stamps, all dating from the 1970s: “Progress in Electronics,” “Letters Shape Opinions,” “Letters Preserve Memories.”
And inside, in perfect condition, was my beautiful book of that beautiful life.
The 15-cent “Progress in Electronics” stamp features an early microphone the size of a badminton racket, a radio tube, a “TV camera tube” and a radio speaker shaped like a shofar. I wonder if such a stamp today would feature the internet, and if so, how—what would you use to depict something that can both confirm a Catholic boy’s hunch of what a shofar looks like or that his first attempt spelling badminton is hopelessly wrong?
But I wonder if the sharper question is whether the internet is progress at all, because a late night trek across the web to find out more about my beautiful book scattered my dream, and its dreams, completely.
Lynn Karlin came up first; she’s still in Maine, still a photographer, now concentrating on gardens almost exclusively. But she’s no longer on that Maine Farm. She and Joseph—whom she met by complete happenstance, wandering one day onto his farm while visiting a friend nearby, and then never leaving—divorced after several years of marriage. Running the farm was hard, she said, too hard. And with just the two of them as labor, they fought a losing fight to keep up, make money.
Another click or two and I discovered Joseph referred to as “the late Stanley Joseph,” which sent another pang through me. I went back to the book—his hair was gray, maybe, but thick and full, the outdoors clearly bettered him—and then back to the internet.
Joseph, it reported, had poisoned himself with carbon monoxide.
There’s more to the story, of course, starting with when these events occurred, and from there to why, and I know this is part of my new life now, my own dream life, which is thinking, writing, figuring out how people work and putting that into words.
But it’s not work I want to do just now, not yet. I want my treasured book out of my house and back in that bookstore at 18th & L, Karlin and Joseph still married, Joseph still alive, me still lacking so much that I wanted, save their book, its dreams, their dreams, mine, a book that proved the good life could be yours if only you picked it up, held it close, never let it go.
About: Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. See his web site for more information.