Why have I joined this collective effort to read a book I hate? Basically, Copenhagen. Not the cosmopolitan Danish city, the chewing tobacco.
Years ago, I became an instant pariah at a party of Johnnys — graduates of St. John’s College in Santa Fe — when I let slip that I had never read James Joyce’s Ulysses to my short, intimidating friend, Julia.
“But I’ve always wanted to,” I mewled. “I’ve read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist…”
“Ha! You’ve got Ulysses envy,” she barked as the mob pressed in, mocking at the foot of my literary Golgotha.
Never again. I vowed to read the novel as I would run a marathon or climb a mountain, one step at a time. I took Ulysses on the bus to and from my job covering the Colorado legislature, never reading more than 10 pages at a sitting, and soon stopped trying to read my concordance on the down-low. It worked. I read the final 140 pages in a heaving rush, consuming Molly Bloom’s monologue while fat raindrops soaked the pages.
I applied the technique to other, allegedly (or truly) difficult books, including Lowry’s Under the Volcano, The Brothers Karamazov, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and it worked every time. Some of those toughies are among my favorites (and some weren’t worth it).
Then along came this do-rag’d hipster wearing gold-rim glasses and sporting an impressive ability to trick self-important intellectuals into thinking Infinite Jest was something other than self-absorbed, lookit-me, Amherstian bamboozlement. The guy was smart, laughing all the way to the cushy lecturing job.
And on Wallace, my Tough Text Technique® wasn’t working. Fucker. I hated him and told people his stupid book was the worst kind of patronizing post-modern pabulum. I sold it. Then bought it again. Then failed. Sold. Bought. Failed. Repeat. Dammit.
Then DFW went and killed himself in 2008 and much to my irritation I learned we had a few problems in common, including a history of drug and alcohol issues, depression, and Copenhagen, the “tobacco” product (is it, really?) you stuff between your lower lip and gum. Wallace never could stop using Cope. Just like my best friend, also now dead, who happened to be my younger brother.
I couldn’t hate Wallace any more; we were bound by nicotine. Sometimes I imagined the three of us driving across US 50 in Nevada (“The Loneliest Highway in America”) in my brother’s 1974 Toyota “Landpuppy,” chewing until our mouths were raw and poisoned and talking, considering lobsters, endlessly talking…
But I still hated IJ.
Miraculously, and not without considerable struggle, I put that shit down forever in 2009. I’m still an addict — if you forcibly stuffed my lip, I’d be quivering at the Conoco tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., aching for my fix — but I don’t do nicotine and never will again.
And if I can pull that off, then surely I can finish IJ, with the help of Infinite Winter. But I’m warning you: the first person who starts talking about Proust gets a tube sock full of woodscrews across the forehead.
Clay Bonnyman Evans is a freelance writer who loves critters, running, surfing and hiking. His checkered college career was interrupted by a six-year stint working as a cowboy around the West, after which he continued his descent on the social ladder working as a journalist for more than 20 years. He’s on Twitter @claybonnyman