The Austin Chronicle

Bedside Manner

By Russ Espinoza, April 16, 2012, 12:42pm, Under the Covers

When I was 17, a childhood friend and I enjoyed a warm little phase where we endeavored to “out-lexicon” each other. We’d coolly slip esoteric words into casual conversation then screen the other’s countenance for signs of comprehension.

"Countenance” would’ve been one such resplendent gem for a public high school junior – but today I’m disappointed that I hadn’t banked it by age 10. I can picture myself as the world’s preeminent third-grade linguist: “Mistress Talley, I’m afraid you have a speckle of luncheon besmirching your otherwise enchanting alabaster countenance.”

My fascination with words is why my South Austin apartment is armed to the teeth with dictionaries and thesauri (or –sauruses): I keep one or the other by my bedside for instant reference. As a partial aside, the unit above mine is similarly armed to the teeth, but with a lead-footed jackass. Hey! I’m trying to get some (bleeping) reading done, scumbag!

By 23, I wanted to be the world’s most well-read man. Or at least make it to regionals. But then I thought: Why, that’s an absurd ambition! I’ll never become a man.

I’ve always been a purist about literature. Perhaps unfairly so: always championing the “classics” over contemporary works, which I tend to be extremely skeptical of, because – like with music – I pigeonhole newness as inferior and worship the distant past. This snotty attitude of literary chauvinism explains the lion’s share of the materials nesting under the cowboy lamp atop my bedside table.

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1907 – 1922: To hear the stories, Hemingway’s drinking would’ve killed lesser men, plus their livestock and a few ponies for good measure. I’ve always been drawn to dysfunctional artists for their one-of-a-kind eccentricities and roaring addictions; I’m stumped, frankly, over how I’ve never read Hemingway before (the plan is for this to change). This meaty, hardbound compilation was a recent, and unexpected, Christmas gift from an edgy brunette named Holly, given to me when I returned to Austin from Winter Break. Letters is in my “on-deck” circle behind some assigned readings for my Literature of the Quest class at the St. Edward’s School for Wayward Girls, but I’m already looking forward to happening upon a page half blotted-out by Teacher’s Scotch.

Flannery O’Connor―The Complete Short Stories: This dense anthology is a hold-over from my Creative Writing class last fall at St. Edward’s. I said to myself, “I’m going to finish this over Winter Break and grow a lot as an intellectual.” But what really happened was: flight home, red wine, mirth, family, food, ex-girlfriend, copulation, freeze to death, iPhone, football on TV, bars, slip on some ice, high school friends, sleep until the 4’o’clock news, everyday; flight home, Hemingway book, alcohol with Holly.

O’Connor (a “Southern Gothic” novelist, short story author, essayist, and orthodox Catholic) is perhaps best known for her grim short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It’s a chilling rigmarole of grotesque suspense involving a sad-sack family’s run-in with a murderous band of outlaws, down Dixie way.

Complete Stories won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972; it contains 30 other tales, including other favorites of mine: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Good Country People,” and “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead.”

Repeat (with feeling), “I’m going to finish this over (Summer) Break and grow a lot as an intellectual.”

Just don’t put any beer in my face.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is likely my favorite novel of all-time; it’s also the charmed recipient of my favorite audiobook performance (buy the Alexander Scourby edition if you can: The man’s rendering deserves a plaque on the National Mall, yes). Instead of gushing over Gatsby for the sixth time, or re-reading Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), another epic, I’m anxious to crack into The Beautiful and Damned (1922). I remember hearing how it’s Fitzgerald’s most personal novel because it’s heavily based on his stormy marriage to Zelda, mad-as-a-hatter. F. Scott was a hard drinker himself, and wouldn’t he have to be?

I met someone in Madison, Wisc. last summer who referred me to A People’s History of American Empire: A Graphic Adaptation. It’s historian Howard Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States retrofitted as a graphic novel. It’s a beautiful volume from the looks of things.

None of these mint-condition volumes can be gnashed into, however, until I do business with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes for Dr. Fowler’s “Quest” class. The good Doctor has marvelous taste, but, wow, I’m dying to get to those damn Hemingway letters.

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