Sunday, March 15, 2009

Last Train to Winesburg

Back in the cafe on a cloudy afternoon. Even more laptops today than last fact, every frickin' table in the place, save two, has someone clicking away on a laptop. And my table, clearly, is no exception. And except for the music playing in the background, no one in here is talking. Everyone is locked away inside their own little cyberworld. Is this what technology has brought to us: a better way to be isolated and lonely, while maintaining the illusion of connectedness through Facebook, and MySpace, and e-mail, and, yes, blogs? Are people now more isolated and remote than ever? Possibly, for otherwise they'd come to cafes to chat and socialize, rather than stare into the shallow glow of their laptop screen. But then again, "Winesburg, Ohio" makes a good argument for the case that loneliness and isolation is endemic to the human condition, with or without technology.

This is one of the most depressing books I've read in quite awhile, maybe ever. All the characters, save for one or two, are lonely, isolated, odd, misunderstood, unhappy...or, more usually, a combination of two or more from this list. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The writing is very realistic, thoughtful, beautiful. I've never read any Sherwood Anderson before, but I'd like to read some more. He really gets inside the characters, yet continually leaves them understated. And the sparseness of his writing style lends itself beautifully to the sense of isolation and alienation that envelopes the characters. Its sad and poignant, but in a subtle understated way, never even remotely over the top.

It's interesting to think about "Winesburg, Ohio" in relation to two other books I've read for this project so far: Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" and Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel". "Main Street" also deals with the isolation of living in a small, rural town in the early 1900s, but here the loneliness is most prominent in the town's newcomer...the townspeople themselves don't have the solitude of the characters in Winesburg. And in "Winesburg, Ohio" we observe the one character that returns in most of the stories, George Willard, grow up and become a man, and eventually leave the confines of the town for the larger world, with a sense that he will not be returning. This is similar to Eugene Gant's story in "Look Homeward, Angel", although the latter book has more of a southern gothic twinge running through it.

Would the characters in Winesburg exist in today's world? Would they all be online, but as isolated as ever? Or would they all be on Prozac, in therapy, and surrounded by self-help books? And if so, would any of that help? Or is it all just wallpaper, thinly applied to cover up the barren walls of the human condition. "We live as we dream, alone" wrote the Gang of Four. Sherwood Anderson would agree.

Read this book. It's great!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Book #30 - Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson)

As previously noted in this blog (and perhaps I've even somewhat beaten this point into the ground), I'm now officially a middle-aged fucker. I mean, I'm in my forties, and if that's not middle-aged then what is? Some would claim that your 40s are the new 30s, but those people are dreaming, and clearly do not need to take as much Advil as I do just to keep moving comfortably. Anyway, I'm feeling a little old today because I'm doing for the first time what all the young hipsters are doing here in San Francisco, and probably all over the world...sitting in a cafe, typing this blog on my laptop. In my younger days I did quite my share of caffeination in coffehouses, but back in the day we either read books or the newspaper, or wrote in our journals, or in my case wrote song lyrics into spiral-bound notebooks. The only home electronic device used in a cafe would have been a Walkman (I can't speak for the generation before me who reportedly used 8-track tape players in cafes, although that would have been quite cumbersome, so I think that could just be an urban legend). Anyway, as I look around the cafe now, I would estimate that 50% of the people here are clicking away on their laptops. No doubt sharpening up their resumes, or surfing the web, or launching their new start-up. Everyone else on a laptop looks 20-something. And then there's me, the old fucker with his cappuccino, blogging about books. Do 20-somethings even read books these days? Or do they just download files onto their Kindle? Strange days indeed. Damn, I'm sounding more and more like a cranky old person every day. Why when I was young, I used to have to walk 20 miles in the snow, often in blizzard conditions, for a cappucino, etc. etc.

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, books. Sometimes when you read a book you think, "This is good, but it's not the right book for me at this time". I think "Scaramouche" was like that for me. Now I'm about halfway through Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio", and I'm finding this is the perfect book at this time for me. Just perfect. I love this book. Maybe I'll feel differently in a few months when I'm in a different place, but I'm having a true book/life convergence here. And I'm relishing it.

First, let's get the truely important issue out of the way right at the top, so it doesn't sit here on this blog like the pink elephant in the chat room. Yes, Sherwood Anderson was killed by a martini. Really. He swallowed a martini olive containing a piece of a toothpick, which pierced his peritoneum, and killed him while he was visiting the Panama Canal Zone. So for all you amateurs out there who might get some ideas about drinking from this blog, please leave it to us more experienced folks. Actually I could use a martini right now, just as a refresher course on martini consumption safety. Damn, all they have here in this cafe is coffee and espresso. I'm so fucked.

Anyway, where was I before I started distracting msyelf with martini fantasies? Oh yeah, "Winesburg, Ohio". This is an odd book; it reads like a collection of short stories, each one a vignette of a person or family living in the small rural town of Winesburg, Ohio. Yet, characters from one story reappear in others, and one character, Geroge Willard, a young reporter for the Winseburg Eagle, occurs in most of the stories so far. He's a young, rather shallow youth, who aspires to be a writer. Many of the other characters seem to take a shine to him and confide their secrets, such as they are, in him. It's not clear why. Anyway, what is this book...a collection of stories? A novel? I dunno, and who cares. The stories themselves are great. Almost all of the characters we meet in Winesburg are peculiar in their own way, and all of them seem to be lonely and isolated, and exist in their own small world, even though Winesburg itself is its own small world. This would be a great book to read back-to-back with "Main Street".

One of the stories, or chapters, or whatever they are, is called "Hands" and deals with the story of Wing Biddlebaum, a man who lives on the outskirts of Winesburg and has no friends, except for George Willard, who visits him on occasion. Wing's unique feature is his hands, which are always in motion, and are one of the town's prides. His hands are like a birds wings, they move so much and with such dexterity, and hence his nickname. We learn that Wing used to be a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, and his hands would innocently caress young boys hair. When one boy falsely accuses him of molestation, the men of the town come after him and almost hang him, but end up running him out of town instead. So he takes on an assumed name (Biddlebaum) and flees to his aunt, who lives in Winesburg. And that's the story...a man falsely accused, with an odd quirk, who is now alone and isolated. Par for the course in Winesburg.

One of my other favorite stories so far, and the only one which could be described as remotely happy, is called "A Man of Ideas". The main character in this story is Joe Welling, a salesman for Standard Oil. He's a normal affable man, until he gets some crazy idea in his head, at which point he goes into a frenzy, almost seizure-like, as he rants like a volcano about his strange ideas to whoever happens to be close by. While the townsfolk like him when he's his regular self, they are wary of him because they're not sure when he'll start spouting his ideas off at them...and his ideas, while crazy, are also fascinating, so the townsfolk are usually held captive while he goes off on his rant. Anyway, he gains the respect of the townsfolk by organizing a baseball team for Winesburg, and his crazy, ranting energy so transfixes his team and distracts opposing teams that they become huge winners, which of course the town loves. But then he starts seeing Sarah King, a woman in town who lives with her father and brother, both of whom seem to be criminals and possibly murderers, and who are feared by the townsfolk for their violent behavior. One night Joe comes back to his room in the boarding house and the two men are waiting for him, to beat him up, or worse, for seeing their sister. But he is thrown into one of his frenzy of ideas, and starts spouting off to them about vegetables, and what would happen if all the current food vegetables were destroyed, and what new vegetables could possibly be developed to replace the ones that were lost. Well, like everyone else, the father and brother are transfixed in spite of themselves, and instead of hurting or killing Joe, they are swept up by his tidal wave of words and are won over, and all go off to their house together to tell Sarah about his crazy ideas about vegetables.

I just love this book...the combination of the sadness, the loneliness, the quiet despair of the characters, and the humanity of it all really speaks to me. Plus I like Anderson's writing's very straightforward, for lack of a better word. Simple, to the point, no confusing phrases, nothing buried in long sentances and odd wording. The style totally fits the subject matter. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book. But now it's time to leave this coffeehouse and embark on a search for that martini, sans toothpick...