Following one reader’s trail, but not getting very far


Looking at my bedside table the other day, I confirmed what I have long suspected, namely that the retro impulse is strong in me. You may be one of those people whose days accommodate a one-book-at-a-time pace. It doesn’t work well for me. Too many books, too little time. I have several books going, and others in the waiting room. And, what the stack beside the bed tells me is that I’m in a rut and apparently delighted to be there.

For instance, of the three volumes hanging out there, none is new. Not a fresh idea or a with-it concept among them. There’s Leila (1983) by J.P. Donleavy, the Irish writer best known for The Ginger Man (first published in France in 1955), less well-known for the hilarious, deranged tales of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman. I’ve read Leila before, but it’s as fresh and funny as ever.

After all, “His future is disastrous, his present indecent, his past divine,” the Financial Times says. “He is Darcy Dancer, youthful squire of Andromeda Park, the great gray stone mansion inhabited by Crooks, the cross-eyed butler, and the sexy, aristocratic Miss Von B…our hero … falling in with decidedly low company — like the dissolute Dublin poet, [the larcenous] Foxy Slattery, and Ronald Rashers, who absconds with the family silver — before falling head over heels in love with the lissome Leila.” The Times calls Donleavy a “fruity romancer.” Who would resist.

There’s E. B. White’s The Points of My Compass (the earliest of its contents published in 1954). It’s a collection of his essays, each one a muted, gem-like observation of his life and the world in which he lives it. No observation, no topic, no matter how minutely focused by White — perhaps remembering his dachshund Fred’s self-important sentry work from the bed by the window of White’s Manhattan apartment — is so narrow as to exclude the reader.

From that bed, White writes, Fred “settled into his pose of bird-watching, propped luxuriously against a pillow, as close as he could get to the window, his great soft brown eyes alight with expectation and scientific knowledge. He seemed never to tire of his work. He watched steadily and managed to give the impression that he was a secret agent of the Department of Justice. Spotting a flicker or a starling on the wing, he would turn and make a quick report. ‘I just saw an eagle go by,’ he would say, ‘It was carrying a baby.'” White did not believe Fred dissembled, only exaggerated the way a child might.

There are handsome rewards for the reader who is re-reading a favorite, as there are for the reader who keeps by his bed a volume of congenial essays or spare short stories. In the first case, it is possible to become immediately comfortable with something you’ve read before. When, soon after one’s eyes close or immediately upon being told by one’s wife to shut the light off, or even when the book slips from one’s hand to bash you right on the beak, it isn’t as though you’ve lost the thread. You’ve read what you’re reading before, and if you missed a line or two or even a paragraph during a few insensible moments, what does it matter? There’s no need to backtrack. Or, if the object of one’s attention is a collection of short stories or essays, there is always the chance that you’ll make it through twelve or fifteen pages, before losing consciousness.

Then there’s Smuggler’s Luck, by Edouard Stackpole (1903-1993), Nantucketer, newspaperman, historian, museum curator and father of Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury. Smuggler’s Luck was Edouard Stackpole’s first book, published in 1931. I’m reading a 2005 reprint, by the Mill Hill Press, with a forward by Reny A. Stackpole, Matthew’s brother. It’s one of those books that has been lurking in the bookshelf for a while, waiting to pounce. I was reorganizing books, putting all the Vineyard books on this shelf, the books by Tom McGuane here, John Updike there, all the Jefferson biographies in the history department, and I came across Smuggler’s Luck, nestled between Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2008) and Whales and Destiny: The Rivalry Between America, France, and Britain for Control of the Southern Whale Fishery, 1785-1825, the latter a sweeping and detailed historical assessment of the Quaker whalers who emigrated to Nantucket and New Bedford from Milford Haven in England, written by Edouard Stackpole in 1972.

Out of place, but connected in some sense, Smuggler’s Luck caught my eye. It is the story of a Nantucket boy in the Revolutionary War, when the British threatened Nantucket for siding with the revolutionary patriots and the patriots pestered the Nantucketers for favoring the mother country or trying to remain neutral, a kind of Switzerland if the Swiss went whaling. I turned a page or two and now I visit it once or twice a week.

Someone gave me Rat Bastards:The South Boston Irish Mobster Who Took the Rap When Everyone Else Ran (2006), with an introduction by moviemaker Mark Wahlberg. The writer is John “Red” Shea, a “stand up guy,” if he does say so himself, who was a Whitey Bulger protégé. Shea was committed to his bizarro honor code and kept mum about Whitey’s transgressions, went to jail for his ambitious career as a “loan shark, money launderer, and multimillion-dollar narcotics kingpin,” but didn’t rat nobody out.

Shea’s memoir appeared on my coffee table the other day. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I think I heard there was a Vineyard connection. It hasn’t made itself apparent. Rat Bastards has not found a place in the bookshelves yet, and it might not. Still, there are some authors one doesn’t want to disappoint, and Shea sounds like one of those, so I suppose I’ll leaf through it. I have to say I’d rather spend the evening with E. B. White or P. G. Wodehouse.