Pink Fire Pointer April 2011

Bloomsday Challenge!

Lately I’ve been setting ambitious goals for myself: Move to Philadelphia. Find a New Job. Run a Marathon. Adding to my list of ambitious goals is my recent obsession with actually reading Ulysses all the way through. It’s one of those intimidating books that is on my “things I want to do before I die” checklist and is something akin to the holy grail of Literature. I decided recently that this year is as good as any to cross this life goal off my list and I’ve decided that after I finish The Pale King and perhaps another quick book, I’m going to plunge right into Ulysses.

Pushing me to finish this book is the fact that Bloomsday is June 16th and this year I’m dying to take part in the festivities in Philadelphia. What’s Bloomsday, you ask? Bloomsday started on June 16th, 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the original day in which Ulysses takes place and is called Bloomsday after the protagonist of Ulysses: Leopold Bloom. The event is celebrated not just in Dublin but in many cities around the world and the day serves as an homage to both James Joyce as well as his influential and controversial novel.

In Philadelphia, Bloomsday is a popular event and with good reason. In 1924, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach bought James Joyce’s original handwritten manuscript of Ulysses at an auction for $1,975. The reasons for this purchase remain murky, since Dr. Rosenbach was not professionally involved in publishing or literature, however the novel must have had special personal meaning to him because it was never put back up for sale, even when James Joyce himself inquired about the possibility of buying back the manuscript.

Because of this rare cultural legacy, the Rosenbach Museum and Library leads the Bloomsday festivities in Philadelphia every year, featuring an all day reading Ulysses in its entirety by prominent Philadelphians and an exhibition of rare 1st edition copies of Ulysses and other Joyce novels, photographs, letters and memorabilia. Combine this with pub crawls and people dressed up in period costumes and this is my idea of a fantastically nerdy time.

As of last Saturday, I have two months to finish a 700ish page book, which theoretically shouldn’t be a problem if I can stick with it. I do, however, envision lots of frustrated cursing in my future. Anyone else interested in doing the Bloomsday Challenge with me? Or if you've read Ulysses, any advice or resources you'd recommend?

And in the event you're interested:
Ulysses by James Joyce on Amazon

Review: Townie, by Andre Dubus III

I started TOWNIE by Andre Dubus III with lots of high hopes; while I wasn’t really a fan of his fiction, I like memoirs and I’ve been especially drawn to stories about rough-and-tumble Massachusetts (The Town and The Fighter, anyone?).  Also, I think his father is a short story-writing genius and was interested to read more about their relationship and learn some background on the family that would give his short stories more context.

Dubus spends most of the memoir focused on his childhood; specifically from when he was around 12 to when he was 22 (the author is now 52).  After a poor but idyllic childhood, Dubus’s father leaves his young mother and three other children for another woman, marking the beginning of his strained relationship with Andre Sr. and the end of his sheltered life.  As his mother moves the family from apartment to apartment around poor mill towns in Massachusetts, Dubus and his brother and sisters are forced to fend for themselves, often being left at home late into the night. During his preteen years, Dubus dabbles in drinking and drugs and describes evenings spent breaking into lumber yards and becoming a petty theif. After witnessing and sometimes being the target of violence administered by stronger and tougher neighborhood boys, Dubus decides to never be one of the weak ones again.

He then spends the next 200 pages or so describing his efforts to become a serious body builder and all of the minor, petty fistfights he gets into, sometimes described in such magnified detail that you wonder if he ran home afterwards and recorded them in a notebook.  Because the book is so heavily focused on this span of these 10 years, many of the stories become very repetitive and I kept wondering how many more fights he could possibly get into.  This part of the book, while the most violent, was the least interesting to me.  Many of the fights started to blur together, not adding much to his narrative except perhaps trying to prove to his readers how tough he was or to emphasize his fatal flaw of violence. Though most of the fights sounded minor, it was obvious that Dubus was proud of every one.  Later in the book Dubus seems to have moments of self-reflection, realizing that many of the fights were self-serving rather than righteous, and that instead of being a hero who protected the weak, he often sought out fights for pure blood lust.

Dubus and his father. photo: The Boston Phoenix
The book becomes infinitely more interesting when he describes his relationship with his father.  As Dubus gets older, he begins to see his father more regularly; although their relationship is more like that of drinking buddies than father and son. Andre Sr. is still a womanizer, and on his second and third marriage.  They often hit the local bars together, his father drunkenly encouraging him to start fights. At some point, Dubus decides to finish college and heads out west to Texas for his last two years of school.  In Austin, he starts to feel guilty about fighting and tries to quell his violent urges. He eventually returns to the east coast where he does carpentry with his brother Jeb, continues to body build and go out to the local dive bars with his father and friends, becoming a townie all over again.  At this point Dubus discovers a need to write and spends mornings writing short stories and constructing novels. As the memoir speeds to its end, Dubus mentions many important life events (including one particularly disturbing tragedy) but for the most part they are glossed over, without much analysis. The end of the book is far more engaging than the beginning but the quick wrap-up leaves the reader rather stunned and wishing for more.

Overall I just couldn’t get into the book. I realize that Dubus probably intended to focus more on his punch-throwing youth, but those parts of the memoir could have benefitted from a little editing because I don’t think the reader wants or needs the intimate details of  every single scuffle.  The most enjoyable parts of the book are where he describes his complicated relationships with his family and step-family.  These sections are filled with honest, raw emotions and really give the book a more three-dimensional feel after the long, testosterone filled passages describing bloody fights.  Reading this book at least fulfilled one of my hopes: I learned a tremendous amount about who Andre Sr. was, at least through his son’s eyes. I can see lots of allusions to his personal life in Andre Sr.’s short stories now and it’s interesting to see how his interpretations of events differ from those of his abandoned son. I would recommend reading this book if you are a fan of either Andre Sr. or Andre Jr.’s fiction and want to read about events that inspired their writing. However, you can probably skim most of the middle 200 pages, as you won't learn much about Dubus from his fights.