A few days ago I dropped a line to a musician friend to wish him a happy birthday, sparking an unexpected and pleasing exchange (a little one-sided, I dare say) about favorite books. It turned out that Mike* --- a popular solo performer and parodist here in Boston --- is an avid reader and was starved for some good book conversation.
Thus, I found myself in the familiar and embarrassing position of confessing my troubled relationship with books and, as a result, my relatively (for a novelist) poor familiarity with the universe of quality fiction. Undaunted in the least, Mike proceeded to rattle off some of his more recent favorites. I further confessed that I'd read none of the authors he listed, and that his favorite, James A. Michener, I wasn't even sure if I'd heard of before.
I've always felt an artistic kinship towards musicians --- I suppose I relate to their dual wish to inspire and entertain with their art, and because they're not prose writers (usually) I don't regard them with competitive caution. I know how vital, how nourishing, inspiration is to fellow artists and so I always take special interest in their recommendations. And with Mike, I don't harbor my usual suspicion that some unconscious desire to project sophistication is selecting his favorites for him --- his signature song, after all, is about masturbation; talk about somebody who doesn't take himself too seriously.
I never doubted that Mike had classy tastes, but his passion for Michener intrigued me. When I told him so, he wrote back:
"Michener won a Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific. It's weird. I never read Michener while he was alive because they were always making movies and mini-series of his stuff (it's all historical fiction) and I assumed it was fluff. Man was I wrong. As soon as I read my first Michener (Hawaii) I was blown away.
"I assumed there was no way he could have written anything else as good. Wrong. EVERYTHING is as good. if i had to pick a favorite American author, it'd probably be him. I'm putting him in the company of Twain, Melville and Toni Morrison here. I've read about a dozen so far and I'd be hard pressed to pick a fave. I'd suggest you start with The Source, Chesapeake or Caribbean. One caveat: to Michener anything under a thousand pages is cliff-notes. His general formula is to take a small geographical area and cover it - literally - from the beginning of time to the present. It's not unusual in a Michener book for life not to appear on earth for 150 pages or so. It sounds dull, but it's RIVETING. Something interesting is that he wrote about 80 or so HUGE books, but he didn't write the first one til he was in his 40s."
This pitch compelled me to Google Michener immediately. That I was so unfamiliar with his work up to this point astounds me. Not only did he write 40 lengthy books, but he seemed just as comfortable with fiction as with non-fiction. Not only did he win a Pulitzer, he was immensely popular too, selling 75 million books worldwide. His books are apparently all epic and well-researched. He spent whole mornings writing, and whole afternoons reading, meeting people, and generally immersing himself in the places where his stories unfolded. And as if these accomplishments aren't enough, he was also a naval officer in WWII, and even took a stab at politics.
Who the fuck did this guy think he was?
The real kicker for me is that James A. Michener was also a generous philanthropist (as I fantasize I will be should writing ever make me rich and famous) who gave away 100 million dollars to various charities, universities, etc. It was at this point that I finally realized I had heard of Michener once before, because he founded my dream MFA program in creative writing, The Michener Center For Writers, at the University of Texas in Austin.
Well that does it. James A. Michener is my new mentor-nemesis, at once a benevolent inspiration and a source of fear, envy and hatred. If he is the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi, I am the bitterly passionate and frequently misguided Anakin Skywalker. How can I live up to him? And yet I must. Such is the paradox of model inspiration: He who daunts you, drives you.
It may take a while, but soon enough I will pick up one of his books, even though the odds of me finishing are slim. For me, reading a thousand page book would be an even greater accomplishment than writing one --- hell, I even put down Anna Karenina and David Copperfield halfway through, and I was enjoying both. Whether I finish it, or like it, doesn't really matter though. A new bar has been set, for better or worse.
You may have passed into the afterlife, Master Michener --- your Jedi robe now a puddle at my feet --- but our rivalry has just begun.
Bonus contest - I'll ship a copy of Mike's album, Pissed in Boston, to the first person that can guess who my previous nemesis was. (You cannot participate if I've told you at some point already). Two hints: (1) I've never really read anything by this author, either. (2) Unlike Michener, age was a vital factor in this rivalry. Submit your guess in the "Comments" section of this post.
*Mike Barrett is a solo musician and parodist (sounds like Irish folk meets Tom Waits?) who performs all around greater Boston, and for one month of the year in Ireland. I watched him perform during my first summer in Boston, 2oo1. My friends and I were so thrilled we hired him to perform at a party later that year at Cornell, where he was a smash(ed) hit. We've kept in touch since. You can check out Mike's music and shenanigans at MySpace, Facebook, and buy his album at CD Baby. To add yourself to his contact list and be notified of upcoming shows, drop an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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