Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Book That Changed My Life

On one of my most memorable Christmas Eves, I was curled into a tight, nauseous ball on my living room floor, raising my head every so often to vomit into a plastic dishtub that always doubled as a bedpan in my mother's house.  I was in sixth grade and I'd come down with the flu bug that morning.  By early evening, I knew I wouldn't be belting out "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" in the children's choir of my dad's church; instead, I'd be harking up bile and groaning like a teenager convinced he was about to die.  I remember spending that Last Christmas Eve on Earth watching a TV show called Sierra, a spin-off from Emergency!  The series about heroic park rangers rescuing dumb tourists in Yosemite National Park was also not long for this world.  It was canceled after only three months, losing out to the much more popular The Waltons (another of my favorite shows).

That Christmas Eve, I was having a pity party all evening long as I hurled, heard my fellow angels signing from the church next door, and watched Rangers Cassidy and Harper scale down the side of Half-Dome to rescue an idiot in Bermuda shorts from a narrow ledge.  I was pissed off because this was no way for me to spend my Favorite Night of the Year.  December 24 has always been the best of everything this world has to offer: peace, harmony, and a house that smells like sugar.  It was the night of my father's famous candlelight services in the tight-packed First Baptist Church in Jackson, Wyoming; it was the night my mother allowed us to eat after 9 p.m.--salami and cheese slices and crackers and frosted cookies; it was the night of ripping into our presents, one person at a time; it was the night of carols played on scratchy LPs; it was the night the animals spoke (if you believe the legends).  Like I said, the best night of the calendar.  And here I was, moaning with a sour mouth and hating my stomach for rebelling against me.

And then, at some point between the two church services, my friend Randy P. came over to the house and sat with me on the couch, despite the stink rising from the plastic tub at our feet.  He kept saying, "Is there anything I can do for you?  Can I bring you some 7-Up?"  I was full of self-pity and said, "No, thanks.  Nothing'll help."  And we fell silent, watching the TV and those fearless rangers on ropes.  All the time, despite my grimaces, I was feeling this odd, unusual love for Randy.  He didn't have to give up his cool points and come sit with me, he didn't have to skip singing in the second church service (the one with all the candles!), he didn't have to be so kind.  But he was there for that hour of my misery, and that made it one of my best Christmases.

I'm remembering that vomit-flavored, love-filled Christmas Eve tonight because I wrote about another, earlier Yuletide memory for Bookreporter this week.  Here's how it began:
      As much as gingerbread, Bing Crosby, and the happy sibilant rip of wrapping paper, I associate Christmas with bowls of gruel, barefoot orphans, and singing prostitutes.
      When I was five years old, my parents took me to see a movie that, at the risk of sounding hyper-dramatic, would change the course of my life. Everything I am as a writer today--the way I create characters, the lines of dialogue I put in their mouths, the fateful twists of plot--can be traced in a direct line back to the 1968 movie musical Oliver! This was my first formal introduction to Charles Dickens, and it would permanently shape my impression of him as a bearded, pouch-eyed man who made squalor and misery something worth singing about.
      It would be at least another decade before I read one of Dickens’ novels--and another two decades after that before I actually sat down with OLIVER TWIST--but I was already connecting our greatest dramatic novelist with doe-eyed urchins, plucky pickpockets and tradesmen dancing jigs through the streets of London. Yes, in hindsight I realize Hollywood bastardized the story and took most of the teeth out of a sharp-edged social satire, but at the time I was mesmerized by the sight of all that color and movement and music pouring off the screen. Indeed, it was a fine life, as prostitute Nancy (Shani Wallis) sings to us in the exuberant tavern scene.
      Oliver! was released in the second week of December, and, if my often-unreliable memory serves me well, my parents took me to see it at the State Theater in Kittanning, Pennsylvania. I walked into that theater a child, but I emerged two hours later as a writer-in-training, already thinking well beyond his years to the artful ways in which novels are built, layered with characters’ lives, and braided into a satisfying whole.

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