Summer reading: Ron Currie Jr. on David Foster Wallace
With his first two books, Ron Currie Jr. has garnered comparisons to Vonnegut and stacks of awards. His novel "Everything Matters!," our reviewer wrote, "romps through the bleakest of landscapes. Cancer. Addiction. Stardom. Torture. Abuse. Secret and all-knowing government agencies. Flesh-eating disease. Suicide and terrorism. Like his earlier work, this is a comedy.... The novel is violent and disgusting, then sweet and romantic. It is carefully sentimental, never becoming maudlin." Ron Currie Jr.'s "Everything Matters!" is now out in paperback.
Jacket Copy: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?
Ron Currie Jr.: Several stand out in my mind, but the one that's most prominent at the moment is "Infinite Jest." Nice light summer reading, that.
JC: What year was it, and how old were you?
RCJr: Let's see, that would have been the summer of either 2000 or 2001, I think. Maybe 2002, at the latest. Those years are sort of a blur to me, for various, obvious, and fairly unimaginative reasons.
JC: Where were you?
RCJr: I was where I am right now, where I can usually be found, which is Waterville, Maine. At the time I worked summers for my father, who owned a small lawn care and landscaping business. His primary occupation was firefighter/paramedic, but he was one of those old-school guys who worked, and then worked, and then had lunch while driving between jobs, and then worked some more, and then slept for four or five hours and did it all over again. He would come home from a 24-hour shift at the fire station, change his clothes, grab a cup of coffee, and then we'd head out and cut grass and trim hedges and spread mulch for 10 or 12 hours. My primary occupation was restaurant cook, and mowing lawns was a way for me to get out of the kitchen for a bit, catch a tan, draw down the omnipresent urge to end myself that blossomed steadily with each consecutive month I spent cooking other people's dinners for them.
So anyway, I'd been wanting to read "Infinite Jest" -- I read "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" and was just beginning to understand that my own work needed some magic and playfulness, needed to move away from the realism of writers like Carver and Malamud and Chekhov -- but "Infinite Jest" was just such a massive lap-breaker that I hadn't given it a shot yet. And the novel is not just long as hell, it also contains some of the most dense writing I've ever encountered -- page upon page without so much as a period, never mind a paragraph break. That summer, though, it occurred to me that a good way to tackle the book might be to carry it around in the truck and read in snatches as we drove from job to job. Five pages here, fifteen there. And it went surprisingly fast, which isn't that surprising in retrospect, given my father's proclivity for marathon work days. By the time I'd finished, my copy was a mess of grass clippings, sweat drips, and smears of axle grease and 50:1 gas/oil mix.
JC: Why was the book significant to you then?
RCJr: It pretty much reconfigured my sense of what's possible in a novel, which is to say it made clear there's very little you can't do if you're writing with conviction and confidence. And it taught me that it's possible to be funny and playful and earnest and intensely cerebral all at the same time. I hadn't seen too many examples of that sort of range before, and have seen very few since. Plus I realized how jealous I was that I hadn't conceived of a guru-type character who trades sage advice for the privilege of licking sweat off the bodies of those who consult with him. That's my kind of writing, gotta say.
JC: Have you reread it?
RCJr: I have. It's not easy, but the bigger the challenge in reading, the bigger the payoff, is my experience. Unless the writer miffs it, of course.
JC: How has Waterville changed for you?
RCJr: My father died just a few years later, far too soon, and my life bears very little resemblance to what it looked like then. No more cutting grass and cooking steaks, praise Yahweh. But on the other hand, life around here doesn't ever really change too much. Which is how most of us prefer it, I think. Those who want variability tend to get out of Dodge pretty much the moment it becomes possible for them.
JC: What are you reading this summer?
RCJr: Just finished Aimee Bender's "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," which I enjoyed and recommend. Bender's work shares a lot in common with Wallace's, in spirit if not delivery.
For more reading this summer, check out the L.A. Times list of 2010 summer reads: 60 books for 92 days.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Ron Currie Jr. Credit: Sarah Eustis
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