The novel I am reading right now is The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner, an epic work of fiction about the Mason family struggling to make make ends meet during the first decades of the 20th century. Their struggles have a lot to do with the impulsive visions of wealth that keep husband and father Bo Mason looking for a big strike and always falling short, incessantly dragging along his silently suffering wife Elsa and boys Chet and Bruce from home to home in his quest. As I wrap up the last 80 pages of this novel, I am once again reminded how much I love reading and storytelling. As a single father with a full-time job and no family support in the area, it’s easy to cut corners when it comes to life’s pleasures (including reading) just for the sake of being responsible to one’s economic, professional and social welfare.
But I’ve been doing a pretty good job over the past couple days “saving” my reading time and as the book wraps up (on a strong note, so far), I thought some of my readers might enjoy knowing what two novels I read years ago that had a tremendous impact on me and which made me want to be an author.
When I was a senior in high school, I read two novels that forever changed my life. One was assigned during my Advanced Placement English class–Crime and Punishment by the 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. The other was a novel passed on to me by my mother–The Word According to Garp by John Irving. During that same year, I enrolled in my first creative writing class with William Yachymiak, a brilliant if slightly cantankerous gentleman (think Gregory House as a high school teacher) and one of two individuals to whom I dedicated my first novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.
Mr. Yachymiak was also my AP English Teacher–essentially I had him for two courses during my senior year. He assigned Crime and Punishment but, as it turned out, I got the read-by date incorrect so by the time he tested us on the novel, I was less than halfway through it and failed the test miserably. Despite my humiliation (I was a strong student, a member of the school’s National Honor Society and, therefore, not used to failing tests), I found the story of Raskolnikov, the brilliant if distracted university student who decides to bury an ax in the head of a local pawnbroker woman in the name of social justice absolutely fascinating. So I kept reading the novel.
The book’s obsession with justice, morality, guilt, redemption and the misplaced actions of good intentions resonated for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. Guilt was and has been of great interest to me, possibly the result of having been raised Catholic. Crime and Punishment also made for a great detective story, borrowing from the tradition of psychological reasoning founded not too longer before, some would argue, in Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Murders of the Rue Morgue“. In any case, the novel ended up being a page-turner for me despite my having failed the English test.
The second novel, The World According to Garp, introduced me to the quirky if compassionate world of John Irving who remains my favorite contemporary novelist to date despite some mediocre outings in the past couple decades. Irving’s character T.S. Garp is born of an eccentric, feminist mother, has no known father and grows up wanting to be a writer. The novel takes many turns – into the worlds of feminism, cults, the wry realities of political self-flagellation, wrestling, social isolation and the difficulties of marriage – to arrive at the brilliant conclusion, to quote the novel’s final sentence, that “in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”
The novel is, essentially, the celebration of the individual life no matter what path the individual chooses to take. Outliers, deviants, the oppressed, the eccentric–all have their place in the world, and Irving has no problem making a mockery of those who take on the mantle of self-indignation to prove their own superiority or better role in the world. I finished reading The World According to Garp in a car ride with my father back from New York City where I had met with a college recruiter from Syracuse University. We were not yet out of Manhattan when I turned the last page and put the book down in my lap, finished and overwhelmed by the power of the story.
As I mentioned, I read both these novels during my senior year in high school. I had also, within the past couple years, watched someone fall off a cliff and die (an experience I recount in this blog post) and so had begun exploring the spiritual writings of Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One evening, I had to write a story for my creative writing class and found myself at the dining room table of the home I shared with my sister and parents. Both above-mentioned novels had been read in their entirety by then and their impact on me had already begun to take hold. As I sat, staring at the blank page and envisioning a story based on some of Bach’s writings, a thought flowed through my head. “This is going to be a part of my life.”
Sometimes I look back at the years gone by and remember a thought or feeling I experienced which I would argue was mature beyond its years. That was one of them. At that moment, the recent tragedy of witnessing someone fall to his untimely death, my social awkwardness which made me identify as a kind of deviant, my imagination, my sensitivity, my quest for effective self-expression and the world of writing and reading which had blown open that year all came together in the act of writing on a blank sheet of paper.
I doubt everyone has a moment that they can look back on and say their life began then. But for those individuals who absolutely love reading, there is no doubt that one or more particular books may have had such an impact on them that they would agree they were not the same person after having read it. For me, Crime and Punishment and The World According to Garp are those novels.
If you care to comment below on one book that had such an impact on you and why you feel it was so powerful for your life, I would love to hear what you have to say.