An Appetite As Great As Any Other
Alan Cheuse
 
 

It began for me in mystery, like the mystery of sex, and in the same place.

Once upon a time a young boy--he must have been about three years old--crawled into bed with his mother and father. It was a Sunday morning, in spring,probably, because even though it was light outside the window, his father still lay there beneath the blanket rather than having gone to work. His mother made a space between them where the boy might burrow under the covers. His father shifted his large body and reached over to the night table and switched on the small light. He then picked up a rectangular object about six inches by nine--it had an orange and sepia covering, with an abstract design embossed upon it that suggested not quite formed stars and crescents. He told the boy that he had just found the object in an old trunk that came from a place called Roo-sha The boy loved the sound of that word and asked his father to say it again. All right: Roo-sha....

The object, this thing made of paper and bound in stiff cloth, had a wonderfully intriguing smell to it, the odor of dust and oranges that had been lying for a long time in the hot sun. When his father opened the front of it, the boy noticed strange designs stretched out in rows. One thing seemed familiar--a drawing of a golden rooster-like bird.

The tale of the golden cockerel, his father announced in his oddly syncopated voice that sounded so unlike all the other voices in the family. He fixed his eye on the designs on the page and began to speak in a strange and incomprehensible fashion, making a series of glob-like and skidding sounds, with a number of phushes and ticks and bubble-like slurs and pauses in which breath sounded as though it had sledded up to the top of a snowy hill and then rushed down again on the other side.

The boy was me, of course, and the man was my father, reading to me in Russian, a language I've never learned, from a book of fairy tales that has long ago been lost in the flood of years that washes through a family's life. And he is gone now, too, along with that first book that I never read. But that was where it began, this life-long appetite for reading, directly from the mouth of my old man.

In school I leaned to sound English--I recall remembering that process when I taught my own children the glories of phonics--and to read the ubiquitous Dick and Jane series of elemental textbooks. See Dick run. See Jane run. I saw the sentences, but I didn't see through them into the lively visual world in which these proper nouns supposedly stood in for living, breathing characters. So I wanted something more than the flat adventures of these stick figures. My parents offered little help. My mother, to the best of my knowledge, sweet and loving woman though she was, read nothing but the newspaper. My father, lumbering home from his early shift as an engineering trouble-shooter on the assembly line at the nearby General Motors automobile assembly plant, kept his eyes open just long enough to see what food my mother put on his plate, and then took to the sofa, listened to the radio news, and went to sleep. No more reading for me, not from his lips anyway.

Thats how comic books became my passion--from Archie Comics on through the great line of Superheroes, beginning with Superman himself and then Batman, Plastic Man, Wonder Woman, and to the horror comics such as EC Stories and The Heap--and I built a collection that rivalled just about any in the neighborhood. That wasn't difficult for me since my mother's parents owned a local candy store and sold these magazines by the dozens. Along with the gifts of candy--my favorite was Hersey Bars, milk chocolate so delicious that I even chewed the paper wrapper--that would eventually rot my teeth, they gave me free choice of comics each time I visited the store. But these had a different effect on my imagination than the chocolate had on my teeth.

After a while, appetites become more refined. Within a few years I developed an urge for something better than Archie and slobbering monsters. I moved to a new higher level of comic book appreciation and began to read and collect the Classics Illustrated series, being the western world's greatest poems and novels, from the Iliad and the Odyssey on through the work of Poe and Cooper, turned into comic books. Maybe kids who had parents who read to them regularly and took them on trips to the bookstore and bought novels and poetry for them--in other words, kids who were raised the way I raised my own children--could begin at a higher level than me. No such luck in Jersey! But on Saturday afternoons in our neighborhood you could see us comic hounds pushing baby carriages left over from the infancy of our siblings laden high with our comic book collections, on the way to trading sessions at the houses of friends.

It wasn't until my eighth grade year that I walked through the door of a bookstore and also spent afternoons after school at the local library where I turned to actual novels for my reading pleasure. I plunged whole-hog into C.S. Forester's multi-volume Captain Horatio Hornblower series, and read my way through the novels of Howard Fast, beginning with a book about a young boy who survives during the Nazi advance into western Russia which I recollect was called Struggle is My Brother. I suppose the Russian setting has something to do with its staying power in my mind when all that I remember of the C.S. Forester books is a lot of salt water. Somehow after that I discovered science-fiction, which became the ruling passion of my summer between eighth grade and first year of high school.

All of this was pretty predictable, I suppose. But something strange was going on in my mind, if the evidence is true. One afternoon in the local bookstore at the lower end of our town's main street while intent on buying a new science-fiction novel by Richard Matheson, I noticed an oddly appealing cover on a paperback book. Something about the colorful design caught my eye and I plucked it from the shelf. It was the first Vintage edition of D.H. Lawrence's novel of mysterious Mexico, The Plumed Serpent. Instead of buying the Matheson I purchased the Lawrence. It sat on my shelf for years, and every once in a while I would pick it up and flip through its pages, which seemed to be written in sentences unlike any I had ever read before--not sentences that I understood, but sentences that enticed me and lured me on with the curious payoff of their odd rhythms. A similar thing occurred one afternoon as I passed through the main library on my way to the children's room. On a recommended reading shelf just at the entrance was a hardbound copy of a new novel called Invisible Man. Under the illusion that it was science-fiction, I picked the novel from the shelf and carried it with me down the long tunnel that connected the main library to the children's reading room. Finding a comfortable seat, I plucked at the lines on the opening page of Ellison's masterwork, but made no music. Over the next few years I must have taken up that book a dozen times or more, each time moving a little further into it, each time moving a little further along the route toward understanding.

And after that, I became a promiscuous reader--keeping up my true love for sea stories and science fiction while branching out ever more perilously into far-flung territories. I read and read and read. I read popular junk, and took it quite seriously--A Stone for Danny Fisher, by Harold Robbins, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk--and I read some serious material--The Naked and the Dead--but prized it mainly for what I took to be the salaciousness of its frank approach to sex. In my first year of high school I found a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I carried around like a badge of honor, though unread, until my prissy home room teacher confiscated it, saying it was too difficult for a boy my age. This was in Perth Amboy High School in darkest Jersey in the late l950s. In my sophomore year, I bought myself a Faulkner paperback, which a smug study hall monitor, a chemistry teacher, quickly confiscated, saying that it was a dirty book, filled with confusion and smut. I doubt if he had read it.

But I knew instinctually by then that it was my kind of book, having discovered my hunger for fiction on that first Sunday morning years before when, in my childish discontent with the loneliness of things, I crawled in to bed to lie between my parents, inspiring my father to distract me with a plot.