In the course of a search for Patrick Hamilton’s The Gorse Trilogy, I wandered into bookshops new and old across several miles of San Francisco, uncovering little more than blank stares and frustration. I was all the more exasperated because I had already acquired, thanks to Aaron Cometbus, the middle volume of the trilogy, had read halfway through it with a gusto and élan few things in life remain capable of eliciting in me, only to set it down at San Francisco Airport coffee counter and walk off without it.
My quest took me on a meandering route from North Beach to the Mission. It was an unnaturally warm and sunny day not long before Christmas, but by the time I passed the once-hellish, now pleasantly re-imagined Valencia Gardens project, the sun had slipped behind Twin Peaks and a wintry chill intruded into what had been a benign breeze.
It was time to duck into La Cumbre for a warming burrito, but as I crossed 16th Street, I noticed a sign that read “Used Books.” Not just a sign, I reasoned; it had to be a sign. A bookstore suddenly appears on a block I’ve walked down a thousand times over the past several decades? Advertising that it specializes in “hard-to-find” and “out-of-print” volumes? What could this mean but that my hunt was about to have a happy ending?
I walked in and instead of heading straight for the shelves, asked the proprietor how long the shop had been there.
“22 years. People are always saying they never noticed us before.”
All those walks from the 16th Street BART to La Cumbre, the hours spent staring out the front window of Pancho Villa, long-ago trips to Epicenter and Blacklist Mail Order, and Forest Books had managed to remain invisible to me for over two decades? I wondered if I was dealing with some ephemeral presence along the lines of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
Which made it all the more plausible that they would have the book I’d been searching for, but no, as it happened; he’d heard of Patrick Hamilton, sort of, but wasn’t really familiar with his work. Resigning myself to finding the Hamilton book next time I was in England, I decided to take a quick spin through the aisles to see if they had anything else of interest. I hadn’t made it ten steps before spotting a hardbound copy of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, and decided instantly that I had to have it. I bounded up to the counter, almost as if I were afraid someone or something might snatch it away from me before I could pay for it.
The proprietor gave me an odd glance, followed by, “Whoa, how do you even know about this book? You’re not old enough.”
Perhaps he flatters all his customers that way – I guessed he and I were about the same age – but as it happened, I not only knew the book, but had read it as a young teenager, some 50 years ago. My first copy of Studs Lonigan had been a paperback, sold for 35 cents – now that I think about it, I almost certainly stole it; that’s how I rolled in those days – on one of those revolving racks you saw in every drugstore.
I’d never heard of the book before, but the cover showed a kid about my age, dressed up like a tough guy, his hair slicked up and back, hanging out on a street corner in a manner clearly meant to annoy the bourgeoisie. I tore through those pages with a fervor others reserved for religious texts. The author might have intended it as a cautionary tale for aspiring hoodlums, but I read it as a design and ideal for living.
It was a long book, the longest I’d ever read at that age, and for the first couple hundred pages, the life of young Lonigan was filled with exactly the sort of mischief and thrills I was looking to add to my own. Opening on a warm evening in 1916 as Studs (“that dreadful name,” according to his mother, one of the few who insisted on calling him William or Bill) is graduating from eighth grade, it follows him through a dreamlike summer of roistering and rollicking with his gang on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. I began reading it in 1961 as my eighth grade graduation gave way to a very similar summer on the streets of Downriver Detroit.
Studs and I were Catholic boys graduating from Catholic schools, retaining a visceral loyalty to the Church while ignoring or flouting nearly all its precepts. Our gangs were made up of the children or grandchildren of immigrants, predominantly Irish, riven straight through by the Catholic obsession with guilt, suffering and doom. We sinned repeatedly, felt terrible about it, and took it as given that we would pay harshly for our transgressions in the end. An end, we assumed, which would probably not be long in coming.
Half a century later, re-reading Studs Lonigan as avidly as I had the first time, I was surprised – not just surprised, shocked – to see how closely his exploits and misadventures had mirrored and prefigured my own. The initial intoxication of running wild in the streets gave way to the boredom and monotony of day after day and night after night in front of the pool hall or drugstore. We groused that there was nothing to do but bragged that at least we weren’t like the punks and cake-eaters who scurried home after dark and tried to live up to the expectations of nuns and parents.
Some of the guys dropped out – waylaid by after-school jobs or girlfriends –to be replaced by more serious criminals and nutcases. By the time I was 15 I was carrying a pistol and had earned the nickname “Drunk.” Considering the drinking habits of the gang that gave it to me, I took it as one of my proudest accomplishments.
At 17 I’d graduated from the drugstore to a pool hall identical to the one Studs frequented toward the end of World War I, right down to the perennial poker game sequestered in the back room and the shady characters lurking around out front trying to sell boosted auto parts at pennies on the dollar. I’d begun to pride myself at climbing – in retrospect, of course, it was more like descending – the criminal ladder faster than Studs had, but then I wasn’t as burdened by conscience as he’d been.
It might have taken me a year or two to finish the Studs Lonigan trilogy the first time, because after a whiz-bang beginning, Studs’ life began deteriorating so badly that it was painful to read about. Not just because I’d come to care about him, but because I’d made his existence such a template for my own.
The fights, the hangovers, the arrests, the tentative attempts at love and the blithe, inevitable rejections; eventually it became difficult to tell where his life left off and mine began. Re-reading it in 2012, I’m struck not only by how clearly I remember nearly every scene and bit of dialogue – I’m normally the kind of guy who can’t tell you what a movie or a book was about 20 minutes after I’ve finished it – but also how I could no longer be certain which of my memories came from my own life and which from his.
Long before I’d heard of Oscar Wilde, I was a dutiful subscriber to Miss Prism’s dictum, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” So I wasn’t surprised when Studs ended unhappily, even though, in the final analysis, he wasn’t that bad at all, just foolish, stubborn, and proud.
All qualities I possessed in spades. And by most standards, I was worse than Studs, with fewer redeeming qualities. Yet for some reason, I haven’t ended unhappily – at least not yet – despite having spent the greater part of my life anticipating such an outcome. As Studs himself might have observed, “Geez, it just ain’t fair how things work out sometimes.”