I picked up a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer about a week before the lockdown. It sits by my bed and I read a few pages most nights before going to sleep. When I started putting together my new Hack book, I had a strange realization. Many of the modes of phrase and mannerisms I was cutting or rewriting popped up in Miller’s book; some, nearly verbatim. I haven’t read Tropic of Cancer in about thirty years but when I started writing down cab stories only about ten years had passed. It must have been fresh in my mind. If anyone asked me to name books which were important to me as a writer, I wouldn’t have come up with Tropic in a million years. It came as a complete surprise what an impact the book has obviously had.
The other book I’ve been reading is Ben Katchor’s The Dairy Restaurant. I’ve been a fan of Katchor’s for a while and would count him as an influence in some ways. But up till this book all I’ve read of his have been comics, whereas this is an illustrated book. There are a million permutations in the ways that artist/writers put together words and images, but The Dairy Restaurant is closer to the way I work than Katchor’s previous work. I’m still wrapping my head around what he’s up to but I’ve been enjoying it very much. Imagine taking all the digressive chapters of Moby Dick—like the history of harpooning et al—but making it all about Jewish eating history and you have some idea.
On the surface Tropic and Dairy have little in common, but to me they’re beginning to converge. Both are obsessed with food and August Strindberg is a bit player in each. Perhaps because I was so deeply involved up until a few days ago in my own editing and writing, I only had the energy and attention to get through a few pages of reading at a time. But now that the cabbie manuscript is out of my hands for a spell I can wrap up these two books
The Katchor book had been on my radar ever since its publication was announced, but the only reason I picked up Tropic of Cancer was that I’d read George Orwell’s essay, “Inside the Whale” a week or two prior. Orwell made Tropic sound so good that I wondered what it would be like reading it again after so much time has passed. I never would’ve guessed that it has been with me all along. As I’ve read it I keep thinking of Orwell’s own Down and Out in Paris and London. Now they’re talking to each other and to me across the decades. If I meet them again in one of Katchor’s Jewish restaurants, I won’t be surprised in the least.