A Screaming Comes Across the Sky

Gravity’s Rainbow fractured literature, which previously had been fractured only by Ulysses and which no book has so fractured since. Pynchon’s novel transcends assessment: whatever you think of it, whatever you can even begin to think of it, you can’t resist it, it’s inexorable, the event horizon of contemporary literature.

—-Steve Erickson, introduction to One Picture for Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, 2004, by Zac Smith


A few days ago, some of us were getting together for the holidays and wanted to eat somewhere in the Bishop Arts District. Everybody met at one of my favorite haunts – The Wild Detectives – a bookstore with coffee and beer (right?) and then walked out together to find some vittles.

As we were walking down the front steps, I saw this sign:

Sign at The Wild Detectives bookstore, Dallas, Texas

Wednesday, January 2, Gravity’s Rainbow Reading? What is that?

Then this morning, I received an email inviting me to a three month group reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh hell yea.

I’ve read the book, starting in, say, 1976 – only a few years after it came out. I finished it twenty five years later. I think it’s time to read it again. We’ll be reading about ten pages a day – which doesn’t sound like a lot – but Gravity’s Rainbow is no easy read. We’ll get together every Wednesday at Wild Detectives at 7:30 to discuss what we have read that week. I’ll have to postpone my reading of Zola for the duration, but I wanted a break anyway. It will be a haul to get down to the Bishop Arts District after work on Wednesdays – but I’m already working on mass transit options.

I drove down there tonight for the introduction. There were a good number (maybe 25?) folks ready to dig in. We’ll see how many make it to the end.

What fun!

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

—-First Line, Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Swedish Edition of Gravity’s Rainbow

Faulkner House Books

When I’m lucky enough to visit New Orleans I try to avoid the more obvious tourist traps. I see nothing special about the bitter Joe and greasy dough at Cafe Du Monde, rarely set foot on Bourbon Street, and try to walk out of the Quarter (or at least skirt the edges) whenever possible. Still, there is cool stuff even in the heart of touristland.

One special little spot is Pirate’s Alley. It’s a narrow passage that runs alongside the St. Louis Cathedral, connecting Jackson Square with Royal Street. History drips onto the cobblestones like Spanish Moss from an iron balcony.

Usually I like to aimlessly drift through and see what there is to see. There is usually something interesting. Once, I stumbled across a fashion shoot in the alley.

Fashion Shoot in Pirate's Alley (click to enlarge)

Fashion Shoot in Pirate’s Alley (click to enlarge)

On our last trip – I walked down Decatur from Canal, headed for Pirate’s Alley. This time I was going somewhere in particular – an unusual state for me in the Big Easy. I had realized that I had never visited Faulkner House Books – a tiny bookstore located in the alley.

What makes this store so famous is that it occupies an apartment on the lower floor where William Faulkner once lived. There, in that very space, he hammered out his first novel Soldier’s Pay, begining the transition from unknown poet to Nobel prize winning novelist.

So I crossed Jackson Square – ignoring the thick crowd of artists, musicians, tourists, and fortunetellers – strolled down the alley past the Absinthe House and pushed the doors open to the bookstore.

It’s a small place – not hard to imagine it as a tiny apartment for a young, struggling writer. It’s packed with bookcases, every inch of wall covered, plus a collection of free-standing cases.

“Can I help you?” a woman asked.

“Umm, I’m just looking.”

“Well, the rare and first editions are around the corner, and ask me if you need anything.”

I glanced and saw a well-dressed elderly gentleman delicately thumbing through the case. The woman walked over to him and began to talk about the history of each volume he was examining. I heard him talking about which editions he already had in his collection and what holes he was trying to fill.

Those books were obviously not in my price range so I moved back toward the entrance and began to peruse the ordinary mass market offerings – after all, I had to buy something. I considered picking up a Faulkner novel but decided instead on Same Place, Same Things, a book of short stories by Tim Gautreaux. A South Louisiana writer, I had read another collection of his, Welding With Children, and really liked it.

We had talked about Tim Gautreaux while walking around on our New Orleans Writing Marathon the day before. I had discovered that he had written a story, Waiting for the Evening News, (contained in the book I chose) based on a train derailment in Livingston, Louisiana in 1982. I wanted to read that story because I had worked that train derailment when I was a consultant to the Emergency Response Division of the EPA.

Paperback in hand, I waited while the other man paid for his purchases – two beautiful, large books. His bill came to just under a thousand dollars. After he left, I handed my little trade sale paperback to the woman.

“Sorry, my purchase isn’t quite as big as his,” I said.

She ignored this. “This is very good work, have you read him before?”

I said I had and told her a quick version of the story of the derailment. She smiled and rang me up.

The entrance to Faulkner House Books

The entrance to Faulkner House Books


Right after I took a photo of the plaque, this guy did the same thing.

Right after I took a photo of the plaque, this guy did the same thing.

He and his wife never went in the store - he just moved along, not even taking his eye out of the viewfinder.

He and his wife never went in the store – he just moved along, not even taking his eye out of the viewfinder.

An old video of the train derailment at Livingston. I worked there for a couple weeks – providing technical assistance and taking samples to help determine when the residents could return home. I’m in the video, though unrecognizable, at about the nine minute mark.