Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Lowlife by Alexander Baron (Black Spring Press 1963)

To this, I added afternoons reading on my bed, and visits to the library. There is a branch library two blocks from where I live, a noisy place. At one end kids scamper round the shelves of their section, shrieking with laughter till the librarian hushes them, uncomfortably quiet for a while, then soon shrieking again.At the other end the housewives chatter, waiting to rush at the librarian like gabbling hens at a fistful of seed every time she comes to the shelves with another armful of 'romances'.

At the end of one afternoon I went in to look for some thriller. I like these books, the way they scratch on the nerves as I lie in bed. Chandler and Hammett are my favourites. You don't get writing like theirs nowadays. I've read all Mickey Spillane, but he lacks class.

I was looking along the shelves when a fellow came round the end of a bookcase. It was Deaner, the husband. He said, 'Hallo. Seen anything good?'

I said no, and he held a couple of books out. He said, 'I've got these.' Two new novels, fashionable names, the kind that are praised in the highbrow Sunday papers. Every week these papers find another writer who has 'earned his place in the front rank of contemporary writing'. This front rank must be miles long by now. There must be a lot of poor nits like this Vic who are so busy keeping up with this front rank lark that they never have time to read a real book. He said, 'Do you read much?'

I said, 'Not much.'

I knew that tone in his voice. The sentry's challenge of the book-lonely. He stood there waiting for me to give the right password. Among the uneducated (which frankly is what you would call the general population where I live) the serious reader is a lonely person. He goes about among the crowds with his thoughts stuffed inside him. He probably dare not even mention them to his nearest pals for fear of being thought a schmo. There's a hunger in his eyes for someone to talk to. He watches, and from time to time when he sees someone likely, he makes his signals. His situation is very much like that of the nancyboy. I spoke to discourage him. I didn't want him falling on my neck. This Soul Mates idea doesn't appeal to me.

He said, 'I read a lot. When I have time. I sometimes wonder if I've bitten off more than I can chew with this exam. I work at nights till I can't see the figures any more, and I'm still behind the syllabus.'

We looked along the shelves in silence. He said, 'Do you like Upton Sinclair?'

I should have given him the brush-off again, but too quickly I answered him. 'Not all that Lanny Budd stuff. But the early ones are terrific.'

The lights came on in his face and he was gabbling to me like a boy.

So there it was. I never have the sense to keep aloof. The semaphore blinks and I answer it. We moved on along the shelves in silence again, but Vic had a kind of relaxed look, satisfied, like a girl you've assured with a squeeze of the arm. In front of the H. G. Wells shelf we began to talk quite naturally. Wells is an old favourite of mine. This Vic for all his Sunday-paper tastes spoke like an intelligent boy.

I picked up a couple of Simenons, and we walked home together . . .