JE: If Saul Bellow wrote “Every Which Way But Loose,” it might be read a bit like Benjamin Hale’s excellent debut, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. I met Ben at BEA last year, where he was on the buzz panel with me. Guy does a mean Orson Welles impersonation. I met him again in LA this fall, where I bought him an eight dollar beer and we talked over an “author dinner” about Dostoyevsky, Gunter Grass, Phillip Roth, and how fucking expensive the bar was. Benjamin Hale loves him some literature, and he’s not afraid to take risks. In short, he’s a guy to watch. Here’s his When We Fell in Love essay:
In my life as a reader, the first significant thing I remember is sitting on my dad’s lap listening to him reading The Hobbit to me. I don’t know how old I was; I must have been preliterate or just learning to read. It was a gorgeous book, a hefty hardback bound in dimpled earth-green leather that slid out of an earth-green leather box; both the book and the box were decorated with primitive borders and gilt runic inscriptions in one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented languages. The book had color plates of Tolkien’s own lavish illustrations, and a map of Middle Earth printed on the back binding. It was an eerie, magical object—a book that a wizard would dust off to look up an ancient incantation. My dad was a great reader—when he read, he would give each character a voice, and so on—but most importantly, he read the material with utmost respect. He took the story absolutely seriously, which is the key to reading any book aloud well. There is a certain sentence from The Hobbit imbedded forever in my memory: “Begone now, ere our arrows fly!” (…says Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thráin, King Under the Mountain, may his beard grow ever longer.) I remember this sentence because I asked my dad what “ere” means. He said, “It’s an old-fashioned way of saying ‘before.’” Since then, that’s helped me out with many a crossword clue.
The second significant experience happened when I was in eighth grade, I think, about thirteen years old, and had been assigned to write a report about poetry. The assignment was vague, or at least it is in my memory. What I remember clearly is sitting in the school library with the other kids, flipping through poetry anthologies, looking for something to write about, and coming across Allen Ginsberg’s “America.” The fifth line in is, “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” First, there was the mere delightful shock of seeing the word “fuck” right there in the same poetry anthology that included “Auld Lang Syne” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—as crude and childishly seditious as a little turd smeared on the wall of a church. Second, it’s a hilarious image. Third, the lowbrow puerility mixed with righteous rage at institutional death-worship appealed to the anarchic spirit of adolescence—mine, at least. The anger, the coarse sexuality, the sloppy, batshit energy, the whole recklessly courageous fuck-you-ness of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry was the perfect thing for me to stumble across at that age. W.B. Yeats, in his dirty-old-man decadence, wrote, “You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attention upon my old age; / They were not such a plague when I was young; / What else have I to spur me into song?”
What I needed then was lust and rage. Later, I would find it there in Yeats, but at the time, I needed Ginsberg to crack the dam, rushing in the literature that would bury my preadolescent reading (an Anglophilic and very geeky duumvirate of J.R.R. Tolkien and Douglas Adams): Ginsberg led to the other Beats, which, through various connections, led to (in roughly this order) Céline, Ezra Pound, the Marquis de Sade, Nabokov, Kafka, Herman Hesse (a major, slightly embarrassing teenage obsession); this led to Joyce, Thomas Mann, Borges, Pynchon, John Barth; pretty soon I was reading far more seriously and omnivorously—reading Tolstoy and Flaubert, and rereading the Dickens that the adolescent me had foolishly dismissed. Sometimes I will reread some of the dark, sexy, evil stuff that I loved so much when I was first discovering that literature doesn’t have to be good for you—that it can feel more like doing drugs than doing your homework—that literature isn’t only something austerely chiseled-out and Apollonian, but can be dangerously alive, can slither and hiss and bare fangs.
Approaching such literature from a more mature perspective, after having grown up a little and fallen in love with the work of some crotchety, old-fashioned writers—like Saul Bellow, who I’ve ultimately learned more from than all those outlaws and enfants terribles put together—much of it strikes me as having a disappointingly unbalanced ratio of real poetry to solipsistic logorrhea, as immature and insecure, as if it’s screaming its head off out of a fear of being interrupted. But I love it anyway, and recognize its importance. I hope never to lose that kind of energy, that manic aliveness. As a writer, I hope to keep on sharpening my instruments, of course, but to age as disgracefully as Yeats—to always have lust and rage to spur me into song.