Moby Dick certainly wasn’t the novel that made me fall in love with books (Curious George the Monkey, in the fifth grade?), but I think of it as the book that set me on my course as a writer—and the book that taught me how much the hard work could pay off.
I was scary serious back then, treating being an aspiring writer as I would being an aspiring athlete. I wanted to read the best books I could, and I saw great novels—War and Peace, Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick—as mountains to climb. (Indeed, later I’d top Mann’s The Magic Mountain—a breathtaking view from up there, too.) My training was dutiful, yet full of passion. To be a writer was what I wanted, what I loved, and I’d do what it took. So I’d set aside a lot of time, bury myself in these big fat books, take them with me everywhere … and force myself to keep going when the slogging got really thick, as with all that whale stuff in Melville’s greatest work.
This was learning to be a writer like learning to be an endurance runner, just one foot in front of the other, never stop, work on conditioning, push ahead … all with the goal of someday writing the best books I could.
Just as with a long-distance runner there comes a time when you stop pushing and suddenly glide forth; when running isn’t work, it’s simply what you do; and more than that, the moment you hit that runner’s high … well, something similar happened to me in the sands of Mission Beach, San Diego, a very unlikely spot for a literary epiphany.
I was still living at home in L.A., a year or so out of high school, but I was down in San Diego visiting my friend John, a student at San Diego State. Hey, it was San Diego, of course we went to the beach. The main reason? Well, sun, surf, yadda yadda—but mostly it was to pick up girls … or at least to try.
So off we went, though the writer-in-training dragged along my Norton Critical Edition of Moby Dick, and in between gazing longingly at bikinied women, I sat there reading Melville’s stunning prose, then gazing out into the silver line where the gray-green ocean met the pale blue sky.
This was it! I’d just read three sentences, vertiginously curving, image-bedazzling Melville sentences … and when I looked up, the sky opened up and a beam of light shot down, right on me.
Just like that: The world radiant in the perfect flow of words.
So I’m asked to write a piece on The First Book I Loved, and decide that’s less a book I fell for like a blonde-ponytailed girl in a miniskirt across a dance floor but instead the book that set out my course as a writer; and so I pick Moby Dick and my day on the beach forty years ago … and as I write this, I’m realizing my experience then was very like the story in my latest novel, Stations of the Cross.
Stations of the Cross follows a legendary singer-songwriter as he chases his forty-years-earlier self to a remote beach town in the Yucatan, where he found his true calling. At eighteen in Los Parques, Dyson Burnette was in love; now he’s back there, obsessed with a young schoolteacher, Serena Rodriguez. Her promise? That she can lead him again to the fecund inspiration that fueled his career those forty years back.
Dyson ends up writing a fourteen-verse song called “Stations of the Cross.” It’s not a hymn, it follows no organized church, but for me it’s a religious song nonetheless as it recounts the songwriter’s journey back to an earlier radiant time … and his search for transcendence now.
At the end of Stations of the Cross, Dyson finds the true light again, and who knows, maybe it’s my own Moby Dick moment forty years back on the white sands of Mission Beach that inspired it. If nothing else,that day on the beach has led me to hope to write sentences that someday might light up another young reader’s eyes.
By the way, if you’re curious, I just pulled that same Norton edition of Moby Dick off my shelves, forty years later, and as best as I can tell, this is the underlined passage I read that day in Mission Beach:
“For, thought Ahab, while even the highest earthly felicities ever have a certain unsignifying pettiness lurking in them, but, at bottom, all heart-woes, a mystic significance, and, in some men, an archangelic grandeur; so do their diligent tracings-out not belie the obvious deduction. To trail the genealogies of these high mortal miseries, carries us at last among the sourceless primogenitures of the gods; so that, in the face of all the glad, hay-making suns, and soft-cymballing, round harvest-moons, we must needs give in to this: that the gods themselves are not for ever glad. The ineffaceable, sad birth-mark in the brow of man, is but the stamp of sorrow in the signers.”