I can’t complain. Unlike more than a million Americans throughout this COVID era, I’m not dead.
Despite the best efforts of the COVID deniers – starting with Trump – and being fully vaccinated and boosted and masked up in public places, I tested positive a few weeks ago. I had weakness, dizzy spells and coughing fits, but mostly I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep. Isolated on the second floor of the house, a masked woman delivered my meals on a tray. There was a period of 2½ days where I didn’t even see the dog.
Blurry eyesight made it difficult to read. One of my co-workers had given me a book about Bigfoot, apparently aware of my interest in cryptozoology. Loch Ness Monster? Dinosaur-era pterodactyls that have somehow survived to this day in South American jungles? Maybe no, perhaps yes. I’m like the 7-year-old kid who announces to his friends that Santa Claus is not real, but not too loudly, lest the presents stop coming.
Television was easier on the eyes. Highly recommended viewing: Trailer Park Boys, a Netflix series about a couple of small-time drug dealers and criminals living in a Canadian trailer park full of drunks. The Coen Brothers have made some very surreal movies: None more cryptic than Barton Fink, and its final 10 minutes of flaming apocalypse crashing to a halt on a peaceful beach. The slightly hallucinogenic effects of COVID, and the mind games that come with sleeping for 10 straight hours, brings a sense of order to these kinds of chaos.
I worked from home for a while, then ventured into the office when I was testing negative, although still feeling the exhausting effects of the virus. What I really needed was a week off.
That was last week’s winery-driven sabbatical, with the home base a rustic house clinging to the shore of Keuka Lake.
An indiscriminately paved rural road led to the cabin we’d rented with friends. This rural end of Penn Yan is a woodsy secret society that feels isolated, yet communal: The people standing at the roadside inspecting their mailboxes, or riding bicycles, or walking, or driving in the opposite direction, would often wave as we drove past them. They didn’t know us. They just know why we’re here.
For all they knew, we could have been The Manson Family.
The Finger Lakes are narrow bodies of water gouged out of the landscape tens of thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers. The shorelines are generally a mix of very expensive, sprawling houses and weathered, rambling shanties. All clinging to the steep lakesides like wasp nests tucked away in the rafters.
We’ve stayed in this cabin a couple of times. Seen from the deck, Keuka Lake is framed by the green branches of the trees and aggressive shrubs leading down to the water. Looking down onto the trees below us leaves the impression that we are sitting, like squirrels, on the limbs of oaks.
I work in the media. But I sometimes step away from it, for extended periods of news self-deprivation. By choice, because world events are too overwhelming. This was one of those weeks. After a few days of this kind of isolation, I can’t remember what day it is.
There was a television. But we never turned it on. Internet and phone connections were spotty, and frequently non-existent. Texts sent one morning might show up as expected, or turn up a day late. Yet technology did not fail Scott Regan; In the mornings we unfailingly listened to reruns, the greatest hits of his “Open Tunings” show on WRUR-FM (88.5). That’s the miracle of radio today, signals from Rochester 70 miles away are no longer dependent on massive towers subject to weather, geography or sunspots. Music thrives on the connective tissue of the internet.
Otherwise, I did not connect this laptop to the rest of the world. I would catch up on the daily mass shootings when I returned to Rochester. The congressional hearings on the January 6 Capitol riot would have to wait; although, as a well-informed citizen, I already know where this exploration of Republican rot will lead. I fully expect Trump to be chained to a cart and hauled through the streets of Washington, D.C., bellowing as the citizens throw rotten fruit at him, like a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Instead, on these Keuka afternoons, we listened to the lake. The small waves breaking on the stony shore. Sometimes a noisy powerboat skimmed by, buzzing like a dragonfly, going nowhere on gas that costs $4.99 a gallon. Or more.
When we hit the road for a few hours, it was with purpose. Here in the Finger Lakes, we were surrounded by wineries. We live in the midst of a miracle of beauty and a society built around the fermentation of relationships. Cases of wine were stacking up in the dining room, ready for the journey home.
As I sat on the deck, typing these words, a really huge bird swooped by, its wings pumping, and making a somewhat awkward landing in a nearby tree. It was quickly lost in the foliage. I wonder what it was.
Previous guests had left their imprints on the house. Or perhaps the landlord left us the remnants of a recent garage sale. Kitschy art. A Monopoly game. Chinese checkers. Pictionary, does anyone play that anymore?
The games shared a small bookcase with a stack of paperbacks. Few of them looked interesting, or else they wouldn’t have been left behind by previous guests.
Well, there was one name I have encountered in years past: Bernard Malamud. He wrote a dark baseball novel, The Natural. And here was another one of his novels, A New Life. First published in 1961, this was a yellowed 1965 Dell paperback edition, selling in its day for 60 cents. The front and back covers were less about design than they were about typography. This was a nation-wide bestseller, it crowed, by the winner of the National Book Award. The Chicago Tribune swooned about how this was a novel about the secret life of a small college town… “brilliant, fiery, devastating, ecstatic.” The New York Times declared, Bernard Malamud joins company with J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Herbert Gold.
Herbert Gold? Who the hell…?
Well, that is perhaps a shortcoming of my own literary awareness.
The first five words of Malamud’s novel instantly grabbed my attention: S. Levin, formerly a drunkard…
Yet from there, it all went downhill for S. Levin, and for the reader.
“Your breasts,” he murmured, “smell like hay.”
“I always wash well,” she said.
And… The next time after making love, Levin experienced a fiery pain in the butt.
Levin needs to see a doctor. Despite the love affair that The New York Times had for it, I tossed A New Love back on the bookcase. I had brought my own literary distraction. An 805-page Haruki Murakami novel, 1Q84. Murakami is in the top tier of my personal literary pantheon. Bukowski, Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor and Amiri Baraka live there as well.
Isolation is good not only for reading, but writing. You can ask all of the best writers. Kerouac holed up in a cabin in Big Sur. Hemingway greeting an Idaho morning by standing at his typewriter – yes, he wrote while standing – before moving on to an afternoon of drinking and throwing flaming logs on his depression. Burroughs retreating to Morocco, where his work was fueled by hashish and young men.
Here on the screened-in porch of the Keuka Lake cabin, I read 150 pages of 1Q84 the first day, another 150 the following day.
And I slowly discovered that A Bottle of Mezcal, my own manuscript that remains unpublished – but that is not my fault! – shares a story line with the brilliance of Murakami’s 1Q84: Writers trapped by their own literary frauds.
A Bottle of Mezcal and 1Q84 both creep down the dark roads of sci-fi, surrealism, murder and music. Standard themes of contemporary literature. Otherwise, the two stories share no similarities. My unnatural ideas come to me naturally. Sci-fi, surrealism, murder and music are threads hardwired not only into my literary brain, but they drive my pedestrian, everyday life as well.
And, as with Barton Fink, the dichotomy of flaming apocalypse and a peaceful beach are a fitting conclusion to any story.
Sitting on the screened-in porch overlooking Keuka Lake, on my COVID vacation, I resumed working on my second novel. Vermeer’s Surreal Piano takes themes of sci-fi, surrealism, murder and music – and those flaming apocalypses and peaceful beaches – to new levels. Perhaps I will be the next Herbert Gold.
Nearly 300 pages of 1Q84 remain to be read. But in one respect, I suspect the fabulous Murakami will fall short of the shamefully ignored A Bottle of Mezcal. And perhaps Vermeer’s Surreal Piano will eclipse Murakami as well, if the words continue on their current path.
Spoiler alert: In my worlds, breasts do not smell like hay. And everyone dies in the end.