Ten years ago, if you had asked me what my favorite book was, I don’t know what I would have said. Maybe The Bell Jar or something equally cliche for a teen-aged girl to relate to. (Hey, I still think it’s a good book!) I consider myself lucky to be able to answer the “What’s your favorite book of all time?” query now, because some people just don’t have the luxury of picking up a book that they absolutely love from the first sentence on.
Over the last few years I’ve recommended this title countless times to all of my friends (I don’t think any of those bastards ever read it, though) and now I recommend it to you, bibliophiles! I love this book. You might not. I understand that! Books speak to everyone in different ways, some moreso than others and this one is… well. It’s weird. It’s dark. It’s got a sinister edge and a heavy dose of strange humor.
It Happened In Boston? by Russell H. Greenan.
This is the book’s description, according to Random House, and I love how it sounds so I’m interjecting it right… now!:
“First published by Random House in 1968, Russell H. Greenan’s It Happened in Boston? is the story of a brilliantly talented, unbalanced artist who strives to meet God face-to-face in order to destroy Him. It is “a magic spell of a book—phantasmagoric, lushly written, full of unforgettable characters and brilliant twists of plot,” writes Jonathan Lethem in his Introduction. With a vivid depiction of the art world and a breathtaking narrative that incorporates forgery, time travel, and murder, Greenan’s hilarious and disturbing debut novel—now an underground cult classic—is ripe for rediscovery.”
I KNOW, RIGHT?! Oh, that didn’t do it for you? Let me give you a little background, then, about why I picked this up in the first place.
Picture it! Northeast Ohio. 2002. A young girl is working part time at a bookstore and grumbling about lazy customers after a long shift on a snowy day. That young girl, ladies and gentlemen, was me. I remember it quite clearly, I was picking up wayward magazines and swearing under my breath when I stumbled over Boston?. No, literally. I STUMBLED over it, ripping the cover and copyright page clean off because some careless jerk left it lying in the middle of the floor.
I picked it up, inspecting the damage I’d inflicted, and I couldn’t help but glancing at the newly exposed first page. The opening sentence? “Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me.”
Greenan develops his characters obscenely well and his plot sprawls across the pages delicately, but in a distinctly forward motion so that this book becomes an actual pleasure to read. There isn’t the “OMGOMG WHAT NEXT?!” brand of suspense that many writers go overboard with, but there IS just enough of it to keep the pages turning. Why is he poisoning pigeons? They ARE ugly, aren’t they? Should I lie under my own bed too? There’s an interesting essay on the benefits of it. Is this book the reason they don’t leave sugar bowls out in restaurants anymore? I’d never use one. Could art forgery really be committed this way? I think it sounds convincing, if you could find a painter of the same caliber as Leonardo.
The narrating character has a clear, strong voice and the story seems so unintentionally well defined that it’s hard to put down. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. I want you to read it. I want you to feel as strongly about it as I do, so I will stop there.
In parting, I’ll tell you another story. Last year, a friend and I were visiting a really neat and kind of old, somewhat creepy used bookstore in Massachusetts. I don’t even remember the name of it but there were books everywhere. I happened to, quite literally again, stumble across Boston? on the bottom shelf of a particularly large wall o’ books. A hardcover, first edition copy, just like that. Voila! Magical! Hooray!
Inspired by that find, I wrote an email to Mr. Greenan soon after. (My grandfather can’t even turn a goddamn computer on, let alone reply to a twenty-something writing him gushy emails.) This is part of the reply that I received:
Thank you for your delightful letter. To hear that someone as young as you enjoys reading (and rereading) the forty-year-old novel of someone as old as me is wonderfully gratifying. I’m sure there are many far more successful writers than me who do not receive such lovely encomiums. One of my daughters – she lives in an ashram in Kerala, India – would say that you didn’t stumble on that paperback by chance, that it was all fated to happen.
As for finding the first edition in a semi-creepy used-book store, that, I suppose, is where one might expect to come across such a story. I once saw an English edition of BOSTON? in the very center of a London occult bookshop window off Charing Cross Road. Flattering though this was, I didn’t go in and ask the owner why it was displayed so prominently. God knows what he might have told me.
I’m not big on fate, myself, but I can’t help agreeing with Mr. Greenan. No other work has influenced or inspired me as much as his has. I feel quite lucky to have disfigured it in the first place. This book, a fantastically dark comedy, full of laughter and sadness and hope and fear, is something that I will never stop recommending to people in the hopes that it will inspire them to step out of their boundaries, to think about life a little differently.
What I’m trying to say here, my book nerdlings, is that I hope you decide to pick this up and give it a read and I extra, super, mega, really hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.
Now go read a book, hippie!
Images: Random House