Classics Challengers, it’s time for a little light reading. You deserve it.
The end-of-schoolyear bullshit is a heavy burden. Concerts and their practices, graduations, award ceremonies and making sure everyone has “good clothes” that fit, all have me driving, literally, in circles. Split-second timing is imperative: If soccer practice runs a little long it means someone else is sitting and pouting waiting for a ride home.
Add to that the tease of spring. Mother nature’s been so parsimonious with it that every warm-ish day sends the kids into a whirl of ignoring homework and all the other stuff that needs to be done because they want to be outside. And there’s something else, I can’t seem to — oh, yeah. work.
All those together mean my mind isn’t able to focus on things for very long, and that’s why it’s the perfect time to read trash.
Trashy novels and I have a long, existential history. I love them, I hate them and they don’t give a damn about me.
I cut my adult reading teeth, as it were, on trash. My two older sisters loaned me well-thumbed books I zipped through at night, under my covers with a flashlight. Sidney Sheldon’s “Bloodline” was my introduction and, with a plot lousy with sex, money and snuff films, there isn’t a better entry to the world of trash. Books by John Saul (“Suffer the Children”), V.C. Andrews (“Flowers in the Attic”), Judy Blume (the good parts of “Wifey”), Jacqueline Suzanne (“Valley of the Dolls”), Harold Robbins (“The Betsy”) and Ira Levin (“The Boys from Brazil”) followed.
To me, a trashy novel is all about story, not the writing, so the story better be compelling, and those books were to my teenage brain. It wasn’t until I was on my fifth or sixth Sheldon novel, “The Stranger in the Mirror,” that I started questioning. Perhaps because I noticed the formulaic nature of his novels (start in the present with a framing device in which you drop interesting tidbits about what will come, flash back to bad choices, great sex and evil villains, come back to present, kill someone and wrap it up with a smile) that I started noticing the writing was repetitive and the characters silly. Even the sex scenes lost their allure—and I was in my teens! I stopped reading trash and turned up my nose, promising only to read “redeeming” writing.
Well, that’s fine, but if you want to talk about books with anyone, you’ll have to read some trash so I dived back in fairly quickly. A lady once said to me, “You call yourself well read and you’ve never read James Clavell? Really?” (Still haven’t, though I did read 200 boring-ass pages of “Shogun.”) I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s when TV sweeps months were peppered with miniseries based on crappy bestsellers. I figured I was missing something, so I started picking up trashy novels at used book sales on bag day (all you can cram in a bag for $3). I read “The Godfather,” (god-awful); “Rich Man, Poor Man” and its sequel “Beggar Man, Thief” (don’t remember a thing), the occasional Jackie Collins novel, and the not-good parts of “Wifey.”
I also picked up novels (yellowed and dank-smelling) that were trashy novels of earlier times, like the ’50s. Some I enjoyed greatly (“The Cardinal,” “The Bad Seed”) and others I remember getting halfway through and realizing I was wasting my time (more sex, less character development, please) and happily tossed.
So while I used to feel the exact opposite of that woman who challenged my reading list: “You call yourself well read and you’ve never read Graham Greene? Really?” But now I don’t care. Reading is reading, and it might, one day, accidentally lead someone to better books.
And those are my thoughts as I pick up Grace Metalious’ “Peyton Place,” the scandalous novel of small-town sex that shocked the nation when it was published in 1956. I’m expecting bad writing and a fair amount of 1950s-style sex. So far, I have not been disappointed. Look at this opening, for crying out loud: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” And, a few pages later, there’s this bit of wisdom from one of Peyton Place’s old timers: “There ain’t much a feller can do when he’s married to a born whore.”
See you in a bit, I’m moving to Peyton Place for its purple prose and inbred sex.