I read to excess and usually have several books going at once. I just finished a wonderful surprise. The memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, by Rodney Crowell, was a book I wish I’d written. This talented musician has other skills besides writing and performing on stage. He is a true writer, and this uproarious book by a man that is within a year or two of my own age touch several chords, though luckily, I didn’t have the traumatic childhood he experienced.
It was a book I couldn’t put down, and my own writing suffered for a day and a half while I escaped to my bedroom to enjoy his descriptions of Texas thunderstorms, honky tonks, hurricanes, conversations so familiar I became homesick, and adventures reminiscent of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (the book from which Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun was made into A Christmas Story). I write humor, mostly outdoor humor about the guys I hunt with. I’m no stranger to laughing at Pat McManus, Donald Westlake, or Max Shulman, but Crowell actually made me laugh out loud, so much that in one scene on page 115 I had to pause and wipe away the tears. In that chapter, Crowell and his childhood cronies attack the abusive father of a friend with rocks, dirt clods, and BB guns. They might have won the battle, but when his mama hears about it and wears him out with a chinaberry switch and then when that breaks, with her hair brush, his dad’s one line response at the crest of the crisis is absolutely hilarious.
But it isn’t all upbeat and humorous. Crowell’s hardrinking father, who is more of a blustering dreamer than a dad, is mercurial in his moods. His Pentecostal mother who is subject to epileptic seizures fights her husband to a draw in nearly every chapter. Despite their rocky marriage, both love Crowell and he idolizes his parents.
Good dialogue is essential to keep me interested in a biography and Chinaberry Sidewalks is chock full of good old Texas sayings and 1950s life in general. Each region of the country has its own way of talking, spiced with geographical influences and by generations of hand-me-down phrases and intonations. Crowell has the rare ability, probably due to his music, to hear the rhythm of conversation and intonations, and to put down on paper feelings that come from everyday life.
I started this book, thinking that it would be about Crowell’s life as a singer and musician, but instead, was delighted to find it was a tribute to his parents and a time and place that created this musical genius and only mentions his musical career toward the end. Crowell is a master lyricist, and that talent comes through in individual lines and character descriptions. I can’t wait for his next book.
One Second After
On the far end of the spectrum, I’ve just completed a novel that came out in 2009. One Second After is a chilling story of one man’s struggle to save a small North Carolina town at the beginning of a war that sets America back to the Dark Ages. William R. Forstchen takes us on a horrific look at a potential apocalypse that could actually happen in our electronic world. The novel is set in a time after numerous Electromagnetic Pulse strikes over North America cut off all sources of electricity to our country, and specifically a North Carolina town, and the ensuing aftermath of sociological breakdown.
It is a chilling wake-up call that shows how fragile our society has become. Back in 1959, Pat Frank wrote Alas, Babylon, a landmark novel of what could happen to America in the event of a nuclear attack. In the novel, the public library becomes a center of society as people, deprived of other forms of entertainment, rediscover reading.
One Second After brings us into modern day America and our dependence on computers and electronics. When the pulse fries every piece of modern technology, the country soon faces the fact that we’re no longer about to survive on our own. Cars die, supplies aren’t delivered, food shortages very quickly turn housewives and businessmen into scavengers looking for enough scraps to life one more day.
Since reading Alas, Babylon in 1968, I’ve always wondered how our country and society as a whole would survive in the event of a nuclear attack. Now, a simple electronic pulse high over our country could drive us back to a world of settlements and fiefdoms. I’ve read dozens of apocalyptic novels, and seen many, many movies of the same genre, but this one held my attention all the way through and gave me an impression that I was re-reading Alas Babylon for the first time, only now, in a modern setting.
Forstchen’s characterizations are true and simple, making the people believable as the story unfolds. He hit the nail on the head in describing how we live from day to day, dependent on daily deliveries of food to our stores, water to our taps, and electricity to the components that we’ve come to depend upon. Refugees from large cities, organized gangs that strip the struggling towns bare of food and supplies, the harshness of medically fragile individuals who die quickly without their prescriptions, and a man’s determination to save his own family all bring the horror of war to these pages.
Forstchen did what I want all authors to do when I read their works. In One Second After, he made me think.