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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, November 16, 2003

Literary Trail Traced from Updike to Parkhurst

The concept Six Degrees of Separation is based on a play by John Guare that shows how we are all connected by six or fewer stages of acquaintance or circumstance.

Oddly enough, this phenomenon occurs throughout nature, including in the world of books. Today I will use those "stages of circumstance" to connect John Updike to Carolyn Parkhurst.

John Updike: The Early Stories by John Updike (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) is a massive tome that contains Updike's first published short story, Ace in the Hole. Updike, who has chronicled male middle class angst since 1953, chose as his first main character a former high school basketball star forced to humor his angry young wife after being fired from his latest job.

If you like Updike, don't miss the opportunity to bid on an autographed copy of his latest novel at Evansville's first-ever Autographed Book Auction at Holy Redeemer Church on November 19! Hundreds of famous authors have contributed personally inscribed books to this event.

Of course, no connoisseur of short stories should neglect A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor (Harcourt Reissue edition, 1992, c1953). A close friend of mine who has just returned from a pilgrimage to the Fifth Annual Flannery O'Connor Symposium in Milledgeville, Georgia, asserts that all readers are novices until they're sampled this rather morbid but compelling author.

When asked about O'Connor on his recent trip to Evansville, fellow Southern author Rick Bragg said that she left too many people dead at the side of road for his taste.

Author Joyce Carol Oates refers to O'Connor's "sadistic punishment of 'nonbelievers'" in Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (Harper Collins, 2003). In this compilation of essays, Oates admits her debt to writers Edgar Allen Poe but skips over any similarity to O'Connor, although Oates has written quite a few "dead at the side of the road" tales of her own. These two perceptive and probing scribes may have more in common than Oates cares to admit.

Oates does praise diarist Alice James, the younger sister of famous 19th century brothers William (the psychologist) and Henry (the author), asserting "she had a distinct literary voice, as valuable as the voice of Virginia Woolf's celebrated diaries."

Jamesland by Michelle Huneven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) elaborates on the life of the distinguished James writing trio.

Huneven's fictional heroine is Alice Black, a thirty-something James descendant who is housesitting for her ailing great aunt in Los Angeles. The quirky California cast is rounded out with a female Unitarian preacher, a gourmet chef (being nursed back from a nervous breakdown by his nun mother on leave from the convent), and a slightly aging actress and her straying husband.

Alice manages to educate herself about her ancestors through surreptitious peeks at a revealing ancestral biography that Aunt Kate has been laboring over for years.

If we meander in space and time along the California coast from bustling modern Los Angeles to the unsullied 1940s coastline south of San Francisco, we'll find Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (Viking Press, 1945).

No words are sufficient to praise this surprisingly modest little tale of Doc and his mostly homeless but free neighbors. Doc (who lives and works in his Western Biological Laboratory), Lee Chong (proprieter of the general store) and Dora Flood (keeper of the neighborhood whorehouse) are the society pillars of the Row.

The character Doc is based on the real Ed Ricketts, one of Steinbeck's best friends and drinking buddies. A scientific man, he collected specimens all up and down the coast for sale to laboratories.

He might have related quite well to the secret sect of animal experimenters in Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Little, Brown, 2003). But don't let a few vivisectionists turn you away from this enchanting novel that has already been optioned for the screen by "Harry Potter" producer David Heyman. It's about an emotionally exhausted linguist who struggles to teach his dog Lorelei to talk so she can reveal the truth behind his beloved wife Lexy's fatal fall from a backyard apple tree.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.