1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
In 1987 I was a sophomore in high school at Lexington High in Lexington, Mass—the birthplace of the American Revolution. I was, like many of you, a pothead and a crook, a brace-face and a smoker, a hairball with a license to drive my mother’s car full of friends to drink warm Budweiser in the woods behind our suburban homes. We were the kind of kids who used the word “retarded” so much the world finally decided to put a stop to the word altogether, deciding it was too mean, which it is. My grades sucked. I had a girlfriend who purpled my neck with strong kisses. And I purpled her neck with the same kind of stuff. She was, like me, unkempt, and, like me, she smoked too much pot, fell down when she drank, called me “homo” a lot, you get the picture.
The only jobs I could get in those days were manual labor jobs. I took a janitor position at Cary Memorial Library—the town’s public library. My duties were to dust the stacks, clean the bathrooms, polish the railings, vacuum the floors and change light bulbs. The head janitor did the tough stuff, the mowing and whatnot. He was an old Navy veteran and liked to scare me on a daily basis, saying things like: “One of these days, Forsyth, I’m going to cut your hair with this dull box cutter!” It was a pretty shitty job. The janitor’s office was in the basement without windows. It was dark and smelled of cleaning supplies. It was airless and lifeless—a space, in other words, fit for a retarded homo pothead sleezeball. It was there that I took my twenty-minute breaks. Even the Navy vet took twenty-minute breaks, where he liked to flip through his porno mags and spit Skoal into a plastic Dixie cup. When he left for the day, leaving me in charge for the last two hours, I would flip through the magazines and spit Skoal into my own Dixie cup. It was okay for a while. I mean, I looked forward to these breaks, but as the days wore on, I got tired of looking at the same pictures, and the Skoal was good for a while too, until I realized the shit was getting caught in my braces, making me uglier than I already was.
One day the director of the library came down to our office and told us there was a space problem. All new books coming into the library would be stored in our office until the librarians had a chance to pick them up to be checked in and placed in their rightful Dewy-decimal places in the stacks. The news didn’t matter much to me, until that first day when I came down for my twenty-minute break and found a stack of books on the desk. The books were clean. Down there in the dungeon, that’s how they looked to me: clean. For some reason I had this feeling about them, like maybe how someone stuck in a desert feels about a nice clean cold cup of water. The one on top was by Amy Hempel. Her picture was on the back. She looked sort of hot. The book was called Reasons To Live. I remember thinking as I read the title that if ever I had something to say I would want the title to suggest something important inside. Reasons To Live, I guess, was a worthy title to my mind, which, in thinking back, was a kind of miracle, because mostly I dumped on everything that crossed my path. I was listening to a lot of punk rock in those days. Puke Bucket would have been the title I would have normally endorsed. But, no, this title spoke to me in ways I still don’t understand. Was I simply looking for reasons to live? Maybe. Was I really just a dramatic mutant teenwolf cliché waiting for someone to come along with real, bona fide reasons to live? I sincerely hope it isn’t that simple. Nobody wants to think of him or herself as that simple. But, in my case, I think it may be true. I think I was waiting all my life to that moment for reasons to live. And then, there they were, in the dimly lit bowels of the library: Reasons To Live. By Amy Hempel. I stuck it in my backpack. Stole the fucker. Didn’t have a bar code on it yet. Like that Jane’s Addiction song: “I walked right through the door!”
I stole a few more books the next day. I stole a book on UFO sightings. I stole a book on whales. For some reason in those days I was into whales. If anyone had bothered to ask me what I truly wanted to be when I grew up I would have said a searcher of whales and UFOs. Thank God nobody ever asked me, though probably if they had asked me I would have lied. I would have said I wanted to be a janitor the rest of my life. When you’re that age you don’t want to show your hand to too many people. You want to come off as someone who has it all down. I took Reasons To Live and the other books and squirreled them away under my bed with my cigarettes and dope and Hustler Magazines I had swiped from the head janitor. These books became, against their will, contraband. Looking back, I see it was a necessary thing to do. If I hadn’t treated them as contraband I think it’s true to say I would never have read Reasons To Live. But I did read it. Fifty times, maybe a hundred times, I don’t know. I read it until the words became mine, in a way. I read it so much I think an argument could have been made that I truly owned the stolen book.
Well, everything changed after that. It was a gradual change. But eventually I would come to understand a few things. Right now, as I’m writing these words, I see that what changed significantly in me was that I started to love and admire women more. It’s true. I think it was soon after I fell in love with the book that I started dumping old habits. The porno mags, for one, became almost at once tiresome—symbolic of a kind of loneliness I wanted no part of. And I got myself a new girlfriend, one that liked to go to movies and talk in coffee shops. I cleaned up my act a little. Nothing drastic. Just enough to pass. The main change was that I started to read more. I read everything people told me to read. My own mother was a reader so I stopped having to steal books. And soon, it seemed, the Hempel book became in my library just another book. But lets face it—Reasons To Live will never be just another book. Miss Hempel doesn’t need my endorsement. She has made a fine living writing and teaching. Her short fiction is widely anthologized and she has the endorsements of much finer writers than me. If you are a writer of short fiction it is likely you have come across it in your own development. If not, maybe you have read the story “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” If so, maybe you remember that lovely ending. Maybe you remember the story is about grief and death and the maddening complexity of friendship. Maybe, like me, you remember how it captures life how it really is and all the exhaustion that comes with it, and that perfect ending where she writes:
I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.
Yes, remember how that ending socked you in the gut? Remember how it felt to read all that simple, playful, craft? Just great fucking craft. I remember. I remember it all like it was yesterday. And if you haven’t read it before I say give it a try. I like to think someone is out there in need of this book. If it’s you I say: Go get it, my friend. Or if you’d rather my younger self: “You’d have to be a retard not to.”
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I sent it to the Cary Memorial Library, of course. Anonymously, of course. You know what the late fees must be up to by now?
Bio: Geoffrey Forsyth’s fiction has appeared in New Orleans Review, Other Voices, CutBank, The River Oak Review, and several other literary magazines. In 2007 his story “Mud” was selected by Shapard and Thomas to appear in the anthology New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories From America and Beyond. He was the winner of the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest for Short-Short Fiction in 2009. Recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award in 2009, Geoffrey lives with his wife and kids in La Grange Park, Illinois.