Saturday, June 23, 2012

On Book Recommendations and Cotton Fires: Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones



For me, recommending books is a tricky business. Especially if the person is not into genre fiction or, at least, I don't know if they're part of the club or not.

Don't know what I mean? Picture this:

You’re at some kind of social function, talking to someone you barely know, and the conversation turns to books. “Oh, you’re a big reader?”

Nodding is what puts you on the spot.

“What do you read?”

“All kinds of stuff.”

You don’t want to get into it right now, have to explain yourself. You rattle off a few of the biggies, a few names they’ll probably know/respect. Names that carry a certain cultural cache. Chabon, McCarthy, maybe even Neil Gaiman if they look like the type of person that shopped at Hot Topic back in high school. That oughta wow them. Make you look respectable.

But wait, the social function’s at your place, so the same person who just asked you what you read is now looking at your bookshelf and seeing what you actually read.

Seems like you may have neglected to mention a few things.

You didn’t lie. Per se. All those names you mentioned are there. Well, good old Neil isn’t, he’s on your kindle, unable to back you up in the real world. Those names are just surrounded by other names.

But it’s not even the names that stick out, this person who’s looking doesn’t recognize names like Ketchum, Barker and Langan, doesn’t know the weight they carry in your circles. Instead the looky-loo is focusing on titles.

Now you are too, feeling a flush behind your ears as you notice that Carlton Mellick’s Apeshit is right next to your Library of Americas. The cover art(a busty blonde with a plus-sized machete) is not doing you any favors, nor is the fact that the book next to it is a treatise on Swedish exploitation cinema, Christina Lindberg’s patched-up eye as big as life.

This ever happened to you? Happens to me all the time (don’t look so surprised that people talk to me).

How do you recover? By making a recommendation. Because maybe by offering them the best you’ve got, you can prove yourself, validate a whole swath of genres that this person is either ignorant of or avoids like they were syphilitic.

So what do I usually offer here? Well, the book I feel like is the ultimate get out of jail-free card, the one I recommend when I'm put on the spot by a "normal" person, is The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Diaz’s book is literate and it’s got an epigraph by Galactus, so it covers multiple bases.

With Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones, I think I’ve got a new go-to book to recommend. Not only is it excellent, but if the recommendee decides they want to read more from the author, there's a good chance they'll end up in my neck of the woods, genre-wise. It's an inadvertent gateway drug.

Growing Up Dead in Texas, the latest from Stephen Graham Jones, is the best of his work that I’ve read. Even though it seems like just yesterday we were talking about the latest from SGJ, there will be no mistaking Growing Up Dead for Zombie Bake-Off. There’s no zombies in Growing Up Dead, no bunny-headed coyotes, there’s not even any mutant ticks, that’s because GDTx(the author’s abbreviation, not mine) is kinda-sorta nonfiction.  

Though it’s labeled a novel, the narrator is Jones himself traveling back to Greenwood Texas to investigate a cotton fire that happened in 1985 when Jones was only a child. I have no idea how much of the plot is invented and how much is the stone-cold truth, this information isn’t exactly googleable, but that constant tension between “wait is this the ‘novel’ or is it the nonfiction?” is part of what makes the book endlessly fascinating. Ultimately the line between fact and fiction doesn’t really matter, because it all feels real enough that we stop questioning it.

We follow the narrative threads that shoot out of that 1985 fire in a million different directions, so much so that the book becomes a kind of mystery. If it is a procedural, though, it’s one where procedure is skirted, taking some unrelated digressions into Jones’s life that tell us more about our trusty “detective.” The cast of characters is robust, and even Jones has trouble coming up with enough pseudonyms, confesses to not remembering the ones that he laid down at the beginning.

This is one of those books that is so good, has so much going for it, that it’s difficult to elaborate beyond: read it, you’ll like it.

I could tell you about the bulleted interview with one of the slimiest sounding mofos ever, I could tell you about how I had the paperback but bought the ebook once I realized how much I wanted to highlight passages, or about the sequence with the dogs (oh, the dogs), or the descriptions of small town high school sports culture that had this pasty suburbanite ready to hit the basketball court, or about the passages that made me feel like I was out in the West Texas cotton fields, even though the only farms I’ve ever seen are located on the east end of Long Island and have a farmstand attached.

I could tell you those things or you can take my recommendation and just read the book for yourself. Maybe you’ll like it enough to ignore all that other weird crap on my shelves, maybe even give some of it a try yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Never read anything of his I didn't like. This one rocks.

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