I would see my father going off to work, see his old army uniforms in the basement, see tough kids a little older than me with pretty girls. But all that was on the other side of an invisible wall. Real life was somewhere just beyond my reach, maybe forever. This is what all bookish boys worry about. Henry James made a career writing about just such worries.
Christmas vacation 1959. I had turned 14 a few days earlier, and we were on a family vacation in Quebec City--my two brothers, my parents, and their friends the Boutwells, with their two boys. We stayed at the Chateau Frontenac, all marble, velvet, leather, lace, silk, wrought iron, sculpted cornice, fancy stonework, bowing waiters, popping corks--but it was not pleasant.
Perhaps there was grown-up tension I sensed--Mrs Boutwell would be dead of cancer in a year or two, and Mr Boutwell and my mother would then run off together in what used to be called 'an ill-fated romance.' Perhaps the unpleasantness was partially because we were being led from one interesting place to another to appreciate the river, the Plains of Abraham, the old city, the sleighs, the wax museum. I am not a museum-goer, and I don't like being led.
Perhaps the snow contributed. It snowed so badly that our flight from Boston to Quebec was diverted to Montreal. We had driven in snow, endlessly from Montreal to Quebec. It snowed the whole time we were in Quebec. I still am not a great fan of snow. We did this and did that, hung around, bickered, fussed, too hot inside, too cold outside--and waited for mealtimes to punctuate the day and get us closer to bedtime.
At some point I went into the Frontenac gift shop off the lobby and looked at the paperback rack. This was the fifties--before the day of serious paperbacks. 'Paperback' was pretty much a euphemism for sexy trash with salacious covers. Serious people read serious books with real bindings! But I was never a snob about these things.
In the rack was a book entitled 'Slim' by someone named William Wister Haines. The cover showed a man in a safety belt high up on a phone pole. He wears a kerchief but no shirt. He is slender, well-muscled, and holds a huge spud wrench in one of his gloved hands. The wind carries off the smoke from the cigarette in his mouth and his eyes squint against the setting sun that has turned the sky red. This was Slim.
The paperback I bought that day cost 50 cents Canadian, which was expensive for a paperback; usually they were 35 cents. It was a Canadian edition, published in November 1959, originally copyrighted 1934. I know these facts because after I read the book, I carried it home with me, carefully put it on my bookshelf, watched over it for the next fify years, making sure that when I moved it was not lost, and now, November 4, 2010, as I write at 4:33pm, the book I found in the gift shop of the Frontenac is sitting next to my computer. The pages are crumbly and brown. The glue from the original binding is long gone. A neat piece of duct tape holds it together.
If my little paperback were still in good shape, a used-book dealer could ask $56 for it today. That the cover is inexcusably camp and homoerotic probably explains why this edition is worth more than the 1947 one....
If you found the catalog of dates, times, numbers, facts, and details in the previous paragraphs a bit tedious, you would not like 'Slim.' It is a book all about building towers and stringing power lines, and no technical detail is ever scanted. Here's how the book opens: "Every time he passed the pile of steel lying in the corner of the field, the boy stopped his mules and stared at it. It had been there for three days. He remembered the men who had deposited it: tall-booted, laughing men who had spoken knowingly of K pieces, X braces, struts, legs, wing sections, arms, and dropper plates."
That is not a prepossessing opening. If I were a literary agent and you showed me that, I would reach for my pile of form rejections. But in the half-century since 1959, I have probably read 'Slim' ten times, every five years or so. Why?
Here's part of the blurb: "Lineman! Slim knew what he wanted the first time he saw men stringing the high wire when he was still just a raw kid off the farm. This was for him, a rough, harsh, man's world. where there was always another power line to string, one more after that, and a new girl in every town. It was a world where men's lives hung on each other's skill and courage and danger was a drug more potent than sex...." More potent even...than sex? Catnip for a 14 year old boy!
But why do I keep coming back to it? Slim is so good, so decent, so brave, so smart--it's hard not to fall for him. And he turns himself from the raw farm boy of the blurb into a skilled lineman through guts and hard work--that kind of story is perennially popular, as is any tale of a young man's coming of age. And the whole world of Depression-era photographs I've always been fascinated by...is somehow dramatized in 'Slim' too. But why do I keep coming back to a drugstore paperback long out of print, a book the world would not miss if it had never been written, a book I would not for a second claim had any literary or artistic value? A book sometimes more interested in X braces and K pieces than in its own characters? Why? I don't know. But I do.