Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Neglected Classic Meme

I got this one from Litlove. I've had a blog post floating around in my head about books nobody reads that they should, and then this came along. As I commented to Litlove, it seems highly appropriate to begin with this meme, and then I might get around to writing about other books soon. So, here you go: the neglected classic meme.

What is your neglected Classic?
Emma Who Saved My Life by Wilton Barnhardt. It was first published in 1989, so it's barely 20 years old. With the exception of a few people I've raved to about it (and a couple of readers of this blog who commented on it a few years back when I mentioned it in one of my posts, oh, and my sister, who read it independently of me), nobody I know has even heard of it, let alone read it. Does that mean it can't qualify as a classic? I think not.

When did you first read it?
I don't remember exactly what year it was but sometime in the late 1990s. It could have been the early 2000s, but was most definitely before Bob was in seminary (which means prior to 2003), because it was before we'd lived in New York. I do remember finding it on the shelves at one of Bob's and my favorite bookstores, The Hickory Stick in Washington Depot, CT. I bought it for him as a gift, thinking he needed something light and funny to read, because he was going through a rough period, and he read it first. I can still remember lying in bed, both of us with books in hand, and his roaring with laughter over this one. As soon as he was done with it, I just had to read it. It turns out, it's funny, but it's not really so light.

Give a brief summary of the book
In 1974, a young Midwesterner named Gil steps off the bus that has brought him to New York where he plans to seek his fame and fortune as an actor. He meets his friend Lisa, who has preceded him by three months and who is seeking her fame and fortune as a painter. Lisa introduces Gil to Emma, seeking her fame and fortune as a poet. So there you have it: the actor, the artist, and the writer, and they start by all sharing a sublet together. The fact that none of these three is a native New Yorker makes them, as E.B. White once mused, even more New York, doesn't it (New York being the city that is made up of so many out-of-towners)? Gil falls madly in love with Emma, who does not fall madly in love with him (at least, we don't think she does, but we only know her through Gil's first-person narrative. I've always thought it would be neat if Barnhardt -- or someone -- would write Emma's side of the story), and we spend ten years with this threesome -- but really twosome -- in New York City, experiencing all their very real ups and downs with seeking fame and fortune and love in New York.

What makes this book stand out to you?
Always witty (I'm a self-deprecating humor junkie, and Gil is Perfection in this regard) and sometimes uproariously funny (one of Gil's off-off Broadway experiences still makes Bob and me laugh if we merely mention it to each other), I also loved this book for being so real. I found myself wondering why Gil was infatuated to the extent he was with Emma. She was annoying at best and often just plain cruel. Nonetheless, he manages to make her sympathetic. I couldn't quite hate her. I have felt that way many, many times about friends of mine's ga-ga infatuations.

I also loved Barnhardt's portrayal of New York and the 1970s. The book made me so wish I'd had that experience of living in the city when I was in my twenties, which I never was brave enough to do, always feeling I didn't have enough money (I marveled at these characters, determined to make it there even so). There is a poignancy to the book that is not just about the characters. It is also about the city and the decade. Not only about the characters' loss of youth and innocence, but also about the city's and the decade's losses of youth and innocence. That sounds absurd for a book that takes place in the 1970s, I know, but so be it. It may be absurd, but Wilton Barnhardt accomplishes it. The book also reminded me that I am as madly in unrequited love with that city as Gil is with Emma, which is why I don't see all its annoying and cruel traits the way friends of mine might.

Name some similar authors
Armistead Maupin, sort of, but not really, because Maupin is more farcical. Richard Russo, but Russo is a bit older and more jaded, although less edgy. An American Nick Hornby, maybe? I don't know. If anyone has read this book, please feel free to help me out here.

What sort of person would you recommend to read this book?
Anyone who loves New York City, most especially those who, as twentysomethings, actually set out to seek fame and fortune in The Big Apple and hung out with other twentysomethings doing same. Anyone who wishes they'd known that city prior to the 1980s, when it was being over-run by yuppies, but loves it anyway. Anyone who has ever been an idiot in and for unrequited love. Also, anyone who loves a book with fantastic characterization and (one of my favorite author tricks) an author who knows how to make the setting one of the characters.

Do you have any quotes you'd like to share?
Here's Gil when he first arrives in New York:

Now, I very much wanted to look like Coolness, so I went to male prostitute/Pot-Heroin-Cocaine Central, the men's room, to Freshen Up and there I am before a dingy mirror trying to look tough, New York tough, Gil in the big city...nope, it's not gonna work. I'm still five-ten, I'm still a wimp, I can barely lift my suitcase.

(Even though I am a woman, I know exactly what he means about trying to look New York tough.)

This is Emma's take on nutrition (this quote is part of the marketing copy and helped sell me on the book when I first found it):

"It is important to have one representative from each of the four food groups. A caffeine, a sugar, a booze, and a grease. Now I had coffee and a doughnut this morning, and I'm going to drink cheap beer tonight. That leaves a grease--Fritos."

(That quote perfectly sums up why, no matter how annoying she may be, I can't hate Emma.)

And, there we have it. I have just convinced myself that I need to reread this book. The whole purpose of this meme is to spread the word about great neglected books. If you are reading this post, consider yourself tagged.


Ian Lewis said...

Hi Emily,

I'm currently building my book site called BookMeme. As I travel to and from work I note what other commuters are reading.

I liked your post because it fits neatly with the idea of a 'long-tail' for books and promotes reading less fashionable titles.

I recently spotted someone reading Butterfield 8 which is definitely not going to appear very often.

Great blog!


Stefanie said...

Heh, love the quote from Emma!

litlove said...

This sounds wonderful! I'm going to start looking out for it right away.

Anne Camille said...

I probably told you this when you wrote about Emma before, but I've read this book -- and laughed and laughed. However, a few people I tried to get to read it at the time didn't find it funny. A few years ago, when I first started spending a lot of time in NYC for my job (boo hoo - only teleconferences in the budget now), I was on the subway one day and, looking at the map with a train going to Far Rockaway, I started to laugh. I must have looked like just another crazy person on the train, I guess, but I'm not sure that made me look more New York. Definitely not New York tough.

Smithereens said...

Your post made me want to try it. I just received it in the post via Bookmooch. Hurray for free (good) books!

Anonymous said...

One of my all time favorite books! Glad to hear others talking about it.