"All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico . The same story everywhere. If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward!"
--Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
My best friend Greg Hungerford passed away four years ago two days before Christmas. Of course, the holiday reminds me of him, but this year I've had a lot of other reminders as well. As I've been going back and rereading classic novels I either skipped or failed to appreciate in my school years, I keep running into books that remind me of Greg.
For instance, I would love to have read the Island of Dr. Moreau while Greg was still alive and harassed him until he read it as well (though, for all I know, he had read it, and it was my ignorance of the book alone that prevented a discussion). I think Greg would have really appreciated the religious undertones of the book, and the way the lines between man and animal get blurred. Greg and I talked a lot about books, but, curiously, we seldom read the same books. He was a big fan of biographies. I tended to lean toward science. He loved big, dense novels by writers like Faulkner. I loved tight little tales like the Grifters. But, while our tastes didn't overlap, the important thing was we were both readers. We both kept filling our heads with ideas, and used the other to test out those ideas through long, meandering arguments.
One thing we both loved were humorous authors. We'd swap books by Dave Barry, and both quoted extensively from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Whenever Dave Barry would publish his "Year in Review" column, it was something of a tradition for us to read it together. Greg usually did the actual reading out loud. He had a wonderful reading voice, and could manage to make it through most of the sentences without helplessly cracking up, as I was prone to do. No matter what he read out loud, he sounded like he'd practiced the material a dozen times, even if it was his first time glimpsing it. He just had the ear and the timing to translate the written word into poetic sound.
Of course, the single most perfect memory I have of Greg and a book comes from when I went to visit him in Athens Georgia. We were driving to get something to eat. As we pulled up to a stoplight, he suddenly threw open the car door and ran into the intersection. It was only then that I noticed a paperback book on the pavement. He snatched up the book and made it back to the driver's seat before the light changed.
"You really wanted that book," I said.
"It was on the road," he said.
"No," he said. "It was On the Road." He held up the Jack Kerouac classic. That's a coincidence even I find hard to believe, and I was there!
This year, I read On the Road again. I hated it. Behavior I was oblivious to when I read it in college now left me wondering how anyone could admire the book. Dean Moriarty, the most interesting character in the book, is a horrible slacker who can't hold a job. He runs around the country making babies with women, then abandoning them.
I encountered this same attitude in Tropic of Cancer, which I just finished last week. The book denounces honest work as a kind of slavery, and ends when the narrator convinces a man to leave his pregnant girlfriend because settling down with her is going to be the end of his freedom and happiness. The man agrees, but, feeling at least some twinge of guilt, he gives the narrator all the money he has on him to take to the woman to help her out, at least a little. The narrator sees his friend off, then keeps the money, because he's been broke the whole book and feels like he could use a little break from crushing poverty.
I can tell you that Greg's attitude toward jobs was similar to the Henry Miller quote at the top of this column. In the years I knew him, he probably had twenty or thirty different jobs. Only a few lasted more than a month or two. He wasn't lazy... he worked hard as hell when he found something that interested him, like repairing computers or rebuilding a carburetor. But, he was someone who was more suited to working his own hours and being his own boss. He didn't take kindly to the harness. He never quite fell into lock step.
Despite his years of drifting, and despite his deep seated desire not to get stuck in a steady job, Greg broke the mold of so many of the characters I've been reading about. Unlike Dean Moriarty, unlike Henry Miller, when Greg finally had a child, there was never, ever, even once, any thought of abandoning her. It didn't trap him to settle down and raise his daughter. He finally put down roots, and found that people, like trees, drawn nourishment from such structures.
Miller and Kerouac sang the praises of men who behaved badly. Greg didn't listen to their songs. The world needs more books written about men like him.