Book Report | The Dark Tower Series. So far.

As I write this brief report I’m approaching the last stretch of Wolves of The Calla, the 5th book in the Dark Tower series. There are currently 8 books and with Stephen King very much alive there will no doubt be additional volumes added.

During the last book, Wizard & Glass, I stopped reading entirely at one point. Stephen King had become too much to bear and like many series that span the length of a creator’s career we can see them slip as, having rolled their boulders up one side of the hill, they sit down and rest as it rolls back down the other. I commented to my wife somewhere around the 3rd or 4th book that I would bet money that Stephen King wrote this book wearing white sneakers. How that manifests as literary criticism is all down to your particular associations with white sneakers, but I’m content to let it stand.

So why have I continued on, like Roland Deschain across the wastelands, consuming a good 6 pounds of questionable literature? It’s difficult to say – and the reason has likely changed over the past year it’s taken me (sometimes haltingly) to get this far.

To start with, I’ve gained a new – and, I believe, very accurate – appreciation for Stephen King. This characterization has so far suffered well through the unpredictable swings in the quality of his work because it may be the most “on the head” summation of his personality as a writer. I realized by the third book (I have to think of the first book, The Gunslinger, as a separate work – more on that later) that I had this feeling before. It eluded me for a brief time, but then I identified it as a creative writing class at college. Reading Stephen King is like reading the work of the world’s best creative writing teacher. Unlike many of my other favorite authors he seems absolutely unconcerned with voice and will bounce from narrative device to narrative device with unchained whimsey. These hapless applications of trope and device remind me of the sort of exercises we used to undertake in writing classes. We’d have to write everything from essay to poetry to longer form fiction. We’d have to write from various points of view. We’d have to write in the voice of familiar authors. We’d undertake “challenges” like chain writing where groups would build a story around an agreed upon object with very few ground rules and “pass” that object from author to author. All of these bore varying degrees of success, but they were always very clearly relevant only within the classroom setting. No mass audience would brook such a kitchen sink approach to authorship, would they? Well apparently they would.

To further highlight King’s “anything goes” approach writing this opus, the final battle scene includes the use of weapons called Sneetches which are exactly J.K. Rowling’s Snitches from the Harry Potter world’s Quidditch game. He even gives her and Harry a shout-out. It’s gross.

I’ve learned that in the coming books I can look forward to Stephen King himself becoming a character. Gadzooks. I can see another long break while I adapt my stomach to the undercurrent of sour heaving that accompanies the rapid-fire suspension of disbelief necessary to stick it out with King and his Mr. Toad’s wild ride of a literary crap-opera.

That’s not to say that there aren’t gems. As I said, King swings wildly and in producing these works has turned some touching and artful phrases and invented a few colloquial versions of English that are as well executed as I’ve ever experienced. Included among the pockets of treasure are the entire first book, The Gunslinger, the flashback portions of Wizard & Glass, and most of The Wolves of the Calla.

The Gunslinger in particular finds King at the very beginning of his published writing before he played in a dad-band with Dave Barry. It’s sparse and unpolished and could convincingly find a home in Cormac McCarthy’s early canon. In The Gunslinger, King describes a world that’s moved on and explains that the thread that holds the jewel to the breast of the world has snapped. That’s as touching a description of the dystopian condition as one can demand. Similarly he describes death as the clearing where the path ends. Also economically beautiful. The book has a sense of space that spreads out meaningfully between events and stakes are felt rather than explained. It’s a short book and so unlike what an uninitiated reader would expect of King that you can’t help but to proceed, especially with the promise of so many volumes.

BUT…

No sooner has King played so artfully against type that we find ourselves in The Drawing of The Three where one could say, especially in hindsight, that the series really finds it’s legs. Slipped comfortably on the feet at the base of those legs? You guessed it – big white sneaks.

With this book King firmly defines The Gunslinger as a prequel and established what will be the voice and timeline of the book’s Now. The nearly silent main character, Roland, now picks up some companions by dipping into other worlds through doors in thin air. Each door leads to a different time in New York where Roland is able to collect a wise cracking drug addict named Eddie, a brassy legless black lady named Odetta Holmes, a little boy (who was previously a slightly different character in The Gunslinger) named Jake Chambers, and A TALKING DOG-LIKE CREATURE CALLED A BILLY-BUMBLER.

I’ll wait while you grab some sawdust to put down.

I forgot to mention that while Roland is snatching these folks out of New York across a span of decades he is battling giant gabbing lobsters.

There’s the Stephen King I was worried about.

It was during The Drawing of The Three that I would go through periods of weeks without progress on the series. When, in Wizard & Glass, the rag-tag crew finds themselves on a yellow brick road with red sparkling shoes laid out for each of them I stopped altogether. It was nearly 6 months before I returned to the story.

The reason I kept coming back is two-fold. I was investing considerably more time as I progressed (these are long books) and I’m a sucker for long series. Then there was the fact that so many people held the series in high-regard and it seemed to have a cult following in the fantasy & Sci-Fi worlds where I’m an erstwhile but card-carrying member. I figured that at worst I’d be treated to a 50/50 endeavor and that’s about what it’s turned out to be so far.

As I move to wrap up The Wolves of The Calla with Song of Susannah waiting patiently I know a few plot points that I have to look forward to. A spoiler addict I also know that the book effectively ends in the now penultimate book The Dark Tower and that the following book, The Wind Through The Keyhole seems to feature a young boy and a tiger on it so god only knows what’ll happen by then.

Onwards, I suppose. More as the story develops.

Beardsong | New Beginnings

You don’t grow a beard. You earn it.

That’s what I learned. Having moved fresh-faced through the world around me like a plucked turtledove cooing into the deluge I was hardly a prime candidate for a journey to the very depths of masculinity. Yet there was a yearning. A hum from beyond the tree-line that drew me in tightening circles to secret places within myself. Places that longed for violence and hair. Great volumes of hair.

So it was that I ejected the last Mach 3 cartridge into the trash and placed the razor into its jeweled cylinder. So it was that I forsook comfort and safety. So it was that I faced the tree-line and began. My gate was purposeful. My pulse quick.

The first few days of a beard are indistinguishable from life as a shaver. You let it grow over the weekend, you get a little stubble, no big deal. Come Monday morning you’ll be wiping your hand across the fogged mirror and swirling Barbasol into your palm.

No, a beard is different. A beard is more than a few millimeters of fuzz. A beard doesn’t begin until a hair is long enough to bend over and poke into your skin and burn like mustard gas. It’s not a beard until you want to shave. It’s not a beard until you’d rip it off your face just to make it stop.

This feeling will continue for 1-3 weeks. Man up.

It doesn’t have to be all torment, though. There are a few things that you can do to make this initiation ritual less painful:

1. Use the right product. The instinct when the beard starts to take on its character is to obsessively wash it. While it’s important to keep the beard clean and avoid ingrown hairs, you have to be strategic. The beard shouldn’t be washed any more than your face and, since the beard is leaching moisture out of your head (this is why your memories are vanishing), you have to change to an oily soap and establish a moisturizing routine. What worked for me is the following:

The Burt’s Bees was a totally unique feeling for me. I’d always associated squeaky skin with clean skin, but this product leaves your face feeling almost as oily as before you washed. Keep calm and carry on. You’ll get used to it.

The extra-strength Gold Bond is the best moisturizer I found. Not only is it free of irritating fragrance, but it gives your cheeks a tingle when you rub a little in. It’s important that you do this only above the beard on the cheeks and not into the beard. As much as it seems that this will help, it won’t.

2. Keep busy. As with any irritation, it’s easiest to ignore when the mind is occupied elsewhere. Digging in at work or starting a hobby or simply snapping your fingers back one by one will do nicely.

3. Accept it. The big take-away, though, is that there will be a week or more when you will have very little, if any, relief from the itching and irritation of bearding. That’s the price of admission.

But it’s worth it. Soon the hair will run smooth and soft and you’ll trim away the tough dry tips that tormented you all those weeks. As much as you’d like to, don’t save them in a cigar box. Those are for nail clippings and nothing more.

Gastronomy | Katz’s Deli

Prior to tucking into the sandwich pictured below, had you asked me what my favorite food was, I’d probably dig back into the archives for some bbq experience I’d had down in the deep sunny south, but things have changed.

I’ve always loved pastrami. I’ve always loved reubens. I’ve loved all the things I ate at Katz’s before, but this was undoubtedly the best sandwich I’ve ever had and may prove to be the best thing I’ve ever eaten thus far.