I have never been a book club person, which, when you consider I have multiple books swirling about in my head on an hourly basis, is somewhat ironic. The first and last time I agreed to attend a book club gathering was many years ago. I grudgingly bought the current week’s choice, “Letters from Vietnam,” and read it in one overnight sitting, alternately feeling stunned, moved, and heartbroken at the incredible collection of personal, often devastating prose. Days later, I could offer nothing at the club meeting when the book was discussed, because I could not bear to listen to the various “reviews” about disjointed this or improperly edited that. My God, I thought over and over, are you kidding?
“So you used to be a writer?” asked one of my customers, referring back a few days to the fund-raising notice I’d helped him and his buddies finalize for the newspaper.”
“Yes, but that was a while ago. It was fun. But this,” I said nodding to the beer taps, “is more fun.”
“Did you ever write a book?” asked another, as if writing a book was something all writers successfully accomplished.
“Oh, a book?” I laughed, a little embarrassed. “No, no. Ha! I start one about once a year, but I can’t seem to follow through. Too much training to write snappy ledes, short paragraphs, and 500-word stories, I guess.”
The two nodded.
“That’s cool,” said the one who had asked, sipping his rum and Coke.
The pause that followed was hardly uncomfortable. Many such pauses occur during the quiet part of my morning shifts. I don’t try to fill them with mundane chatter; that’s not why I’m there. That’s not why they are here. For reasons each of us does not know or have to know, these occasional moments of utter silence are a small, but necessary part of the day at my bar.
“I wrote a book,” said a customer minutes later, one who had not been involved in the previous conversation. I wasn’t even sure he had been listening to it.
“Really?” I smiled. “You finished one? I am jealous.”
“Took me eight or nine years, but I wrote it,” he said. “I guess it was about six or seven years ago when it was published.”
“Published?” I asked him, trying not to sound too surprised that this quiet, sweet man with the perennially wild gray hair had set and met a goal with which I struggle every day.
“Yeah. It’s a long story–about how I got published, but yeah. Random House.”
No shit! Wow.
“What’s it about?” I asked. Really, of all the people at my bar to have written and published a book, what the hell….
“A battle. You know, Vietnam.”
Oh. Okay. Right. Got it.
“Here, I’ll write down the name of it for you. You can probably pick it up used for 25 cents from some place–just be careful about the shipping costs,” my published author customer warned me. “That’s how those places make their money.”
I bought it new, paperback, because hardback was not available after all these years. Of course I bought it new, if it would help my customer.
And tonight, the first of three days off this week, I cannot put his book down. I know that the author makes it out alive because I serve him most days. I do not know about the others he writes about because I am only a third of the way through the book.
And still, I cannot put his book down. Except I do. Because I have to meet my great guy after work. Because I want to chat with my girlfriend. Because this book, this wonderful albeit starkly written book, is just that good.
I am only a third through the book. I have already dog-eared and stuffed scrap paper into pages I want to ask him about. It’ll be the book club of all book clubs when I next work and pour him his next beer, even if it is just between us.
If you had to pick–on the edge of a cliff with no turning back–who should publish a book first, I thank God it was him. Because he is here to tell his story, if only to me.