Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
It was about two-thirds of the way down the pile when she spotted it. There were a couple of cracks – one faint and barely noticeable, the other quite a bit more pronounced – going horizontally all the way across the spine. But Clare could still make out the title and the author on the book: Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. The style of lettering in which the words appeared, however, she didn’t believe she’d seen elsewhere, and that gave her cause for optimism.
Could this have been the exact edition of Steppenwolf she’d been desperately trying to find?
It was temporarily imprisoned by the books stacked above it, but Clare was nonetheless determined to get the closer look she needed. Dogpiled on top of it were seven or eight other paperbacks about the same size – the small, portable kind that they used to call “mass markets” – also used copies, and in similarly harried condition. The titles included several recent bestselling novels (one of which was the second installment of a very popular fantasy series), a diet plan book, a tell-all by a famous rock star and collection of crossword puzzles.
She leaned in to try and dislodge the book from the pile. Despite her elation, she managed do it quite gingerly, so as not to knock the other books over, and ultimately leave everything else exactly as she’d found it.
This was one of Clare’s favorite tables among those operated by the street vendors on Sixth Avenue in New York City near the West 4th Street-Washington Square subway stop. She could even (for the most part) ignore the pile of hardcore pornographic magazines usually situated on the far left corner. There was also a stack of old 12-inch disco records propped up vertically, leaning against the front right leg. Everything else on this one table was books, which in turn were represented by a wide variety of bindings, sizes, subjects and conditions.
Rain and similarly disruptive weather were always the principle threat to these venders, but today not only the sun but also the temperature - a dry and comfortable sixty-two or so degrees – seemed to offer their full cooperation. Still, the Greek food truck which was usually parked on the corner chose to take the day off, so by default the aroma which dominated the immediate area was coming from the nearby pizza place which sold two slices plus a small soda for $2.50 (as they informed everyone through a sign handwritten on a paper plate).
Some of the neighboring vendor tables hawked everything from vintage comic books and baseball cards to used electronic devices and quasi-legal drug paraphernalia. Between them, the sidewalk peddlers on this relatively minute stretch of the America’s biggest city probably offered something for every taste.
However, Clare always knew exactly what she was looking for. And after successfully freeing Steppenwolf from the heap, she knew instantly that she’d found it when she spotted a name on the cover that wasn’t “Herman Hesse.”
That name was “Max von Sydow.”
The cover even featured a photograph of the actor, along with someone who was identified as “Dominique Sanda.” Clare didn’t actually know who that was, but it was entirely inconsequential at this point. This was now complete and total victory.
This paperback copy of Steppenwolf which she had just unearthed was the movie tie-in, an edition of a book published around the time that a film adaptation was released, which featured photographs and other images from the movie as a sort of duel promotion for both the film and the source material.
Clare had never seen this movie of Steppenwolf, which she later found out was released in 1974. But regardless, the book was exactly the one that she had been vigorously searching for.
It would have been just about impossible for the vendor – a stout Middle Eastern man in his fifties with friendly eyes – not to discern that he’d made a sale, even before Clare wordlessly gestured to him with a combination of the book, a smile and the three dollars she’d just taken out of her pocket. Ordinarily he would ask a customer if they were interested in anything else that he had, but it was obvious that Clare was done, even before she began walking away with both her prize and an elation in her step which hadn’t been there a few minutes before.
And yet, for Clare this was somehow not the triumph that that it would have been in years earlier. Every time she discovered a book in this manner, she found herself longing for… competition. She really wanted some other random pedestrian to come along out of nowhere, try to take the very same book and be ready to “fight” her for it. Maybe not exactly in the grabby, hysterical way that women were shown fighting over retail bargains in sexist 1950s portrayals, but just enough for Clare to realize that there were other people like her.
And then, after Clare ended up with the book anyway, she and this other woman (or man) would have a chance talk about everything – the book, and the edition of the book.
Either way, Clare was at least happy that she was finally going have the chance to read Steppenwolf, which was regarded as a classic by most people. But even this would have to wait, since she was currently still working her way through Far From the Madding Crowd. Being about four chapters from the end of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Clare had every intention of savoring it, particularly since finding that one had also proven to be something of a challenge. The small, slightly worn Maddening Crowd paperback which Clare presently carried everywhere she went was published as the tie-in to the 1976 British film version starring Julie Christie, Terrence Stamp and Peter Finch (Clare was thoroughly enjoying it, even if she honestly couldn’t picture Stamp as Sergeant Frank Troy).
Clare’s personal reading was comprised almost entirely of classic literature, and in turn she pretty much never read anything except editions which were published as tie-ins to movie or TV adaptations of the work.
She was fully aware that this put some limitations on her reading choices. Little Women and The Great Gatsby were easy, since they had both been made into movies so many times. By contrast, Clare had never read The Catcher in the Rye, as that one was notorious for withholding the film rights (although she knew that once it became public domain, she’d probably have her pick of a half-dozen different editions from competing adaptations). Naturally, she also ended up reading plenty of Jane Austen, since that author’s works were so popular among filmmakers.
Clare carefully enshrined her new used copy of Steppenwolf on the bookcase in her one-bedroom apartment on Avenue A. Despite her passion for these books – and specifically these editions – Clare really didn’t place them in any particular order on the shelf: Not alphabetical, not chronologically according to when she read them (or was planning to). All pretty much random.
Steppenwolf ended up next to her copy of Last of the Mohicans by James Fennimore Cooper, which she had read about two years earlier. The latter paperback’s cover featured the poster image from the 1992 movie version, which showed the star dressed as the work’s protagonist, Nathaniel (also known as “Hawkeye”). The actor’s name, “Daniel Day-Lewis” appeared in letters across the top which were bigger than the author’s name at the bottom (since finding the book, Clare had always wondered just how many students had written on tests that Day-Lewis was the book’s author).
The tiny red light on her smartphone flashed, alerting her to a new message of some kind. She saw that it was a voicemail from Lana, her best friend since college. She touched the screen to hear the recording.
“Hey, Clare-bear! Hope you had a good day at work… Anyway, let’s figure out what we’re doing this weekend. I think Melissa said something about going to an art exhibition that her boyfriend’s cousin is having in SoHo… That sounds like fun. Or maybe we’ll do something else, I don’t know. Anyway, call me! Love.”
She thought back to the time when she didn’t have someone like Lana in her life, or very many friends at all. Clare had skipped two grades early on, which had made it harder for her to blend with her older classmates. She had already developed a love for classic literature through her parents, but when she was seen reading these books in school (even something like Treasure Island) her classmates would often berate her, accusing her of thinking she was better or smarter than they were.
The local public library – where Clare had spent so much of her time – had a single shelf in the lobby with a handwritten sign over it which read PAPERBACK SWAP. The self was a usually disorganized cluster of mass market paperbacks, and library patrons were invited to take one while (hopefully) leaving another in its place. The books were often more than just a bit tattered - one got the feeling that a few were left by people who believed this to be a more merciful alternative to the garbage. The selection of titles available often wasn’t much better than this would suggest.
Still, every time Clare walked into the building, she would immediately gravitate towards this part of the lobby: she loved the idea of taking home a book from the library that would be hers forever, that she’d never have to bring back (consequently, she usually ignored the request to leave a book while taking another one).
Once while sifting through the contemporary suspense and romance novels which usually took up most of the space, Clare came across a copy of The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. In surprisingly good condition, it also happened to be the tie-in edition for the 1998 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich. The book’s cover image even reproduced the movie poster, with the actors as their respective seventeenth-century characters.
Clare already read and loved The Three Musketeers and had longed to read this, the sequel. She found the movie cover to be a bit tacky but decided to take the book anyway (it was free, after all).
But this time, when she took the book to school to read during free periods, something different happened. A number of the girls in her class (including a few who normally ignored her or even picked on her), approached her to indicate how cool it was that she was reading the book. A few even requested to “see” the book briefly (each time, Clare panicked thinking that they wouldn’t give it back, but they always did).
Clare knew perfectly well that this had nothing to with Porthos, Aramis or d’Artagnan and everything to do with DiCaprio, whom most girls her age had a crush on at the time (Clare personally preferred Brenden Fraser). But it didn’t matter.
Since then, Clare’s inclination towards movie tie-in editions of classic novels had become part hobby, part compulsion (and part reversion to her childhood fear that she was being continually judged for her intellect). Clare became known to a number of used book dealers in the city who always e-mailed her when they came across a movie-tie classic that they thought she might not have already. A couple of online booksellers whom she had initially contacted on eBay and AbeBooks did the same.
At the moment, though, someone else was getting in touch with her for an entirely different reason. Going back to her phone, she opened a new text message which read:
“Thanks for the other day. I enjoyed spending time with you. We should make plans to do something soon.”
The text was from Robert, a graphic designer a bit older than Clare whom she’s met on a dating app. They had gotten together for coffee a few days earlier, and Clare was convinced that their initial face-to-face encounter had gone well. She was more than relieved to find out that the sentiment now appeared to be mutual.
Clare also took this as further evidence that, now in her late twenties, she had also finally gotten past the shyness and self-imposed exile of those middle school years. Her social life may not have been quite that of some heiress with a TV reality show, but Clare typically spent time with Lana and the small circle of acquaintances they’d built up, every weekend. Clare was happy at the job she had working in her company’s payroll department. And now, Robert not only seemed quite promising but was even interested in return.
But something else seemed like it was missing. Clair felt that there was no one else with whom she could discuss the books that she was usually reading. Lana had never really shared that interest (they typically bonded instead over appreciation of the same music), and none of their other friends seemed to either.
Clare knew all about book clubs, informal gathering where people got together – usually once a week - to discuss a single published work. A co-worker was even in such a group and had invited her to join. But the books which were being featured were all contemporary bestsellers, in which Clare had very little interest (of course she didn’t tell her co-worker that, claiming instead that the night when the group met was no good for her).
She toyed with starting a Facebook group dedicated to both collecting and reading the classics in movie tie-in editions. Then it occurred to her that being seen in public reading a copy of Anna Karenina that had Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Reeve on the cover was one thing, but revealing your inclination to all of the internet was quite another. The irony that this practice, which she started in order to disguise her intellect, had now become a potential source of embarrassment, was not lost on her.
What Clare really longed to do was start her own book group, comprised of others who were willing – or even anxious – to read the movie tie-in editions. But would she be able to find enough people like that? Or ones who would be willing to “switch?” Inevitably there must be people with her same unique preference on the internet (one of her eBay contacts even mentioned a few they thought that Clare should get in touch with). But even in New York City she didn’t like her chances of actually finding even two or three other people who owned – much less read – the version of Great Expectations that had Helena Bonham Carter on the cover.
She figured she might have to settle for joining or even starting a “general” book club dedicated to the classics, but if she brought her beloved movie tie-ins to the meetings, would the others comment? Or worse, would they laugh at her? She could simply abandon the movie tie-ins, but she didn’t want to do that either. This was something unique, that was all her own, and was an integral part of what made her who she was.
All of this was still in the back of her mind while she was sitting in a coffee shop on MacDougal Street sipping a latte about a week later. Continuing to enjoy Far From the Madding Crowd (she was now three chapters from the end) made her the only patron in the facility at the moment not hunched over a laptop. At one point, however, she put the book down long enough to glance at the establishment’s bulletin board. There, among the fliers for lost pets, guitar lessons and available apartment shares, she noticed the words:
UNUSUAL BOOK CLUB SEEKS NEW MEMBERS
The flier provided no further details, except to contact someone named “Ed” at the e-mail address provided.
She had seen the same flier the last time she’d been there, and now upon further examination she was even more compelled by what (little) she was reading on it (for starters, were the books that the club read “unusual,” or was the club itself?).
She took a picture of the flier with her phone, and the following day, she sent an e-mail to the mysterious “Ed” and got a reply within minutes. Ed (or at least someone using the name) thanked her enthusiastically for “taking an interest” (Clare found that phrasing
to be unusually formal) in the group, and invited her to their next meeting.
Clare found it odd that the e-mail made no mention of the book which was going to be discussed, or any of the books that had been featured in previous meetings, or even what sort of literary genre – if any – that this club favored.
All this vagueness had Clare wondering if maybe this was a trap of some sort. But what kind of nefarious entity would lure their victims in under the guise of a “book club?” (And if even if they did, they’d surely want to give the marks a false sense of security, which you don’t do by identifying yourself as “unusual”).
Clare reasoned that it was probably unlikely that this was going to end up being a front for a human trafficking operation or anything like that. Still, also she considered the possibility that maybe this “group” was going to try to sell her something. A timeshare in the Hamptons? Or perhaps it was a pyramid scheme to try to get her to try to sell cosmetics, or water purifiers, or something?
But she wanted to be in a book club, even if it wasn’t the “perfect” one that she envisioned herself leading. There couldn’t possibly be any harm in at least following up on it.
Once she elected to take it on faith that it was all going to be on the up-and-up, Clare was more curious than ever. She e-mailed Ed back telling him that he, and the book club, could expect her at the next meeting, and he need only provide her with the where and when.
Five days later, Clare walked into a bar on Houston Street a little after eight p.m. She remembered having been there with Lana at least a couple of times before. The establishment was fairly typical of the neighborhood, an ambiance that split the difference between yuppie and hipster, with a clientele to match. It was also another one of those bars that for some reason or other chose to display multi-colored Christmas lights year-round. Above the bar was a flatscreen TV with the sound turned down showing a soccer match. The digital jukebox was playing a Bonnie Raitt song.
Clare was still reacquainting herself with the place when she heard a voice from behind her.
“Excuse me… Clare?”
Turning to meet the voice with her eyes, Clare saw a short, balding man in his mid-forties wearing khakis and an off-white button-down shirt.
“Hi, Clare. I’m Ed,” he continued, offering a handshake. “Thanks for coming! We’re sitting over there…” he gestured to the other side of the room. “Why don’t you go get a drink from the bar and come join us?”
“Okay, thanks,” Clare said, even while thinking that finally meeting the mysterious “Ed” so far hadn’t told her much more than she already knew.
Clare walked right over to the bar, and while she was frankly in the mood for a margarita, she worried that that drink was somehow too flamboyant, and would give the wrong impression for her being the outsider tonight. She decided instead on a whisky sour, which she ordered from the bartender, a woman in her late twenties sporting a nose ring and wearing a faded black David Bowie t-shirt.
She paused and started to look around before the same voice she’d met moments earlier called out: “Over here, Clare!”
Drink in hand, Clare followed the direction of the voice. She picked up the pace, concerned that she might be holding everything up. But when she got to the table, she stopped in her tracks.
Ed sitting on the far right of the booth told Clare she’d arrived at the correct location. This was fortunate, because otherwise there was nothing to suggest that the four people she was now seeing should ever be sitting down in the same place.
“Clare,” Ed began in a pleasant tone, “I’d like you to meet the group… ” Ed then began the introductions, gesturing to the person at his immediate left, and then working his way across the table. “This is Brianna, Dennis and Colleen.”
Brianna was an African-American women in her thirties with straight shoulder-length hair, wearing a conservative dress accented by a very tasteful brooch shaped like a leaf. Dennis was wearing a torn t-shirt and sporting three very long braids of blonde hair originating from the top of a head that was otherwise shaved bald but served as the canvas for a rather pronounced tattoo of a blue skull. Dennis at the moment was also wearing an Elvis Presley-like sneer, which he probably tried to convince people was involuntary.
And then there was Colleen, by far the oldest member of the group. Grey haired, bespectacled, wearing a plain light blue sweater and capris pants, Colleen looked like she had been everyone’s favorite math teacher (yet she didn’t seem remotely uncomfortable sitting next to Dennis. Clair quickly guessed that maybe Colleen had spent her career working with troubled youths).
In near-unison, the four of them moved a bit to make room for Clare, who then slid into the booth, almost nervously. But mostly she was distracted wondering just what she had just gotten herself into… Maybe she had misunderstood Ed (not to mention the flier) when he said that this was a book group.
“This week, Clare’s just going to hang out, but she might decide to join us at some point,” Ed explained to everyone, including Clare herself. “But now,” he said excitedly, changing the focal point, “has everyone got this week’s book?”
Okay, thought Clare, so it’s definitely a book group.
Four copies of the same book suddenly surfaced – one in the hands of each the other attendees – but the action had been so quick that thus far all Clare was able to discern that they were mass-market paperbacks.
Seeming elated that they were now all together at the starting point, Ed announced, almost ceremoniously: “Okay, so as you all know, our selection this week is by… Joel Don Humphreys.”
“Joel Don Whophreys?” is what Clare wanted to say out loud, although she kept silent. She liked to think of herself as being fairly well-schooled in the world of literature (even that which she didn’t actually read), yet she was sure she’d never heard of this writer. Maybe this was some new, hip author that she hadn’t yet gotten wind of?
Then, focusing on Colleen’s copy (she was being the most still of the group), Clare was finally able to make out the title on the spine: Over the Top.
This name, in and of itself, wasn’t clarifying anything. “Can I see for a second?” Clare asked Ed, gesturing towards the book. Despite this being an interruption, Ed handed it to her.
“Well, this one’s a bit grabby…” she heard Brianna say quietly but decisively, followed by an audible snicker (most likely Dennis). Clare was thinking that they were probably right, and that she was making the bad first impression she had been trying to avoid. But at the moment her curiosity had simply overtaken her civility.
She was finally able to get a look at the front cover, replete with the title Over the Top dominating the upper half in big white letters. Below the words was a photo of actor Sylvester Stallone, engaged in a heated arm-wrestling match with some anonymous but equally muscular man.
Clare didn’t know whether to laugh or to interrupt Ed again with the barrage of questions that were now entering her head (she successfully refrained from doing either). She opened the book to take a quick glance at the title page, where she saw the words: “Based on a screenplay by Sterling Silliphant and Sylvester Stallone.”
This was a movie novelization. A book based on a movie.
She handed the book back to Ed, who hadn’t skipped a beat in his role as group leader, and was now explaining how the novel (that’s what he called it) was “a thrilling tale of a man competing not just against others in formal competition, but against society, and even against himself.”
For the next forty-five minutes or so, Clare listened to a passionate and deadly serious discussion regarding Over the Top. How the book’s protagonist, Lincoln Hawk, represents the American dream and the struggle of the working class. About how the villain, Jason Culter, is fighting feelings of inadequacy because he never fathered a son of his own. About the symbolism behind Hawk driving his truck into the living room of the mansion (which no one seemed to be able to agree on, sparking the night’s most colorful debate).
Clare ordered another whisky sour about halfway through (she needed it). Although Ed clearly relished his role as the group leader, everyone chimed in freely at various points, with their own unique take on the material. Colleen pointed out that the military school had been unable to make a conformist out of the Michael character. Dennis surmised that Culter’s bodyguard Ruker was actually meant to be his alter-ego, while Brianna made the point that arm-wresting is just about the only sport where the two competitors are looking each other in the eye at all times, which is why the “author” chose it.
Clare would also notice the four of them pair off from time to time, with Ed and Brianna going into their own conference, and Dennis and Colleen doing the same. This would typically only last a minute or two before the group became one again. At not a single point in the evening, however, did anyone use the word “movie” (or the name “Sylvester Stallone”). It was as though such utterings were taboo.
At just about the end of the meeting, Ed again politely demanded full attention. “So…” he began, “is everyone excited about discussing The Cannonball Run by Michael Avallone next week?”
It became immediately clear that everyone was.
(Except Clare, who wasn’t certain).
A few minutes later, after the group disbursed, Clare found herself outside the bar in the crisp autumn New York air, one-on-one with Ed.
There was no time for any awkward silence, as Ed simply came right out with: “Well, what do you think of our group?”
Finally, Clare was not only in a position to make inquiries, but was being invited to do so.
“Uh… interesting,” is all Clare could bring herself to say.
“Not quite what you expected?”
“Well, that’s what the group does every week? You get together and discuss movie novelizations?”
“Absolutely,” Ed stated proudly. “Last week we did The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training by Richard Woodley.”
Clare was trying to figure out her next question, before Ed continued. “Well, let me clarify something…” he began, sounding quite serious. “I’m imagining that you think what we’re doing is kitsch. That what we’re doing with this group is intended to be ironic.”
Remaining silent, Clare did her best to improvise a facial expression that said: “No, that isn’t what I was thinking” (even though it was).
“Well, it’s not,” Ed continued, maintaining the serious tone. “You see, Clare, this is an aspect of the literary world that nobody truly appreciates. Sure, people used to buy these books and read them. Still do, even. But did anyone actually respect them? Or the authors?”
“I never really thought about.”
“Exactly. But think about how much work goes into them! I mean, they’re all based on screenplays, obviously, but all that screenwriter did was write dialogue and basic descriptions of the visuals. But the authors of novelizations have to do so much elaborating on all of that! They create backgrounds for the characters! They have to give details descriptions of all the settings! So as we see it, in many ways their job is so much harder.
“Yet,” Ed continued, “people look so far down upon this type of writing. I mean, it’s like that scene in the movie Manhattan where Woody Allen criticizes that woman who writes novelizations, telling her that she’s wasting her time.”
“I stopped watching Woody Allen movies, because of… ”
“It’s okay, so I did I,” Ed explained. “But that scene is still the best way I have of illustrated how novelizations and their authors are unfairly dismissed as insignificant.”
For the first time in the conversation (actually in the whole evening) there was an uncomfortable silence, which Clare finally broke by asking Ed: “So, is there a novelization for Manhattan?”
“As far as I know, no, there isn’t. Now that would have been irony.”
“So what sort of books do you read, Clare?”
She paused before answering: “The classics.”
Ed didn’t respond to this directly, not even through expression. Almost changing the subject, he asked her: “So do you think you might be interested in joining the group? I don’t think I’d be able to get you a copy of The Cannonball Run for next week, but the following week we’re doing Jaws.”
“Jaws? I thought that was a book to begin with.”
“Jaws: The Revenge. By Hank Searls.”
Clare said nothing, struck speechless again.
“Tell you what: I’ll e-mail you,” Ed offered.
Clare thanked him, they both said “good night” and walked off in opposite directions. She walked over to the Broadway-Lafayette Station, where she caught the F train going uptown.
Sitting on the train, she took out her copy of Far From the Madding Crowd, where she was finally on the last chapter. For the whole ride home, Clare thought about how she still couldn’t quite visualize Terrence Stamp as Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy.