The Eleven Most-Shoplifted Authors
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 22 Sep 99 14:56:51 -0700
Subject: The Eleven Most-Shoplifted Authors
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
Shoplift Lit: You Are What You Steal
by Ron Rosenbaum
So I'm in this car with Dennis Hopper and Sean Penn, two generations of
Hollywood Bad Boys. Hopper's driving, Penn's in the back. This is maybe a
dozen years ago when Sean was still with Madonna, and Hopper had just come
off his comeback succes de scandale as the raving psycho in Blue Velvet. I
was hanging out with Hopper for a Vanity Fair piece, and Sean was hanging
out with Dennis because they'd bonded over being Bad.
Anyway, we're cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard, I think, heading for
the Paramount lot, when the subject of Charles Bukowski comes up.
See, Sean and Dennis had this whole tangled history with the Bukowski film
project Barfly. As I recall it, Hopper was dying to direct the film, and
Sean was dying to star in it as the Bukowski figure, the Bad-Boy, alcoholic,
skid-row poet and novelist, but there was a big hitch: Barbet Schroeder had
bought the rights from Bukowski to produce the film, and he wanted Sean Penn
to star, but he didn't want Hopper to direct. So he was thinking of
directing it himself, but Sean was being loyal to his buddy Den and wasn't
going to do the picture unless Den directed. But then Den lost it one night
and yelled at Barbet Schroeder, "You direct? You can't fuckin' direct
traffic, man." Or something like that; the details are a little hazy, but
you get the general idea. As it ended up, Schroeder went ahead and did
Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, and it was way terrible_a lot
of cliched alcoholic romanticism (although Schroeder completely redeemed
himself in my eyes with the brilliant Reversal of Fortune). It's one of
those movies where Mickey Rourke wanders around looking like he's got his
smirk surgically implanted, completely obliterating the one genuinely
charming aspect of Bukowski's persona: the good-natured self-deprecation
beneath the boozy braggadocio.
But in any case what I remember most about the car ride with Sean and Den
was this quiet moment after they told me the "You can't direct traffic"
story. This moment when Penn quietly and reverentially murmured, "Bukowski,
man." And Hopper quietly and reverentially replied, "Yeah, Bukowski, man."
Bukowski, man, or rather Bukowski Man: what stayed with me was not just the
tone in which the phrase "Bukowski, man" was uttered, but the idea that
there was a kind of entity, Bukowski Man, sort of like our anthropological
forebears Peking Man or Piltdown Man, almost a special subspecies of human.
You've probably run into Bukowski Man in one form or another. He's like,
you know, a rebel, he's not into conventional literature, man. Because it
doesn't tell the truth. The man can't handle The Truth, which of course is
all about (and only about) getting drunk and pissing and shitting and puking
and fucking and passing out, not necessarily in that order, sometimes
What else do we know about Bukowski Man? He's probably a suburban white boy
who's never been more down and out than a collect call to his parents.
Usually there's a surfboard or a skateboard or a Frisbee involved. His dog
wears a red bandanna around its neck. Oh, and yes, he's likely to be a
Which brings me to the real subject of this column: Shoplifting Lit. It was
a concept that first began to dawn on me a couple of years ago when I was
thinking of writing something about the killer B's: Bukowski and William
Burroughs and the notion of Bukowski Man (who often "graduates" to believing
that the other big B, Burroughs, is the B-all and end-all of literature).
But when I called up a Barnes & Noble to see if they had a couple of
Bukowski titles I was looking for, one of the clerks told me that in order
to check I'd have to call one of the cashiers, because all of the Bukowskis
had been removed from the open shelves and were kept on a shelf behind the
cashier's desks_out of reach, in other words, of shoplifters.
And guess what? So were all the Burroughs. And then a couple of months ago
I wanted to reread The Information, the scabrous Martin Amis comedy of the
writing life, but when I went to that same Barnes & Noble Union Square
superstore I found that Amis, too, was quarantined with the cashiers. Then
a few weeks ago I was looking for a couple of Raymond Chandler novels I
wanted to give to my friends Sarah and Nicole. Sarah's a private
investigator who likes Chandler but hadn't yet read Trouble Is My Business,
the terrific collection of his novella-length fictions, including "Red
Wind," which opens with the famous line about the (literally) edgy effect
of the Santa Ana wind on the uneasy psyches of the City of Angels. "On
nights like that meek little wives feel the edge of the curving knife and
study their husbands' necks."
And Nicole hadn't read The Long Goodbye, which is my favorite, Chandler's
last and best novel. But when I got to the C's in the vast fiction and
literature shelves on the fourth floor of the Union Square store, where the
Chandlers should have been, there was a little glass bookend with a neatly
typed sign that said: "Please ask at the first-floor registers for titles
by Raymond Chandler." Then a week or so ago I read a James Wolcott Vanity
Fair column on Jack Kerouac in which he reports he had to go to the Shoplift
Lit section of the same store to find On the Road. And it occurred to me
that it might be worthwhile to try to find out just who else was on the
Barnes & Noble Five-Finger-Discount Best Seller List, the Shoplift Lit Wall
of Fame, or Shame, depending on your point of view. If I could get that
list, then perhaps an analysis of it would reveal something about culture
and anti-culture, about noble and sleazy visions of liberation, about the
evolving tastes of Bukowski Man.
I think what got me into it was my initial mixture of delight and mistrust
at finding an artist like Chandler on the same list as Bukowski, delight
that people still care about Chandler, distrust that it's for all the wrong
Bukowski Man reasons. Not that I think Bukowski is without talent, although
I think his poorly read fans get him completely wrong: What makes him
marginally interesting as a writer is not the shit, piss and misogyny they
think is so daring, but some pure storytelling and story-shaping
talent_along with the self-deprecation that Bukowski Man is too
self-absorbed to get.
I guess maybe I can see how some Bukowski fans could be misled by Chandler's
hard-boiled reputation, or the wisecracking wise guy persona Humphrey Bogart
made famous in the film of The Big Sleep. But it's typical of Bukowski Man's
pathetic literalness, his ignorant nihilism: They can make out the words,
but they can't read. If you really read Chandler, you know that beneath the
tough-guy facade the author is an esthete, a genuinely cerebral writer. And
beneath the hard-boiled surface his private eye Philip Marlowe is a romantic
visionary with a code of honor that is genuinely antinomian and subversive,
but one which would look with contempt and disdain upon the petty,
small-time, sleazy kind of transgression shoplifting represents. A code of
honor that reflects the wisdom in the Bob Dylan line about would-be outlaws:
"When you live outside the law you must be honest."
Getting the list proved to be easier than I thought. I told a helpful clerk
at the Union Square store that I'd heard Bukowski was on a special shelf
for most-shoplifted writers and asked him who else was there. He quickly
reeled them off in alphabetical order. In addition to Bukowski there were:
What do we make of this list? To me the big surprise was the two Frenchies.
But in a way it shouldn't have been a surprise. They're what Bukowski Man
reads when he goes to N.Y.U. or when he slings Frisbees in Washington Square
with N.Y.U. types. Bataille and Foucault: darlings of that espresso-bongo
downtown deconstructionist sensibility. Foucault, a pessimistic
post-Nietzschean, believing all is power, would probably think that a petty
transgression like shoplifting was a blow against the internal hegemony of
the power structure_just as he somehow may have convinced himself that not
telling his lovers he was H.I.V.-positive was a truly liberating act.
And Bataille_Story of the Eye is, like, so surreal, man! It's porno but it's
like pomo porno, so, to Bukowski Man, the rape and mutilation stuff is, you
know, way cool.
So you could say that petty and debased ideas of liberation could explain
the presence of Bukowski, Burroughs, Kerouac, Bataille and Foucault on the
list. And ignorant misreading of Chandler and Hammett, even Amis, might
explain their appeal to petty-theft types. But what about Calvino? It is
true that when I was in college there were certain unscrupulous guys
(present company excepted, of course) who felt that reading Calvino aloud
to Sarah Lawrence women was, well, a short cut to intimacy, to demonstrating
what a sensitive poetic soul one was. So there's that. Perhaps a similar
desperate romanticism can account for shoplifters' lust for Ms. Winterson
and Mr. Auster.
Still, with some exceptions, it's a fairly insipid list, one that does the
literary taste of New York shoplifters no particular credit. The only two
authors on the list I could imagine wanting to shoplift were Chandler and
Hammett (the latter mainly for Red Harvest). But it did set me thinking.
I'm morally opposed to shoplifting books (it's not the same as a hungry
person lifting some food for his starving family). Bookstores are shrines
to me, and I suspect most of those who shoplift books are not broke but just
lazy and stupid slackers. Still, what if we think of a shoplifting list not
as a literary guide to theft, but as a measure of most desperately wanted
books, books for which one has a near criminal passion, books for which
you'd risk arrest?
What books would make my list? I decided not to think about it in the
abstract but to head down to the Union Square Barnes & Noble, to cruise the
fourth-floor fiction and literature shelves and see just what I'd really
crave, what books I'd hypothetically risk arrest to read. This is not, I
should emphasize, a comprehensive list of my all-time-favorite works of
literature (nor should it be construed in any way as a recommendation to
lift them_as Detective Andy Sipowicz says in the taxi cab tapes, try that
and "I will find you.") It's just a record of what I saw there and what I
would most crave if I somehow became homeless and bookless.
So here it is, in alphabetical order:
Persuasion, Jane Austen. Her most romantic and most real-world novel. I've
argued in this space that Persuasion people are a different breed from other
Austen-ites, and I'm proud to count myself as one of them.
The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth. By far his best. Endless wickedly comic
reading pleasure in mock-historical-memoir form.
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges. I know there are newer translations, but I
love the New Directions paperback in which I first discovered Borges. The
killer opening lineup of stories_"Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Garden
of Forking Paths" and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"_make the world
The Heart of a Dog, or The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. I can't
decide because I can't do without either of them.
The Wapshot Scandal, John Cheever. It's that or Bullet Park, but I think
Scandal, because there was a moment in my youth when reading it suddenly
initiated me into a deeper, more complex kind of sadness.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens. Not merely a novel_a universe, whose furthest
reaches are yet to be fully explored, as John Sutherland demonstrates in
his brilliant new collection of essays, Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?.
Libra, Don Delillo. Still his best, I think. The secret language of America
in the inner monologue of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin. The 100-page middle section_the
all-night supranatural possession of Dick Gibson's talk show by Dr.
Behr-Bleibtreau_is one of the great tour de force comic performances in
recent American literature.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. Coming upon this in high school was a
transformative experience, as it has been every time I've reread it.
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene. A classic of spiritualized self-pity
and bitter no-hope romanticism of the sort I sometimes need to wallow in.
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I've written four columns so far on the
narrator question alone (And that just begins to scratch the surface, and
Brian Boyd is coming out with a whole book on it.) The great
The Dog of the South, Charles Portis. I've written almost as many columns
about this unbelievably brilliant comic masterpiece.
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. Still his best, I think, the classic
vision of American paranoia as high art.
Shadows on the Hudson, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Reading it was an electrifying
experience. See my three-part serialized essay on this originally serialized
novel of post-Holocaust theodicy (March 23, 1998; March 30, 1998; April 6,
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne. The 18th-century comic anti-novel that
both anticipates and refutes all postmodernism.
Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone. More icily crystalline a reflection of male
self-destructiveness than anything Hemingway could imagine, but still
somehow genuinely stirring.
The Eustace Diamonds, Anthony Trollope. An incredibly riveting 900-page read
about a daring woman and the cruel web that enmeshes her.
The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton. A thrilling, racy book that's more
raw and bitter than most of her novels, just as Undine Spragg is more raw
and bitter than most of her heroines.
Remember, this is a guide for buying, not shoplifting, a list of
theoretically criminal passions. Every one of them is worth every last cent
you have to spend.
© 1999 Peter Langston