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What's All This Then?

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Harlot’s Ghost
by Norman Mailer

Field-Tested by Robert Birnbaum

in Rincon, Puerto Rico

Nick Dawidoff's homage (The Fly Swatter) to his grandfather, Harvard economist Alexander Gerschenkron, includes the information that he was never without a book, and in fact, could be seen crossing busy Cambridge streets reading — don't hold me to this, but Dawidoff estimates his grandfather read upwards of 5,000 books in his lifetime.

I don't expect to reach that Babe Ruthian mark, but nonetheless, I am always sure to have at least one book with me, stanching the possibilities of lapsing into the fugue state known in modern times as ‘going postal’ as I encounter life's little delays. I feel it necessary to point all of this out because, for the most part, reading tends to be an open portal away from the many mundane circumstances in which I find myself.

There are a few exceptions (reading García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude at the Fullerton Avenue lakeside in Chicago), and a few books I have read at the beach in Rincon, Puerto Rico. For the many Americans who don't know it, Rincon is the surfing capitol of Puerto Rico, a few clicks down the road from Aguadillo, which is on the other side of the island from San Juan. Suffice it to say, it is a charmed place.

For reasons not exactly clear to me now, I brought a copy of Norman Mailer's door stopper (over 1,300 pages), Harlot's Ghost, with me to the non-surfing beach (there is also Aguadillo's wonderful Crash Boat Beach, where you can buy directly from the fishermen) near Villa Antonio, plopped myself down with a few Romeo y Juliet Churchills, and plowed my way through one of the most entertaining and terribly written of Mailer's novels. A long flaccid bow to his earlier works, Harlot's Ghost's entertainment value comes from Mailer's command of CIA lore and extended riffs on the joys of rock climbing and life on remote Maine isles. My recollection is that despite the prose tending to the puerile, the story had a certain momentum. I have a feeling that the sun, the gentle surf and the rustle of palm leaves — all that comprises a tropical idyll, led to the suspension, if not of certain critical faculties at least a heightened sense of tolerance.

In fact, now that I think on it, I recall that I read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest at the same site — maybe I'll call that place “Big Book Beach.” Plans are afoot for me to return soon to read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and perhaps an author a few people have mentioned to me. I think his name is Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace).

Robert Birnbaum is a writer/photographer/editor. He is the editor-at-large at Identity Theory and a regular contributor to The Morning News.

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