“You ever see High Fidelity?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah. I liked the book better,” Stuart said, smiling. “When they moved the movie to Chicago they gutted a bit of the book's instincts, since it was a British novel. If you haven't read About a Boy, by the same guy, you should, especially if you're a fan of Nirvana.”
“So, if you saw it, you're familiar with the Top 5 concept?”
“Top 5 Desert Island Whatever, sure,” Stuart said.
“So the Top 5 are what your favorite things are. Not the most important or the ones you think others should check out, but the ones that you would be stuck with if you only had five, right?”
“Top 5 Desert Island Books, then, Victor Stuart edition.”
Stuart nodded and poured himself some bourbon. “You first. And defend your selections.”
“Okay,” Jeff said, as if he had been expecting such a response. “Me first.” He took a breath and cracked his beer. “In no particular order, mind you.”
“Of course. Top 5 does not mandate values in order,” Stuart said, reasonably.
“Needful Things, by Stephen King. He claimed that it was a satire of Reagan's America, but I feel like the book takes his powers of observation and his affection for small town life and threw them together like a car crash. No holds barred, a happy ending, yes, but only after a dozen unhappy ones. Ruthless, even. And an ending that leaves questions to be asked instead of sewing everything up tidily, as he sometimes does.”
“'Kay,” Stuart nodded. “Continue.”
“Watership Down. Richard Adams called it a grown-up's book for children, but I've always maintained it was the reverse. Kids shouldn't read it. I tried to read it when I was 12 and barely got through it. It wasn't until I read it as an adult that I could stomach it or understand it. Plague Dogs was even worse.”
“Plague Dogs is a hell of a book, but I'm not sure anyone should read it. It's too grueling and depressing.”
“Says the author of the Alistar Wilcox books.”
“Point. Watership is really heavy, too, though. With all that stuff with the general and the prophecies and everything. Not something I'd read to my kids, at any rate. What else?”
“Preacher, a comic series—“
“By Garth Ennis, yeah. I know it. A fan of mine recommended them a few years ago and I read them all in one sitting, basically took up a whole day. I liked Y, The Last Man, better, but not by much. Why?”
“The foreign perspective of the United States and our culture meshed with spirituality and a spaghetti western is just, I guess it's just too surprising and original not to acknowledge.”
“Agreed. Keep going.” Stuart seemed to be enjoying Jeff's selections.
“By The Rivers of Babylon,” Jeff said.
“DeMille, really?” Stuart asked.
“It was the first book of his I read, and probably still his strongest. It was probably also the first book that I read that really opened my eyes to an international perspective, you know?”
“No cardboard characters, no easy ways out, original solutions to common problems, and a genuine perspective on what a fucking no-way-out mess there is in the Middle East.”
“Sure. Last one.”
“You're not gonna like it,” Jeff said.
“It's this book by a hack named Victor Stuart. Cemetery. I read it when I was 15.”
“You mentioned that before, didn't you?”
“So now tell me what happened to your father.”
Jeff looked at Stuart for a long moment. “Cancer,” he said in the end, quietly, “He died of lymphoma.”
“I'm sorry. I know that of all my work, that book speaks to those who lost a parent, whether they died or ran off, or whatever. It makes sense, too, because I wrote it about my own father, right after he died. Ask me about that some time, yeah?”
Jeff nodded, trying not to be overwhelmed by unhappy recollections.
“Alright, my turn. Since you chose Needful Things, I'll start with my favorite Stephen King book: Thinner. Writing as Richard Bachman, which means he could be as mean-spirited and unpleasant as he wanted.”
“I read somewhere that the big difference was that in the end of King's books the good guys lived and in the end of the Bachman books no one gets out alive..”
Stuart snorted and then considered and began to laugh. “Yeah, kid, that's pretty accurate. I like it. His observation is at its finest in that book, cutting and clever, the descriptions, the Gypsys, the fuckin' ending. I reread it every so often, it's a fast book.
“Second I'm gonna go with Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.”
“I mean, everyone quote-unquote literary likes Stephenson, he's and geeky and literate and everything all at once. Cryptonomicon, though, got me excited through the treasure hunt and the World War Two stuff, and all the code geekery was just gravy.
“You mentioned a comic, so I suppose I will have to, too. I'll say The Crow, by James O'Barr. The movie wasn't bad, but never really did the original work justice. Some of the same things about Thinner are what I like about The Crow. It's unhappy, it's mean-spirited in places, it doesn't offer easy answers. It's brutal, more than anything.”
“I cried like a little bitch when I read it,” Jeff said. He then immediately regretted it.
Stuart looked at him for a moment. “Of course you did,” he said. “You have a soul. It's a tough book to get through. I read it when it was pretty new and I was...I dunno, not very old. I didn't just have a young wife, I had my first kid at the time and the idea of losing those that I held most dear was just...heinous.”
“That's three,” Jeff said.
“Yeah. I'm gonna say Small Town. It's mostly because I want to list a book by Lawrence Block, who is the fuckin' man, and I can say that having met him. He's a gentleman and a hell of a writer. Have you read it?”
“No. I've seen it at the stores, but I haven't read it.”
“It's an ode to post-9/11 New York City. There's a mystery, but it's really secondary to the intertwining stories of all these people and how the tragedy affected their lives. One of the reasons why I respect him so much is he can write on all these levels, humorous, serious, snarky, scary, and that book was the culmination of the lot of it. A love story to the city. It's on my shelves, I think, if you wanna look for it. You can't read just me all summer.”
“I'll check it out,” Jeff said. “What else?”
“The Hobbit,” Stuart said. “It's a cliché choice, I suppose, as it's a formative work for many writers, but I can always go back to it and remember what it was like to not be a writer yet and be so enamored of the fact that some guy, in another country, decades before, could suggest all these ideas that would resonate with a 10-year-old in 1978. I'd been a scribbler before then, but that book was what turned me into a writer. Or, at least, a kid who wanted to be a writer.”
“For me that was Grave.”
“Yeah. I wrote my first real short story after that.”
“Wow. Thanks, kid, that's really flattering. Was it any good?”
“No, it was a complete rip off. But it was a place to start.”
“Damn right. Good for you.”