by Mike Crawmer
It’s been just over four months since I turned the big 6-0. Approaching that milestone filled me with dread, but I survived all the hoopla and those inevitable birthday cards with their lame jokes about digestive indiscretions and sexual functioning (or lack thereof).
When compared to most sexagenarians, I suspect I’m rather fortunate. I have most of my hair, and I can eat almost anything without worrying what it will do to my “system.” My eyeglass prescription hasn’t changed in 18 years and my doctor mutters in amazement at the vitality of my major organs.
As for getting out and about, I can’t recall the last time I bar-hopped til the 2 a.m. closing bell. But, as many of you know, I spend an inordinate amount of time bicycling. I think nothing of pedaling 25 miles on the city’s streets and trails after work. Then there are those weeklong vacations cycling 350 miles around the Finger Lakes.
Still, my never-very-good memory isn’t getting any better, and my knees are wont to complain a bit too much. Then there’s this recent problem with books: no matter how exciting or enthralling, fascinating or interesting, five, six, or ten pages is all I can manage before the eyelids droop, the book drops to my lap and the snoring begins. Sad but true: Reading puts me to sleep.
Back in the day I could devour even the most long-winded book (fiction, history, social or political commentary) in one, two or three settings. I conquered “Crime and Punishment” and “Anna Karenina” in no time, and during semester break one winter read the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy—all while working a full time job.
Not any more. Except, that is, for a good short story. I’ve been reading a lot of them lately, in Granta and in anthologies I’ve collected over the years. Bless the short-story writer for being able to create in a few thousand words a world populated by characters that are quirky or gutsy, foolish or brave, anguished or heroic, idiosyncratic or just weird, but almost always intriguing and, best of all, not sleep inducing.
Not all short stories leave me marveling at the writer’s mastery of his or her craft. Some are irritating or just plain self-indulgent. Some seem more experimental, almost like a game the writer is creating for his or her own amusement, like a Dennis Lehane story I read recently that was written in the second person. What seemed interesting and a bit provocative in the first few pages became tedious and irritating by the end.
Still, the short story can be a thing of beauty. Within a dozen or so pages the reader can fall into and out of unique world, remember all the characters and the plot (if there is one!) and the storyline. And not fall asleep (usually).
Until I find another “Bel Canto” (the last novel I couldn’t put down), I’ll pick up a short story for my fiction fix. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the restorative powers of the nap, but I really just want to read to the end of something without falling asleep first.