Browsing the stacks of the public library, prejudice and whim are all. Nothing that says New York Times Bestseller. Nothing too fat, or too skinny. Paperbacks over hard covers (too heavy to lug around). Jacket design matters. Applying these loose—always violable—criteria, I come up the other day with two nuggets: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle; Richard Stark’s The Hunter.
Classics of genre fiction—gothic horror; crime—they stand in venerable American traditions. Jackson’s sinister New England of social decay and economic decline, eccentricity, poisonings, unmarriagable spinsters. Stark’s pitch-perfect New York of raw violence and misogyny. Parker, his hero, the apotheosis of Womanless Man, Huck Finn on the lawless urban frontier.
Then I notice these are both published first in 1962.
Discharged from the Army that year, in April. Nine days across the North Atlantic, Bremerhaven to Brooklyn. We got a flat in Sunset Park, our old neighbourhood, a fourth-floor walk-up with a view out across Bensonhurst all the way to Coney Island where one could see the flash of fireworks that summer.
From Christmas, I worked two jobs. In the day, teller at a bank in the Daily News building on 42nd Street, at night, rate clerk for a trucking company in Queens. It meant long hours on the subway, devouring Bantam paperbacks, Hardy, Turgenev, Bennett, Conrad.
I decided I needed political opinions and read issues of Commentary, William Buckley’s National Review, The New Republic, settling on the last of these, becoming overnight, as it were, a liberal and a Keynesian. It was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then of the Profumo affair, of Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler—the hot topic of conversation at the trucking company, largely because my fellow rate clerk happened to be an expatriate Brit.
Our second child was born in September of 1962, in the same lying-in hospital in which I had been born, and in which his older brother had been born, The Sister Elizabeth Pavilion of The Norwegian Lutheran Deaconesses Home & Hospital.
We had no television, and didn’t go out much. I bought a cheap plastic FM radio and listened mostly to WBAI, the Pacifica network station, a kind of predecessor to National Public Radio, rich in talk, interviews, readings. Philip Roth, Updike, Bernard Malamud, whose “The German Refugee” I’m rather sure I remember his reading, in the year of its first publication. An old-fashioned, Galsworthian narrative of loss and failure and misjudgment, against the beat of lines of Walt Whitman. It still moves me.
In August, 1963, we were preparing to move to Missouri, a fateful decision with incalculable consequences. On my last day of work, at the diner in Manhattan where it was my practice to get a bite between work-stints, I told the counterman it would be the last time. “Missouri?” he said,“ Isn’t that the other side of Hoboken?”