Show a Little Spine

A select summer reading list

“Is the novel dead?” I heard those words uttered in a coffee shop recently, and I had to laugh, since the first recorded posing of the question was in July of 1605, in a Madrid wine bar, less than a year after the publication of Don Quixote. Cervantes had just invented the novel (sort of), and already some people were tamping down the earth over its coffin.

Yes, the novel is dead, and yes, it keeps managing to be born again, and not by accepting any particular deity as its personal savior. The only savior the novel needs is a pair of eyeballs hooked up to a sentient brain. When I say “eyeballs,” I’m being figurative; ears will work, if you like books on tape, or fingertips, if you read Braille, or you could have someone tap out the text in Morse code on your kneecap. (That last method would improve a great many books I can think of.) The point is, the novel—the created fictive narrative—exists, whether as a staggering unkillable zombie trailing shreds of rotting flesh or as a comely youth appareled in grace and virtue, with just enough cheek to keep things interesting, something along the lines of a Miley Cyrus. Novels: thoroughly read or lightly skimmed, spines cracked or carefully arched, pages made transparent by potato-chip grease or sunscreen—what would summer be without them? Especially this summer, when you can’t afford to drive anywhere. You’re a Quixote who’s been slapped upside the tin hat with the high cost of steed feed, so you might as well lie around with a book of regional interest propped on your yearning chest. Have Sancho Panza bring you a sangria, and let’s get those pages flipping.

Speaking of yearning and chests, why not start with an old-fashioned romance? ’Tis a Favre, Favre Better Thing I Do, despite the fact that reading its title aloud can make you pull a lip muscle, offers most of the pleasures of this popular genre. First-time author Maudie Fabell has hammered together a sturdy love triangle filled with characters whose overwhelming love for the Green Bay Packers does not obscure their innate humanity. There are a few too many instances of cheese-based eroticism for this reader’s taste, but that’s a mere quibble. By the time you reach the scene where Sidney Crate gives up his season tickets to Chuck Dangey so that Chuck can be reconciled with his ex-wife, Lucille—even though Sid loves her, too, even though his heart is crumbling like a wedge of aged Kenosha Blue, even though he spent 37 years on the waiting list before getting the opportunity to buy those tickets—well, you’ll be as teary as a beloved quarterback announcing his retirement, and the phrase “We’ll always have Sheboygan” will be seared on your soul.

Curiously, the end of the Brett Favre era has sparked a small literary renaissance over in Wisconsin, mostly consisting of confessional memoirs. Eat, Pray, Root is a typical example: A man misses the birth of his child because a meaningless, late-season game is on TV, feels bad about it, names the kid Brett, and feels better. Or maybe that should be “bretter.” There’s even a slender, Favre-inspired poetry chapbook, The Heart Is a Lonely Packer, which begins with a quatrain (“Leinie’s is gold / Lambeau is green / Brett is the awesomest / Dude you’ve ever seen”), segues into a haiku (“Winter afternoon: / stubbled man in yellow pants / hoists a Hail Mary”) and ends with a touchingly off-kilter limerick: “There once was a man named Brett Favre / Through opposing defenses he’d cavre / Now he’s gone and retired / And in sadness we’re mired / For our sense of wonder and possibility will surely stavre.”

But we were talking about fiction. As any book lover will tell you, there’s nothing like a gritty, blood-spattered tale of unspeakable back-alley crime to make a glorious summer day even nicer. Minnesota killing-spree fanciers are in luck this year, as our state’s mayhem peddlers have found new inspiration in the ever-worsening credit crisis. Such “mortgage-noir” titles as Appraiser’s Kiss, Satan Was a Realtor, and No Country for Prepayment of Principal have already been widely discussed in the local media. For my money, the best of the lot—the noir-est, the hardest boiled, the one that taps most deeply into the vigilante pleasure centers of the brain—is the virtually unheralded Adjust This!, penned and self-published with savage energy by neophyte novelist Chad Rallop of Robbinsdale. Rallop’s yarn opens, as all such stories must, with the discovery of a corpse: a loan officer named Cy Neer, stripped naked, spread-eagled on a conference table, his mouth stuffed with his own cheap giveaway pens and his body crosshatched with paper cuts. He’s got an adjustable-rate mortgage in his heart—the document itself, the actual fiscal instrument, folded by means of some fiendish origami into a murderous bloodletting barb. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, except to say that the body count rises quickly, and you realize pretty darn quick that the author’s sympathies lie not with the police investigators but with the serial-killing perp. And you don’t care.

If, after happily wallowing in gore, you feel the need to cleanse your moral palate with an uplifting “message” novel, I’d recommend Lance Throon’s futuristic eco-pastorale Kernels of Tomorrow. The story opens in the year 2047, when the world has long since consumed its petroleum reserves and most arable land is used to grow corn. The corn is inedible; it’s all processed into ethanol, the supply of which is controlled by a global military junta. Ordinary people have no vehicles. They live in labor camps, tending the corn plants by hand and subsisting on something called FoamEat (it comes in a tube bearing a picture of Jenny Craig, and its ingredients are suspiciously nonspecific). The book seems to be an amalgam of 1984, Soylent Green, and, eventually, The Sound of Music. At a camp near what was once Marshall, Minnesota—now known as ADM 6.03—lives a plucky family named, naturally, the Greens. The patriarch, Jebediah Green, is a brilliant plant geneticist who’s been forced to put his talents in the service of the evil overlords. But somehow, in his spare time, working from youthful memories, ol’ Jeb has managed to reverse-engineer a strain of sweet corn that just might be delicious enough to save the world. The novel reaches its climax when the Greens, each laden with sacks of sweet corn ears and trays of seedlings, make a daring midnight escape through the rustling stalks. The epilogue finds them gathered around a campfire, feasting on roasted corn slathered with doe butter (apparently the overlords, while they had no trouble conquering the world and subjugating its people, couldn’t do a whole lot about the whitetail deer population).

“Don Quixote tilted at windmills,” Jebediah intones, bizarrely. “But windmills are not the enemy. The world has forgotten much in my lifetime. Perhaps this corn can help it remember.”

Then they sing “Kumbaya” in eight-part harmony. Okay, I made up that last bit. Still, if Kernels of Tomorrow’s message is that corn on the cob is among life’s wonders, I think we can all agree. And if you get a little butter on the pages, so what?

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson recommends old Ross Macdonald novels for actual summer reading.