Tobie Dick

Classic summer reading—with a Minnesota twist

People often say to me, “Hey, Squinty, you’ve always got your nose in a book—well, except when you’re playing video golf or surfing the Web or watching Law & Order reruns or staring off into space wondering how 50 years could have whistled by so quickly. What should I read this summer?” ¶ You won’t like my answer, but here goes. You should read War and Peace, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, Remembrance of Things Past, Paradise Lost, Ulysses, or Moby Dick. Read at least one of the time-tested classics that have always put you to sleep in minutes, even back when you had youth, stamina, and 20/20 vision. You can still read them, but in my experience there’s only one way: go someplace where no one speaks English, take a subsistence-level job as a laborer, and bunk with a couple of guys who are constantly making jokes you don’t understand. When you don’t comprehend the words being spoken around you, those few daily pages of English prose—even the ones about 19th-century whaling—are every bit as enthralling as that scene in The Godfather you surreptitiously read at the Ben Franklin store in seventh grade. (You know the one. Yes, with Sonny Corleone and the bridesmaid. Call me Ishmael, indeed.)

However, if you’re unwilling to go to such lengths to imbibe the heady liqueurs of the Western canon—if, in other words, you’re dilettantish about dead white male scriveners; if you’re just looking for a tasty beach read—well, I can still make a few suggestions. I’ll stay away from national bestsellers in favor of plugging some local authors I’ve discovered recently. You may think their books are derivative or not as “good” as those by James Patterson or Lisa Scottoline, but doggone it, they’re our neighbors, and we Minnesotans have a proud tradition of buying books—not to mention baked goods, craft items, used cars, and real estate—just to be nice to the people selling them. So please try one of these:

I Feel Bad About My Deck, by Bob Johnson. “I didn’t go with the pressure-treated lumber,” the author confesses. “The guy at the lumber yard practically begged me to, but I just had to save a few bucks. Then I got busy and didn’t apply any sealant for a couple years. Now I’ve got chipping, flaking, warping, buckling, popped knots, noticeable discoloration, and several areas that are so spongy my stomach does flip-flops every time I walk on them. Plus, I’m pretty sure rabbits and chipmunks are living under there.” A frank, heartfelt, deeply prosaic meditation on the ravages of time, as symbolized by one man’s backyard do-it-yourself project.

The Pursuit of Crappieness, by Kate Johnson. Yet another life-on-the-water memoir by a Minnesota angler who’s gotten too many fishhooks stuck in her ears, but hey, if you’re into panfish, you’ll enjoy it. Moby Dick was more or less a fishing memoir, too. Maybe if you think of it that way you’ll be more inclined to toss a harpoon in its general direction.

300, by Norm Johnson. Like the identically titled book that was recently made into a hyperviolent movie megahit, this 300 is a graphic novel, which a snob might call a comic book putting on airs. But while the first tells the epic saga of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 brave and hunky Spartans were slain in bloody conflict with scads of equally studly Persians, Johnson’s 300 expresses immortal tragedy on a humbler scale. On the morning of February 15, 2006, Johnson, who was unemployed and had not been out celebrating Valentine’s Day the previous evening, went to Leon’s XerXes Lanes in south Minneapolis and bowled a perfect game—or so he claims. Unfortunately, he was the only bowler in the place, and Pam Gorgo, the woman working the counter, was watching The View the whole time. The XerXes has no computer-scoring devices, so the only record of the game was Johnson’s hand-penciled row of 12 strikes, and since he carried a 148 average at the time, no one believed he was capable of rolling a 300 game. For a self-published effort, the drawings in 300 aren’t bad, and the scene where Johnson realizes there’s a video surveillance camera aimed at his lane, only to discover that Ms. Gorgo has removed the tape in order to record The Price Is Right, which is broadcast at the same time as The View, will shatter the heart of any kegler—or any reader who lives to weep at a stunning denouement.

The Audacity of Elope, by E-Dawg and Lil’ Pâté. These pseudonymous authors, known to their family and friends as Ed and Patty Johnson, are the proud parents of five daughters, who range in age from 15 to 21. “These kids,” Ed told me in an exclusive interview at the barbershop, “have got it into their heads that it is every girl’s birthright to expect a wedding that costs more than a college education and a tricked-out GMC Suburban combined. I mean, the other day, Brandee—she’s our oldest; she just got engaged to some English major with a scraggly little soul patch who barely says two words—was talking about this absolutely indispensable ritual called the Father-of-the Bride’s Facial/Pedicure/Seaweed Wrap.” He gave a profound sigh. “Patty and I do not intend to live in a refrigerator box when we retire. I mean, you know. So Patty wrote this book and I came up with the title and we plan to leave it lying around the house for the next 8 to 10 years. What, you got a better idea?” When I suggested that the audacity of nope might be a better solution, he looked at me sadly and said, “You haven’t read a lot of Jane Austen, have you?”

The Five People You Meet in Hinckley, by Mabel Johnson. This is not a life-affirming, heartstring-yanking, schmaltz-bomb-dropping novel about the human spirit—so it has that going for it. Mabel Johnson, it turns out, is a travel writer who suffers greatly from shyness, hay fever, and a nonspecific wooziness that is the subject of much introspection in this slender volume. Yet Hinckley, in its delicate, symptom-parsing way, is a small triumph of what Derrida might have called le tourisme nonparticipatoire. Johnson manages to spend two weeks in Hinckley without ever setting foot in Grand Casino or Tobies, though she does sample one of the latter’s legendary caramel rolls. Her husband brings it to her warm in a takeout container; upon tasting it, she is moved to craft this fairly typical passage:

This Brobdingnagian baked good, so fresh, so fulsomely fragrant, is an exquisite distillation of the sugars and grains of the Red River Valley, which I truly hope to visit one day. It comes to me in a Styrofoam clamshell, like a pastry Venus emerging unashamed from a buttery sea. Its crust is ever so slightly caramelized, so that, as a single ambrosial morsel settles butterfly-like on my tongue, as my palate embarks on paroxysms hitherto unwonted, I taste, like a soupçon of an echo of a shred of a memory of a phantasmagorical dream, the smoke (black, pine-resinous, roiling with the power of a dark and murderous sun) from the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.

Some critics have argued that this is an awful lot of freight for one sweet roll to carry. I suspect Mabel Johnson would refer them to Proust.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson is not related to any of the authors mentioned above. He just likes to keep an eye on the Johnson shelf at his local bookstore.