Pop Of King (81) – Playing Against Hype – (30 maja 2008)

Although at bottom mysterious – like so much of human behavior, especially in tidal matters of the pop cult – it seems to me that good buzz is, like Gaul, divided into three parts. I’ll deal with them by talking about the best book I read this winter, which is almost certainly going to become the book everyone is reading and talking about this summer. And just by saying that, I have become, voila, part of a genuine good buzz. The book is The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III, due to be published in June. Much more of this later. I can’t wait to talk about it, which is also a reliable signifier of good buzz.

To start with: Buzz is not hype and hype is not buzz. Hype is paid for: full-page print ads, luxe websites, logos on the sides of buses, billboards on Sunset Boulevard, carpet-bomb TV campaigns. Buzz is free. Hype is often unreliable (Ang Lee’s well-advertised but ultimately atrocious rendering of The Incredible Hulk, for instance). Buzz, on the other hand, is almost always reliable. No one knows why, any more than anyone knows how dogs can sense company’s coming even when none is expected. But we can say certain things.

First: Good buzz starts long before hype. In February of this year, while I was signing copies of Duma Key in a Sarasota, Fla., bookstore, a clerk came up to me with a galley of the Dubus novel. ”You should read this,” he said. Now, I get a lot of free galleys given to me by people hoping for blurbs (blurbs = hype, class), and I don’t read many of them, because I’ve got my own reading to do, and only so many years to do it in. But the opinions of bookstore people, who are both cynical and divinely hopeful – often at the same time, which makes these battle-scarred veterans of the culture wars totally engaging schizos – are not to be sneezed at. Men and women who work in bookstores are like E.F. Hutton: When they talk, I listen. This is the ”I Heard It Through the Grapevine” aspect of good buzz.

Second: I loved the last offering from this artist. It’s why I can’t wait for the next Martin Scorsese movie, the next James McMurtry album, the next TV show Damon Lindelof takes on. In the case of Andre Dubus III, the last book was the memorable House of Sand and Fog. I got that one on cassette tapes (remember those?) and started listening on a long drive north from Florida to Maine. I thought I’d do the first cassette, then listen to some rock & roll. Instead, I kept plugging cassettes into the deck one after another, compulsive as a junkie working his way through a bag of high-grade dope. You tend to remember that kind of experience – they don’t come along often – and it made me not only put Garden on my to-read shelf but jump it to the top of the pile.

Third: Pass it on. Good buzz goes from mouth to ear to blog to text message and back to mouth and…well, you get it. Once it starts to happen (as it happily did for me with 1408), all you can do is watch in wide-eyed wonder and say – as Adam reputedly said to Eve – ”Stand back, honey, I don’t know how big this thing gets.”

But only if it’s good. And this book is so good, so damn compulsively readable, that I can hardly believe it. The brooding cover – palm trees beneath a greenish sky that suggests bad luck, trouble, storms, perhaps total disaster – promises suspense; unlike most such covers, The Garden of Last Days actually delivers.

I won’t summarize the novel, because even the briefest of recaps would steal too many of the story’s secrets, but I can signal. It begins with a not-yet-hardened young stripper named April who dances under the name of Spring. Due to circumstances beyond her control, April is forced to bring her toddler to work with her one sultry September night. (Right there, all the uh-oh lights in my emotional warning bank turned red.) And although the ”house mom” at the Puma Club for Men promises to watch out for little Franny while April’s working, promises are sometimes broken. Like moms’ hearts. I can further tell you that April has a private-dance client that night who is strange and rich and scary beyond scary. That’s all you need to know, I think, except that Dubus casts a net of dread over the reader so strong that one sometimes longs to put the book down, but finds himself unable. Because the people who populate Dubus’ Garden feel like real people, full of genuine grief, anger, hope, love, spirituality, and terror. They rise from the page. You want them to pull through.

And there’s another thing you want, as soon as you close the book, and it has nothing to do with hype. You want to grab someone and tell them to read it – don’t wait for the movie, read it now. Or you want to write about it, partly so people will know there’s something really good in the pipeline, really alive, but also for a baser reason: You want to be able to say later on, ”I was there first. I knew.”

I knew about this book from the first few pages.

Now you do too.

Brothers and sisters, you’ve been buzzed.