Tonight I shirked my responsibilities and delayed my dinner in order to hear John Crowley read at the 92nd St Y. Crowley — opening diphthong as in cow, not as in crow — is one of my most favorite writers in the world, and unquestionably a big influence on my own writing. I discovered his most famous novel, Little, Big, upon the lending shelves of my high-school Shakespeare teacher’s classroom,1 and I was never the same. The 1986 trade-paperback edition I bought not long thereafter is one of my few treasured books not currently in storage; I reread it every year or two in full, and bits of it when the mood strikes, and needed it to be close at hand. Someday the rereadings and the carting-around will cause it to fall to bits, a victim of its own power. A while back, feeling flush, I ordered a copy of the 25th-anniversary edition to take on some of its burdens, and it should arrive around Christmas. But the battered old book is one of my Talismanic Objects, and I took it to be signed.
Crowley read a selection from his upcoming novel Four Freedoms, which is slated for publication in June of 2009. It’s one of his historicals: not a work of fantasy or speculative whatever, but something more firmly rooted in the real history of America in the 20th century. The selection was great, of course, articulate and touching and smart and funny and full of moments of lapidary detail. Unexpectedly, it was also full of sex, telling along the way with sensitivity, humor, insight, and enthusiasm the story of a young man’s maturing awareness of adult sexuality and the loss of his virginity to an older woman.
There weren’t many people in Crowley’s book-signing line after the reading. Most of the crowd seemed to be there for Marilynne Robinson, whose stuff I’ve never read but whose reading was equally enthralling. If much more chaste. I would have liked to make trenchant comments, ask insightful questions, done the cool chitchat thing, but the squeeing fanboy and the semi-intelligent reader and writer of fiction got locked in some sort of deathmatch in my head, so that was right out. It saved me, I guess, from having to blurt out that I’d been using the name of a minor character from Little, Big as an online handle for 15 years — hell, had commented on Crowley’s own LiveJournal under that name. But it also kept me from talking about experiencing New York for the first time as someone who had only known it previously through its strange and fantastic depiction in Little, Big; and from asking the question I was dying to ask, which was whether anyone had told him going into the reading, or if indeed he had noticed as he read, that a huge mob of high-school English students was in the back of the auditorium, their eyes widening, the faces of their teachers turning ever more scarlet.
1 I bless your memory, Barbara Abbott.