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Book Club

Today, we visit Oprahs Book Club. Only without Oprah. Or the books. Or, yknow, women.

Books are a personal affair. For some folks, the love of literature is a crime....

Book Club by Phil Semler




Six men sat on stools in a tight circle.

“Remember the rules—” Cliff said.

“Don’t pontificate. Communicate,” they said in unison.

“Let’s start. What should we read first for next time? Anybody have a favorite book?”

“For me, Holden Caulfield. I want to read Catcher in the Rye,” poshed Spike. “The guy just hated phonies. You know, hypocrisy. Major cynic. But, you know, he’s a tragic figure, just like me. That’s why I’m here. Caulfield is a character of contradiction. I was like him. I flunked out of high school and they called me dumb, yet I knew I was intelligent. In fact, if you want to explain things, I mean causal relationships—maybe I’m here because I criticized a society—per say—that is unable to acknowledge my hidden intelligence—” He craved confession but suddenly stopped.

“Why so many white boys like that motherfucking lame-ass book?” Rudra pointed an imaginary gun at Spike. “Man, that book’s for white psychos. You ever notice that?”

“I’m afraid you missed the whole point,” Spike said.

Rudra said nothing. His eyelashes dropped toward his cheeks making his expression hard to read but menacing.

“Okay, man of the streets, black man, gangsta, you gotta book?”

“Fuck yeah. I am talking about Mr. Chester Himes. A Rage in Harlem.”

“I didn’t like it—”

“I. Like. What. I. Like. Motherfucker—” He stopped, pondered, began again. “You didn’t like it? Of course you didn’t like it. That’s because it’s got black cops—Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones—patrolling New York City’s roughest streets. Where I’m from.”

“Yeah, the setting was too gritty for me,” Spike said. “As I recall, the plot was pretty convoluted,”
“Anything more than one character and one desire is too complicated for your lame-ass.” 

“Besides, I don’t want crime books. I want escapism.”

“You piece of—”

“Let’s not criticize anybody here,” Cliff said. “Just stick with the books. Another? Someone who hasn’t spoken.”

“For me,” Blacky spit out, the little rodent-like man, “it was Nietzsche. Man, Will to Power—

“That’s not fiction!” Spike screamed. “It’s fascist!”

Blacky looked as if he’d been shot.

“Please, don’t interrupt,” Cliff said. “Blacky?”

Blacky cleared this throat. “I thought he was speaking to me. The rest was the herd. The individual was me. The individual, and I took that to mean me, can do anything against the herd since they’re the stuff of life, the herd, that is. I guess that explains it all for me. I’m sorry about that landlord lady...”

“You making an allusion to Crime and Punishment?” said Joey. He sniffled and went on. “You’re not going to believe it but Jane Austen gave me a hard on. I used to say—you know the opening of Pride and Prejudice? ‘It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good blow job.’ And that’s how I lived my life. And got into all this trouble. Women.” After Joey finished, he moved one foot on to the other knee, looking around for approval.

“Man, you is high brow,” Rudra said.

“What the fuck that mean, high brow?” asked Spike. “I never understood that expression.”

“I don’t know literally,” Rudra said ironically. “But figuratively it means you some kind of intellectual.”

“Man, that’s me. Holden Caulfield,” said Spike.

“I don’t like that Catcher book either,” said Blacky. “Guy was pussy. Why isn’t Holden more appealing as a character? Because he’s a pussy, that’s why. Like Spike.”

Spike looked at Blacky with silent disappointment.

“Okay, okay, no personal attacks,” Cliff said.

“Spike don’t value my opinion,” Blacky replied with a stupid grin on his face.

“He does, Blacky. Others?” asked Cliff.

“He don’t value me neither, motherfucker,” Rudra chimed in.

“If you’d stop swearing every other word, I might—” said Spike.

“Something with an unreliable narrator, like Huck Finn,” Joey said.

“Man, you know I can’t read that shit. It killed my self-esteem. They ought to ban that motherfucking book.” Rudra scratched his head.

“I’m sorry,” said Joey. “Hey maybe something multicultural. How about Song of Solomon?”

“I ain’t reading nothing by that ho,” said Rudra. “Besides, bitch emasculated me.”

“Still, she won some big prize,” said Joey. “Must be good.”

Oedipus Rex!” whispered Jack. The first time he’d spoken. “A classic!”

 “Don’t even go there,” said Rudra. “That book says it all. Man, the dude killed his father and fucked his mother. The father part I can relate too, but my mother? Sweet Jesus. If we can’t read Himes, how about a locked-room murder?” He raised his brows.

“No,” Spike said. “No crime, no mysteries. No Spillane. No Ellroy. Not even Christie.”

“Not even Gone Girl?” asked Rudra. “It’s an amazing book. Especially when you find out the cunt—”

“Don’t give it away, asshole. I might read it.”

“I’ll kill anybody criticize that book,” said Rudra with a menacing look to the group. “It’s fuckin’ genius.”

“I’ve always wished,” Joey said, “I’d read Atlas Shrugged as a youngster instead of hard-boiled. Gotten into white collar capitalism.”

“That book’s fascist,” added Spike. “Fucking objectivism. Nothing objective about it.”

“How about something with Jungian archetypes or a doppelganger?” Joey asked.

“I really wouldn’t mind a nice locked-room murder.”

“Serial killers!”

“Was that a joke?”

Everybody started shouting opinions at each other, trying to yell over each other.

“Kerouac made me a homo.”

“You were already a homo before you got here.”

“The minor characters were as good as Dickens’s”

“Hemingway was a fem.”

“Whaddya know? You ever read him?”

“No, but I heard some things.”

“No goddamn role models.”

“I must take issue.”

“Maybe instead of blaming books, you should take some personal responsibility for your actions.”

“Whaddya mean actions? I was fucking innocent.”

“Okay. Okay,” Cliff said. “Settle down. That’s all we have time for today. I’m going to pick the book. I’ll try to pick something you’ll all like.”

The guards stood over the men waiting to take them back to their cells.

Phil Semler lives in San Francisco. He’s the author of the novels Daemon in the Tenderloin, Hipster Killer in the Tenderloin, and the San Francisco Trilogy, which includes Occam’s Razor, Zeno’s Arrow, and Kant’s Modalities.