How Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of The Long Sun” saved the bookstore.
I was told to expect a man in the evening — just before closing. I was made to understand that he would be the only one who could save my bookstore — a labor of love which I had adopted when my father (the original proprietor) began to forget my name. He had died after a sharp decline in twelve months, and I, who had dreams, plans, adventures to pursue, found my true self postponed as I tried my best to balance his books, brighten his inventory and somehow make a go of it as a purveyor of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Graphic Novels. My father’s clientele first got older, then dwindled to the truly obsessed, until one day I became not a bookseller but an information desk.
No, I did not carry action figures. No, I did not know which Marvel Universe that man in tights was saving this week. No, I did not have a section on UFOs. My media tie-ins rack was non-existent. No, I did not carry novelizations. I carried novels.
Or I did until the money ran out. Until my only visitors were sympathetic friends and my younger sister who, as a social worker, had all sorts of advice and sensible women she wished to set me up with. And no, she had no interest in my books: She hated that spaceship crap. It got to the point where I could not pay the rent on this small lower flat that housed the bookstore, and therefore could not afford the small upper flat above it.
The bank understood. They gave me time. They rearranged what could be rearranged. And finally when they pulled the plug, I got on my only sport coat and tie and went to plead my case face-to-face. I asked the teller for “A Banker” and she actually laughed in my face. What, I wondered, do you call them these days?
I sat at a desk in a clean and obviously temporary cube. I sat for one hour.
Finally an older man with red mutton chops and a gold watch on a gold chain tucked into his brown silk vest, sat down opposite me. I talked — pleaded really — about how the bookstore was my father’s dream. How I was sure that things would turn around. That people would start reading again. And then I said something which to this day I cannot explain. I said, “Who else is going to turn people on to Gene Wolfe?”
The older man looked at me under his gold rim glasses. Then he unscrewed an honest-to-god ink fountain pen and wrote on the back of his business card in the most elegant hand I had ever seen. His fingernails were oddly stained. He pushed the card across to me, smiled slightly and left.
The embossed side held his official information. The reverse side in blue ink read: “Tonight at closing: S. Your Last Hope.”
I don’t honestly know what I expected. It could not have been odder than that Victorian man who had handed me a gold-embossed card. But I returned to the store, and late that night the door jangled.
I didn’t bother looking up. “We’re closing soon,” I said. “So if there’s anything I can help you with…” He cleared his throat and the tallest, skinniest man I had ever seen stood before the counter.
“I am looking for one good man.” His voice had the resonance of a Shakespearean actor. It came forth from a famished body, a scraggly grey beard, a bony sunken face, and a bowler hat. I could not recall the last time I’d seen one of those. His eyes were the blue shadows of icebergs.
I caught my jaw hanging a bit and I stalled, repeating, “One…Good Man?”
“Surely,” he said, passing an elegant skeletal palm through the air to fling an invisible Frisbee down one of the aisles, “You must have encountered at least one.”
“You mean: in books?”
“Yes, of course. I shouldn’t bother looking in life — I’ve made a thorough search. Virtue is rare, beneficence nearly extinct, and decency half-hearted at best. My advice: Don’t hold high hopes of finding a good man out there.” He thumbed out a slider in the real world.
“Does it have to be a man?”
“Man, Woman, Angel, Alien — Whatever. These are just labels. I could have said: Spirit. I could have said: Soul. Are we going to quibble about phraseology? Your fucking store is at stake — Okay? Must I paint you a picture? Find me a fucking good man!”
The very air of the bookstore hummed with the echo of a tense unresolved piano chord — a rare botched Thelonious Monk. In the moment it took to regain my composure, I thought I almost saw something smoking behind his eyes.
“You’re from the bank,” I ventured.
“Hardly,” he snickered. “But let us say: I speak their currency.”
I squinted, breathed and made a decision. “Okay. My name’s Patrick. You’re S____, right?”
He gave a bow.
“That’s the deal? I find you a good character in a book, and you’ll let me keep the store?”
He smiled tolerantly. “No, actually. That’s only half the bargain. If you fail in this tiny matter, I get to keep the store and you continue working for me.”
“You’ll be the boss, then.”
He nodded, positively twinkling at the prospect.
“And — can I ask — what sort of store will it become?”
“Cutting. Edge,” he said. “New paradigm. Totally digital. We’ll sell no actual paper. Only plastic. We’ll sell subscriptions to the world library. And we’ll sell top-quality digital readers. Which will become digital viewers. Which will also become game platforms. Stream a movie. Kill a zombie. Surf the net. Send an email. Read a book — It’s all the same to me. What matters isn’t the content. What matters is the screen. The delivery platform. All our overhead will be in contracts. Nothing physical. Nothing on paper. No trees involved. Everyone will want one. Then everyone will have one.” He folded his white hands on the counter. “Then I will have everyone.”
“What will you call this store?”
I laughed then. I slapped my counter and bent over until tears sprang out of my eyes. Finally, I said, “I thought it would be a test! I thought it would be tough!”
He didn’t like that.
“Listen, if you ever need a job, I’d be happy to take your application. You’re the sort of character you only find in bookstores — eccentric, learned, pompous, a tad diabolical but ultimately harmless.”
He really didn’t like that at all. He lowered his blue eyes at me like a Scandinavian vampire and once again laid out his solemn challenge, “One Good Man.”
The world of books stretched into the darkness behind him like a crowd of witnesses at a sacrifice.
I pointed over his right shoulder and said, “Aisle three. Science Fiction. W.”
He frowned and followed my finger.
“Who?” he said, turning back.
Boy, it took a lot not to laugh in his face.
“The best writer on the planet. Can’t believe you’ve never heard of him.” Though of course I could.
He turned crisply and I chatted as he went to hunt for the books.
“It’s actually 4 novels collected into two volumes. The middle of a twelve book sequence.” A little gauntlet there to see how serious he was.
“A series,” he snorted. “Like Buffy?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling. “Like Buffy. That’s funny because there’s actually an alien vampire in the books. And a robot nun. And a girl implanted as a zygote in the womb of a lynx. Who can astral travel. And a submarine run by a virtual ghost. And an underwater monster. And gods who can possess people like demons.” I thought. “I suppose because they aren’t really gods.”
“Sounds right up my alley,” he said. “Ah! Found them! “THE LITANY OF THE LONG SUN.” And “EPIPHANY OF THE LONG SUN.” That’s them?”
“Oh, everything Gene Wolfe writes is religious. You just have to reread it enough times.”
He gave me a look. “I never reread anything,” he said, as he sat cross-legged in the aisle and thumbed open the first book. “I read very fast.”
“That would be a silly way to read Wolfe,” I warned. “That’s like rushing sex.”
“Done in a jiff!” he chirped. And man, was he riffling through those pages! I’ve heard of speed-reading but this guy was on hyper-speed.
I took the moment to contemplate the first time I had ever read “The Book of The Long Sun” as the sequence was called. How warm the memory was. How sweet.
He stopped abruptly with an annoyed theatrical sigh. “A Priest!? The hero is a priest?”
“Well…” he said. “Science Fiction.”
“Patera Silk. A young blond man genetically engineered to be charismatic, intelligent and physically athletic. He spends the whole book trying to be good. He’s a scholar, a pastor, a thief, an exorcist, a general, a politician, a lover.”
“You said he was a priest.”
“He is. But mostly, he’s an innocent. And he is an absolute failure at everything he attempts.”
“That makes him good in your eyes?”
“No, no, no, you idiot,” I said. “It’s the trying that makes him good.”
“Well, pardon me,” he said, switching to the second volume. “It’s set on a spaceship.”
“A generational starship, yes.”
“Christ,” he said. “Star Trek Revisited.” He read on muttering occasionally. “City lights in the sky. Elves who fly. Popes who are snakes. Hah!”
“What?” I said.
“The author identifies himself in the last damn book!”
“Yes, he does.”
“That’s a trick.”
“Yes, it is. One of many.”
When there was a longish silence I knew he had finished. I heard him approaching the cash register. He held up both books as if they were evidence — one in each hand — Exhibit A and Exhibit B. He had the strangest bedazzled look on his face. It was like he had never used those muscles before.
“All right,” he said.
“All right, you can keep the store. How much for the books?”
“On the house, “ I said. I was past the gloating part.
“You’ll never make any money that way.”
“Sure, I will. I just sold you about $200 worth of books.” Evidently not all the way past.
“How do you figure?”
“You’ve just fallen in love with one of the great unforgettable characters of English literature. You’ve heard the voice of Patera Silk, and you’ll miss it after a while. You’ll hunger for the sound of a guileless soul. It happens to all of us. You’re going to read everything Wolfe has written, aren’t you?”
He shrugged, then smiling, conceded his defeat. “Starting with ‘The Book of the Long Sun.’”
“Trust me,” I said. “By the twelfth read you going to really start enjoying them.”
He laughed through his nose as if I had just said the most absurd thing. “Really?”
“Really. Next you’ll want to read the first four books in the series.”
He looked down unknowingly at the gifts he held in his hands: The best books of the best writer in the world.
“Is the priest in those, too?” he asked.
“No, but he comes back later. Those are the ones about the torturer.”
— Patrick O’Leary, 2009