The Book: Robertson Davies, Fifth Business. The Viking Press, 1970 (first American edition). Very good book in very good, Mylar-protected dust-jacket; both book and jacket show age-related discoloration, and dust jacket has mild rubbing at top edge of front cover. Resale price, $35, marked in pencil on front endpaper.
First Read: 1988
Owned Since: 1994 (approximately)
I often hear people say, "I never reread books," in a superior tone -- been there, done that, life's too short. They gave a book their time once, and the implication is that the book and its author were lucky to get that.
But the mark of a truly great book is that it deserves to be read again, across a period of years. Teenagers read Dickens and resent having to plow through hundreds of pages of unfamiliar settings and slang; middle-aged people read Dickens and recognize people and situations they've encountered in their own lives; much older people, I imagine, appreciate the humor of it all in ways I don't get yet.
Fifth Business -- and its two companions in the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders -- is a book I have been rereading for almost 20 years. The books are rooted in the Jungian worldview, so it's not surprising that with almost every re-reading I identify with a different major character, and my favorite book of the series has changed over the years. Originally I liked The Manticore best; then I preferred World of Wonders; now I've come back to Fifth Business.
Fifth Business is the fictional memoir of historian and hagiographer Dunstan Ramsay, upon the occasion of his retirement from a boys' prep school in Toronto. "Fifth Business" is the essential stage character who is neither the lead, the romantic interest, the villain nor the best friend; in describing his own role as Fifth Business, Ramsay shows us how he still managed to star in his own life story.
I took the book off the shelf last night to write about it this morning, looked at the first page, and am now 43 pages into it again. Is it reading time I might give something else? Yes, but I think this is more worthwhile.
What I Read This Week
It's been literally months since I had a day off, and I have not been reading at my usual pace. Rather than list the three books I read this week, here are some of the highlights of the past month:
Brett Battles, The Cleaner. This first novel is a grand, old-fashioned espionage thriller. Freelance operative Jonathan Quinn is called to deal with the arson death of a research scientist, and walks into a bloodbath. As he runs for his own life and tries to figure out what's going on, he unravels an international terror plot with horrifying implications.
Armistead Maupin, Michael Tolliver Lives. This coda to Maupin's "Tales of the City" books felt like a family reunion. Eighteen years after we last saw them, the surviving residents of 28 Barbary Lane have scattered -- and HIV-positive Michael Tolliver is among those survivors, to his surprise and delight. Matriarch Anna Madrigal, now in her 80s, is very frail but sharp as ever, and her failing health brings everyone back for one last lesson on the nature of family.
Mitch Silver, In Secret Service. Another first novel, another spy novel. I've been on a spy novel kick lately, probably because I long to be the pawn of a conspiracy; it would be so much easier than having to make my own decisions. Art history professor Amy Greenberg inherits a manuscript entitled Provenance by Ian Fleming, which details the Duke of Windsor's dealings with Nazi Germany. It's a story with serious implications for the current royal family, and someone's willing to kill Amy to keep it all secret. The book shifts back and forth between Fleming's manuscript and Amy's present-day peril; I could have done without the present-day framing device, but "Fleming's" manuscript is gripping.
Crystal Zevon, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. It's understandable that Zevon's ex-wife (and widow, really, as she makes clear) would want to be first out with an overview of the singer-songwriter's life; certain gaps in this oral history suggest that a few of Zevon's former lovers might be working on books of their own. All the same, I wish the narrators of this history had had a couple more years to process their memories. Warren Zevon was a musical genius, a man of infinite curiosity, a passionate reader, an obsessive-compulsive, a sex addict and a vicious drunk, and the wounds he inflicted still sound pretty fresh for many of the people who give their stories here. It's fascinating, but painful. Maybe that's appropriate.