I'm reading an old John LeCarre' novel, "The Secret Pilgrim." It's fun. I haven't read a lot of the author's work, and none of it in a very long time. Spy stuff. There won't be any spoiler alerts as I am still reading.
But I have been floored by a single tiny passage, and reminded again of the joy of reading, and the advisability of expanding one's universe, stepping out of the familiar comfort zone.
I work at a parish rummage sale, and every year I walk out with a grocery bag full of books that costs me, in total, less than twenty dollars. This is where I expand my universe, take chances, give an author a second chance, try a genre from which I usually steer clear.
When I go to bookstores and spend real money, I want a sure thing, reliable winners. For me these include Walter Mosely, Lawrence Block, Scott Turow. Old friends, I call 'em. They never let me down. I also go to bookstores for Great Books. These are usually recommended by my sister, who is in a book club and is never wrong about such things.
I also spend real money on the recently published Open Salon authors, whose work has yet to find its way into the rummage sale circuit.
But rummage sales are great places for book lovers. I would love to have a library but I don't. Someday I will. What I did have is a bunch of boxes full of books in my crawl space. Long story short, I cleared out my crawl space by giving the books to a rummage sale, which I now use as sort of a once-a-year trip to the library. I re-donate the twenty books I got last year and drop twenty bucks on a new bunch.
This is where I come across guys like LeCarre'. I read one of his books decades ago, perhaps, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." in the mid-seventies. I would never buy one of his books at a bookstore, but for a buck a book, I figured it was worth a shot.
I liked it just fine. Then I came across The Passage.
It goes like this. An agent goes dark. Ned is sent to find him, or to find out what hapened to him. It is presumed the news will not be good. These are secret agents, after all. The missing agent either defected or was killed. Along the way, Ned meets the beautiful Bella. She knows something and Ned must "get close" to her. All in the line of duty, of course. Then:
I kissed her and took off her coat, and I never saw before or since anyone so beautiful. And the truth is that, at that moment and at that age, I had not yet acquired the power to distinguish between truth and beauty. They were one and the same to me, and I could only feel awe for her....
Bella naked by the half light of the fire, lying on her side as I had first seen her by the fire in the farmhouse....
"You're so beautiful," she whispered.
It had not occurred to me that I could fill her with a comparable wonder.
It was that last line that floored me and has possessed me in the days since. I don't recall the sentiment expressed so perfectly in anything I've ever read, in all the millions of words about love and lust and moonlight and wet slippery crevices do I recall an author describing that moment in which a man realizes she wants what he wants, that he, too, is an object of desire, and that his naked form could inspire wonder.
Her name was Carla and she was built like Dolly Parton. She was younger than I and, of course, more experienced. She dated one of my friends. When they broke up, I pounced. Friendship be damned. I was a sophomore in high school and was still possessed of the notion that if a girl liked you, they let you, but for reasons entirely different from my own. Female sexuality didn't get much mention in the Catholic grade school I attended, other that some drivel about staying away from the doomed "kleenex girls" whom boys would "use and throw away."
I knew it was nonsense, but I did not know what was not nonsense. Until I bought a '67 Chevy Impala and got in the backseat with Carla. It was glorious. One night after parking we drove and Dolly Parton came on the radio.
Here you come again
lookin' better than a body has a right to
An' shakin' me up so, that all I really know
Is here you come, and here I go
All you gotta do is smile that smile
And there go all my defenses
Just leave it up to you and in a little while
You're messin' up my mind and fillin' up my senses
Carla was weeping. I asked what was wrong and she said nothing and tried to stop but couldn't. Finally, she pointed at the radio, and managed only two words.
I pulled the Impala to the curb and tried to take this in. I had become a man because I had figured out how to get what I wanted from a woman. I had assumed that this was the Holy Grail, the Promised Land, the end zone. But I had to ask, what am I to give to this sobbing 15-year-old. What does she need from me?
"All I do is think about you. It's never been like this. I'm scared."
All you gotta do is smile that smile
Whatever I managed to say next seemed to suffice, though I knew it to be inadequate. I didn't know the question, much less the answer.
We were together for a while and then we weren't and then she moved. I don't remember all of it. I do remember being poleaxed by the idea that anyone thought such thoughts about me, with my horse teeth and zits and gangly, lurching body which no clothes actually fit. (I was a twig as a freshman, under 120 pounds. I added six inches and forty pounds over the next year or two.)
All this raced through through my mind after reading one lovely sentence in a book I bought for a buck:
"It had not occurred to me that I could fill her with comparable wonder."
I got my money's worth.