My father looked like he had just been shot with a poison dart. "You don't like James Joyce?"
"Well," I stammered, "It's not that I don't like him, I just think he's a bit boring." He threw his hands up in disgust. We have this same discussion about Russian literature, which I also find boring. Although I like the fact that they use the person's formal name every chance they can get:
Ivan Ignatovich walked through the birch trees toward town to fetch a wedding vatrushka for Natasha Dumanovskaya.
"Is that you, Ivan Ignatovich?" said Svetlana Mitrofanova, who was gathering nettles for a tincture.
"Yes, it is I, Ivan Ignatovich! How are you this fine day, Svetlana Mitrofanova?"
"Okay, okay" said my dad, who had gotten the point. "Was that supposed to be a Russian accent?"
I crack myself up.
When I saw the Dubliner in West Portal, I of course thought of my dad, an Irish recovering alcoholic who once read Ulysses during a battle with shingles. This bar was perfect.
It's your garden-variety divey pub, with a full bar, a pool table, and patrons spewing blarney. It was warm inside, and not raining, so that was enough for me.
Maybe I've watched too many gangster movies, but I believe you should never sit with your back to the door of a bar, so I picked a spot along the counter that gave me ample duck-and-cover time.
It had to be regulars-o-rama night, because everyone looked like a character out of Dubliners: middle class, cautiously joyful with strangers, and in various states of grizzledness.
There are two things I remember about James Joyce's book of short stories. One is the idea of "epiphany," which is like a little brain orgasm that if we are lucky will happen to us several times throughout our life. For me it usually involves realizing that something that had been causing me grief or trouble is no longer a threat, like recognizing that I no longer needed to care if people liked me or not. All of a sudden one day, I saw that it really didn't matter. I began living my life differently from then on out.
Drinking provides one with a sort of instant epiphany. Everything becomes more interesting and insightful, particularly the sound of your own voice. Some poor sap was learning this the hard way with an elderly inebriate who was going on and on about the apocalypse.
This of course graduated into a discussion among several of us about the Mayan end of days, which by now we all know was just an ancient Mexican ruse to get people to buy timeshares. But at the time, on the eve of Dec. 21, there was some debate as to whether or not it was already the 21st in Australia. In days of yore, before smart phones, such a discussion could go on for hours, with various people sharing knowledge and making educated guesses. If people were drunk enough and convinced that they were right and you were wrong, it could end in a jolly trading of fisticuffs. Alas, those days are gone, because in about 30 seconds some guy looked it up on his phone and declared that, yes, it was Dec. 21 in New Zealand, and they were still with us. We all nodded, and then our eyes went back to the TV.
But back to fine literature. The second thing I remember about Dubliners is that it proceeds chronologically by age; that is, each story has an older and older protagonist. In this way it is like Harry Potter, since both authors were attempting to change their prose as the protagonists advanced through the years.
I can hear my dad now, "I thought you said the book was boring. Sounds like you find it interesting." To which I would say, "I don't mind talking about it, I just don't want to read it. Kind of like the Bible."
There is one thing that my dad and I agree on, and that is that neither of us wants to see Keira Knightley portray Russian literature's favorite heroine, Anna Karenina, in the new movie. She's a wispy twig of a thing, for starters, and Anna was a sturdy broad in the book. When she throws herself in front of that train you can't help but think it left an indentation. If Knightley did that, she would just sort of swoosh up like a feather and alight on the windshield. By the way, tossing yourself in front of a locomotive is the opposite of an epiphany, unless deciding to kill yourself comes to you suddenly and provides you with a clarity of purpose.
"Looks like people are gathering at the Mayan ruins," said the guy with the smartphone, opening up the conversation to the idea that some people are idiots. Okay, so maybe technology has its place. Technically, said another guy, it's not supposed to be the end of time, but just the beginning of a new epoch. An epiphany for the world. This was a nice idea, but sadly only the stuff of books.
It had gone from about 60 degrees to what felt like 25 in the space of an hour, and since I was going to have to stand out in it and wait for the train I needed to time my departure perfectly. When I saw the nose of the M train edging around the bend I headed out.
It was moving so slowly that I pictured a woman passive-aggressively throwing herself in front of it to scare the boyfriend who hadn't been paying enough attention to her. He'd been taking her for granted. She flung herself in front of the train and merely got a few bruises, but looked very pathetic and vulnerable. Mission accomplished.
Epiphany: If I ever find myself contemplating such things, dump the bastard.