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The Critic

“You’ve got to read his latest,” her voice pours out of her mouth; her eyes fill with more awe than a puppy dog watching someone eat fried chicken. “But you have to read him from the beginning. Here, this is the first one. From page one you won’t be able to put it down.”

The book she thrusts into my hand is as dog-eared as a basset hound; only two red dots, supposedly the eyes of the main character—a zombie?—are visible through the multitude of lines cracking the glossy cover. I grimace. She sees the cringe, and hammers me about the mania I have of scrounging through the tomes of 19th century literature in bookstores like an archaeologist on the trail of King Tut. “Read someone alive,” she says. I don’t have the heart to tell her about Banana Yoshimoto or Jane Smiley.

At home, I find she’s right. I can’t put it down, not until after the first paragraph, which consists of 11 words and is one of the longest sentences in the first chapter. I skip to the end only to discover a new assortment of characters living there as if the story had moved to another city. Like a scolded child I return to page one. It’s all gory-story, and over so fast I absorb none of it as there’s nothing to absorb. A zombie makes a perfect character as it has none and can therefore be anything the author wants it to be. But as my friend is not stupid, I wonder if I’m being too callous and as ignorant of pop literature as I am of how long The Simpsons have been on TV. So I decide to give her book a chance, and put it to the harshest critic I know: my cat.

He answers to no other tag save “Hey, you.” After dozens of tries with such names as Tom or Pete—he makes a good Pete with his speckled face—and Ignatius, I gave in to him. From whatever room I may be in, if I call “Hey, you,” he appears. He’ll meow a bit, rub my leg as if giving comfort, and then leaves to return to his more important cat duties, which mostly involve some sort of snoozing. And it’s where he sleeps that he does his best work as a critic: the bookcase.

For some reason, as if all along expecting him to use it, I left the middle shelf nearly empty putting only the books I feel I’ll never read there in a jumble. It’s amidst this muddle that he builds his nest, shoving out and down to the floor the books that he feels don’t make the most comfy of pillows. At first I thought there was no pattern to his selection, that he treated all manuscripts equally. But it turns out he’s as picky with his bedding as he is with food.

The first reject was William Faulkner, which can only be a mistake, but then he refused Earnest Hemmingway and John Updike, too. I got tired of up picking up Stephen King, John Grisham, et al, and so left them anonymously at the library. And I have no Dan Brown, Clive Cluster, or Anne Rice, while the only Neil Gaiman I gave away before finishing so can’t comment on any of them. There’s no James Michener; no wait, I can see Hawaii from here, but it’s never been tired, or read. He howled at him when I brought home something by James Patterson.

Then again, he’ll snooze peacefully with anything by Mary Stewart or Mark Twain (though I daren’t tell him about Tom Quartz), while trying to get W. Somerset Maugham or D. H. Lawrence away from him is dangerous. I can’t believe he likes Moby Dick, and pouted the whole week it took me to read it. However, I can understand this better than him hoarding all the Virginia Woolf. I had to use James Joyce to entice him to give up Mrs. Dalloway. And why in heaven’s name does he like Sinclair Lewis but not Charles Dickens, and yet uses Jorge Borges as a pillow? My friend’s choices are as arbitrary as my cat’s rejections, and my lit professor was right when he said literature is like wine: it’s all in the nose.

The vet has no answers to this behavior, either. At one time I thought it could be the glue or paper, or both, that brought about this reaction, but after several experiments I’ve discarded this theory, and just accept that I have a weird cat living with me. Could he be the reincarnation of some disgruntled critic?

I have little hope for my friend’s book. My cat had gone out of his way to find and knock out H. P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and Poe even when stacked on another shelf. (How can a cat not like horror?) But I’m right; when I place my friend’s book on the shelf he doesn’t even approach the bookcase, but looks up at me as if I’ve dressed his bed in dirty sheets. I hide it in back of the other authors and then serve him his favorite food as a sop, but I merely get a hiss in return.

What can I tell my friend? I don’t have a fireplace, so there can’t be an accident, and I’ve used the old “neighbor’s dog” trick with Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. (Funny thing, it’s true.) It already hurts that I’ll be telling her the truth, and have nothing like Jamie Ford to mollify her with. (Oops! He’s another living author. Better not let here know.)

copyright © 2012 by mari t.


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