Among my bad ideas, reading James Kelman's How Late it Was, How Late during my week (hardly sufficient time) of post-vasectomy recovery stands tallest. It's a fantastic novel, one that would, oddly, be easier to tackle while prepping for my first colonoscopy years later, but it offered no comfort while I was on the couch with an ice pack resting on my testicles. Too stream-of-consciousness to cut through my ongoing fatigue, real or imagined. And you ought not to fuck with a book where the narrator gets his eyesight beaten out of him in the early pages, not right after someone's monkeyed with your reproductive system. Better to stick with anything less visceral.
I might have chosen a better book to see me through the days of lower-abdominal ache and post-op bleeding than my second choice, As I Lay Dying. I'd read it in my 20s, decades before the snip-snip, but had been wanting confirmation that my ranking of Faulkner as this country's finest novelist was not some callow estimation. And maybe the title would further elicit sympathy from my wife. The book is as great as ever, but as with the Kelman, modernist wordplay and sore balls don't mix.
I'd read Sergei Dovlatov's The Suitcase before my vasectomy, which made a big impression; I ripped off his novel's framework and used it for my second book The Soft Lunacy. It surprised me I'd never heard of the guy before stumbling on his books at Powell's on 57th Street. Such a funny, economical writer with a deceptively simple style. Not the sort of Russian to test your muscles, which is what I told my wife after I asked her to find me some Dovlatov among our shelves.
"No Russian novels!" she said, concerned their stereotypical thickness would be too much for my recovering body.
"He's not that kind of Russian," I said.
And indeed, he isn't, though I sense he is not atypical of a sort of 20th century Soviet with his tendency to hold back just enough while saying exactly, and only, what needs to be said. Less is more. This isn't Tolstoy basking in the luxury of aristocracy. Dovlatov is a seasoned circumnavigator of bureaucracy. Or perhaps "casualty" is a better word to use—his books outline no shortage of apparatchik obstacles, and he was unable to publish in his homeland outside of the samizdats, but the plain-spoken absurdity he documents in The Compromise makes it difficult to think of him as a victim.
Reading The Compromise helped me forget that only a few days prior I'd spent the better part of an hour on my back while a man fiddled with my bits. Sure, I'd elected this procedure, but it was nevertheless weird conversing with a stranger while he held my life in his hands, so to speak. I was able to put aside memories of my shaven scrotum and the sight of the urologist stitching me up, pulling thread higher, higher, then back down to knit up the incision. The bruising I was sure was never going away... forgotten as I sped through Dovlatov's prose, effortless even in translation.
The right books at the right times. Stephen King in my mid-teens, Kerouac right after. Vonnegut, my favorite literary uncle, in my 20s. Joyce too soon, then right when I needed him. Woolf and Winterson's lessons in style over plot. Cabrera Infante as I travelled Europe, Bolaño in Mexico. Ciaran Carson's reminder of why I love poetry; Medbh McGuckian to show me how little I knew. Ali Smith when I was on the train and needed to distract myself from yet another fucking delay. And Dovlatov as I tended to my fragile testicles and did my best not to exploit the situation.
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