Coconuts, a baby and Gary Gilmore

A few years ago I saw a truck run over a coconut. The coconut exploded dramatically under the steering wheel of the vehicle, although the driver did not notice. (It was a large truck and probably had cut down many large objects in its lifetime.) I took a photo of the coconut — now a shattered haze — as a reminder that paying attention to harmless phenomena, such as loose coconuts, can pay off huge dividends . What had caused my eye to fall on the ‘note’ only nanoseconds before the impact? Why was witnessing so satisfying?

The first question cannot be answered. The second is because the incident answered a question that, while never formulated (“What would happen if a truck ran over a coconut?”), became intriguing retrospectively at the time of resolution. You may be wondering where this anecdote is going, and I’ll tell you: the same jolt of satisfaction occurs when I read certain sentences in novels. These are usually sentences that highlight a character’s psychology that doesn’t match someone I’ve met in real life. As with the stricken coconut, an unimaginable part of reality becomes legible.

Below are a few coconut books for me – and maybe for you too!


Like Emma Woodhouse, Rosamund Stacey is young, handsome, smart and wealthy, with a comfortable home and very little to “trouble or torment her”…until (here we start from Jane Austen) she becomes pregnant after a single coital experience. The child’s father is a man named George, although his name might as well be “???” for everything Rosamund knows about him.

Rosamund, who lives in swinging 1960s London, never decides to have the baby, but she decides not not to have the baby too – and, given the course of nature, a baby follows. The genius of the character Drabble created is that she is a crooked woman: materially advantaged but socially-spiritually deprived. Rosamund’s family is absent; she has no reserves of purpose or love to draw upon. And not even real friends. A dry way of saying it would be to say that Rosamund is the embodiment of western urban secular values, and the question Drabble is asking is: what and where does it take her?

In every copy of the book I’ve owned, I’ve underlined the first sentence: “My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, you might say, made by it.”

Read if you want: Doris Lessing, defiance, the Maurice Pialat movie “À Nos Amours”, the David Leland movie “Wish You Were Here”
Available from: Check the library or your second-hand bookshop of your choice (online or not)

If you’re in the mood for a gigantic book – 1,050 pages in my edition – that has a pull when you see it on your nightstand, this Bud’s is for you. It tells the story of Gary Gilmore, a man who committed murder in Utah and then pushed for the death penalty. (Don’t be mad at me for “messing” it; this thing won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1980, so the statute of limitations on corruption is long gone. That’s only a fraction of the story.)

Elizabeth Hardwick called the book “remarkable for its simplicity, its anonymity.” This is true. There are sentences that make you wonder if Mailer was hypnagogic when he wrote them. (“She felt so nice that she couldn’t believe some of the things she was feeling.”) The entire novel basically reads as if Mailer pressed “find and replace” for every bit of words that emphasized his presence as a stylist, marking his presence as arbitrator all the more exciting.

The story is based on actual events – Mailer called it a “true life” novel – and part of the reading experience involves trying to come up with an evaluative framework for a text that sucks you in while disturbing your moral feelers. Such conversations resurface like clockwork around any work that confuses the conventions of fiction and journalism. (Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer,” the first season of the “Serial” podcast, a million others.) Mailer’s book isn’t patient zero of those questions, but it is — for my money! – the most rewarding.

Read if you want: Crime and Punishment, referring to teeth as “chompers”, “The Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris
Available from: Grand Central

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