Five (sort of) Books That Changed My Life: Jedidiah Ayres
I have been struggling to land on a good Five _____ That Changed My Life for this here Crimespree blog, and have a couple half-written and totally overwrought pieces that I’m abandoning – Five Christian Rock Albums That Changed My Life and The Story of My Life in Five Dead Pets – but with the recent passing of my friend and inspiration Cortright McMeel, I’ve been reflecting on how much his publication Murdaland magazine changed my life. So, books. Just plain ol’ reliable books, is my piece.
Murdaland Issues 1 and 2– posi-fucking-lutely changed my life. It crystallized the concept I would channel my own writing efforts into for years to come. This badass literary crime journal took crime seriously, took writing seriously, and didn’t take shit from anybody. No glorifying cool criminals, no bestowing sainthood on any detectives, nobody getting away clean. Thrills could only be found on the runaway trains hurtling toward consequence, and those were never long-lived, just like the journal they were published in (so potent it only lasted 2 issues). Blackly humorous, bleakly insightful and beautifully wrought. I’d have voted the McMeel/Langnas ticket any day.
But lemme back the hell up to a darker change in my life…
My Antonia by Willa Cather – As a kid, I always loved reading – always had something I was digging and getting a lot out of UNTIL middle school. Until I repeatedly had to put down what I wanted to read in order to push through something required by the curriculum. After picking up some kick-ass giant science fiction tome I’d already had to restart TWICE in between bouts of exceptionally dull classics foist upon me, and finding that, once again, I was going to have to start over because I couldn’t remember all the intricacies of the plot and characters, I gave up. Just stopped reading anything ever. I wish I could remember what book was the final straw, but I’ve selected one that I do remember HATING. Sorry, Willa, but your book blows. Like, with teeth, badly blows. How much did I hate this book? I stopped reading anything – ANYTHING – until I’d squeaked through the Arkansas public school system and nobody could, the fuck, tell me shit about what to read. Let’s face it, I was a little cretin at that age – as, frankly, are most boys – but the cure for cretinism is not to cram high culture down their throats – it just re-enforces their I-don’t-belong self-image – but rather to… Hell, I don’t know. I grew out of it eventually, but surely there must have existed a way to keep my enthusiasm for literature lit without smothering it with Lit. My aversion to all things Antonia goes so far as to immediately drop ANY book where characters walk through a wheat field.
Moving on to something more positive –
My Life by Marc Chagall/A Child’s Nightdream by Oliver Stone – yeah, that Oliver Stone. So after high school ends and I find myself a professional dishwasher making $5/hour 20-hours a week, living first in a mildew-factory without laundry, groceries, a car, or TV or even a telephone, I worked on building up those reading muscles again. And somehow… these two unlikely books with their rather beautiful, lyrical stream of consciousness prose styles capture my attention and don’t let go. Damned if today I could draw you a timeline of Chagall’s life story or give you any plot-points from Stone’s biographical Vietnam novel, but their impressionistic style sure painted some vivid pictures that excited and terrified me. Gave me a real jones for reading poetry for a while, and prepared the way for me to fall in love with the crime and gothic authors I love today who marry beautiful prose to compelling stories.
Gun With Occasional Music/The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem – The former convinced me that I could, and absolutely should, write a book, like right now. I finished reading it, laid it down and picked up a notebook and pen in one fluid motion. I think I wrote twenty pages of my first novel on the same day I finished reading Lethem’s debut novel – a dystopian, hardboiled PI yarn, which is so much better than you’re imagining. And the latter convinced me that I’d never ever be a writer worth reading, and nearly talked me into stopping altogether – it’s a memoir composed in essays centered around personally significant phenomena in pop-culture, and as trite as that may sound, as clever and hipsterish as you’re probably conjuring it reading, there is more genuine emotion (let alone insight, let alone food for thought) contained in every detail (the immaculate composition, the chronology, the criss-cross of themes) here than in a shoebox full of Hallmark Cards. Yeah, maybe I cried. On the other hand maybe shut up.
Rilke on Black/White Jazz by Ken Bruen and James Ellroy – I don’t remember which came first Black or White, but damn if they didn’t land a one-two combination that forever fucked my sense of grammatical correct-ish-iveness. The stories they told were, yeah, dark and full of deeply fucked up characters following astoundingly bad impulses to the end of the line, but more than that – in both books the prose stole the shows. The authors took liberties with language that’d give the most promiscuous poet pause and cause uptight teaching types to tsk tsk tic-like all the way to their tenure-tracked tombs. The story is important, but the words, my friend, the words are what separate us from the daytime teevees, and probably the best-seller lists.
Jedidiah Ayres’ fiction has appeared in several books, magazines and online journals, he is the Author of Fierce Bitches and A F*ckload of Shorts as well as being the co-editor of the fiction anthologies Noir at the Bar and D*CKED. He is also the screenwriter of Mosquito Kingdom. He keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.