What is it about books? I buy them in good faith, intrigued by a title or its cover art; then it sinks by the bedside to the bottom of a growing heap of even newer purchases. Somewhere in there a borrowed book totally disappears, has to be replaced, and then magically surfaces two days after you “returned” the new one.
Some books lie in plain sight–unread–for months, even years, until you accidentally pick one up and read straight through in the next four hours. Others can inspire us from Day One. The problem at our house is the sheer number of books compounded by the absence of a librarian; finding anything is such an archaeological dig that it’s often easier to buy a second copy. That’s what happened with Little Lives by John Howland Spyker (pseudonym of the late Richard Elman [1934-1997]). I bought mine in 1978 and now have at least three copies seeded around the house.
In the spirit of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Spyker delineates a desperate county in upstate New York through brief biographical sketches of its citizenry. Colorful characters all; denizens instantly recognized; some of them the product of pitiful genetic material. When Agincourt began to develop, I had long consigned Spyker’s Little Lives to the background soundtrack of my life. It has surfaced once again, however, a valuable reference and counterpoint for the sketches written by my friend Howard Tabor.
The hardback of 1978 and paperback the following year are its only published forms. It’s especially sad to see many ex-library copies being offered on abebooks.com; copies displaced by newer, more exciting titles–in someone’s estimation. If a copy has been deleted from your library’s shelves in the benighted interest of contemporaneity, I thought you might enjoy a glimpse at Spyker’s style.
Cack The Sissy
Born in a pesthole, sired by a lout and a jade, and treated most cruelly by both throughout his childhood, Cack the Sissy grew up in our midst to wear his nickname of opprobrium like a war decoration.
He never went to schools, and could neither read nor write.
He was ill-housed, and ill-fed, and sometimes was forced to wear women’s clothes to keep his frail body warm.
He was known to relieve himself in the church pews, and he pestered some of the little boys.
Great sport was made of Cack by others; he was called “jack-o’-lantern face” and “moon boy,” “twit” and “girly.”
Once he was taken in by a farmer on the Vaughn Road to do chores, but the man lost patience with his squeamishness, and filthy traits.
He finally found work at the Hercules plant, but fell (or was pushed) into a vat of fulminate and disolved almost to the bone.
Or how about Bonar Thomas?
He was a Welshman. He raised sheep. He lived alone. The schoolboys called him Boner.
I know very little else about the man except he had a brother with an unpronounceable name near Amsterdam, and he was trampled by an ox once in the Romaree Corral.
Some of us will leave behind little more than this.