The Irish Tendency

I often think about books I haven’t read,
small gems and ragged masterpieces whose rainy day has not yet come. I have
removed some of their dust jackets in preparation for the serious bout I
cannot, for some reason, schedule. I have even, as if managing bright students
who always raise their hands, shoved others into an artificial
prominence. “Look at me!” I’m having them say, but to no avail.

Some of these books I have started and put down. I’ve found, over the years, that it’s harder to take up an old commitment than to begin anew. It’s that phone call you always want to make, but never do – even if you’ve promised the person in question. The book sits there, reproaching you. You sidle away from it, like someone who has jilted you – when, in fact, you’ve done all the jilting and can’t face your swinish behavior and moral decay. This is a good book you’re ignoring. And yet you can’t stop. At this point, it’s habit and obligation – very hard things to break.

Not all of these books so beckon. Others I’ve simply forgotten – a bookstore pact I have failed to keep. What if I’d written these books myself? I’m willfully forgetting them. I’ve launched a campaign. I want to kill something in me – or in them. Or is it just the natural human tendency to move on, which means that things you’ve put aside are likely to stay there. It’s not your fault. It’s just the way things are.

I have the Irish tendency for regret. I will look at the wide crockery bowl in the kitchen, notice a neglected orange, and bemoan its outcast state. I ate an orange yesterday, but not this one. How could I be so insensitive? I could have eaten both. But no, I was crazed with impulse. I’m a taker and a user. A selfish git. An unredeemable blackguard. I have become, unwittingly and without malice aforethought, a one-orange guy.

My Irish tendency will not read Finnegans Wake, though it’s not among
the unread books I’ve been mooning over. No, it’s buried deep in the vaults of
a failed imagination and a wretched sense of fealty to my forebears. I
loved Ulysses, but, in terms of difficulty, Ulysses is like a pulp novel. It has people and episodes and funny
little bits you can chew over as you’re reading. Finnegans Wake is the boot-camp I have refused to attend. And even
if Finnegans Wake is nowhere to
be seen, it haunts me. An unfinished project. So many leaves unraked. A bastard
episode that turns my guts to ice, if not acid. I will die before I read Finnegans Wake. I will die without
ingesting its polylingual puns and playful digressions. My ashes will be
scattered without a single page that might, in whatever fiery crucible such
things turn up in, be shown at Eternity’s Coming-out Party. Extinction is a
forever-thing. In it is engraved all of the projects I have started, but put
aside. All of the love affairs I wanted to have, but was too cowardly to throw
myself off the ledge. All the broken sentences I have written. All
the people I have failed, both obscurely and spectacularly. The places I
didn’t go; the ethnic cuisine I wouldn’t sample; the tree I wouldn’t climb
because of its higher branches. I’ve missed Morocco and Majorca and Milwaukee. The places you go are the places you know.
Oh, the lacerating eloquence of that phrase! It means that we are all creatures
of habit, sit-beside-the-fire lumps, couch-potatoes for whom the remote button
is forever out of reach. Because we don’t seek out new places and
sensations, we are nowhere-bound. We live in a sort of limbo, with boundaries
that are set in stone. We appeal to gods that do not listen, lovers we should
have had, fictional characters that have grown tired of our pleas. We are not
drifting. We never set out! We are not lost because we stay at home. We have
regrets because they accumulate, like so many newspapers that wind up inside of
an empty lot, willy-nilly. We are not masters of our own fate; we are lifers
who don’t wish to serve. We are idiots whose tales are stricken from the
record. Though we may lose, our misaimed throws are not recorded.

Life is pathetic, we say, only if we make it so.
Gifts are wasted only if they are unexploited. Vows that could have been heard
sit idle on the tongue because to say them might have risked something that
could not, at the time, be surrendered.

And once the spark of youth is gone, we settle
in. No, we settle. Yes, that is what
we do in life: we settle.

Yet Finnegans
Wake
is that unseen exception. The books I haven’t read are on that
shelf and they haunt me. The lesser novels that are said to be good. The
travel books that might get me off my duff before it’s too late. The pithy
essays and philosophical treatises. The great sprawling histories that tell of
who we were when we were not who we are now – which, in my opinion, is the way
we should always be. The Jacksonian Empire. Who knows of it today? But there it
is in a book, waiting to be in the world again. Andrew Jackson, another
Irishmen whose forebears came to this country without a dime in their pockets
or a lick of sense. Risk-takers and up-at-five-in-the-morning lovers of life
and pretty women. Guys who said no, but wouldn’t answer to it. Women who were
strong, but also sensuous. Nobody looked for safety nets because they were too
busy daring. They didn’t expect
fairness. All they asked was to rise in the darkness of the morning so
that they could get a jump on the other fellow. I don’t get up until the sun
awakens me. Then I stir without much sense of whatever possibilities may lurk
beyond my door. Or even inside of me. When I go to the grocery, I wait timidly
in line. Then I walk home, stepping around obstacles that may or may not
include other human beings. My unassertive syllables blend in
with a babel that speaks out of turn because it cannot seize a single
moment for itself. My flabby muscles are conduits of shame, reminders of
the palely loitering mentality that feeds them sob stories and lame excuses and
all sorts of under-nourishing things.

The sun should never rise for me again. I am a worthless
piece of dung whose ambition is not to live, but to wither away. I
could have served, but I was permitted to be lazy. And now look at me. I can’t
even ask an old book to sit on my lap while I draw
its contents into my system and discard it without thanks. Yes, a
worthless piece of dung. I wish I’d just eaten that orange. Perhaps things
would be different. But it is too late. Too late to do anything. Too late.