I first heard of Patrick deWitt in 2012, when I participated in a contest to guess the winner of that year’s Morning News Tournament of Books. (Don’t all love stories start out that way, with happenstance?)
I hadn’t read most of the books being judged, so I almost didn’t participate in the competition, the prize for which was a copy of the winning book. But I lucky-guessed my way through the thing, probably based on cover designs and plot synopses, and ended up with a paperback copy of the reigning champ, The Sisters Brothers.
I didn’t know when I read it that I was floundering, that I was about to set down a path of tiny indiscretions that would lead to bigger ones and that I would eventually set fire to some of the most important things I had built over the years.
You know how, when you go through a particularly dark period, the people, places, and media you associate with it become intolerable to you once you’re healthier? I can never set foot in a certain bookstore again. I can’t stand to hear a song from the first Alt-J album or basically anything by the Black Keys. I’ve tried and failed to get back into Doctor Who, and it gives me a twinge just to scroll past it in the Netflix queue.
That should have happened with The Sisters Brothers, and I can’t tell you why it didn’t. My personal brain homunculus must have discerned that it was worth dragging out of the fire.
Whatever the reason, here it sits uncharred, a somehow unpainful reminder of mistakes I never want to make again. A talisman.
Which is why, two years later, when my husband walked me into a tattoo parlor and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” I knew exactly which book I would borrow from.
I flipped through to look at the things I had underlined during my first reading:
We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness.
The creak of bed springs suffering under the weight of a restless man is as lonely a sound as I know.
I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?
I resolved to lose twenty-five pounds of fat and to write her a letter of love and praises, that I might improve her time on the earth with the devotion of another human being.
What would the world be, I thought, without money hung around our necks, hung around our very souls?
‘I will hang him by his own intestines.’ At this piece of dramatic exposition, I could not help but roll my eyes. A length of intestines would not carry the weight of a child, much less a full grown man.
That was perhaps the day I learned there’s a difference between a great line of prose and a great line of prose you’d like to record on your body.
Lucky for me, all I needed was one line, and there was one that perfectly encompassed everything this book means to me: that we can triumph and monumentally fail . . . and that we can forgive ourselves.
|Pardon my disembodied arm.|
I didn’t tell Patrick deWitt any of this when I was standing in front of his signing table on Thursday, wiping my sweaty hands on my jeans and worrying that I had worn the wrong shade of red lipstick.
I and my husband and about thirty-five other people (including John C. Reilly, wearing a jaunty hat!) had just heard him read two excerpts from his third book, Undermajordomo Minor. I couldn’t stop looking at the lighthouse tattooed on his left forearm.
I thought my husband had wandered away as I stood in the signing line, but he had surreptitiously stationed himself in the “Religion and Spirituality” section, where he could snap a candid picture of our interaction (he knew I’d be too shy to ask for one).
I think Patrick asked me how I was doing. I think I said I was doing well. He opened my new hardcover copy of Undermajordomo Minor to the title page, where the bookstore events manager had put a sticky note with my name on it.
“So you’re Meg?”
Fumbling with my copy of The Sisters Brothers while he started to sign. “Yes, that’s me!”
|Yes yes fine, but more important...|
I started to scootch the other book toward him, open to the page where I had underlined that crucial line. “Do you mind signing this one, too? This is my favorite line . . .”
He looked at the open book and then looked up at me a little blankly.
“. . . which is why I had it tattooed on my arm.”
He stared at my outstretched arm for a beat, then looked back up at me, then back down at the book, and then back at my arm, reaching out and touching it lightly just once.
He said “wow” at the same time he was writing it in black marker on the page, but he wrote it with an exclamation point while whispering it almost inaudibly.
He said it was incredible, and I told him I was so happy to meet him and thanked him for coming to L.A. Then we shook hands and I fled for the door.
I will overanalyze that one-minute encounter for weeks, because that’s my way. I’ll worry that I didn’t convey clearly enough how important his work has been to my life, in the least cliché interpretation of that phrase. I’ll worry that when I mentioned this is my only tattoo, I came off as a little obsessive and overeager. I’ll worry and think that this is why I never try to interact with authors or actors or musicians I respect.
But I don’t know. Maybe he needed to see, in the flesh, that his words matter, sometimes in a different way than he intended when he wrote them. Maybe he received the message and the subtext.
Maybe I told him everything he needed to know.