November 25, 2015 | The Crew
My wife and I just spent the weekend going through all of our books, getting rid of the ones we’ll never read again, the grad-school textbooks we never read in the first place, the thrift-store finds that will return to the thrift store where some young couple will buy them and eventually return them to another thrift store with browner pages and more smudges and softer spines.
In this way, we live on. In this way, thrift stores live on.
What we were left with we divided by category—fiction, nonfiction, reference/writing, poetry, and science fiction. The poetry belongs to Katherine. The sci-fi is mine. It’s a not-insubstantial collection with a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov and Vonnegut, and lots weirdo Cold War-era stuff that—like The Day the Earth Stood Still—deals with humanity’s apparent need to make bigger and badder weapons that paradoxically make us and the solar system both safer and more imperiled. That’s the kind of stuff I’m into—out-there stories with super-high stakes and a twist of odd-ball humor. Fiction—both reading it and writing it—has always been an escape for me, and I tend to measure a story’s worth by how convincingly it breaks from reality.
Imagine my astonishment, then, when a book about a down-on-his-luck grandfather, his oddball grandson, and a horse has had me telling most everybody with ears to hear it to read it. Briefly, Joe Meno’s Marvel and a Wonder is about a widower and his all-but-orphaned grandson who raise chickens on an Indiana farm and who, by luck of a clerical error, inherit a beautiful and fast horse. The horse wins races and money and, for once in his long life, the grandfather believes he’s caught a break. Then the horse is stolen, the grandfather is shot, and, the odd pair set out to take back what’s theirs. Given the description, this was not my cup of tea.
It was, however, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Which leads me to Why?
I think I’m at an age now—31, settling down, watching old people get older, watching new babies come into the world—that stories about grandfathers and teenagers make me equally, though differently, emotional. I hear my grandparents and my parents (who will eventually be grandparents) talk about how things used to be, that things used to be better, that you didn’t have all this violence, that people are too insensitive these days, that people are too sensitive these days, etc. While I disagree on a lot of those points, I sense a real sorrow, a real longing for the Golden Days. It’s sad to think there used to be a trolley that ran from Center Point to Downtown Birmingham, or that there’s no such thing as a local grocery store anymore, or that kids could walk to and from school. I’d like those things.
When I think of the Golden Days, I don’t think of the past. I’m not old enough yet. Instead, I think of what’s to come. What world can we make for our kids? How can we have a thriving, diverse city with a trolley anybody can use, or a grocery store whose owners live in the neighborhood, or a decent school just a few blocks from our house?
So, while reading Marvel and a Wonder—a story set in America’s breadbasket populated with old men, shuttered storefronts, and rudderless teenagers, all the casualties of Big Agriculture—I was caught in a melancholy place between nostalgia and fear, frustrated that the grandfather’s generation let the world be gutted of everything decent and hopeful that things would get better. And I felt what both the grandfather and the grandson felt: This horse is going to change everything.
Meno’s writing is a mix of the best parts about Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck—a tender look at broken humanity among desolate landscapes beautifully painted. Despite it being a book about a horse, it’s the language that kept me up late reading, tearing up more often than I care to admit because of this ache that either all was lost or everything good was right around the corner.
Marvel and a Wonder will stick around. It won’t wind up in the stacks at the Goodwill. But there’s something appropriate about reading this book the same weekend I was loading up my car with things to take to the thrift store, because thrift stores are temples of hope. You had big plans for all the stuff you accumulated over the years—the fondue pot, the Encyclopaedia Birtannica, the ShakeWeight®—but you don’t throw any of that away, you donate it, because maybe you only used the fondue pot for Mac-and-Cheese, and maybe you never applied yourself and read through every volume of the Encyclopaedia, and maybe you never got rid of that under-arm flab, but somebody out there can.
The thrift store is the nexus of the bygone world we never fully appreciated and the fraying-edged hope that good stewards will take our place.
Marvel and a Wonder is a melancholy book. And the thrift store is a melancholy place. But that doesn’t keep us from poking around.