Herb Benham: Light or dark, you choose

·4 min read

Jun. 27—A friend was emptying his father's house and gave me two books — from the 5,000 his father owned — by William Styron. The first was "A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth" and then "Lie Down in Darkness."

I opened the brown cover of the latter and someone (I assume my friend's father) had written "Author's 1st Book" on the inside page and then to the right "5," which appeared to be the price he paid for it at one of the used bookstores he used to visit as if he were attending church.

The book starts with a hearse, the impending funeral of a young woman and her grieving parents who can't stand one other.

Death, funeral, marriage on the rocks, that's OK, I'm a big boy. Sometimes you have to go through some stuff in order to get to better stuff.

By page 8, I was giving myself a pep talk. Hang in there buddy, this is William Styron, not Billy, Bill or Willy, the guy your best friend recommended, the author who won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and the St Louis Literary Award, whatever that is.

Thirty pages later, I was lying down in darkness when all I wanted to do was get up and make myself a cup of coffee, a toasted bagel spread with raspberry jam and have some cold, sweet watermelon.

I flipped ahead and spot read. Maybe there was some romance further on in the story. A woman whose bonnet wouldn't stay on her head.

If not romance, how about a tornado that would clean out the whole lot of them, unlikable bunch that they were. Nothing wrong with clearing the decks and starting over except Styron was adding more characters who rivaled his existing stock of characters in unlikability.

I'm not a quitter, I don't like quitting in general but quitting a book is like a literary misdemeanor. I feel as if I am letting people down, people I know, people who believe in me and people who always thought I was a lightweight and couldn't get through a serious book that took some stick-to-it-iveness.

You know you're on your way out when you look for reasons not to read the book that you're reading: It's too late. I haven't read the newspaper for awhile. This might be a good time to study the directions for the Levolor blinds I'm putting up in my office.

Other books call out to you and say, "Read me. I know you want to. Give up on the darkness and come to the light."

For me, the book that spoke the loudest and most insistently was "Heaven's Prisoners," by James Lee Burke, which I had recently received in the mail. Burke is like candy corn or a bag of Cheetos. The next thing you know, your hands are orange but you are happy.

"You can't read everything you want with the time you have left." Sue said.

She might as well have said, "Life's too short to drink bad wine."

I hung in there. For a week. For 160 pages. For a moment when the book might catch fire and exert its gravitational pull on me.

Instead, it went anti-gravity on me so I weakened, I equivocated and I told myself that maybe it wasn't the right time for this book. It was the Seinfeld version of "It's not you, it's me."

I closed the brown cover, I put the book on the shelf and as I did I was flooded with a combination of shame and relief. I was a lightweight but I was at peace with that.

I opened the James Lee Burke and placed my bookmark inside as if I were planting an umbrella in the sand at the beach, marking the compound.

The first sentence read: "I was just off Southwest Pass, between Pecan and Marsh Islands, with the green, whitecapping water of the Gulf Stream to the south and the long, flat expanse of the Louisiana coastline behind me — which is really not a coastline at all but instead a huge wetlands area of sawgrass, dead cypress strung with wisps of moss."

I was home. Not home-home but home in a book I couldn't wait to get to every day.

Lie down in darkness? There is plenty of time for that. Right now, I'm reading for the light.

Herb Benham is a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.