Saturday, September 13, 2008

Death, Stories And Fresh Eggs

My mother used to say that death always comes in threes. This year two local booksellers died, one whom I didn’t know, and Doug Gunn whom I did. I miss the latter at book sales and will no doubt feel it keenly next week when we go to the Wooster AAUW sale. Last year I picked up a book there and heard a voice behind me cry, “Stop! Don’t do it!” I turned around and there was Doug laughing at my near mistake. He’d almost bought the same dud-in-disguise himself the very same morning. The last time I saw Doug was last fall at the Ashland sale when we both crowed with delight when they announced a ban on scanners. Doug was the first “old school” bookseller who made me feel like we were classmates, something I appreciate as much now as I did all those years ago.

I guess my mother was right about death pulling a trifecta though because on Monday Rob Levandoski, writer and bookseller (Two Bird Books of Akron), died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Rob’s third novel “Fresh Eggs” was a 2004 Pulitzer prize nominee. The New York Times called him “a distinctive literary voice deserving to be more widely known.” I agree, which is why I think nature, God, the Universe, whatever, Whoever, got it wrong this time. But of course I don’t get a vote.

Last evening my friend Nancy, who is another local writer, and I went to calling hours at the funeral home. It had been a dark, rainy, glum day straight out of one of those Victorian English movies where they shoot from above, panning a sea of black umbrellas at the graveyard. For two days all Nancy and I could do was email each other endlessly. And yet for all that outpouring of emotion we were still shocked, sad, and so sorry for Carol, his wife of only five years. As we knew it would be, it was a rough go, and there were tears involved (mostly mine as I can cry on a dime), but we thought of a funny story about Rob and laughed our heads off too.

A few years back, Rob, Nancy, and another local writer, Betty Wetzel (who has also since died), were asked to be part of a panel discussion at the library about the writing life. Before it began, the moderator, who would never be accused of having a sense of humor, asked the trio if their publicists burdened them with too many events.

“Are you kidding? I had to sleep with mine just to get this gig,” Nancy deadpanned.

Picking it right up, Rob asked Nancy, “Do you think maybe you could sleep with mine too?”

Betty, a sly wit with a great Olympic laugh, cracked up and pretty soon everybody but the moderator was on a roll. Poor guy -- he looked like he was trapped with three live grenades and no access to the SWAT team, which I guess in a way he was.

I love that. Not only is it quintessential Rob, but it’s also the Ghunga Din of stories. We told it, and for one normal second laughed in the face of death. The best stories are like that though. They embolden us, make us strong, brave, and hopeful that there really is life not only after death, but in the face of it. Somebody famous (I forget who it was and I am not in the mood for research) said, “Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.” I don’t know about genius, but I’ll certainly attest to magic and, most definitely, power. Without the stories, without all the pictures Carol had placed around the room, without the books and newspaper articles, Rob's first press pass, and his old antique typewriter -- all stories in their own right -- how would we ever have dealt with that much sorrow? Stories not only embolden us -- they save us too.
P.S. I just opened Rob's book "Fresh Eggs" and read the inscription dated four years ago. It says, "To Tess, Stop getting rich with the business and start writing again. Rob." I never got to tell him that after a six year dry spell, I finally did.

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