In the mid-1980s I worked at one of the world’s truly awful bookstores, a dispiriting outpost on the UC Berkeley campus run by an ex-Marine who said he didn’t need to read books to know how to sell them, and who was baffled when our new shipment of Machiavelli’s The Prince didn’t have a movie tie-in cover with Purple Rain. He was sure this was such a lost opportunity.
The morning after the store burned down, I walked through the ankle-deep runoff and found among the charred or waterlogged overstock one hardcover copy of a book that, I admit, I immediately stole. I’d paid attention to it every day of my employment because it never left the shelf, no one ever moved it, it nonetheless mysteriously got progressively shopworn, and we never even returned it when we should have for credit. It had the most ridiculous cover I’d seen on a work of literary fiction: a naïve-style drawing, like Glen Baxter without the irony, of two guys in hats regarding a cone on a table. This was of course Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis, and I stole it because it was waterlogged and singed, and the fire had spared what had to be the stupidest book in the universe. I was fond at dinner parties of whipping it out to show what sort of things God left behind. In other words, I was about as misguided as the ex-Marine bookstore manager, and in other, other words, if you’re feeling generous I was as wrongheaded as a Charles Portis character.