[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever. Read other installments of the series here, get your own copies at Powell's, and explore other series like this on our Special Features page.]
Were I to leave tomorrow on some sort of ocean voyage, I would take along Mat Johnson’s Pym, the book I’m currently balls-deep in, since it would be the only book in my luggage. And it seems an appropriate choice for a high-seas adventure, as Pym is a satirical response to Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a novel about a whaling ship stowaway who gets shipwrecked.
But choosing the book I’m reading now doesn’t keep with the spirit of this idea. And although I’m not the type to pack for an ocean voyage expecting to end up stranded on a deserted isle, I’m always willing to fantasize for (and about?) the dudes here at C4.
I’m tempted to choose a thick, engrossing, thriller-type novel. Stephen King’s The Stand and Dean Koontz’s Strangers jump immediately to mind. I haven’t read either since the mid-90s, but remember being totally consumed by both.
The question is, for how long will I be stranded? If I’m going to be rescued in a week or two, the King or Koontz would be a good pick; the kind of time-passing stories that would help me escape reality. But if I’m stranded for the rest of my life, how long would it take for me to get sick of these books? Both writers do a fair job of character development, but in essence they’re both plot-driven. And how many times can you read the same plot before growing weary of it? By the third read I’d be thinking, “Okay, I get it, Koontz/King. Supervirus, aliens, Nevada, good vs. evil. Now I shall use your book to wipe my ass, because these coconut husks just ain’t cuttin’ it. (Or, actually, these coconut husks are cutting it).”
So, “literary fiction” it is, and again two titles come to mind right away. The first is Peter Matthiessen’s National Book Award-winning Shadow Country, which is a condensed version of his “Watson” trilogy (Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone By Bone). This obese book has been on my list since its 2008 release, and on my bookshelf since my bigger-eyes-than-stomach purchase of the paperback in 2010. I read Killing Mr. Watson a few years back, and it was excellent. But thick. Thick thick thick prose. And Shadow Country’s 892 pages of small type and lengthy paragraphs makes my head spin.
On a deserted isle, though, with nothing to do but try to survive, I think I could pull it off.
But what if I didn’t like the book?
The odds are long, considering my infatuation with anything Mr. Matthiessen writes. His nonfiction is stellar (he’s won the National Book Award for both fiction and nonfiction), but his novels—in particular At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga—are masterful. I wouldn’t guess Shadow Country to be any different.
But there’s no guarantee. And in the end, if I’m stranded for life on a deserted island I want a book I know I can read again and again and again, with little in the way of diminishing returns.
So it’s The Fool’s Progress. Game, set, match.
I wrote a brief summation of this title a couple years ago on this very site. I imagine that most of you can quote it verbatim from memory, but for any new C4 readers, here’s what I had to say about The Fool’s Progress for our “Literary Beach Reads” series:
The great Ed Abbey called this book his “fat masterpiece.” Fat it is, checking in at just under 500 pages. Read them all. In order. And then read them all again, because this is my all-time favorite novel, and it very well may become yours, too.
Published in 1988, this is Abbey’s swan song, a book he poured himself into for years. It begins in “the dim inane of Tucson, Arizona,” where Henry Holyoak Lightcap, whose wife has just split on him for the last time, raises a .357 Magnum and blasts away at his loud-running Frigidaire.
Henry, with nothing left to lose and hiding a dark secret inside himself, decides to embark on one final trip back home to Virginia, an odyssey that takes him from his beloved Southwest through the middle of the country and into the Appalachia of his youth. In his dying truck with his dying dog, Henry stops to say last goodbyes to friends along the way as he reflects on a life full of love found and lost, authority scorned at every turn, and an abiding love for and awe of nature.
My little sister recommended this book to me, so I always think of her when I read it. And all alone on a deserted island, I could use some family reminders. I also took this one with me on an ill-advised solo road trip to Dubuque, Iowa—but that wasn’t the book’s fault.
So it’s The Fool’s Progress in a landslide. And in case of real landslide, this one could protect me—it is indeed a hefty object. Hell, I may just pack this book next time I head out on an ocean voyage. Even if it’s not an ill-fated one.