Every time he overnights in our home, Sparrow – who’ll be reading at Woodstock’s Golden Notebook on Tuesday, October 5 from the three new books he’s publishing this autumn – gets on my nerves a little. He wakes on his own schedule, brings his own food, takes forever at everything. But I have to admit that his total and infectiously smart honesty, out of which his annoying habits come, is a key to his one-of-a-kind writing.
Sparrow is a tonic for these discomforting days. And very possibly one of the great artists of our time, although such praise wouldn’t mean more than a crow’s caw to him.
The three books, which this year’s pandemic have forced into a near-simultaneous release, are Small Happiness & Other Epiphanies, from Monkfish Book Publishing Company of Rhinebeck; The Princeton Diaries, from Vinal Publishing; and Trump Verse, available from Alte.
Small Happenings is a collection of aphorisms, thoughts, observations, witty thoughts, and short poems all presented as a guide of sorts to better living. Many of the pieces started life as essays for Ulster Publishing’s special sections. All the writing, in short bursts, is what results from the author’s careful existence, honed to take in, appreciate, distill and pull wisdom from all that life offers us. It follows in a tradition of pithy pieces by the uncommon likes of Andy Warhol and even Maarlene Dietrich. Yet it’s utterly original, and always charming in its gentle embrace of dream diets (where one eats in one’s dreams, which get cultivated for better digestion), aging and partnership, and the pleasure of opening one to observation.
“I have a ‘study,’ a small room in which I’m sitting at the moment, writing on my computer. Last night I brought a guitar into my study and leaned it against the bookshelf. This morning, as I came here, I noticed how a guitar changes a room — the mellow dignity it radiates. (It happens that this is an utterly out-of-tune, seven-string guitar that Violet, my wife, bought in Russia in 1971.)”
“To achieve happiness, your life must have a purpose. I’m sorry, but this is true. How do you find a purpose in life? Here’s one way: take a simple 15-minute walk and see if the universe offers you guidance. Quite likely this whole concept is nonsensical — the universe doesn’t ‘offer guidance.’ But try it anyway. What have you got to lose? Fifteen minutes?”
Each of Sparrow’s Small Happiness pieces is an epiphany, but also a perfect amalgamation of literary history and his sort of humor. It’s poetic and philosophical but not necessarily lyrical and weighty. Or maybe vice-versa. It’s refreshingly original. Surprisingly, it holds up as a linear reading experience as well as something to dive in to willy-nilly.
The Princeton Diary, meanwhile, is a novella, a Sparrow novella about a Greek writer filling in for a famous writer who’s canceled his four-year stint at the noted Ivy League school. Think of Nabokov’s Pnin refracted through disjointed thoughts and observations regarding doo wop and bird calls, regrets about a failed marriage, and an embarrassed and somewhat embarrassing friendship/standing coffee-shop date with the prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates. You learn enough about the diarist to care for the author as he struggles to write something of meaning, and enough about Oates to wonder whether there is indeed any way to gauge writing on a literary level that’s true to the more pressing aesthetics and meanings regular life offers.
“When I tell a lie. I am always caught. It’s uncanny. That’s why I started writing fiction: it’s the only safe place I can dispense untruths”
“When I read the world’s scriptures, I’m ashamed for the human race. The gods we’ve created are a bunch of willful, defiant babies – pretending to be Fathers.”
“I find Joyce Carol’s novels turgid and repetitive; I’ve never made it through one. (One reason I write novellas is that most novels strike me as far too long.) For me, her greatest work of art is herself, this birdlike 74-year-old with a child’s eyes, perched on the edge of a chair, looking alternately like a princess and a servant.”
The Princeton Diary is another quietly effective, elegantly funny and emotionally engaging work that leaves one both feeling comforted and feeling brightened. It’s another series of bread crumbs that might lead us to a new form of literary realization that doesn’t need best-seller status to survive; that’s closer to Tweets.
Trump Verse, finally, is closer to classic Sparrow: short poems that mix up the witty and the outraged and outrageous, that draws out the ways so many of us have been panicked by this bully among us. But balancing the author’s characteristic simple verse are leaps into various ancient forms that lift the whole to another level of poetry this time around.
There is one way
to defeat Trump:
get balanced by the cynicism of one of several false paeans:
O Grand Thumper! You Mighty Thumping Trump!
You need never bother to read —
not when the Word flows through You
like the tweets of birds at the break of dawn.
The Bible in your hands keeps the Libtards confounded;
your sneer keeps the Antifa in Fantasyland;
your steely gaze keeps the DSA at bay.
Yet God’s Word demands that sinners be put to death,
and You are His mightiest servant!
Let them howl “Hypocrisy!” as you scatter them from your path!
Let them shout “Racist!” as you show them which lives really matter!
Let them cry“Fascist!” as you rain death
on their irresponsible democracy!
Scattered, now throughout Sparrow’s works are rough drawings, as powerful in their simplicity as everything else he does. Think in terms of James Thurber. Something brilliant’s afoot here.
We should feel honored to have been reading this Phoenician friend’s writings all these years. And happy to not only put up with his eccentricities as a guest – and maybe even adapt them for ourselves – given the wisdom it’s allowed him to produce and share. All hail!
Sparrow, author of Small Happiness & Other Epiphanies, will be doing a virtual book launch with The Golden Notebook in Woodstock on Monday, October 5 at 5 p.m. Join Zoom Meeting ID 954 4359 6853, Passcode: 543851. Robert Burke Warren will be playing at the event. He will also be doing a Zoom Talk for Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook on Saturday, October 24.