WHENEVER I HEAR the word "dissolute," I have an immediate mental image of a fat lady sitting in an armchair in a sunlit room, steadily munching from a box of chocolates while she reads a novel.
What makes the picture dissolute isn't the lady's weight, or the box of chocolates, or even the novel, but the fact that the room is sunlit. She's reading in the daytime, therefore. Not at night, when her work is finished, but in the middle of the day. Reading fiction, in broad daylight! When she doesn't even have the flu!
In 1977, there were (I think) seven new pieces of fiction that I found compelling enough to read in the daytime. That is, I would start a book in the evening, as usual, and lay it aside when I went to bed; but the next morning while I was dressing I kept sneaking another paragraph. And as soon as the children were off to school, instead of beginning work I drifted back to the book. (I tend to sit well forward in my chair during these lapses, pretending to myself that I'm not really here for the day. I find the dog's knowing, disgusted, eye-rolling gaze, as she lies with her nose in the rug, downright irritating.)
First, there was John Cheever's Falconer (Knopf, $7.95) - a surprise, in at least two ways. After the elegant Wapshots, the dreamy swimmers in their suburban swimming pools, a prison novel? But more surprising still was that from the gritty realities of prison life (drugs, homosexuals, casual brutality, numbing loneliness) such a delicate and moving fantasy could be woven. Falconer was often disturbing to read, but there is something luminous about it that made me feel profoundly hopeful after I'd laid it down.
Then Beryl Bainbridge's A Quiet Life (Braziller, $7.95). Bainbridge has always impressed me with her two very special skills; her knack for depicting the airless worlds of people grimly habituated to each other, and her ability to find, in this misery, something startlingly comic. But till now, the two skills kept pulling each other off course. A book would either veer toward the horrifying, or else cause us to laugh so hard that we forgot to feel. In A Quiet Life , there's a perfect balance. This story of an unhappy English family struggling along just after the Second World War is heartbreaking and also very funny, in just the right proportions.
For sheer fascination, I don't think anything this year topped Jonathan Penner's Going Blind (Simon & Schuster, $7.95). I felt utterly absorbed by the hero's first, eerily beautiful intimations of his blindness, and the ways he learned to cope with it, and the ingenious lengths to which he went in order to hide it from his colleagues (counting steps, everywhere; surreptitiously touching the glassless face of his watch and then announcing the time; but greeting a guest in pitch dark because it never occurred to him to switch on the lights). I read Going Blind months ago, but still, even now, when I am carrying out some common-place task, I often find myself thinking what it would be like to do this blind. I almost feel I have been blind, at some point in the past. That's quite a feat for a writer to accomplish.
And John Casey's An American Romance (Atheneum, $9.95) - a wide, grand book about two lovers racketing around the country, now in New York City, now in a commune in Iowa. I sank right into it; I wasn't seen for a day and a half, and came out foggy and befuddled. Its strength is the sweep and texture of the writing, but its special appeal for me lay in the meticulously drawn character of its hero; a genuinely good man, patient and conscientious and methodical, the kind who always puts his tools away when he's through with them.
I wouldn't have expected, from the sound of it, to be so fond of John Rolfe Gardiner's Unknown Soldiers (Dutton, $8.95). Small-town patriotism, complex wheelings and dealings in the scrap paper industry - they're not usually the stuff of my favorite novels. But Unknown Soldiers is lovingly, movingly written, and it has a wonderful adolescent boy in it; believably surly, not at all precious or supersensitive, and rushing headlong toward self-destruction in various sad and comical ways.
Collecting someone's short stories in a single volume can be something like springing open the curtains on the Wizard of Oz at work. You watch the writer tackle first one situation and then another and another, in rapid succession, and you begin to hear the creaking of his wheels and gears. But Peter Taylor's In the Miro District and Other Stories (Knopf, $7.95) is an exception. I suppose this writing is what some people like to call Southern": there's a strong sense of place and of history; the manners are graceful, the confrontations oblique. But more important is the fact that Peter Taylor is a superb craftsman, and there is something complete and fully rounded about his stories that made me feel well nourished when I'd finished them.
My last, and maybe best, day of dissolution was spent with Toni Morrison. Her Song of Solomon (Knopf, $8.95) is a stunningly beautiful book about a black family of obscure origins, often at odds with itself, living in the North. I would call the book poetry, but that would seem to be denying its considerable power as a story. Whatever name you give it, it's full of magnificent people, each of them complex and multilayered, even the narrowest of them narrow in extravagant ways. They are still haunting my house. I suspect they'll be with me forever.
I'm experiencing a moment of panic, here. Have I left something out? It seemed a longer year than most, and richer in good books. They tend to interweave in my mind. I've been to prison, gone blind, moved to Iowa. I'm not fat and I don't like chocolates, but I do own an armchair, and here I sit.