The healing power of howlers and books

(To read El Gringo Feo’s Costa Rica Diary from the beginning, start here.)

Wednesday, September 12

Well, it’s been 48 hours since I tore up my ankle, and I’m encouraged by the fact that it hasn’t gotten worse. I didn’t expect much improvement in the first few days, but I figured if things degraded I’d need to head to a doctor. It’s swollen and hurts, but not excessively so on either count. I can hobble down to the kitchen to make food, and I’m spending most of my time reading and hanging with the howlers. It was almost as if the monkeys knew I needed a friend. They came around yesterday and hung out in the trees right next tot he Treehouse, where I watched them for over an hour as I felt sorry for myself. Then they woke me this morning and graced me with a few more hours of their antics before moving on via the arboreal highway through the jungle. They’ll be back.

I’ve already chewed through three books. The first, Cherry, is by first-time author Nico Walker, who I believe is doing time for the antics described in the book. The New York Times talked it up when it was published, and while it’s interesting it also annoyed the hell out of me. It’s a first-person account of a feckless kid from Cleveland who drifts into drugs and then the Army, where he ends up serving as a medic in Iraq circa 2005. (The troops call newbies “Cherries” when they first arrive in Iraq, thus the title of the book.) His descriptions of Iraq are mind-numbing. He returns after his tour and quickly gets caught up in opioids, leading to a career as a heroin addict and bank robber. I’m assuming the narrative is largely based on his actual experiences since he, you know, is doing time for holding up banks. The narrator isn’t terribly likable (even though he says he revised it in the editing process to make the narrator more likable), and the details of the junky life actually get pretty damned boring, or more accurately, predictable. If you’ve read one account of junkies being useless lowlives, you’ve read them all and this one does nothing to diverge from that pattern. (I’d much sooner listen to Ike Reilly’s “Heroin”; same general idea but distilled into 3 minutes and 20 seconds of heartbreak.) His Iraq experiences are interesting, but it leaves you hoping his account is specific to the types of people he gravitated toward and not all the young men and women who served there. It’s extremely depressing. But while he links his service to his addiction, I’m not convinced he wouldn’t have become exactly what he did without ever having seen the horrific stuff he witnessed in Iraq. He was heading down that path anyway, and the Army really just delayed his trajectory for a few years.

Next up was E.M Forster’s A Room with a View.As I’ve been reading and listening to lectures on fiction writing, Forster’s Aspects of the Novelpops up frequently so I downloaded it under a public domain license via Project Gutenberg. While I was digging up Aspects, I stumbled across Room so I downloaded that, too. It’s an interesting look at class, social norms, gender and mores in Edwardian England. I liked it much better than I’d anticipated. Very well written and plotted.

And finally, I’ve launched into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Spring. I just finished the second section — where he describes his wife’s depression and overdose — with tears in my eyes. Thus far, the book is an extended letter to his infant daughter. It’s also part of a suite of books he’s created, I guess you could call it his version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. After Spring, I’ll probably chew through Autumn, Winter and Summer. I’ve taught Knausgaard to journalism students (a piece he did for The New York Times magazine on the doctors who do brain surgery) and I’ve read the first installment of his autobiography, My Struggle: Book 1. There’s a dark Proustian quality to his writing that I find irresistible, mining the mundane for large, metaphysical statements about the human condition. But without the pretense that the sentence I just wrote implies.