Lick your fingers, turn the page
On Dwight Garner's The Upstairs Delicatessen
I am grateful to Dwight Garner for many things. His friendship; his sharp editing, first at the publication formerly known as Salon, and then at the New York Times Book Review; his generous hospitality at many meals, in restaurants and in the houses and apartments he’s inhabited since the mid-‘90s when we first met; the privilege of watching his two graceful, kind, self-possessed children Penn and Hattie grow into graceful, kind, self-possessed adults; and the friendship of his wife, Cree, one of the people I adore most in this disappointing world, my fellow eye-roller at bullshit and in social situations my antisocial soulmate. (Everything I feel close to about Cree is in her Lights On, Rats Out, one of my favorite contemporary memoirs.)
Now with the publication of his memoir The Upstairs Delicatessen, I have another reason to be grateful. Yes, for the book itself, but for this quote, early on, from Karl Ove Knausgard: “I don’t give a rat’s ass about food.” It was unlikely that I was ever going to read an autobiographical six-volume Scandinavian novel that shared a title with Hitler’s memoir. Apart from ABBA, some Bergman movies, most Victor Sjöström movies, the movies Joachim von Trier is making now, Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Elke Sommer, and Deborah Borkman (Miss December 1976) Scandinavian culture can be summed up for me as Some Like it Clammy. I have enjoyed colonoscopies more than I have evenings of Ibsen or Strindberg. So for Dwight, so early on (p. 10) to warn me that K. Ove the K was such an antisensualist was a thoughtful confirmation that I’ve been wise to avoid the spud for as long as I have.
Dwight (if I’m writing about James, it’s Garner; with my friend of 30 years, it’s Dwight—which he, Cree, and the kids have long informed me that I mispronounce, making it two syllables instead of one. I say he gets exactly what Eisenhower would have gotten if I’d known him) would never describe himself as a sensualist or a connoisseur. The first, I think, requires a romantic self-image which he doesn’t have; the second just sounds too fussy. Dwight is rumpled tweeds (a few of which I’ve procured for him while scourings vintage shops) not smoking jackets. Reading the early sections about his Florida childhood, I imagined twelve-year-old Dwight, riding his bike or hanging out after school with a Dagwood sandwich and an equally imposing pile of books, with the fringe of hair and the goatee he has now. I suspect if pressed he’d describe himself as an exceedingly regular guy whose interests just took him bookward. Some kids could rattle off batting averages. He could rattle off the names of first novels and tell you who was restaurant critic for what magazine and what paper in the ‘70s.