The Resurrection Game
With Pharos Editions, Great Local Authors Revive Long-Dead Novels
Let's begin with an embarrassing admission: One of my predictions about the rise of e-books absolutely failed to come true. When Project Gutenberg and Google Books revived thousands of out-of-print books and made them freely available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, I thought a small-but-significant number of readers would become spelunkers of literature. I envisioned book-review blogs for novels that hadn't been read in 120 years, book clubs discussing feminist trends in freshly rediscovered prefeminist literature, and a small battalion of people flipping through .epub files the way record collectors dig through boxes of vinyl.
Obviously, that didn't happen. It's always embarrassing when a prediction completely fails to come true, of course, but that's not what upsets me about all this. The worst part of my prediction not coming true is that all those books are still floating out there, unread and unloved, even though almost everyone has access to them. And worse, thousands upon thousands of books are still going out of print every year, with no one but the authors to bemoan their fate.
Turns out, Google can't do everything. The organizations that are best suited to bring modern readers to long-out-of-print novels are the same organizations that put those novels to death in the first place: publishers. But just because a publisher launches a line of reissues doesn't mean people are going to pay attention. You need some sort of a way to attract readers in a business where hundreds of new books are struggling for shelf space, too. You need—and this is ugly, but true—a gimmick.
Luckily, local publisher Dark Coast Press's new imprint, Pharos Editions, has a great gimmick: Each book is sponsored by a popular author with a meaningful, emotional connection to the book. The author chooses an out-of-print book and writes the introduction to the reissue. This lashing of the dead to the living—like Weekend at Bernie's for the publishing industry!—is smart stuff.
For the first wave of Pharos Editions, a high-profile lineup of Washington State writers did the choosing: Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Evison, and Jess Walter, with Simpsons creator Matt Groening selecting a fourth title. That's a powerful starting bench—though it is, unfortunately, entirely male, and all the novels the authors chose were written by men, too. (Pharos Editions editor Jarret Middleton promises that the next two yet-to-be-announced Pharos titles were selected and written by female authors, "with more on the way.")
Alexie is uncharacteristically tongue-tied about his selection, a 1978 novel from Todd Walton. "I can't begin to tell you exactly how much Inside Moves means to me," Alexie's introduction reads, before he finally concludes that it "ranks with the very best sports novels ever written" and is "the Bull Durham of basketball, except with war injuries, amputees, prostitutes, radical surgery, and the lonesome, lonesome wails of hungry souls."
And even this avowed sports-hater can confirm that Inside Moves is a great novel. It's about a pair of basketball-loving, disabled Vietnam veterans, Roary and Jerry, who barely manage to scrape by at the very fringes of society. Good fortune finds Jerry, however, and he eventually makes his way to great success, which Roary watches with a complicated mixture of pleasure and apprehension. Alexie and Walton don't speak with the same voice, but they sure do share a range: Inside Moves' main characters could easily hang in the same social circles as some of Alexie's seediest protagonists. Beneath the bruises and the booze, you'll find a pair of piercing eyes staring you in the face and daring you to deny them their humanity. You can't—you don't want to—look away.
Inside Moves is the only book that clearly made its mark on the author's style, but the other books have their own charms. Groening picked Eric Knight's You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, a twisty Depression-era noir thriller. Evison's selection, Frank Norris's McTeague, is a dark and dangerous story of a dentist in 1890s San Francisco whose wife wins the lottery, beginning an inexorable slide to murder. Every romantic passage is followed by a slap to the reader's face; every beautiful phrasing shares a page with something bleak and breathtaking.
Robert Cantwell's Northwest labor epic Land of Plenty, Jess Walter's selection, is the kind of lost classic that every author dreams of rediscovering. Cantwell, a favorite author of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote many short stories and two novels and then, for reasons out of his control (institutionalization) and within his control (he was an editor at Sports Illustrated for years) left the fiction business forever. Land of Plenty's kaleidoscopic structure will appeal to modern audiences, and its pro-worker message is just as important today as it was at the book's publication in the middle of the Depression. It begins with a blackout in a factory, during which time the workers have a moment of quiet to stop and reflect on the absurdity of their exploitation. A marvelous book like this, with such a heartbreaking story behind it, is exactly why lost classics deserve to be found. And all that raw material is out there, floating just above our heads. Maybe Pharos Editions will finally inspire people to go looking for greatness on their own.