"The Second (Book) Coming"
Many have wondered, some even
waiting, to see if Harper Lee would ever overcome a presumed
Titanic-sized writer’s block—one that had stymied
her for several decades—and write another book. Was
she “only” a one book wonder? Though if so, what
a wonder! (The Serendipity of Harper Lee JULY,
Published in 1960 when Lee was 34, To Kill a Mockingbird
became an immediate best seller, won a Pulitzer Prize, and
to this day has been a fixture on educational required reading
lists. It has sold a record forty million copies and counting,
to the tune of currently a million a year, a hundred an hour,
two more just in the time you started reading this. And the
movie version it inspired, is the 25th best ever made, according
to the American Film Institute’s latest rankings.
Now it turns out, that not only did she have another book
in her, but apparently one that she actually wrote before
Mockingbird. It was announced last month, that fifty-five
years after that classic, there will be what might be called
“the second book coming.” On July 14th to be exact.
It is entitled Go Set a Watchman.
This rather head-scratching title for those of us not up on
biblical reference, comes from Isaiah 21:6 (King James Version)…“Go
set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” And
interestingly, according the biography Mockingbird: A
Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields (2006), this
was the original title of what would eventually become To
Kill a Mockingbird.
While there will obviously
be heightened anticipation as this event draws near—
stoked assuredly by a publisher’s PR campaign firing
on all cylinders—it doesn’t quite sit right. There
are more red flags here than at a Moscow May Day parade.
To begin with, we read that…“
‘the manuscript was rediscovered last year,’ Lee,
88, said in a statement from her publisher, HarperCollins.”
Rediscovered? From where? By whom? Obviously not by Lee herself,
as can be implied by this statement. It’s as if it’s
a surprise to her as well. Not to mention, did she really
make that statement?
There is a lot of speculation as to her current
condition and state of mind. According to some reports, a
stroke Lee suffered in 2007 left her wheelchair-bound, forgetful,
and that she is now largely deaf and blind. And if so, is
this book really being published with her true blessing and
What clouds the issue, is Lee’s reputation
for being a recluse. And so of course it is assumed that no
public statement would ever be directly forthcoming from her,
all age and health considerations aside. Yet that reclusiveness
has always been rather exaggerated.
For example, she came to LA in 2003 from her home in Monroeville,
Alabama (where she has always mingled and been part of the
community), to attend Gregory Peck’s funeral mass and
memorial at Los Angeles Cathedral (where the actor’s
body is interred). I learned from a parish priest who was
at that event, that she was very approachable, talkative,
As recent as nine years ago when she was pushing 80, there
she was right on the front page of the Arts section of The
New York Times at an awards ceremony for an essay contest
on the subject of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Writer’s
Block or… Six Authors in Search of a Character?
2006 MUSE-LETTER). Hardly Salingeresque; he who
never ventured much beyond his well fenced-in turf for any
reason—literary or otherwise.
But the bigger questions, have to do with the merits of Go
Set a Watchman itself. It was after all, rejected at
the time as being unpublishable in its then current state.
So much so, that Lee went back, and in effect, wrote a whole
other book. This time through the eyes of Scout as a child,
rather than as an adult. And in this way, To Kill a Mockingbird
was born. What we have in Watchman, is a recycled
book that turns out to be a sequel.
Aside from Godfather II, has any sequel of anything
ever artistically measured up to the original hit? And in
the realm of what is considered to be literature (and taught
in schools), only The Odyssey following The Iliad
readily comes to mind. So it’s probably safe to say
Watchman won’t be timeless. And there’s
a chance that it might quickly come and go without a whimper,
much as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time sequel
to Catch-22 did twenty years ago.
In being published now some sixty years after the fact, has
Watchman once again been reworked or re-edited? By
Harper Lee herself? (Doubtful). By anyone else? And if so,
by whom? If it wasn’t good enough then, why is it good
Perhaps a first printing of two million copies—which
aside from the Harry Potter franchise, is an unheard of number
in the book publishing business— lies the answer to
this last question. (Visions of dollar plums dancing in their
On the flip side of anticipated monetary gain, is the spectra
of a loss in prestige value, as one can imagine the literary
critics having a field day tearing this book apart. Especially
those who even question Mockingbird’s place
in the literary pantheon to begin with. Then there’s
the whole new world of social media that didn’t exist
when Mockingbird took wing, that can also be brutal
and instantly destructive. A stoning death by a million pebbles.
So there’s no way this “second coming” can
turn out well, given the standard to which it will be held.
All the same, I for one among the many, will be at a Barnes
& Noble on that day buying Go Set a Watchman.
Quote of the Month
There’s the Erie Canal. The Panama Canal. And the Root
Canal. This last of which I encountered for the first time
ever, last month.
No big deal here, this being commonplace and
hardly life threatening. Yet no day at the beach either, as
this dental rite of passage has long been synonymous with
that dreaded euphemistic phrase uttered by white-coated professionals:
“you may experience some discomfort.” We lay people
and patients call it for what it is. PAIN.
To ward off such anxiety in the dental chair—call
it a throne as many of us have been crowned there on several
occasions— I have gone under the influence of nitrous
oxide. (To which I attribute the preceding bad pun as well
as what might follow for which I claim no responsibility.).
The goal has been to temper any “discomfort,”
not so much physically—though it does help to dull the
number of piercing shots of Novocain in nerve sensitive areas,
but without which such a “procedure” as root canal
would be unendurable—but equally important, psychologically.
Or maybe it’s just me. Call me a wuss. I’ve been
With a nitrous infusion now wafting through
my nostrils, they proceed to put goggles on me. (“What
are these for?” “I will be working with sharp
instruments.” I had to ask.). Then something made
of rubber gets stuffed into my mouth that challenges the gag
reflex. I feel that I am now in the hands of terrorists. I
would gladly tell them whatever they want to know if I could
speak—the mouth kept wide open by some sort of doorstop
device. But as the nitrous begins to peak, the terrorist illusion
gives way to one of a car. They might be mechanics probing
under my hood. A small tune-up and I’ll be out of the
garage and back on the road in no time. But that playful notion
is literally drilled out of me.
Dr. Whitecoat Professional—wall-mounted diplomas implying
competence—goes all Con Edison on me. He proceeds to
jack-hammer my street with no prior warning or explanation.
There are now sounds coming from down below, that in all my
visits to the chair, I’ve never heard. Weird variations
on a drilling theme in the key of Eek sharp!
One particular adagio drill bit passage, reminding
me of a mandatory machine shop class I had to take as a high
school student at Brooklyn Tech (
“Tech alma mater, molder of men” ),
somewhere in the deep recesses of the previous millennium.
And in the absence of any sign of gracefulness in the execution,
there is pressure, penetration and screaming metal, hell-bent
on reaching China. And while I feel no actual pain by this
point, I am sweating. Audibly. What if he slips? His assistant
will no doubt cover up the evidence of this unfortunate accident,
which could result in years of expensive
litigation…and all to no avail.
In need to go elsewhere, the brain heads off
to the movies. Appearing on its screen now, is that crazed
dentist played by Steve Martin in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Followed shortly, by the dental scene from “The Marathon
Man” with Dustin Hoffman and a menacing Lawrence Olivier.
(“Is it safe? Is it safe?”) And though such imagery
and attendant associations race along, time seems eternal.
I was in that chair for about a week. And
as I wandered into the dessert of resignation by say the sixth
day, a thought seeped in and took hold, and repeated itself
through the nitrous haze. That with all the advances in science
and technology, with all its robotics and killer apps—
even in the sci-fi sounding year of 2015— reality is
literal, not virtual. We look to science, or God, to eliminate
the discomforts that come with living. And neither can do
Oxygen now finally freely flowing, and having
come back fully to my all too common senses, it was time to
leave to go pick up my computer that had crashed and was in
the shop. Okay, I’ll admit to “going Brian Williams”
here. My computer did not crash at that particular time. Nor
was it even shot at. I misremembered. You know, the nitrous
oxide and all.
The animal instinct so
these cute little animals
ought to know better.
Or so it would seem.
And yet they dart
with such precision—precisely
at the wrong moment
across the road.
Some even stopping in mid-dash and thereby
compounding the error of their ways.
Then retracing with scurried
eyes wide open
wired for sound
they forego the concept
of being past the point of no return.
And given options, they tend to return
to the road
or to be more precise
to that side of the road most traveled by;
where cars like comets come hurtling by.
Their rocket scientist
having since moved on
to their own bad decisions
perhaps a pelt left strewn
some double yellow line
have nothing to teach in the matter.
And proper nutrition
left to the mother—
she knows nothing of speed and oncoming cars.
The only sense of safety
lies somewhere in the numbers.
Which they throw at the world
with reckless abandon.
Who Would Like To Go on a One-Way
Trip to Mars?
Would you believe… 200,000 people?!
At least that was the original purported number of applicants
for a project by a Netherlands-based group called Mars
One, whose stated mission is to “establish a permanent
settlement on Mars,” beginning in 2025.
According to a story last month, those 200,000
have now been whittled down to a “Final 100.”
Comprised of which, a 50/50 gender split, and a younger
age skew— not surprising, given the bizarre nature of
what would be a taxing mission to say the least.
Half of the candidates (or contestants as
you will see) are between 25-35, with another twenty, under
the tender age of 24. (“Hey mom and dad, I’m like,
you know, I wanna go to Mars. And uh, I’ll never see
you again because I can’t come back. But we can probably
Skype, and all that.”).
Ten are over 50, and might be eligible for
Medicare by the time they ever get to leave. (Will Obamacare
cover pre-existing conditions on Mars?).
Forget for the moment that according to a
recent MIT study regarding this project, that given the current
technology, even if first explorers were successful in landing,
they would likely survive just 68 days. Forget that a trip
to Mars, while not as problematic as a Carnival Cruise, has
historically been successful in unmanned missions,
only about half the time. Forget that Co-founder/CEO of Mars
One, Bas Landsdorp, has been focusing not on overcoming
the obvious technical challenges, but rather on the business
model. Forget that his company has a history of launching
According to a piece from the Daily Mail out
of the UK, “The company has no spacecraft in development.
This includes, but is not limited to a vehicle to take humans
into orbit, a habitat to take them to Mars and something to
get them through the atmosphere.”
But most importantly— speaking of business
model—we read that a critical component to this project
is the makings of a reality show:
“… the venture's accompanying
reality TV show which was to be made by the makers of
Big Brother to document their training and new
lives on the red planet — has been shelved after
the companies were 'unable to reach an agreement on details',
MailOnline has learned.
“Instead, Mars One is working
with a new production company to record the colonists'
Ah, so that’s it. The ultimate reality show? People
being voted off the planet? People vying for a shot at a cool
new suicide? Is there no end to the indignity inherent in
this genre of “entertainment”? What next? “Pistol
Duels in Weehawken New Jersey”?
The takeaway here then, is not about the feasibility
of this project and if it will ever see the light of day—
it won’t— but that human folly, now further infused
by the prospects of a brave new world, is as limitless as
the universe itself. Which continues to surprise those of
us who like to think we have our feet on the ground.
As a footnote, NASA, which has demonstrated
the ability to land human beings on another orb and return
them safely to Earth, is working on something called
Orion. It is estimated to have a first manned mission to Mars
in the 2030’s. One assumes there would be no reality
show around their astronaut selection process; these the people
who brought you Neil Armstrong. But then again, given where
our species is heading, who knows.