Life and death reading

Happy 1998. Have you read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer yet?

As far as my highly scientific survey can tell, soon every man, woman, and child in the country will have either read it, heard it aloud, or been lectured to at length about it by some well-meaning bore. If you have evaded this trend so far, I can tell you that it is a truly gripping story of danger and death on the slopes of Mt. Everest. Go read it and tell all your friends about it. Curiously, another best-selling book this season, “The Perfect Storm” by Sebastian Junger, is a tale of man battling the elements for survival, this time in fishing boats during an enormous New England hurricane-force storm.

Why the sudden popularity of these life-and-death books? Perhaps people in this comfortable age feel more removed than ever from the flesh-biting Real World. Perhaps they long for an adventure to ground their lives in meaning. But then again, people have always bought adventure books. So is there anything new here?

One of the more interesting aspects of Krakauer’s book was the mention of Internet websites reporting from the slopes of Mt. Everest. When things got ugly, people all over the world knew about it instantly. We all listened in as Rob Hall talked to his pregnant wife in New Zealand even as he was freezing to death on a mountain in Nepal. There is a voyeuristic fascination with tracking the deadly and the evil minute-by-minute, whether it’s the Ebola virus, the Oklahoma City bombing, or United Flight 800 making an unexpected descent.

Voyeurism isn’t new, but it’s getting cheaper all the time. Professional Hollywood pornographic films have lost much of their market to amateurs with video cameras. Anybody can make a movie these days, and if it’s sexual in nature, people will pay. Soon enough, anybody will find it easy to launch a website. Tabloid television and network news, slick as they are, may find themselves competing with the gritty realism of eyewitness gladitorial websites filed by people on the scene, such as those who saw Rodney King being beaten senseless. Krakauer’s book is a terrific achievement, but in itself it doesn’t represent anything new in popular writing or society at large. What is new is the ease with which horrifying details can be reported by eyewitnesses from the burning building, the murder site, the erupting volcano. We should brace ourselves for an onslaught of badly-written but inescapably compelling eyewitness websites, because the tools of mass media are in the hands of the masses.

And now, for your further reading pleasure, a touch of voyeurism.

Caught Looking

what’s the sexiest thing you ever saw in your life?

whoa! that’s a tough one. let’s see…. I guess… wow, what a question! nothing really jumps out at me. I don’t know. what’s the sexiest thing you every saw in your life?

you go first. I asked you first.

sure, but you already have an answer to the question, right?

she smiled a slow maybe-yes-maybe-no smile. it started bold and provocative, then melted into a shy friendly smile. she felt self-conscious and looked at the beer-wet napkin next to her glass. she tilted her head back slightly, lightly ran her fingers down her stretched neck; her second boyfriend had always said that drove him crazy. funny how these things stick with you. she looked back at him and considered his small frame, his boyish face. she wanted to reach across the table and touch his arm, but instead said:

maybe I do. but you have to answer my question first.

he tipped up his beer, drank. replaced it, looking past her down the empty twilit diner. she enjoyed putting him on the spot.

okay. I have an answer. the summer after my freshman year, I went to Amsterdam.

this should be good.

believe me, it wasn’t a wild trip. I was pretty straight-laced in those days. well, I still am, I guess. so no stories about women in the red light district or smoky hash bars or anything like that. I was in this big park called the Vondelpark one afternoon. I was there by myself, because the guy I was traveling with, this French guy named Henri, was getting on my nerves. he was constantly smoking these stinky Gaulois cigarettes and talking about Marlon Brando movies. he’d seen them all like 50 times. so I’m sitting there on one side of this little pond soaking up the afternoon sun, and this woman with short spiky blonde hair, very Euro, very Dutch, I guess, walks up to the other side of the pond, just across from me, right? and she puts down a blanket and sits down on it, and I’m thinking ‘you don’t suppose she’s going to take off her shirt?’ and sure enough she does. and she just sits there half-naked right there in front of me.

did you go talk to her?

right! I don’t even know if she spoke English. no, I didn’t go talk to her. it would’ve ruined it to talk to her. it was perfect just how it was. actually she wasn’t even that good-looking, in the magazine sense, I mean. she was sexy because she was just so matter-of-fact about it. she knew what she wanted to do, she didn’t care who saw, and that was that. one of the things that made it so great was the fact that I saw it coming just soon enough to have this moment of anticipation, of prediction, even. we never met eyes, but it was if there was some sort of connection there.

his eyes were shining now. he continued, nodding, I remember that very clearly… it was like an electric jolt went through me. I had never seen anything like it before. later on that same trip I went to places, Munich, Nice, where there were naked people just everywhere. you really only get that moment once, you know?

what happened, then?

that’s it — end of story. it’s not much of a story, after all. she just sat there enjoying the sun, and then, after maybe ten minutes the shade reached her, and she pulled on her shirt and left. okay, it’s your turn now. what’s your answer?

can you see my car from here?

what? he looked out at the old blue Mustang across the parking lot. yes… why?

stay here, she said, I’ll be back in a little bit. she stood up and walked out the door toward the car. disbelief mingled with the smell of the beer. he fiddled with the tip money, then squinted out the window again.

she strolled slowly to the car and took a long look around. his shadow shifted in the window where she had been sitting a minute ago. the late afternoon sun was in his eyes, but he could see her clearly enough, stepping into the front seat. she inhaled sharply and then pulled off her shirt, and after some small awkwardness removed her bra. the seat vinyl was still hot. she could feel his eyes on her, and she pictured his hand lying in his lap. he shifted his posture again.

she closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the cicadas. action at a distance. telepathic phone sex — hello, operator? give me Amsterdam, please. an excellent thing, the summer afternoon two-beer buzz. fun to imagine his throat dry, his heart pumping, his eyes straining. she tilted her head back and touched her neck lightly. her second boyfriend had been a rude son-of-a-bitch. she put her small bare feet up on the dashboard, well apart, and leaned back.

the grinding gravel of a walking car bent her quickly over the steering wheel. the car, black and predatory, was crawling across the lot into the spot next to hers. she hugged the steering wheel and started the engine even as she realized it was, in fact, a state trooper. she wheeled out of her spot, wondering what the trooper had seen, wondering if he would feel compelled to get back in his car and follow her. she was pulling past the front door of the diner gathering speed when her friend stumbled into the slanting sunlight looking dazed. she hit the brakes hard, reached across and threw open the passenger door. he looked at her, then at the approaching trooper, who was by now walking toward them. he looked at her again, his mouth beginning to form a wordless slow-motion question.

hop in, you big dummy! she called out. he hopped, and she accelerated, throwing gravel as she pulled onto the road. the trooper looked down the road and puzzled for a moment. his stomach growled longingly. he shook his head briefly and went inside, sat down and ordered a big slice of pecan pie and a cup of coffee. the seat he chose seemed unusually warm.