Superheroes with Pens

by John Bloner, Jr.

Writers are rock stars. I wouldn’t cross the street to see Mick Jagger, but I’ve driven 500 miles on two occasions to see my literary heroes, Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Robertson Davies (The Deptford Trilogy), in Stratford, Ontario. In early adulthood, I wore a maroon T-shirt with the J.D. Salinger book title, The Catcher In The Rye, printed on it, replicating the paperback edition’s cover.

Sketchbook pages, celebrating the writer Robertson Davies and his work.

I’ve attended summer classes at the University of Iowa, home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, the most prestigious writing program in the world. Many writers who attended or taught there were and are literary giants, including Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Raymond Carver, Robert Bly, Denis Johnson, Joy Harjo, James Tate, Andre Dubus, and Kurt Vonnegut.

I’ve loved Vonnegut’s work since I read Slaughterhouse Five and many of his other books while in my 20s. I love him for his contradictions. He once said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” Later, he responded to a PBS host, who’d asked, “How’s life?,” by saying, “Well, it’s practically over, thank God.” He joked he was going to sue big tobacco, because despite the warnings on their packages, their product had not killed him. See the interview here. I admired him for his playfulness, his child-like drawings in his books, and for his advice to his writers.

My sketchbooks pay homage to this Hoosier, the Tralfalmodorians, Kilgore Trout, and actress Valerie Perrine, who played the love-interest, Montana Wildhack, in the film version of Slaughterhouse Five.

Have you ever read a review or description of a book or its author and felt they misrepresented them? Have you ever tossed aside a book only to fall in love in months or years later? I’d purchased a copy of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, because some critic referred to the Japanese author as a cyberpunk Raymond Chandler. I didn’t know the meaning of cyberpunk and only knew of Chandler through film adaptations of his work, but the reference sounded cool, so I bought Hardboiled Wonderland and tossed it in the backseat of my car after only reading a few pages. I still didn’t know what cyberpunk meant and Murakami’s story baffled me.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law, Daniel, who was living on a tropical island in the Pacific as a Peace Corps volunteer, asked me to send some books to him. Any books. He was desperate for reading material. Along with other tomes, I included Hardboiled Wonderland in my care package.

He wrote back, wondering if I had picked out the Murakami novel for him. So much of the book resonated with him. In particular, its evocation of the melancholy ballad, Danny Boy.

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.

The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,

It’s you, It’s you must go and I must bide.

1913 lyrics by Frederick E. Weatherly

I re-purchased a copy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, but before I read it, I took on Murakami’s most celebrated novel, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and became like Alice, following the White Rabbit into wonderland. In the case of this novel, I followed its main character, Toru Okada, on search for his lost cat and subsequently his wife, who’s vanished. Both Alice’s pursuit and Okada’s deliver them into fantastic worlds. Okada encounters clairvoyant twins, a high school dropout, a World War II officer, left scarred by his wartime experiences, and a mother and her adult son who help Okada to find his missing wife, but the most audacious scenes in the novel occur when Okada climbs into an abandoned well where he travels into an alternate reality.

After completing Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I devoured all but one of Murakami’s books. (I cannot get through Norwegian Wood, although I have tried multiple times.) My paperback copy of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is decorated with colorful tags, each corresponding to a character or theme in the book. For example, a red tab directs me to passages about the character, Malto Kano, who wears a red vinyl hat that’s mismatched with the rest of her outfit and serves to help Toru Okada find his cat. Green tabs are for the character Maya Kasahara, a teenage girl with a droll delivery, wiser than her years, who gives the nickname, Mr. Wind-Up Bird, to Okada after he tells her of a bird he hears but never sees. It goes Creeak, as if winding the world’s spring.

I plan to create a map of the maze-like book with these aids one day.

I tried to capture a slice of Murakami’s world in my sketchbook and drew a caricature of the writer for publication in my little magazine, Moss Piglet, last year.

Are you a sci-fi book fan? I’d avoided this section of bookstores for a long time. I thought science-fiction writing was inferior to so-called literary fiction without actually reading any of it. I thought it concerned itself with rockets, aliens, ideas on future technology, and filled itself with characters who had too many consonants in their names, particularly x and z.

Don’t even get me started on the fantasy genre. I’m probably the only person, living or dead, who wished Frodo and Sam had stayed in the Shire.

My opinion changed when I met the work of Connie Willis. Her stories and novels transformed my reading experience. Even though she’s a Coloradoan by birth and still resides in that state, many of her characters are English and in her time travel books reside in Oxford, year 2060. She’s won numerous awards for her fiction, including ten Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards.

If anyone can be named ‘best science fiction writer of the age,’ it’s Connie Willis.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine

Willis’ novel, Doomsday Book, is the only book which has brought me to tears. Like several other of her novels, Doomsday Book is about an historian who doesn’t conduct research solely by visits to the library or by sorting through artifacts. Thanks to time travel, the novel’s heroine, Kivrin, can experience first-hand the lives, customs, and beliefs of people from long ago. In Doomsday Book, Kivrin leaves 21st century Oxford University to visit a 14th century English village, except something goes wrong in the transport between centuries. She’d been scheduled to arrive in 1320, but finds herself instead nearly three decades later when the Black Death is ravaging Europe.

What sets this novel and other books by Connie Willis apart from a lot of other fiction (in any genre) is Willis’ skill in creating vivid characters. The mechanics of time travel take second to the people who populate this story and her other books, including Fire Watch (a short story); To Say Nothing of the Dog; Blackout; and All Clear. Her dialogue reminds me of the way people talk in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s. They could be funny and sophisticated in the same breath.

Book reviewer and sci-fi author Alyx Dellamonica confirms my statement. She writes,

Willis is a dedicated fan of the screwball comedy, movies like My Girl FridayBringing up Baby, and the Philadelphia Story. She has used this particular story structure to great effect throughout her career. In screwball comedies, miscommunication abounds, and many of the minor characters are pathologically single-minded as they pursue a host of weird goals.

Alyx Dellamonica, writing for

Who are your superheroes with pens? Have your reading habits changed over your lifetime? I’d love to hear from you.

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