Right no idea what I am writing today but it has to get better. The book you just finished (If On A winter’s Night A Traveller...) was good. Too good for you to understand. You will have to buy it and read it again one day. Maybe when you read it again you will be a published writer of some description.
The Pump House Gang by Tom Wolfe. I remember seeing it on the shelf at my friend Marcus’s house in Heaton, Newcastle. It had a bright pink cover and a strange photo of some bohemian sixties type cats I can’t recall right now. It had a silvery piece of gaffer tape, holding the spine together, making seem like a treasured gospel, holding out for a couple more reads. It seemed so cool. I can recall it now, before I had even read it, I knew this was the type of book I should be reading. I hesitate to use the word cool because cool is meaningless unless you are referring to temperature but it felt like that. This book was me. My kind of people.
It felt like a long time before I actually read it. This was about 1997. My only recollection is of admiring the book on the shelf. That is stronger than the actual reading of it. I know it had a huge impact on me and I must have told everyone because my girlfriend at the time bought me a first edition of it, all the way from America, which I have never even read. It is in storage at my mum’s house. I didn’t know what a Pump House was, it sounded a bit fruity actually. I had no idea it was to be an introduction into the sixties counter-cultural writing I would come to love. I suppose it was one of the only times a book has drawn me in. I still think the first copy, the pink one with the masking tape down the spine and the iffy picture is much more precious than the first edition shipped from Elvis’ birthplace Tupelo, Mississippi believe it or not. Maybe it was Elvis' book, maybe he read it on the toilet, years before the dump that did him in. I wonder if he would have hated it or seen something of his young self in the kids in the titular story.
When I go back to Newcastle this Christmas, I will bring it out of hibernation. As I am writing this, memories are coming back to me about reading it. I was excited, I felt this was the style of writer I could be. I knew I was going to be a writer, just like Tom Wolfe. I was going to observe and comment on lives and lunches and hippies and squares and vacuous New York socialites, its been a long time since I read any Tom Wolfe. 1997. I never did become a writer. It is now 2011, I am becoming one now, success or not. The feeling I had when reading The Pump House Gang was so intense, the feeling I had when just even looking at the cover made you feel you had discovered something new, not the books you had been reading on curriculum at school a couple of years before, not Of Mice and Men, or Animal Farm, though neither of those books are without merit. They were books you had to read. This was a book I had discovered, about a time I had missed,through my bad luck at simply not being alive at the time.
Not necessarily the best book I have ever read, it certainly had the biggest impact on my senses. I won’t use such highfalutin phrases as the most important book I ever read as my life has not really taken any remarkable turns as a result. I never moved to a commune, or dropped out of the rat race, baby, but maybe now I have recalled it and I am finally writing the moment can be reignited. Maybe it just lay dormant, covered over by one dull job after another, day after day for fourteen years. I am giving myself false hope again. As if this book is the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was actually the beginning of something, something I once felt strongly and now I need to reclaim. I can remember so clearly thinking this book was the beginning of the path of the life I would take. Maybe it still is.
I wish I could tell you what the book was about. I can’t remember. It was fourteen years ago. All I can muster up is it is a collection of articles Tom Wolfe had written throughout the Sixties. Maybe he even began in the late fifties. The Pump House Gang themselves were a group of teenagers who hung around a petrol station. That story was either late fifties or really early sixties. What it described was the oncoming sea change with the American youth, the counter-culture, the beatnik, the Hippie. Genuinely free American youngsters, living however they pleased. The war had been won for them to enjoy these freedoms. Their ideals would be crushed by 1968, the year the book came out, thanks to jealous elders and Richard Nixon. Each article in the collection is different from the last. The New Journalist writing, a style often aped but no one can ever repeat now without looking like a total fool, was at its zenith in this book. It works so well. It genuinely excites. Because he was right there, when it was all happening. It’s one thing being there, its another to be there, know you are there (there being where its at) and documenting it so fucking succinctly.
This is not a book review at all. This is merely a memory of when an astounding work of a writer I had never heard of hit me and hit me hard. I suppose reading it felt like an LSD or an Ecstasy rush. That good feeling, undiluted pleasure. You’ve found the good stuff. I am glad I haven’t read it for fourteen years. It’s going to be a good Christmas.
A few months later, I went to visit a friend in London, I was in her flat in Islington, looked at the book shelf and saw a similarly tatty copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. If you ever come across the Pump House gang, the tatty pink copy I am referring to, it mentions on the sleeve it was released on the same day as the aforementioned Acid Test. I nicked it, still have it actually.