This month, Sebastian invites Bud Smith to tell us about his favorite books. Bud is the author of the novel Teenager and the short story collection Double Bird, among others. He lives in Jersey City, NJ. Below is "The Russians," a short story by Bud in which he tells us about his favorite books.
The doctor explained my problem, “You’re low, weak, soft.”
He held a globe in his hand and pointed to his home country where he said life actually was hard.
He said the snow had come up over the roofs and they had to eat their horses to survive.
He spun the globe back and pointed at America.
“Here, you do not know what it is to suffer.”
I said this was all well and true, and I could deal with being considered soft.
All I wanted was a magic pill, I didn’t care what the magic pill was, as long as it made me feel like my old spoiled self again.
I noticed the bookshelf behind him was full of leather-bound books, not medical guides, but rather, novels, from Russia. I kept looking from title to title, author to author. Many I knew well. Others were on my list to read one day, perhaps, if I regained my health and felt up to the challenge.
He put his giant hand on my shoulder and said when he was a child he had to dig a grave for his mother in the barley field. Then a grave for his father. Then a grave for his older brother. Then for his sister. Then his uncle told him to dig a tiny grave for himself because there was no chance he would make it through the winter.
I sat staring at the massive doctor. The paper gown sticking to my body. The cold tick of the clock. His unlinking eyes.
“I’m making joke,” he said.
“What’s the joke, I don’t understand.”
“It’s complicated joke.”
He pulled out a pad. “Here, here is American medicine for American baby boy, with car. Vroom Vroom. Drive to pharmacy and bingo, they hand out simple luxury medicine, we do not have pharmacy in my home province, we have to harvest the minerals from the mountain itself, we have no luxurious pick axe, we use our bare hands, we break rocks with fists, but you would not understand.”
He wrote a prescription for Zoloft, 50mg.
I noticed the titles of the Russian novels on his shelf were written in English. I wondered if he preferred the English translations over the prose of his mother tongue. I doubted that as I got dressed. Just before I left the doctor’s office, I turned to him and said, “I’ve been reading your country’s literature.”
“Oh? What have you read?”
“There’s lots of great characters in Russian literature …”
It’d been three straight months of, heavier reading for me than usual, Anna Karenina, and Dead Souls, and Fathers and Sons, and Petersburg, lots of Chekhov plays and short stories.
I said, “Maybe I haven’t lived a hard life, but I think I’ve experienced it in your literature, doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Okay,” he said, and he had a Bronx accent now. “That was good, dude.” He admitted he lived just off Arthur Ave., had never been out of the Tri-State area in his life.
“You’re a fake, I knew it.”
“Does widdle sick boy vant a widdle cookie?”
I filled the fucking prescription and took it for two weeks and I felt far worse than before. I hadn’t felt depressed to begin with and I didn’t feel less depressed now.
The doctor was a fraud but his medical license was real, I’d been reassured by all three of his assistants. Plus I’d read online that sometimes physical symptoms are all in the mind. I still was tired all the time and could’t breathe. Maybe it was all in my mind. I tripled down on Zoloft.
When my eyes became blood red, I stumbled to the eye doctor, a woman so confident and blunt, I never doubted.
She asked, “How did this happen? What have you been doing with your eyes?”
“I don’t know, just looking at stuff.”
She had my eyelids peeled back and was peeking at the undersides. “Ah ha. Here, look, the backsides of your lids are covered in hives.”
“I can’t look,” I said.
“Of course.” She let go and the eyelids slapped closed. “You’re allergic to your contact lenses.”
“But I’ve worn the same brand for years.”
She said, “You’re getting older. The human body changes every seven years.”
I told her how the last doctor I’d seen had gotten so bored with his life, he’d begun pretending to be from Siberia, and had put me on an antidepressant. She asked if I liked who I was. I said sure. She asked if I was sad. I said no. She said stop taking the antidepressant and don’t ever go back to that community theatre quack. She had a soothing voice, my eye doctor did. A voice like a hypnotist.
I wished the only thing wrong with my life was my eyes. But if the eyes are the windows to the soul maybe she could solve my soul through my windows. No she couldn’t.
I did whatever she said. I started wearing my glasses, and this didn’t help at all. The medicated drops didn’t help. Nothing helped my eyes, or my soul.
I’d been home another week from work and I’d sequestered even deeper. Sick of doom scrolling and reading emails about the world ending, I mailed my phone to a distant cousin and pulled a doorstop novel off the shelf. I hadn’t even gone outside in days. I’d stayed on the couch, flipping dense pages, feeling worse as Dostoevsky went along.
I went for the follow-up and even the eye doctor’s startled voice put me into a trance, “What have you been doing? Your eyes are so much worse!”
“I’ve just been on my couch, reading. I’ve read two thousand pages.”
“Now? Brothers Karamozov.”
The allergist had a white office. We sat in their whiteness, going over the test results. I was unaffected by pollen, pet dander, and dust.
I was bleeding out my eyes and my ears were ringing, I was borderline comatose.
“You’re not allergic to your contact lenses. You can go back to wearing them as soon as you are released from the facility.”
“That’s good news,” I said. “What facility?”
“It’s books that are making you sick.”
A door opened behind the allergist and two men strapped me to the table, a needle pressed into my neck, the syringe emptied.
I woke up in a whiter room. The allergist asked how I felt. I said I felt much better.
They showed my reflection in a mirror. My eyes were pink. My curtain of fatigue nearly lifted.
“Excuse the detention. We knew you would just go home and read.”
I lied to the allergist, said I didn’t have any books in my apartment. “You can unstrap me.”
But they had a printout in front of them, “I’ve reverse engineered your affliction. By this I can tell you own over a thousand novels, and worse, you sleep in a room that has at least a hundred.”
“It’s very nice.”
“They’re killing you.”
They wanted me to hire a crew to dispose of every book before I went home. I could see these punks now, in hazmat suits, clearing the shelves room by room, taking all the stories away, heaving them into a roll off dumpster out on the street.
“You’ll be back to jumping rope in no time.”
The allergist wore blueberry-colored scrubs and had a lilacs in their hair. I thought that was a bit insensitive, there were people here who couldn’t sniff a flower without having a heart attack.
“I didn’t get ill from literary fiction.”
“Yes you did. At night while you lay in bed, the characters come out of your books and climb in your head and run amuck. That is why you are suffering.”
She pointed to a poster on the wall that showed Captain Ahab and Mrs. Marple and Humbert Humbert and Henry Chinaski and Hamlet and Raskolnikov and Sula ripping apart the four caves of some poor cartoon’s cartoon sinuses. “Those are just a few popular examples.”
“You mean I dream of them.”
“No. These are not dreams. Your dreams are your own. I will not talk of your dreams. These characters crawl in your ear and attack you.”
I squirmed in my straps.
“Your immune system doesn’t know the difference between viruses and bacteria or heroes and villains, between hollow stereotypes and well-drawn fictional characters. Your immune system goes in overdrive, constant overdrive, which is why you’ve felt so utterly exhausted, why you had post-nasal drip.”
“My brother’s been prescribed a nasal spray. I think, a steroid nasal spray.”
“What’s he allergic to?”
“Ragweed is not as powerful as a novel.”
“What if I read shittier books?”
“It’s all subjective I guess. I can’t say really. I could try … the ones at the pharmacy … with horses and guns on the cover and jets and battleships and stuff—No, I can’t.”
“As you are now, in your condition, even reading the fluff they sell in the supermarket or pharmacy could still kill you, I’m sorry. If you have it on your shelf, you’re a deadman.”
“I’ll just keep the books out of the house.”
The allergist glared at me.
“I’ll keep them at my day job.”
“How far away is that, how many miles?”
They shook their head no. “If the characters in the book have an imaginary car, they will just drive to where you’re sleeping and climb in the keyhole or crack in the floor and scurry up the bed and slide in your ear and you’ll get sick again. Sicker.”
“I won’t burn my novels.”
“Then we can’t release you from this hospital. Besides, burning is only part of the solution, you’ll have to scatter the ashes as well.”
They let that sink in.
“In addition to the bonfire, I’m recommending twenty-eight weeks of immunizations, but you can’t miss an injection. The shots are very effective. Eighty to ninety percent success rate, permanently.”
“Your office is very hard for me to get to.”
“It’ll be easier if you stay strapped down.”
They left me strapped there all night, and all the next day. The orderlies fed me some kind of gruel. Hit me with a hose. The door opened.
I begged the allergist, “Unstrap me. I’ll be good. I can make an effort to get to the office. I really can.”
“What’s in the shots?”
“Small doses of Great Gatsby and lost classics from around the world in translation from NYRB, a smattering of bestsellers, as well as some underground gems—you wouldn’t know any.”
“I bet I’d know some. Jesus. I read NYRB. I’ll feel better afterwards? I’ve been reading the Russians, I’ll have you know.”
“Of course, there’s your problem. You can’t handle the French, the South Americans—the Russians? Eeek no. Our immunizations can’t even get you anywhere near lesser-Nabokov.”
They undid my hands and passed over a pamphlet. Life After Reading.
“You better familiarize yourself with this.”
I leafed though it slowly, people on water skis speeding on a lake of what looked like blood, people walking cats and dogs past the scene of an erupting volcano, old folks jumping out of an airplane in wing suits, holding hands, the clouds full of demonic eyes. Empty bookshelves on one side of a panel and on the other side of the panel, stacks of rotting money filling the shelves, millions of dollars, circled by flies. A bulldozer knocking down the Emerald City, a crowd of people applauding as Munchkins ran flaming into the Nonesic Ocean.
“The best news is you’ll have much more time for things that matter.”
“Sex and b-ball and leisurely country drives, just to name a few.”
“That sounds great. But what about Benadryl?” I handed the pamphlet back. “I could take Benadryl.”
“I might have to kill myself.”
“First try books on tape.”
The narrator of Death of Ivan Illych sounds like me, an odd choice, like a gangster from New Jersey.
I feel fantastic, I’m driving 115 mph down the highway with the top down.
Ivan Ilych is stricken with a disease. It happens in simple stages: he receives the diagnosis, he sees his social life come to an end, his friends and colleagues pull away, he sees his family treat his obvious decline as an abstraction, they can’t handle reality and become actors.
The voice actor throws in a “bada-bing” when Ilych becomes dependent on morphine. He completes it with “bada-boom” when the morphine no longer obliterates our protagonist’s pain.
I take the exit and put the convertible into a lower gear. And a lower gear yet. The road twists though rolling hills, and in the valleys below I can see brown cows, white and black spotted cows, chewing and munching, and in the open fields beyond, the gentle sway of new grass, so vibrant I cannot simply call it ‘green.’
Ilych is suffering, that’s mostly what he does in this slim story, his health has declined so severely he now has to look to his caretaker, Gerasim, a simple peasant, for any relief, any break from loneliness. Gerasim, who empties Ivan’s bedpan, and who sits for hours with Ivan’s legs resting on his shoulders so his master can have some comfort. Everyone else in the book has been finely educated and they, like Ivan, believe they will never die. They do not think they will need anyone to sit with them like this, because they are from a class higher than those that die. Gerasim alone, is wise enough to know he will die, and with that wisdom, he gives to his fellow man, in hopes someone will sit with him one day as he is dying.
The Russians aren’t necessarily better at writing than anybody else, they just take large topics head-on, and even with a guy from Hackensack reading it out of the side of his mouth like Paulie Walnuts, it still moves the reader.
“Hey Fuggedaboudid. ‘Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?' This guy fuckin dyin stuff is for the birds, amiright?”
However, the voice actor inserts himself and breaks the profound spell, Tolstoy at least, and he’ll be immortal for this, can’t treat his grand topics with an ounce of irony.
Tolstoy dissects our existence as plainly as if conducting a scientific experiment with his characters and their place in the world. There is no God in the world of Ivan Ilych, but Tolstoy is the God of it, and he loves his creatures, all of them, heart and soul.
Most American writers these days avoid grand topics, they take a majestic statue and write about one of the statue’s toes. On top of that, they write about the toe with sneering irony. Cynical. Detached. Everything is a joke within a joke within a joke. They have the toe go on the internet for two hundred pages and click around. The toe gets comic sans junk mail about climate change. The toe forwards the comic sand junk mail about climate change to their cousin. The toe seeks no serious advice. Heeds no serious warning. The toe doesn’t even try to figure out the meaning of life.
By the end of the story, when the voice actor says, “He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.”
Even spoken by this subpar voice actor (whose voice I hear crack—he must be touched too), I remember why literature matters, why stories matter. Why people still write. We can’t help that we’ve got all this other bullshit that goes on. The feather quill and the ink pot is long gone, replaced by your cellphone and the ink pot didn’t used to ding every time an ice shelf crashed into the sea. You were dying then and you’re dying now though.
I pull over the car and walk out into the orchard and all the little beasts who hoped to feast on that fruit scatter at my presence.
At the end of Anna Karenina, Levin, (a stand in for Tolstoy) is left alone on a sprawling estate where he sets his sights on one question, the biggest and most ridiculous one I’ve ever seen tackled in a novel. “What is the meaning of life?” And of course, the guy just solves the riddle. In a modern American novel, the toe would watch a basketball game and scroll on their phone and try to figure out what their second favorite Drake song actually is.
Ivan Ilych asks the opposite of Anna Karenina, ‘What is the meaning of death?’
Death is going to be pointless and we won’t see it coming, though we’ve known since we were very young that it would come for us. Ivan Ilych, a judge himself.
Ivan Ilych gets sick. Ivan Ilych is dying. His common death will be like many of our own deaths, a release from the mistakes of our lives, the pain of our failed living, both emotionally and physically, our failed bodies giving out and what a relief, I guess, it will be. Will we get a bright light at the end? Sure, I don’t know.
But I really do feel better.
Somehow the random godless universe of this essay you are reading has produced a perfect pear in nature and somehow I have stepped here to find it drooping on a branch low enough for me to reach flatfooted.
I bite into the pear, ripe and sweet.
Burning all my novels and scattering the ashes really was the best thing this toe ever did for his health.
Do I like how the voice actor who read me Moby Dick, was from London rather than Nantucket, fuck no.
Do I like that the woman who read me The Divine Comedy was clearly from San Diego? Even worse.
Did I enjoy that the guy reading Swann’s Way had the thickest Alabama accent I’ve ever heard? Sure, I’m gonna live. I’m gonna live, I’ve never felt so good. I’m gonna call my eye doctor and beg her to murmur War and Peace in that soothing voice of hers, and I will find the orchard keepers and they will play it over the loudspeakers so I can close my eyes and still do backflips on an endless trampoline, under bluer skies, gnawing ever riper pears plucked from ever higher branches.
"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.