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Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by Cory Doctorow; narrated by the author

GoodReads says I’ve been reading Someone Comes to Town since 3 April. That’s when I discovered and downloaded the back-episodes of Cory Doctorow’s ongoing reading of his novel. It finished last week and I’m pleased.

The book tells the story of a man in a magical family of oddities: his father is a mountain, his mother a washing machine. He’s got a bunch of magical brothers, including an evil one. The main character also undertakes crazy maker projects, like sanding his entire house and filling it with bookshelves. And helping a dumpster-diver build a citywide free wifi network.

It’s an enchanting book with major drama and a good arc, but it’s in the little details that it really succeeds. The sections about network philosophy could be excised from the magical horrorshow and be their own thing. A few other thoughts:

  • More than some of Doctorow’s other books, I feel like there are a lot of tangents or threads that weave in and out of the story but don’t get resolved. Under that umbrella of real-life’s unexplained and unrelated events, the magical elements of the story stay in bounds, and the story doesn’t feel like a cheat.
  • There’s an amusing twist in the idea that Alan (the main character) and his other brothers are each named ordinally, using the alphabet for their first initials. The names themselves are less important, so the narrator and characters refer to Alan by any random A name. It’s a little disconcerting early on but it works later.
  • That the audio-book is being performed by the author gives the interpretive elements a distinction and value that are just great. The down side, however, is that the timely updates on Doctorow’s status will seem odd and annoying in archived versions of the book. I also tired of the cuckoo clock. I like it, but Doctorow commented about how he liked it every darn time it went off.
  • I mentioned the book shelf project above, but I wanted to quote the relevant passage below. It’s the bibliophile’s fantasy.
  • I’ve pondered the title, which doesn’t have the utilitarian title like Eastern Standard Tribe or the jaunty zazz of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Zazz aside, I don’t understand it. It could refer to Alan’s brothers, who interrupt his wacky life in his polished-wood bookshelf house. He could be both, the person who comes and the person who leaves.

Anyhow, worth a look or listen if you’re into his books or this sounds interesting to you.

The Book fantasy, from Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, follows after the break.

He’d put the word out when he bought the house on Wales Avenue to all his protégés: Wooden bookcases! His cell-phone rang every day, bringing news of another wooden bookcase found at this flea market, that thrift store, this rummage sale or estate auction.

He had a man he used part-time, Tony, who ran a small man-with-van service, and when the phone rang, he’d send Tony over to his protégé’s shop with his big panel van to pick up the case and deliver it to the cellar of the house on Wales Avenue, which was ramified by cold storages, root cellars, disused coal chutes and storm cellars. By the time Alan had finished with his sanding, every nook and cranny of the cellar was packed with wooden bookcases of every size and description and repair.

Alan worked through the long Toronto winter at his sanding. The house had been gutted by the previous owners, who’d had big plans for the building but had been tempted away by a job in Boston. They’d had to sell fast, and no amount of realtor magic—flowers on the dining-room table, soup simmering on the stove—could charm away the essential dagginess of the gutted house, the exposed timbers with sagging wires and conduit, the runnels gouged in the floor by careless draggers of furniture. Alan got it for a song, and was delighted by his fortune.

He was drunk on the wood, of course, and would have paid much more had the realtor noticed this, but Alan had spent his whole life drunk on trivial things from others’ lives that no one else noticed and he’d developed the alcoholic’s knack of disguising his intoxication. Alan went to work as soon as the realtor staggered off, reeling with a New Year’s Day hangover. He pulled his pickup truck onto the frozen lawn, unlocked the Kryptonite bike lock he used to secure the camper bed, and dragged out his big belt sander and his many boxes of sandpaper of all grains and sizes, his heat strippers and his jugs of caustic chemical peeler. He still had his jumbled, messy place across town in a nondescript two-bedroom on the Danforth, would keep on paying the rent there until his big sanding project was done and the house on Wales Avenue was fit for habitation.

Alan’s sanding project: First, finish gutting the house. Get rid of the substandard wiring, the ancient, lead-leaching plumbing, the cracked tile and water-warped crumbling plaster. He filled a half-dozen dumpsters, working with Tony and Tony’s homie Nat, who was happy to help out in exchange for cash on the barrelhead, provided that he wasn’t required to report for work on two consecutive days, since he’d need one day to recover from the heroic drinking he’d do immediately after Alan laid the cash across his palm.

Once the house was gutted to brick and timber and delirious wood, the plumbers and the electricians came in and laid down their straight shining ducts and pipes and conduit.

Alan tarped the floors and brought in the heavy sandblaster and stripped the age and soot and gunge off of the brickwork throughout, until it glowed red as a golem’s ass.

Alan’s father, the mountain, had many golems that called him home. They lived round the other side of his father and left Alan and his brothers alone, because even a golem has the sense not to piss off a mountain, especially one it lives in.

Then Alan tackled the timbers, reaching over his head with palm-sanders and sandpaper of ever finer grains until the timbers were as smooth as Adirondack chairs, his chest and arms and shoulders athrob with the agony of two weeks’ work. Then it was the floorwork, but not the floors themselves, which he was saving for last on the grounds that they were low-hanging fruit.

This materialized a new lecture in his mind, one about the proper role of low-hanging fruit, a favorite topic of MBAs who’d patronize his stores and his person, giving him unsolicited advice on the care and feeding of his shops based on the kind of useless book-learning and jargon-slinging that Fortune 100 companies apparently paid big bucks for. When an MBA said “low-hanging fruit,” he meant “easy pickings,” something that could and should be snatched with minimal effort. But real low-hanging fruit ripens last, and should be therefore picked as late as possible. Further, picking the low-hanging fruit first meant that you’d have to carry your bushel basket higher and higher as the day wore on, which was plainly stupid. Low-hanging fruit was meant to be picked last. It was one of the ways that he understood people, and one of the kinds of people that he’d come to understand. That was the game, after all—understanding people.

So the floors would come last, after the molding, after the stairs, after the railings and the paneling. The railings, in particular, were horrible bastards to get clean, covered in ten or thirty coats of enamel of varying colors and toxicity. Alan spent days working with a wire brush and pointed twists of steel wool and oozing stinging paint stripper, until the grain was as spotless and unmarked as the day it came off the lathe.

Then he did the floors, using the big rotary sander first. It had been years since he’d last swung a sander around—it had been when he opened the tin-toy shop in Yorkville and he’d rented one while he was prepping the place. The technique came back to him quickly enough, and he fell into a steady rhythm that soon had all the floors cool and dry and soft with naked, exposed woody heartmeat. He swept the place out and locked up and returned home.

The next day, he stopped at the Portuguese contractor-supply on Ossington that he liked. They opened at five a.m., and the men behind the counter were always happy to sketch out alternative solutions to his amateur construction problems, they never mocked him for his incompetence, and always threw in a ten percent “contractor’s discount” for him that made him swell up with irrational pride that confused him. Why should the son of a mountain need affirmation from runty Portugees with pencil stubs behind their ears and scarred fingers? He picked up a pair of foam-rubber knee pads and a ten-kilo box of lint-free shop rags and another carton of disposable paper masks.

He drove to the house on Wales Avenue, parked on the lawn, which was now starting to thaw and show deep muddy ruts from his tires. He spent the next twelve hours crawling around on his knees, lugging a tool bucket filled with sandpaper and steel wool and putty and wood-crayons and shop rags. He ran his fingertips over every inch of floor and molding and paneling, feeling the talc softness of the sifted sawdust, feeling for rough spots and gouges, smoothing them out with his tools. He tried puttying over the gouges in the flooring that he’d seen the day he took possession, but the putty seemed like a lie to him, less honest than the gouged-out boards were, and so he scooped the putty out and sanded the grooves until they were as smooth as the wood around them.

Next came the beeswax, sweet and shiny. It almost broke his heart to apply it, because the soft, newly exposed wood was so deliciously tender and sensuous. But he knew that wood left to its own would eventually chip and splinter and yellow. So he rubbed wax until his elbows ached, massaged the wax into the wood, buffed it with shop rags so that the house shone.

Twenty coats of urethane took forty days—a day to coat and a day to dry. More buffing and the house took on a high shine, a slippery slickness. He nearly broke his neck on the slippery staircase treads, and the Portuguese helped him out with a bag of clear grit made from ground walnut shells. He used a foam brush to put one more coat of urethane on each tread of the stairs, then sprinkled granulated walnut shells on while it was still sticky. He committed a rare error in judgment and did the stairs from the bottom up and trapped himself on the third floor, with its attic ceilings and dormer windows, and felt like a goddamned idiot as he curled up to sleep on the cold, hard, slippery, smooth floor while he waited for his stairs to dry. The urethane must be getting to his head.

The bookcases came out of the cellar one by one. Alan wrestled them onto the front porch with Tony’s help and sanded them clean, then turned them over to Tony for urethane and dooring.

The doors were UV-filtering glass, hinged at the top and surrounded by felt on their inside lips so that they closed softly. Each one had a small brass prop-rod on the left side that could brace it open. Tony had been responsible for measuring each bookcase after he retrieved it from Alan’s protégés’ shops and for sending the measurements off to a glazier in Mississauga.

The glazier was technically retired, but he’d built every display case that had ever sat inside any of Alan’s shops and was happy to make use of the small workshop that his daughter and son-in-law had installed in his garage when they retired him to the burbs.

The bookcases went into the house, along each wall, according to a system of numbers marked on their backs. Alan had used Tony’s measurements and some CAD software to come up with a permutation of stacking and shouldering cases that had them completely covering every wall—except for the wall by the mantelpiece in the front parlor, the wall over the countertop in the kitchen, and the wall beside the staircases—to the ceiling.

He and Tony didn’t speak much. Tony was thinking about whatever people who drive moving vans think about, and Alan was thinking about the story he was building the house to write in.

May smelled great in Kensington Market. The fossilized dog shit had melted and washed away in the April rains, and the smells were all springy ones, loam and blossoms and spilled tetrapak fruit punch left behind by the pan-ethnic street-hockey league that formed up spontaneously in front of his house. When the winds blew from the east, he smelled the fish stalls on Spadina, salty and redolent of Chinese barbecue spices. When it blew from the north, he smelled baking bread in the kosher bakeries and sometimes a rare whiff of roasting garlic from the pizzas in the steaming ovens at Massimo’s all the way up on College. The western winds smelled of hospital incinerator, acrid and smoky.

His father, the mountain, had attuned Art to smells, since they were the leading indicators of his moods, sulfurous belches from deep in the caverns when he was displeased, the cold non-smell of spring water when he was thoughtful, the new-mown hay smell from his slopes when he was happy. Understanding smells was something that you did, when the mountain was your father.

Once the bookcases were seated and screwed into the walls, out came the books, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them.

Little kids’ books with loose signatures, ancient first-edition hardcovers, outsized novelty art books, mass-market paperbacks, reference books as thick as cinderblocks. They were mostly used when he’d gotten them, and that was what he loved most about them: They smelled like other people and their pages contained hints of their lives: marginalia and pawn tickets, bus transfers gone yellow with age and smears of long-ago meals. When he read them, he was in three places: his living room, the authors’ heads, and the world of their previous owners.

They came off his shelves at home, from the ten-by-ten storage down on the lakeshore, they came from friends and enemies who’d borrowed his books years before and who’d “forgotten” to return them, but Alan never forgot, he kept every book in a great and deep relational database that had begun as a humble flatfile but which had been imported into successive generations of industrial-grade database software.

This, in turn, was but a pocket in the Ur-database, The Inventory in which Alan had input the value, the cost, the salient features, the unique identifiers, and the photographic record of every single thing he owned, from the socks in his sock drawer to the pots in his cupboard. Maintaining The Inventory was serious business, no less important now than it had been when he had begun it in the course of securing insurance for the bookshop.

Alan was an insurance man’s worst nightmare, a customer from hell who’d messenger over five bankers’ boxes of detailed, cross-referenced Inventory at the slightest provocation.

The books filled the shelves, row on row, behind the dust-proof, light-proof glass doors. The books began in the foyer and wrapped around the living room, covered the wall behind the dining room in the kitchen, filled the den and the master bedroom and the master bath, climbed the short walls to the dormer ceilings on the third floor. They were organized by idiosyncratic subject categories, and alphabetical by author within those categories.


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