Several years ago, as an interminable mediation of a high-profile trademark case stretched into the wee hours of the night, I stepped outside my crazy client’s breakout room to get another cup of coffee and found the mediator–the late and beloved Dick Sher–seated at a table in the lunchroom sipping his own cup of coffee and reading one of the short stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners. Grateful for a chance to discuss something other than damages issues in the lawsuit, I joined him at the table.
Turned out we were both English majors in college, and our favorite short story of all time was “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the stories in his Dubliners. But, I confessed to Dick, as much as I loved that short story, I was embarrassed to admit that I had tried to read Ulysses at least three times but never got past the first chapter.
“Really?” Dick said. “That’s my favorite novel. I’ve read it several times. Tell you what: find a few others willing to take it on and I will lead the group through the novel.”
And so I did. While it was a bit of challenge to find anyone–much less a half dozen–willing to join a Ulysses reading group, I finally gathered them all. Over the next few months, we met every other week to discuss the chapters for that session’s homework assignment. And we made it all the way through the novel, which some of us loved and some us, well, did not love. I was somewhere in the middle–deeply moved by several sections of the novel and deeply exasperated by other sections.
All of which made it inevitable that Rachel Gold’s best buddy, Benny Goldberg, would eventually weigh in on one of the more surprising scenes in Ulysses. And he eventually did so during a midnight stakeout with Rachel in the novel Face Value. Here’s Benny, in all us unique and off-color glory:
“Do you remember our nighttime stakeout a few years ago,” Benny asked. “We were at that self-storage operation out by the airport?”
I thought back. “Vaguely.”
“Then you may also recall that while we were sitting there in your car waiting for something to happen I provided you with some enlightened commentary on an important gap in world literature.”
“You mean your demented rant on why no one in a novel ever makes a poop?”
“A ‘poop’? Did you just say ‘poop’? Good grief, Rachel. That is proof of the detrimental side effects of raising a child. But back to my commentary. It was a thoughtful and, if I may say, a profound discourse on the noteworthy absence of a certain bodily function from the novel. Great characters in world literature eat and sleep and eat some more and occasionally fuck but they never ever take a shit. Huck and Jim on that raft for weeks, Captain Ahab on his ship, Jay Gatsby in his mansion, and even Tarzan in the fucking jungle, for God’s sake. Nary a dump.”
I sighed. “Yes, Benny, I do recall that rant.”
“Well, my dear, I must amend it.”
“I finally dragged myself through that James Joyce piece of shit—no pun intended.”
“Of course not. No one has ever read that book. Anyone who claims they have is full of shit. Again, no pun intended.”
“You read it?”
Benny shrugged. “Sort of.”
“What does that mean?”
“To quote the great Lord Arthur Balfour, ‘He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the more refined art of skipping and skimming.’ Try to read Ulysses. You’ll see what I mean.”
“So what caused you to amend your prior diatribe?”
“A massive dump. In Chapter Two. Probably the biggest one in the history of world literature. And guess what? It’s by a member of the tribe.”
“You got it. Leopold Bloom. You’d be proud of him. And then, near the end of the book, Leo and that other guy—that pretentious putz from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—they stand side by side under the night sky and take huge pisses together.”
“That is an endorsement worthy of a dust jacket blurb.”