Books that make you stand at the bus stop

Last month I picked up a cheap used copy of Rupert Thomson’s Air & Fire at Freebird. Although I idolize Thomson, I’d only read his four most recent novels when I interviewed him, and I keep meaning to work backward, chronologically, through the early ones.

James Hynes says Air & Fire, set in 1890s Baja Califonia, is Thomson’s “most conventionally plotted and structured novel,” with “no overtly surreal or fantastic elements, but even so, it still feels more like a dream than like a realistic historical novel.” He’s right: it does have that gauzy nightmarish quality that distinguishes a Thomson work from any other.

Very, very occasionally the dreamlives of some characters feel slightly rote — or at least manufactured — in this book. But my God, is it a page-turner. You suspect early-on that a Frenchman’s efforts to build a metal church in the tropics will lead to disaster for everyone, but the characters and their desires are so fully-realized that you’re desperate to see exactly what form their tragedies will take. Or I was, anyway.

I had about fifty pages left to go when I met a friend for drinks on Thursday night. She and I parted ways at midnight, and I rushed over to the bus stop near Greenpoint Ave. It’s at most a ten-minute walk to my house from there. I couldn’t wait. I leaned against a pole, let the buses pass, and read until I finished. Losing myself in books like that was what drew me to reading as a child, but the experience is increasingly rare.

These days I abandon 95% of the books I start before page 50. Since Annie’s already calling for your summer reading lists, I thought I’d ask: what’s the last book that made you skip work, or stay up half the night, or forget yourself at stoplights?

Image of the Lorimer/Driggs bus stop in Greenpoint taken from Clusterflock.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.