Thursday, July 12, 2018

Book Review: 'This World Or Any Other World,' Onward With Arnold Schnabel

Much has happened in the temporal world in the 18 months since publication of Dan Leo's other wordly Railroad Train to Heaven, but it's still a Saturday night in August 1963 in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey in This World or Any Other World: Volume Two of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel. 
For those of you trapped in the rudeness of the here and now, Arnold is a self-effacing poet from Northeast Philadelphia who, as I gushed in my glowing review of the first
volume, is the tragicomic exemplar of "a simpler time when both culture and soda were pop," rock 'n' roll was here to stay and there was a song "about what someone would do if they had a hammer."  
Arnold is on indefinite leave from the Reading Railroad and recovering from a mental breakdown in the Cape May guest house of his three maiden aunts. Home is the rowhouse neighborhood of Olney in Philadelphia's Near Northeast where he lives with his widowed mother and has worked as a brakeman for the Reading all his adult life.   At 42, he is familiarly if obscurely known as the Rhyming Brakeman and a guilt-burdened Catholic on the verge of a binge of mortal sinning.  
Socially inept in the extreme, Arnold enjoys drinking manhattan cocktails and Schaefer's beer.  (Or Ortlieb's if they're out of Schaefer's.)  But ensconced in the Victorian drear of Cape May, where the liberating ocean seems more than a few short blocks away, he falls in lust and then love with the exotic Elektra, a Bohemian jeweler with whom he (repeatedly) mortally sins and careens into a series of sometimes hallucinatory and fantastical experiences involving the people ordinary and famous -- and an unusual number of townies with special powers -- who parade through This World or Any Other World with an insouciance of which Thomas Boswell, that most astute of observers, would heartily approve.   
These characters include Jesus, the Son of God guy, who appears at inopportune moments in a rumpled tropical suit, stained fedora, loosened tie and sandals, like Arnold smokes Pall Malls and is always in need of a light.  Jesus possibly excepted, they see Arnold's waltz with lunacy as brilliance.
How often I had stood hanging onto the end of a railroad car, smoking a cigarette and looking at men and women and children getting on or off the train, their faces for the most part serious, each face the center of a universe, and there was I, the center of my own universe, a steel handrail under one hand and a Pall Mall in the other, and in my brain a lifetime of moments culminating in this moment already receding into all the rest.  No wonder I went to daily mass for many years.  I needed something to assure me that all these mysterious universes were not in aid of only their own brief continuance. No wonder I wound up going insane. 
I suppose that depends upon how you define insane, because some pretty crazy stuff happens.  Such as Arnold opening the pages of a dusty tome proffered by a kindly curio shop owner and going back in time and then having to save the known universe from destruction at the claws of the shop owner's cat, stepping outside his body and flying high above himself, visiting God's house in Heaven, having manhattans (natch) with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack aboard an enormous spaceship, and meeting Clarissa, a 73-year-old baby doll with a sweet porcelain face and a sour attitude. 
What makes all of this work, elevating Arnold's seaside hejira from the merely madcap, is that his adventures reliably impart deeper meanings, especially his interactions with that Son of God guy. 
As in when Arnold realizes that he can fly.
It occurred to me that perhaps just because I was able to do something did not mean I should do it. . . . But then again, how should I know what I should or shouldn't do, except by trying? 
I felt the earth turning beneath me, with me on it, and pulsing among the oak leaves above I saw what looked like an enormous radioactive centipede squashed against the night sky, but it was probably only the Milky Way.
Volume One concluded with Arnold ascending the guest house stairs to the second-floor loo, and This World or Any Other World begins as he comes back downstairs.   
Only Jesus knows what will happen next.  
In less deft hands, more of more or less the same might have made this sequel lest interesting, and there is indeed a danger of too much of the same in future volumes.  After all, even mortal sinning can become humdrum after a while. 
But Leo writes with the descriptive richness of Marcel Proust (whom Arnold met in Volume One), the open-tap consciousness of Jack Kerouac and whimsy of Terry Pratchett with a dollop of Philip K. Dick.  Then there is the seductive pulpiness of L. Sprague de Camp, hence the . . . uh, campy book cover illustrations.  (As Arnold himself notes, "I would probably never read [a book if it] didn't look like it was about a guy caught in a deadly spiral of violence and forbidden passion.")
And so This World or Any Other World already has me looking forward to Volume Three.

This World or Any Other World is available at Amazon. 

1 comment:

Dan Leo said...

Thank you very much for the kind and generous review, Shaun! And I don't want to give anything away, but Volume Three will find Arnold striking off, willy nilly, into some quite different explorations of this world and perhaps some other worlds...