Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | August 21, 2008

Reading “The Dos”

Yes, I’ve broken down and begun reading “The Dos”. And no, that’s not Dos as in Dos Pasos or in MS-DOS, but Dostoevsky. Yep. Dostoevsky as in “Are you kiddin’ me? it’s a thick Russian book?” “Puttin’ on airs again? Gonna paint yo’self as some sort pointy head?” As if. And I’m not sure why he’s “The Dos” other than that “The Toe” or “The Odor” just didn’t seem right.

Note that this absolutely goes against so many of my mottoes about thick books and sets so many potential dangerous precedents that I had to say something. Could mean I have to read all those other thick books misguided folks have given me to flatter my ego and fatten my head… or maybe I’ve got that backwards. I’m not really serious enough as a person to read these things… really. Could mean I’ll have to start looking for some new doorstops, or stop pleading inwardly every time I get one. Job’s hand written list of “My Trials” included “Thick Books” right there at pole position number four (maybe you missed his rough draft).

I remember when my Mom was pleased to start bringing me books to read, I was equally sure something had gone horribly wrong. “What happened to the pictures?” She explained good books had fewer and fewer and as I’d get older and better at reading I’d start reading books without any… and like it. Like that’ll happen. All I knew is that it sure didn’t look that way. Words. Indecipherable letters. Blocks and blocks of them. No one even knew what they meant. No one. Least of all me.

Kind of like vegetables every night – cold by the time I’d get to them – all lumped together and scarey looking. Just like the words lurking in her books. No one could explain what they were doing on my plate. Especially me. “I think these were meant for you.”‘ “No… and you aren’t you finished, either.” “Sure I am.” “Doesn’t look like it.” “Does to me.” “The vegetables?” “Look fine right where they are.” “Hmmmm. Y’know there’s no dessert if you don’t…” “Yep.” Henry Kissinger dropped by a few times just to add gravitas, and date the situation, but mostly, this was a style of negotiation I could handle. But then she’d slide in the closer: “Doesn’t matter. We’ll wait right here ’til you do.” “This century, or next?” “Right.” Cold. Nasty. “Would’ve tasted better a half hour ago.” “Not in my book.” “But what about ‘The Dos’s’ book?” “Ah… too thick to tell.” “Punctuation’s could be a little sketch, there bub.” “As if.”

So like eating your vegetables, making the bed in the morning, or cutting the grass – there were things you did that first time as a surprise, to please someone, that only seemed to backfire into sudden responsibilities. You didn’t know it at the time… you just wanted to make someone happy. But there’s a catch in that… it’s a formula that can’t be reversed… like crossing the streams… or Kelly in Nantucket…and you’re stuck before you know it. Folks get expectations, requirements get handed out, and protesting the inhumanity of it all or lack of union representation just doesn’t seem to cut much slack. “This is all just a big misunderstanding.” “No sir. This is not a democracy.” So autocratic… so momish. Ever notice how slack was something “they” were decidedly against… and “they” were always right when “they” were your parents, but somehow always wrong when “they” were your buddies? Yeah… just another one of those axioms that still doesn’t work out right. Nevertheless, the fun was gone, the dream “got died”, and the “Nightmare on My Street” morphed. Yep.. those were the days.

Fact is, in one of my more cantankerous moments of protest over who knows what, I ran away. I guess I was about five at the time. Packed a sweater in my toy “Little Handyman” tool box and went up the street for a few minutes. Possibly two. Might have been different if it hadn’t started raining as I trotted down the front walk. And Mom probably watched from the kitchen window when I left, but I couldn’t see her… sure didn’t want to either. What I remember is that she sure didn’t follow the game plan. ‘Stead of racing after me like I figured, she played coy. So while I thought about going to California.. that seemed like just a “statement”. Some place closer would have to do. Besides, my 25 cents wasn’t covering much in air fare, and the cabs weren’t exactly stopping on my dead end street for many short guys like me. By then it was looking more like a tee storm, a metal tool kit seemed a bad idea, and a nice dry house a better. Thankfully, Mom tried not to look when I came back in. Peeled a carrot in the sink or something …like nothing was going on.

“I see you’re back.”
“Yeah, it started raining… and I couldn’t figure out where to go.”
“Will you be sticking around?”
“Maybe. If I don’t go to California first. What’s for dinner?”
“Carrots and peas.”
“Tommy’s got grilled cheeses next door…”
“Might find some chocolate pudding…”
“I could be home for dessert…”

Dinner remained a negotiation until high school when the ravenous teenage thing hit, and even the boxes looked good. Vegetable still tasted.. which is not to say bad… but better would have been not at all… like when you were too hungry and tired to notice… the way your folks liked you best. Still, the category of safe foods was expanding. And of course by that time, Pizza had been invented and I’d learned from my Dad to eat defensively: PB&J’s, cereal, chocolate milk, or whatever could immunize the system from the worst dinners on the planet. Grandma was w-a-a-a-y worse. Fire in all its forms was a frequent side dish. And yes, “way” has to be an adverb ’cause “worser” isn’t a word. Yet. And I do know my grammar even if my spelling’s sometimes inaccessible.

Not like “The Dos”. He’s always on his game. The guy writes for the heavens; I’m strictly pro bono, a guy favoring the simpler places. Maybe I’m still altitude challenged. He likes to deal with the big ideas; even writes books without pictures. Okay… I know I’m a little thin here on the site with the multi media bit, but it’s not ’cause I’ve got ideas. It’s just that I can’t find my collection of etchings. Been too busy trying to duck the Broccoli at dinner parties. I mean, like my father-in-law put it, “When I was a kid Broccoli hadn’t even been invented.” Man knows what he’s talking about. Food from some freak horror show. Just what we need. Bio-engineering gone bad. The first and only real Franken Food. No, George Bush, Sr. wasn’t kidding: “Real plague on a plate.”

So let me say this about “The Dos”: The boy can write. Sure, a picture wouldn’t kill him here and there. But it’s not nearly as bad as P.G. Wodehouse makes it out. In truth, I suspect P.G. positively loved the stuff:

“No wonder Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoi’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka-bottle empty.”


“If he had been a character in a Russian novel, he would have gone and hanged himself in the barn. As it was, he merely sat staring before him and keeping perfectly rigid.”

and most of all:

“Mr. Devine,” replied Adeline, blushing faintly, “is going to be a great man. Already he has achieved much. The critics say that he is more Russian than any other young English writer.”

“And is that good?”

“Of course it’s good.”

“I should have thought the wheeze would be to be more English than any other young English writer.”

“Nonsense ! Who wants an English writer to be English ? You’ve got to be Russian or Spanish or something to be a real success. The mantle of the great Russians has descended on Mr. Devine.”

“From what I’ve heard of Russians, I should hate to have that happen to me.”

One could go on. Two would think of something better to do, and three… well… that’s higher math for most of us. But “The Dos”… even with a first name that would doom an American boy to a Russian future.. I mean seriously… Fyodor? What were his parents thinking? Dogmeat USA? No wonder they go around shooting themselves. But did I say the boy can write? Even after the shooting?

‘Round ’bout now, if this were a school book report I’d be checking the page counter and turning off the “Sweat It Out Zone” sign. Probably switch the margins or line spacing back to normal now that I’m “clear”. Better, let me apologize for running the babbling brook a bit and try to wind this up. Fact is, I’m simply not finished. Indeed, I’m no further than the Grand Inquisitor. But P.G. had it right: English folks don’t write like this. They don’t even think like this. All I can say is that if thinking like “The Dos” and having a Russian soul is what it takes to be Orthodox… I’m in deep trouble.

But I keep slogging…

Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide. It was tough going for a man whose deepest reading hitherto had been Vardon on the Push-Shot, and there can be no greater proof of the magic of love than the fact that Cuthbert stuck to it without a cry.

The story of my life. So you’d think this has got to attest to a love for this ancient church… or just sheer lunacy or something. I mean… I have my “issues”, and if it were cold turkey… I mean reading this without 150 years of acclaim and all that… I might have thrown in the towel about page five-oh. But something did happen about page 125 where we finally finish the introductions… but maybe it wasn’t in the book but on the other side. And then all of a sudden, there’s too much all at once and you’re carrying the phone book with you everywhere you go. Like maybe you can’t dial information? Anyway… it’s enough to get a dude into some serious image problems. The truth is, through vignettes of Russian life, “The Dos” nails things right and left about our faith… but fairly, he doesn’t paint a Norman Rockwell portrait of it either. And there is far more disbelief and out-right hostility to the Church, more drunk and disorderly despicable and petty behavior, more outright late 20th century American-style depravity than I expected. So maybe some of us regular folks have a shot after all…

But don’t tell anybody. And especially don’t tell anybody that I’ve actually bowed to the icon that says we must read Russian literature if we’re going to understand what it is to be Orthodox. Well… maybe they have a point… and…. maybe it helps. And maybe… I should make clear that yes, I actually like this stuff. But not everyone is wired up the same… and it seems like it’s sure gonna make for an awful small church if this is really what it takes! And maybe… maybe we could get by with just the Cliff Notes or the Classic Comic Book version.


  1. If you want to take a shortcut to understanding Russian spirituality, go rent “The Island”. I have a post about it on my blog.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion… seen it; reviewed it; it was fine.

    The Dos vs. the Island? IMHO, The Island is a vignette. The Dos is a mosaic of vignettes. I don’t think there was anything in The Island like the first part of The Bros that so convicted me, and drew me in. The Island is very much an observation of a group of monks and their problems, rather than a illumination of enough different circumstances, as in The Bros K, where mine would be included.

    And it’s not that I’m looking for a short cut… my life is a series of finding the “long cuts”… it’s just that like the piece I wrote on Orthodoxy and Books, here we are again.

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