Tuesday, October 10, 2023

“Read Any Good Books Lately?” • by Pete Wood


Sarah raced into her apartment and grabbed the ringing phone. “Hello?”

“Have you read Catcher in the Rye?” a voice asked.

Sarah caught her breath. She hadn’t stopped rushing around since work. Dinner and that new movie, Star Wars, with friends.

“Is this a survey?” she asked. She tried to open the fridge, but the phone cord didn’t quite make it.

“Yeah, I guess this does sound kinda weird,” the man said. “I just finished The Bell Jar, and the ending didn’t exactly thrill me. Made me think of Catcher in the Rye. I just want to talk to somebody about it.”

The clock in Sarah’s cramped galley kitchen said 9:58. She’d always been taught that calls after ten p.m. were rude. This guy was pushing it.

“Why are you calling me?” Sarah asked.

“I checked out The Bell Jar from the library. I’m calling everybody who’s name is on the back page. Only seven people have checked out the book since 1973. You’re the third person. The first guy didn’t answer. The second hadn’t even heard of Catcher in the Rye.”

“Who are you?” Calling everybody? Kinda nuts, but she kinda admired his seat-of-the-pants plan. At least he wasn’t stuck in a rut.

“Sorry. Andre. Um, Andre Levesque.” Another pause. “You’re Sarah O’Brien, right? You checked out the book on May 18, 1976.”


“I’m not a psycho,” Andre said. “I work at Levesque and Levesque. They’re a law firm. My dad and uncle are the Levesques. I just wanted to talk to somebody—”

“About The Bell Jar? At ten p.m.”

“Yeah, I guess this is kinda strange. I had a couple of beers with friends and got home and—”

“Just had to know about The Bell Jar.”

“And Catcher in the Rye.”

“I got to go,” Sarah said.


The secretary patched her through to Andre. Based on the background noise, Levesque and Levesque was a pretty busy place.

“Andre Levesque,” he said in a bored voice.

“I’ve perused Catcher in the Rye,” Sarah said. “J. D. Salinger is about the only author who gets how teenagers talk. I don’t know how models talk. I can’t speak for Sylvia Plath.”

“Sarah?” Andre asked with new interest.


“I didn’t expect to hear from you. I woke up the fourth call.”

“I didn’t expect you to work at a real law firm.”

“Oh, the firm’s real,” he said. “But I don’t always feel like a real attorney.”

“You know misery loves company,” she said.


“Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood. Both depressed. Both living in New York. Both need friends. They deserve each other.”

“Exactly!” Andre said. “The books are kinda two sides of the same coin.” He talked rapidly with vigor about his theories.

“Look,” she said. “I’m sure you have work to do.”

“You ever been to Nate’s Deli?” he blurted out. 


Sarah got a table far from the door and waited. Even though she found the brisk November wind invigorating, she didn’t need it whipping across her face during lunch.

A tall man wearing a trench coat came in and scanned the crowd. She waved.

He laid his gloves and coat on an empty chair. He wore a burnt-orange corduroy suitcoat. “Sarah, nice to meet you.” He blew on his hands.

She smiled. “Mutual.”

“What do you think of Lenny Shepherd and Mr. Antolini?”

She blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You know, Holden Caulfield’s teacher and Esther’s friend’s boyfriend. Both take advantage of—”

She held up her hand. “I don’t know who they are.”

“Sure you do. They’re integral to the books. The themes they—”

“I didn’t read the books.”

Andre blinked. “What?”

“I mean, I didn’t finish the books. They’re kinda pretentious. I tried to read them, but, damn, the two protagonists were so unlikeable.”

“They’re classics.”

Sarah took a sip of coffee. “Yeah. Classics. I’m glad you liked them, but I’m tired of reading books I’m supposed to like. Those lists seem sort of arbitrary.”

“The books are on those lists for a reason.”

She fished in her bag and brought out Arthur Hailey’s Airport. “I’d rather read something like this. It’s not exactly deep, but it sucks me in.”

“You said you read the books.”

She shook her head and put the book on the table. “Nope. You assumed. I didn’t sign an affidavit, Andre. I just read enough to have a half-assed conversation.”

“Maybe you should give books like Catcher in the Rye a chance.”

She laughed. “Andre, I have a masters in English from McGill. I’ve given books like that plenty of chances, but I read what I want to read.” She opened up the back cover of Airport. “What was it you said last night? Only seven people had checked out The Bell Jar in four years. Look at how many checked out Airport just in 1977. There’s a reason for that.”

“They’re good books even if people don’t always read them.”

“That’s true sometimes, but others only stay in libraries because English professors keep assigning them.”

“My professors assigned them.”

She shrugged. “I assign the classics to my kids. But I also have them read Micky Spillane and Farley Mowat and this new guy, Stephen King. I let them pick their own books too. Sometimes hacks become classics.”

“You teach?”

“Three years at Carleton. Haven’t made tenure. They think I’m a little unconventional, but I’m still there.”

Andre stared at the menu board. “You like corned beef? They have amazing corned beef here.”


“What else do you like to do besides read?” she asked Andre in line.

“A lot of stuff. Skiing in the Gatineau. I watch The Rockford Files and James Bond movies.”

“And you like beer and cold calls.”

He laughed. “Yeah.”

“I love skiing, but I’m partial to Neil Simon.”

The Goodbye Girl.” He cleared his throat. “Do you think I could borrow Airport sometime?”


“You got a reading list for your class?”

She reached into her purse. “As a matter of fact…”

Photo by Lee Baker
Pete Wood is an attorney from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to becoming a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

For the past two years Pete has been in the process of evolving into a fiction editor, God help him, first with The Pete Wood Challenge, then with Dawn of Time, then with The Odin Chronicles, and now with Tales from the Brahma, a shared world saga that features the creative work of Roxana Arama, Gustavo Bondoni, Carol Scheina, Patricia Miller, Jason Burnham, and of course, Pete Wood. We suspect that Pete’s real love is theater, though, as evidenced by his short movie, Quantum Doughnut — which you can stream, if you follow the foregoing link.

Pete Wood photo by Lee Baker.


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Anonymous said...

Great story! But sometimes the classics are great reads too!

Pete Wood said...

Thanks for reading! I agree with you about the classics.
I love Catcher in the Rye. I somehow didn't get around to reading it until my fifties, but well worth the wait.