The Great American Read, Part 6

2 min

When we’re adrift, a great novel can help us find our place. For Erin Van Rheenen it was a Raymond Chandler classic.

Think of all the books left behind by travelers at hotels around the world. This story starts with just such a collection, at a beach hotel in Costa Rica, the usual assortment of novels you’d never buy and self-help books promising quick fixes.

I could have used some fixing. I’d quit my job, left my marriage, and was on the run from a country I no longer recognized. Before you get any ideas, this was back when George Bush was making us wonder just what it meant to be American.

I was about to get an unexpected answer.

The paperback had been left out in the rain, drying warped and ridged. Its title matched its watery history: "The Lady in the Lake," by Raymond Chandler.

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I knew about Chandler. But both as reader and writer, I aimed higher than his dangerous dames and wisecracking weisenheimers.

But this time around, I fell hard for the character of Philip Marlow, plainspoken PI, with no illusions about himself or anyone else. A man who’s “as honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style.”

Then there was the young woman, “playful and eager, but unsure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.” Or the handsome hunk, “six feet of your standard type of homewrecker.” And I loved the unexpected poetry of a body drifting up from the depths with “an infinitely careless languor.”

I myself was adrift, but the image didn’t scare me. In fact, the book struck me as wonderful, and quintessentially American.

It was a world bare of pretense, almost cheerful in its bleakness. It embodied the best of us in the worst of times: ready to walk the mean streets, to stare reality straight in the face.

I thanked Chandler for delivering to me a version of America that I could not only live with, but be proud of.

I left the book for the next traveler. You never know when someone might need a good PI.

With a Perspective, I'm Erin Van Rheenen.

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Erin Van Rheenen is the author of a guide to Costa Rica, and is working on a novel set there. Her Perspective is part of KQED’s collaboration with PBS on "The Great American Read."

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