"There are few experiences more interactive," says Stewart McBride of United Digital Artists, "than slouching in a leather armchair with a great book."
For me, that means a book that wrecks my day and compels me to read it straight through. I pick it up, expecting nothing, and the next thing I know, hours have passed, the screen saver is blinking, and the answering machine tape is filled. I couldn't care less. If I have to go out and I haven't finished, the book goes with me; I read in elevators, cabs, and as I walk down the street.
This book-possession hit me with gale force when I idly opened Marion Winik's FIRST COMES LOVE at lunch. By dinnertime, I was cruising toward the finish and reading in a taxi cab --- and not thrilled to walk into the restaurant and see that the people I was meeting were already there. I took my seat and announced, "Tony is just about to die." And then, eyes brimming with tears, I read to the end of the book.
Tony is lanky and funny and achingly smart. He is also gay and a hog for drugs that work best with needles. Marion's not daunted. The day she meets him in New Orleans, she "borrows" three bags of heroin from her sister's stash, and he buys some needles, and they settle in to a routine that will be rich in intoxication and very, very short on sex. No matter --- Marion marries Tony. Has two children with him. Cheats on him even as he lies to her. Fights with him, and breaks up with him. And, despite her exhaustion at ten years of a patently unworkable romance, stays there when AIDS leads him to more drugs and a surprisingly tender ending.
It's a horror story and a love story, but mostly, it's a true story stripped of "fine writing" or cheap analysis. But Winik is more than naturally gifted --- she's a veteran writer of technical manuals for software. I wondered how that writing affected her book. So I called her.
"I loved math in school," Marion Winik told me, from her home in Austin, Texas. "I was attracted to the clean beauty of programming --- and I also noticed that the programmers at TynLabs were sexy young guys. So I began writing manuals for systems level software, stuff for compilers and backup utilities and terminal emulators. There was lots more than 'Press FB to see the next screen.'"
Beyond the daily need to write simple, clear language, Winik learned something else. "I had been a poet, and I thought you needed magic to write," she said. "I discovered that you can just sit down at nine and start writing, and then stop at five."
Four years into that routine, her writing block disappeared, and she started writing the personal essays that lead to the clear, confessional style of FIRST COMES LOVE. She started the book six months after Tony died, and, once she hit her stride, went right to the end.
FIRST COMES LOVE is must reading for every gay junkie married to a woman who wants kids. But many more, I think, will find something so compelling in Winik's story that I won't be the only reader who couldn't put it down. So, for the immediate future, drivers should be on the lookout for inattentive pedestrians carrying a book with a picture of a poetic beauty --- the author --- on the cover. Don't scream at them, please. Tony is dying.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 22, 2011
First Comes Love