Right Place, Wrong Time
By Richard Siken
This Is The Place, by Peter Rock (Anchor Books/Doubleday). Paper, $12.
JULY 28, 1997: YOU CANNOT JUDGE a book by its cover. As trite as the saying has become, it remains nonetheless true. Coffee-table books and other books meant to be displayed may have their covers held to a higher standard, but the rule prevails: You can't judge a book by its cover. Unless, of course, you include the dust jacket.
The cover has one goal only: grab the reader's attention. A dust jacket, on the other hand, sets up expectations. Some might argue that a dust jacket is simply extended book covering; book covering that happens to wrap itself around into the book, creating flaps that have to be filled with something. But hidden from immediate viewing, they fulfill a different function.
Let's say you're in a bookstore, browsing, and a certain picture or splash of color catches your attention. You inch closer to investigate. You pick up the book, holding it in your hands, turning it over, feeling its slightness or its heft. The wisest move at this point would be to begin reading the first page. This exercise would let you know if the author has what it takes to hold your attention. If you find yourself turning the pages, it's likely you'll find the book satisfying.
But you don't read the first page. You don't want to read the first page because you don't have that kind of time, or because, among other things, you don't like starting things you won't finish. Don't despair. This has been anticipated. No one expects you to start reading the book yet. Decisions need not be made on the actual text. There are other clues to be gleaned. The publisher has thought of everything. The publisher has compiled a lot of auxiliary information for you, in the form of a dust jacket, to help you make your decision. The publisher is trying to help you out.
So you're standing there, in the bookstore, with the book in your hands, and you begin inspecting the dust jacket. The format of every book is different, but there are four main things to look for: blurbs, a synopsis, the author's bio, and the author's photograph. Blurbs are the quotes from reviewers and other authors that praise the book. They are usually sprinkled across both the front and back covers and the front and back flaps. Ignore them.
The synopsis tells you what the book is about, in less than a hundred words, and is usually padded with reasons why you should read it. Ignore the reasons why you should read it (you have your own reasons, anyway); this vague overview of plot and characters shouldn't sway your decision either way.
For any work of fiction or poetry, ignore the author's bio. (We allow that works of non-fiction have different rules. While degrees and awards never guarantee a good read, they can let you know if the author knows enough about the subject matter to be taken seriously.)
The author's photograph, however, is another matter completely. Dear reader, if you ever get the opportunity to have a book published, be extremely careful when selecting a photograph of yourself for the dust jacket. Be firm. Be resolved. Do not let your editor or art director unduly influence you. Don't underestimate the power of your face. If we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, then similarly we shouldn't judge an author by his face. But we do. We look at his picture and think, "Do I really want to hear a story from him?"
Let's say you're in a bookstore, any bookstore, and you're holding a copy of This Is The Place, by Peter Rock. It has no blurbs to ignore, which is suspicious, but the synopsis of this "sinister, heartbreaking story" of an aged and lonely blackjack dealer obsessed with a 19-year-old Mormon girl promises to "draw the reader into a world where the supernatural takes on new meaning." There is a picture of Rock on the back flap. His head is about as big as your thumb. He seems like a nice enough guy, so you buy the book, you start to read it.
Here's the problem with author's photographs, the very good reason to not include them in the book jacket material: As you begin to read This Is The Place, you realize that the story is a confession, and that the narrator is supposed to be in his sixties. But he doesn't sound like he's in his sixties. He doesn't have the insight that someone in his sixties would have. You flip to the back flap of the book and look at the photograph of Peter Rock. He looks like he's 24. His bio says he's 30, which isn't 24, but is still a long way away from 60. Why is this young man confessing to the sins of a man twice his age?
You keep reading anyway, reading what seems to be a coming-of-age story, rather than a confession, except that the narrator keeps insisting that he's confessing, and that he's in his sixties, that his joints hurt, that his body is falling apart, etc., yet all the while sounding like a 30-year-old. The more you look at the picture of Peter Rock on the back flap, the less believable the story becomes, until, at last, you feel like the victim of some strange ventriloquist's act, the goal of which is beyond your comprehension.
Maybe This Is The Place is a good book. It's hard to tell. It's enjoyable but unbelievable. If the narrator had insisted that he was 24, or even 30, his epiphanies would have been downright impressive. Unfortunately, he opted not to go this route. Certainly, Rock has mastered the English language, and it's a joy to read his sentences. But not every author can speak for every experience. Rock may well know what it's like to be 60 years old, but he cannot render it on the page. If he decides to act his age in his next book, we're interested in what he might say. As for this debut, it comes to us regrettably before its time.
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