Knowing Where to Look
When Richard was in art school at Wayne State University in Detroit
he began collecting junk to use in his art. Eventually he realized he
was more interested in the junk than in the art. Sometime thereafter
his father, broken by a life of unrewarding toil at an insurance firm
and three packs of cigarettes a day, died, leaving Richard with $3000
and a mother whose soothing platitudes had gradually turned to cynical
wisecracks. Richard took the three grand and the junk he had begun collecting
and opened a second hand store "in a small, dingy town on the fringe
of Detroit, Michigan (a large dingy town), on what was once a lovely
little Main Street." With that, Michael Zadoorians Second
Hand, a novel about the struggle to find meaning amidst the detritus
left behind by the great machine of the world (obsolete cities
things) begins in earnest.
And there are plenty of characters: old clocks, bar glasses, 1950s
kitchen chairs, phonograph records, toys, games, bowling shirts monogrammed
with nicknames from another era, souvenirs of all descriptions and a
host of other items that Richard encounters during his daily hunt for
"cool junk" through the estate liquidations, garage sales
and Salvation Army stores of Greater Detroit. "Junking is my own
grubby metaphor for everything" he confides, "life portrayed
as the long trudge through smelly, clotted aisles on the way to what
might seem like the big score, but is really more junk."
But Richards relationship with his merchandise is not cynical
or predatory; his out of date and sometimes laughable objects are windows
onto an earlier time that seemed to cohere, to make sense. "Things
get chipped," he says, "they fade and shrink, crumble and
yellow. But these things that seem insignificant are what compose our
Thats what junk is for me, finding these
little spots of time, only theyre things that you can hold in
your hand, things that you can find everywhere. You just need to know
where to look."
Cast-off goods as metaphor, its a device that owes much to an
earlier thirty-something bestseller, Nick Hornbys 'High Fidelity'.
Its pushed up to, but not beyond, what it will bear. Anyone who
has ever had the task of going through their dead parents belongings
can testify to the validity of Richards intense reactions.
Which Richard experiences for us when his mother dies and hes
called on to sort and dispose of the relics of their lives and his youth.
Hes not alone. Theresa, an attractive young customer from his
store, has by this time entered his life. She, too, is involved with
cast-offs. She works at an animal shelter in order to care for the discarded
cats and dogs of the city. The trouble is, only a few of these creatures
can be provided with new homes while the rest must be killed. She dreams
every night of the animals she has destroyed.
Sound depressing? In fact, it isnt. Second Hand is a love story,
a romance without a trace of the obligatory Postmodern irony that characterizes
the work of so many American writers of Zadoorians generation.
("There is a taint of death in all irony," says Richard, commenting
on the supercilious attitude of some of his customers.) True, there
is loss, sadness and humiliation in Zadoorians novel, but no more
than most of us have experienced in the course of our day to day existences.
There is also the pleasure of a well crafted, ultimately upbeat story
about Richard and Theresa, two young Americans trying to piece together
meaningful lives from the materials at hand.
© Greg Farnum 10.2000
Publication data: Second Hand by Michael Zadoorian, W.W. Norton &
New York, 2000.