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THE SEARCH BEGAN with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.
"I beg your pardon," said the man, bowing ever so slightly. "Might I steal a moment of your time?"
He deposited his slip on the reference desk and turned it so that the lettering would face me. And if this unusual courtesy wasn't enough to attract attention, there was also the matter of his handwriting—a gorgeous old-fashioned script executed with confident ascenders and tapering exit strokes—as well as the title of the book he requested. Secret Compartments in Eighteenth-Century Furniture played right to my fascination with objects of enclosure.
"Let's see what we can do for you, Mr.—"I double-checked the bottom of the slip before uttering his improbably literary name. "Henry James Jesson III."
After I had directed him to the tube clerk, curiosity got the best of me, so I rang the stack supervisor and asked that she expedite retrieval. In a further breach of protocol, I pushed through the swing gate and planted myself near the dumb-waiter in Delivery, where I waited for the book to surface.
"This is terribly kind of you," Jesson said as I slid Secret Compartments under the brass grille.
"Glad to be of service."
I was professional enough not to mention the uncanny overlap of our interests—I don't meet many readers keen on lettering technique and enclosures. But that same restraint left memildly disappointed. The call slip was so enticing, our exchange so stilted and brief.
Jesson settled himself at a table near the municipal tax codes. He quickly supplied further proof of a charmingly outmoded manner by digging deep into his capacious trouser pockets to extract a roll of paper, a tiny ink pot, and a calligraphy pen. Though he seemed to ignore the stares of nearby readers, he occasionally glanced in my direction, as if to confirm that I'd stuck around. Which, of course, I had. In fact, while he took notes on Secret Compartments, I took notes on him, convinced that the consonance of our uncommon pursuits demanded annotation.
He wore billowy trousers of moss-green corduroy that had wale as thick as pencils. These he partnered with a button-down shirt of subtle stripe and a dainty chamois vest tied at the back with a fat purple ribbon. He had an indulgent-looking face and blue-gray eyes that recalled the color of the buckram on my compact OED. Despite a bump at the bridge of his nose and teeth that predated fluoridation, he was undeniably handsome, a scholar who appeared unencumbered by the tattered frugality of most academics I assist. Those, in toto, were my preliminary observations of the elderly man wishing to steal a moment of my time.
* * *
When the closing bell sounded, I sifted through the wire basket of call slips kept at Returns. My friend Norton noticed me swapping the calligraphic original for a quickly scribbled substitute.
"A little something for your collection?"
"What is it this time?"
"Just some furniture book," I said, downplaying my interest. Norton and I disagreed about the utility of paper records, and I didn't want to be deflected from inspection by yet another sparring session.
I located Jesson's book without difficulty. Secret Compartments was filled with line drawings of card tables, glass-fronted cabinets, and pedestal globes, each image accompanied by a technical description of the mechanism triggering release.
Norton glanced over my shoulder and chuckled. "Let's see here. A book about false fronts and hidden recesses." He paused. "Seems an awful lot like you."
AFTER MR. SINGH, one of our more vigilant exit guards, doweled through my satchel with his stick of polished pine, I said good night to Norton and started the long walk uptown.
At a traffic light near Lincoln Center, on a stretch of Broadway that brashly disrupts the city's grid, I withdrew the purloined call slip just as a taxi pulled up to the curb. The driver, compact and neatly dressed, jumped out, popped the trunk, and produced a small rug, which he unfurled with a firm, practiced snap. Then, facing a warehouse topped by a miniature Statue of Liberty, he kneeled in prayer. While the cabby, oblivious to the rush-hour traffic, satisfied his devotional obligations, I focused on the slip, noticing for the first time that its lettering leaned gently backward, as if to corroborate the writer's inclination toward the past. When the light changed, I put the slip back in my pocket, determined to investigate the origins of the beautiful script.
I got home just as the sun was dropping behind the water towers. Mr. Lopez, wearing his super's hat (he also owned the corner bodega), was hosing down an old ceramic sign that said, NO LOITERING OR BALL PLAYING, a wistful reminder of quieter times—before the spray of fluorescent paint and nine-millimeter bullets blemished the brick, before teenage crack dealers hung sneakers from lampposts to advertise their drive-by business.
"Hey, Mr. Lopez," I called out. "Can we get the landlord to update that sign?"
"Maybe it should just say, NO DRUGS."
Mr. Lopez said, "Okay, my friend," his standard response to all complaints, whether about street crime, boiler malfunctions, or rats sharpening their teeth against the rotting wallboard. He turned to admire one of his children, who had just crawled inside the cabinet of a television set abandoned on the curb a week before. The little boy, discovering that an old paint roller served nicely as a gun, scanned the block for targets and soon found his father and me in his sights. As the child squeezed off imaginary rounds from inside the TV, I took a few quick notes. The natural place to register the scene would have been the "Enclosure" section of my girdle book, but I'd determined long before to restrict that rubric to purely autobiographical entries. I opted for "Street Views, Misc."
A gypsy cab caught my eye. Once more a driver hopped out and yanked something from the trunk. This time the object was a black satin jacket that advertised Les Misérables. The cabby beckoned Mr. Lopez, who, after careful inspection of the contraband, peeled a twenty from a fat roll of cash. As he was completing the sale, the nightly drug trade started revving up.
"We gots blue." ... "Blue's doin' it." ... "Blue's out."
The super grabbed his child from the TV cabinet and bundled him into the building. I followed close behind but stopped when I felt a crunch underfoot. I bent down and picked up an inch-long torpedo of plastic used to package crack cocaine. This isn't blue, I found myself thinking. There's too much purple in the mix. Periwinkle, maybe, or cornflower. Suddenly I had a vision of the guys on the corner shouting, "Periwinkle's doin' it!" and "We gots cornflower!" Maybe I could scrounge up an offprint of "A System of Color Identification for Bibliographical Description" and convince the dealers to refine their patter.
My attention shifted when an ebony BMW pulled up to the curb. A tinted window lowered with an electronic whir.
"Yo! You with that fuckin' notebook thing. You gots a problem?"
The challenge was punctuated with a prodigious gob of spit. Sensing there was little dividend in direct response, I smiled and ducked inside, taking the stairs two at a time. At the front door of our apartment, I tripped over the size 16EEE sneakers my wife keeps around to scare off intruders.
* * *
I hung up my jacket and satchel and checked the mail: credit card bills, the Dewey Circle quarterly, and a course bulletin from House of Paper, the arts center where Nic taught the odd course on pop-up design. There was also a letter from a library-school classmate I never much liked, announcing his
Excerpted from The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil. Copyright © 2001 by Allen Kurzweil. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted September 15, 2002
I¿m truly baffled by reviews that call this book erudite and well-written. Maybe it¿s a case of damning with faint praise but I¿ll be a little less tactful and a little more direct. This book was a huge disappointment to someone who really wanted to like it and was looking forward to a mystery involving intriguing subject matter like reference librarians and the quest for ancient collectables. Aside from an few interesting glimpses into the bowels of the New York Public Library, this was a trite sophomoric effort from a writer I expected better from. The characters (major as well as minor) are little more than collections of cutesy mannerisms more suited to a sitcom than a novel, the prose is embarrassingly strained and self-conscious, and the plot is way too precious and over-calculated, full of improbable over-the-top machinations and developments that go nowhere. I¿ll give the author a few points for researching an actual case of watch theft, but the entire book left me with the feeling that the author spent every writing minute trying to impress readers with how cute and clever he was ¿ and the result is strained and artificial.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2001
Posted December 9, 2008
Reference librarian Alex Short finds work very boring as assisting customers is done more on an assembly line with pneumatic tubes than on a one-to-one basis. He enjoys lettering and on rare occasions, a customer¿s call slip is written in a historical style of graphics and he collects these rarities with a passion. The young man prefers to ¿girdle¿ by writing observations in his little notebook that he carries with him all the time more than he wants to have sex with his beautiful French wife. <P>Sixtyish Henry James Jesson III submits a library call slip requesting Secret Compartments, an eighteenth century furniture book. The beautiful rarely seen-today writing style catches Alex¿s eye and he breaks the rules by delivering the book to the requester. Henry offers Alex a job to complete a collection that contains a secret compartment with a hanging nail inside but the attached item is missing. Henry begins to follow the trail of THE GRAND COMPLICATION, a lost eighteenth century watch, and a search that could prove to cost him his soul. <P> THE GRAND COMPLICATION is a different type of mystery one that seems so simple yet is so rich and complex. The library, Nic¿s pop-ups, eighteenth century cabinets to conserve precious items, and Henry¿s Manhattan townhouse are filled with layers of detail weaved into the delightful story line. The investigation is intelligent and adds to the strange relationship between Henry and Alex. Readers who delight in well-written, off beat literature will want to obtain Allen Kurzwell¿s first novel in a decade because few writers enter the soul of his characters quite like this author does. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.