Next Tuesday, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day that Ulysses, by James Joyce, takes place—in Dublin, in 1904. Joyce picked that day to commemorate his first date with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. During their outing, while walking along the banks of the River Liffey, Barnacle put her hand into Joyce's trousers and masturbated him. It left an impression.
Ulysses is one of those novels that everybody knows about but few people have read. Its fame rests on the book's frank portrayals of sexuality. In one scene, the main character, Leopold Bloom (hence "Bloomsday") masturbates in public—probably the most poetic description of public masturbation in literature. Published in Paris in 1922, Ulysses was banned in the USA.
Despite its sex scenes, the book—an experimental stream-of-consciousness narrative, full of puns, parodies, and obscure allusions—is, to say the least, a challenging read.
I read Ulysses in 1977—simultaneously with a dictionary. On some pages I had to look up, literally, every other word, some of which were not in the dictionary. It's the kind of book that requires a sherpa to guide you through. But I stuck with it because it's considered one of the greatest novels in the English language, and in those early years of my career, I thought Ulysses was a book every writer should read.
I can't say I enjoyed it or understood all of it, but I did admire what Joyce accomplished. Writing in self-imposed exile in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich, he brought to life, in granular detail, the streets, alleys, pubs, bedrooms, and people of his native Dublin. Joyce transformed an ordinary day in the life of an ordinary man into a universal story. Dublin was the world.
Though Bobby in Naziland is neither stream-of-consciousness nor experimental and does not require a dictionary or sherpa to understand, I did try to do with Flatbush what Joyce did with Dublin: bring to life in gritty, visceral detail its streets, alleys, ball fields, bedrooms, candy stores, and people, and make it a universal story told through the consciousness of an ordinary boy. Flatbush was the world.
Though sheltering in place and curfews have at times made my life in Manhattan seem like one of exile, it's not. But when I started writing Bobby in Naziland, I probably hadn't set foot in Flatbush in more than a decade, and I only went back to explore my old haunts after I'd finished a first draft.
So yes, Flatbush is my Dublin, and I'd suggest a good way to celebrate Bloomsday next week (since it's not a great idea to hit the Irish bars yet, in the traditional, Guinness-fueled manner of celebration) is to pick up a book that you will read and that tells a universal tale of the place I left behind 55 years ago. It just might be a place that you left behind, too, even if you lived in Dublin.