The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Gray Owl and Black Falcon

November 9, 2007
New Paltz, NY

Is a backlog of unwritten blog posts a backblog? I'm pinned under a backblog this morning. I'm also lodged under my usual detritus of books, bedding and Big Read paraphernalia -- lodging this time in New Paltz, NY, where last night I introduced Dr. Margarite Fernandez Olmos to an engaged audience full of Bless Me, Ultima fans. Speaking on the campus of our capable hosts from SUNY New Paltz, she spun out her idea of chicanismo magico (the Chicano version of magical realism), regularly relating it to her unashamed love of the Harry Potter books. Yes, Antonio and Harry each have an owl as a familiar, but that's the least of the parallels Dr. Olmos drew.

I hope to go into greater detail about New Paltz in an upcoming post, but for the moment I'm flashing back to something that happened the night before. I was walking down the deserted main drag of Hudson, NY, with Greta Boeringer, the town's alarmingly tireless librarian and Big Read organizer, after a little public keynote from me about Fahrenheit 451. We were nearing the storefront of the local tourism bureau when we noticed an object resembling a gray ball of yarn on the sidewalk. On closer inspection, it proved an owlet, wide awake and blinking at us from beside a concrete step.

We worried it might be hurt or sick, of course. Mostly it just seemed curious and a little indignant, as if wondering why we weren't flying from tree to tree as people usually do. Greta and I marveled at it for a minute or two, then felt the usual guilty restlessness in the presence of a potentially transcendent experience that gives no sign of ending anytime soon. We had tiptoed around the owlet and a few steps farther when I remembered the snazzy new camera phone in my pocket. I crept back and snapped the shot you see before you ? or would do, if only I could figure out how to pry it out of the phone. That owlet is staring out at me from my phone even now, mulling over why we humans inherited the opposable thumbs and he got all the brains.

I'd felt even stupider the night before in the movie-crazed burg Rochester, NY, where a nearly full house eavesdropped on the film critic and English professor George Grella and me jawing publicly before a screening of The Maltese Falcon. George roughed out a thesis I've never heard before, but which makes perfect sense: Sam Spade knows who killed his partner in the alley all along. Think about it. The explanation Spade cites at the end -- Miles ?had too many years' experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing?but he'd've gone up there with you, angel? -- represents no more than he knew from the very beginning. Has Spade possibly kept his knowledge of who killed Miles to himself for the whole book, chasing the falcon and dallying with Bridget purely for his own amusement?

I wish I'd thought about that before I spent last weekend in Minneapolis, helping to orient the 15 cities and towns doing the Falcon next spring. These amounted to just a fraction of the 127 new Big Read grantees, whose wiggy, unprecedented ideas all ricocheted around the Minneapolis Hilton like those fireworks in the basement from You Can't Take It With You. Of the orientation, of the exemplary Falcon read that the Rochester literary center Writers & Books is putting on, of New Paltz and Hudson and all the rest -- more later. For now, owl-like, I'm swiveling my head back around toward White Plains this afternoon?