Last Sunday morning a little before 9 o’clock, my wife and kids and I trooped up the front steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. As Hemingway would say, “It was hot.” It was also so humid, the sun seemed to float in the air and it felt like you could have swum up the steps to the library. It’s a beautiful Art Deco building that looks a little like the Superfriends’ Hall of Justice. (“… Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, Zan and Jana battle the budget cuts by turning into a lion and a rifle made of ice.”)
I was there for my 15-minute slot during the 24-Hour Read-In in support of the New York City public libraries. Sunday morning was devoted to kids’ story time and for that reason, the organizer had judiciously asked that I refrain from showing up high or drunk and that I not read any porn. “Of course,” I said, quickly shoving my crack pipe and latest issue of Hustler into my desk drawer. I told him how my elementary school librarian made me sit on the other side of the card catalog from the rest of the class for a month for talking, but that was the last time I had caused any trouble at a library.
I strolled around. A bronze screen, bearing bright gold figures from American literature, towered high above the front gate of the library. There were proof copies of kids’ books available for free and I picked out some for my kids–and my older one actually started to read one of the books with great interest, and my younger one actually listened to the other readers reading kids’ stories! At right is Babe the Blue Ox from the Legend of Paul Bunyan.
I chose to read from Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein. There were only five kids there, including my own, when I read, so you could say my 15-minutes were not exactly of fame–though I did have a microphone. When I introduced the book, I told the kids I wrote it. The story is about a young, naive lion who encounters a hunter and tries to make friends but is rebuffed. (‘You don’t have to shoot me to make me into a rug,’ he says, ‘I’ll just lie on the floor.’) The hunter says that’s not very lionlike and prepares to shoot Lafcadio. Lafcadio decides to eat the hunter after all, takes his gun, practices with it, and when he runs out of ammo, he eats more hunters. He becomes a celebrity among the other lions and eventually a world-class sharpshooter. I looked up at this point and realized this was not a very “Park Slope” sort of story. I quickly reminded the parents of the kids that I didn’t really write it, that was just a joke. Lafcadio then joins the circus, becomes world-famous, develops the sort of ennui I imagine Shel Silverstein felt after too many parties at the Playboy Mansion, and goes back to the jungle, unsure whether he’s a man or a lion. That is Natty Bumppo over there on the left.
There’s no one quite like Shel Silverstein. He’s hilarious and yet there’s something literary and unfrivolous deep in the grain of his work, even his funniest and most joyous work–something faintly wounded, debauched, not quite settled, something prodding him forward a little ways across the normally observed boundaries. You can see it in the irisless eyes of his illustrations, those minuscule zeroes ellipsed with ellipses and unable to look back at you. There’s an obstinately missing piece…. But that’s part of what I love in the urbane, unsettled, honest, restless poetry and prose of Shel Silverstein.