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Call Me a Schlemiel

August 06, 1995|LARRY WALLBERG

Around the beginning of every July, as I anticipate the sea of sizzling summer days lying before me, I seem to spy, once again, swimming up to greet me, "Moby Dick."

I guess it's the idea of those long, lazy months looming ahead, promising hours and hours when it's too hot to do anything else but sit quietly with a nice fat book. Perhaps this annual compulsion to grapple with Melville's masterpiece is based on my early indoctrination, from grade school onward: educated people have to have a special reading project to keep their brains from falling totally idle between Independence Day and Labor Day. Maybe I just go into a hot-weather frenzy, during which I feel compelled to see myself as a whale of an idiot.

Today, as I transfer an old, looks-like-new Penguin edition from the back of my bookshelf onto my reading desk, I start my fourth decade of Moby-Dick-less-ness. Thirty Julys ago, I had been urged by my 12th-grade English teacher to set aside some quiet moments from the girl-chasing, parent-defying and general adolescent hoo-ha, and to pick up a copy of what he promised was "the Great American Novel." That first try, I may have read five pages.

The following summer, I believe I got as far as the middle of Chapter 3. Don't think, though, that I wasn't up to the task; my freshman year at CCNY was my "mammoth novel period," when I was knocking off a Dickens or a Dostoevsky every week.

Then came a time of political and personal unrest: the Vietnam War, Sergeant Pepper, attempted loss of virginity, actual loss of virginity, the first man on the moon, aggressive perpetuation of non-virginity, Woodstock, first real job, first real resignation, marriage, Watergate. Through it all, turmoil and torment and triumph, there was but one constant: that unread paperback. One August--probably the same summer that I went there on vacation--I got as far as Nantucket (Chapter 14).

During a June in the early '80s, I decided that, for that year, I would not make the, by then, ritual Moby Dick shift. I nestled Moby down with other books I didn't have the heart to throw out but knew I would probably never want to read again. "Silas Marner," "The Return of the Native," "Siddhartha."

One night, when I couldn't sleep, haunted by visions of the great white whale, I rose from my bed in a sweat and tore into the box. Here's what I read that summer: "Silas Marner," "The Return of the Native," "Siddhartha." I also boned up on my college Spanish.

To this day, my intentions toward Moby continue to be honorable. I will read it some day, maybe not this year, but some day. I've consistently refused to watch John Huston's 1956 movie version when it's shown on television; I don't want it to spoil the book for me.

But then, how could it--for I am Ahab. "Moby Dick" is my Moby Dick. As I've gone from youth to middle age, I've developed a cosmic respect for the monumental ability of the tale to escape me, year after year after year. Oh, I've had it in my sights a time or two, but it always gets away. And, now, I'm obsessed, afraid to leave it completely alone, but equally afraid to fully confront it, fearing what will happen when we at last meet.

Looking out from the crow's nest of life, I see that the ocean before me is dark and mysterious. But I know that somewhere, lurking beneath the waves, waiting for me, is Moby.

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