Reviewed by Diane Gottlieb
When I picked up James J. Patterson’s lovely Junk Shop Window: Essays on Myth, Life, and Literature (Alan Squire Publishing 2023), I did not know that I had accepted an invitation to spend several hours with a wise and charming Muse. Patterson graciously welcomes us into his world and into his thoughts about our larger one. This collection is filled with humor, heart, and Patterson’s depth of understanding serves both as a comfort to his readers and a challenge to follow our own hearts—and help save our world.
Patterson masterfully plays with time and juxtapositions. His essays are both nostalgic and current; they deal with history—personal as well as political—alongside events and cultural phenomena of today. “The World of Yesterday,” one of my favorites in the collection, provides a terrific example of Patterson’s great skill as a storyteller and his ability to place the personal within a larger context. The essay starts with an account of his father’s childhood, which shares eerily similarities to our recent global experience. In the opening scene, Patterson’s father looks out his parents’ living room window: “The line of cars is there every day, and every day he stands there and watches. His street is a long one, and at the end of it is the cemetery. He is not allowed to go outside to play. Death is all anyone talks about. Death from a great flu epidemic. Death from a great war just ending … It is 1918.”
Patterson moves next to his own childhood and to his conversations with Max, his mother’s friend, who enlisted in the service at 16 to escape an abusive father. Max was poisoned by mustard gas in World War I; it burned his esophagus and stomach. The details Patterson shares powerfully highlight the pain and senselessness of war and provide the perfect segue to a zooming out of the lens, where he discusses the great artistic, technological, and intellectual growth that occurs between wars alongside the reasons we continue to do battle. While the War to End All Wars did not live up to its nickname, Patterson refuses to become jaded: “As for me, I never have and never will accept the old adage that war will always be with us, or that the poor will always be poor …”
Patterson knows there is always a choice; he rejects inevitability. And while he often does so with a soft touch, his essays can also be sharp and biting. In “Do Conservatives Dream of an Electric Jesus,” a take-no-prisoners, tell-us-how-you-really-feel essay, Patterson expresses his frustration with the cultural obsession with apocalyptic stories, with the doom-and-gloom attitude of a “Blade Runner world” that, he believes, has taken root in society: “Our contemporary culture is underpinned with this dangerous notion that the end of the world is nigh, that there is nothing we can do about it, and that it is somehow sexy.”
Patterson longs for what he calls “Return of the Ideal” in both the worlds of entertainment and reality. Patterson places responsibility for what he calls the “propaganda of helplessness” at the feet of Evangelicals and conservative politicians, among others, but, again, places the burden of change on the rest of us: “It appears that the only fictional hero who really wants to save the world is Dr. Who. He’s a Time Lord and, unfortunately, the last one. Isn’t it about time the rest of us rolled up our sleeves and gave it one more try?”
Patterson’s world is deeply steeped in art—he was a founding member of the two-man DC-based band the Pheromones of the 80s and early 90s; he’s a writer and husband to a poet. He’s also an avid reader. Literature has healed Patterson over the years—or at least provided a life raft and served as a guide—and he movingly and repeatedly shares his love and gratitude to Wordsworth, Melville, and especially to Henry James.
In the essay, “Throwing in the Tao: Henry Miller as Life Coach, Literary Instructor, and Spiritual Guide,” Patterson looks back at a bleak time as a struggling young musician when he found “the template and business plan on which I depended for the rest of my professional life,” in a book called The Miller-Durrell Letters. Miller encourages Durrell, a young writer who reached out in duress, to find one hundred readers who like his work and then write whatever he’s moved to write. Patterson agrees: “Whenever I hear some fatuous know-it-all businessperson start telling me what people want, I close my ears and the door behind me on my way out. … no one knows what people want, because people don’t know what they want until they see it. …Take Henry’s advice … Henry and I both will love you for it.” Patterson took Henry Miller’s advice and now is paying it forward. And we love him for it.
Patterson is a relentless seeker of truth, and yet he has a deep respect for the mysteries of Life, his life, and for things unknowable—such as visits from messenger gods. In “Hermes and the Bathtub,” Patterson is in a Brentano’s struggling to find the right books to occupy him as he recuperates from a car accident he was lucky to have emerged from alive: “I’ve always felt a kinship with the notion that the gods often appear to us, momentarily, in the guise of amicable stranger. … suddenly someone steps out of a crowd, out of nowhere, and gives you an unsolicited piece of information, or advice, or an idea, then he or she slips away… So, there I was, standing before that inscrutable wall of sci-fi feeling lost and bewildered … Enter Hermes.” A Vietnam veteran had been watching a bewildered Patterson and gladly steps in once Patterson asks for recommendations. It is one of three Hermes encounters chronicled in the collection.
These Hermes characters bring Patterson what he most needs when he least expects it. But it is Patterson’s openness to experience and to learning that invites these messengers in. As the saying goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Patterson again pays it forward, this time himself a Hermes to his readers. It is his beautiful, lyrical language, and his honesty and humor, that encourage readers to remain open. We trust him, as his writing lets us know we are in good hands. And while each of Patterson’s Hermes give him an important gift, his readiness to receive is a gift in return. The connections they made, however fleeting, hold meaning for all. I thank Patterson for the gift of his writing, humor, and wisdom, and I hope he can feel us nodding and smiling as we read along.