I've gone on so many times about the sky back in Colorado, that I forget if I've ever written about it here. I didn't understand the phrase "big sky" until I went away and came back -- then, finally, I understood just how breathtaking the heavens are out there. When I return now, my first thought upon getting out of the airport is that the world's grown bigger and I've grown smaller.
It's beautiful and stunning, but not entirely friendly. You could get lost in that sky -- it doesn't care a whit about you. It makes feature appearances in my dreams sometimes; it's always impressive, but the dreams are never entirely comfortable.
#41 -- "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles
This is exhibit A in "I'm occasionally wrong." I tried to read this several times, was always put off by it within the first 30 pages or so, and finally ended up giving it away. Months later, it came up in conversation and I was encouraged to give it another try... so I bought another copy. (you'd be amazed how many times I've gone through similar scenarios.)
This time around? I read it in a week, no problems. What had previously seemed dreary now seemed honest. Characters that previously seemed horrendous now seemed more real. Perhaps I've grown grimmer in the past year, or perhaps I just went in with a more open mind. Or perhaps it's just that I finally wasn't trying to read this, the anti-travel book, on a plane.
Very basically, it's about an aimless American couple, traveling through North Africa in an attempt to save their marriage (accompanied by their equally aimless pal) and disintegrating along the way. The plot's secondary to the larger themes, though -- of alienation, nature as a force, and the collision of cultures.
It's tremendously atmospheric, and grim. There's a sense of doom throughout the book. It's not happy reading, but it is compelling.
In earlier readings, I had trouble with the characters, finding them relentlessly unsympathetic -- this time around, I was ok. Port and Kit are flawed but human. Tunner is a bit of a problem -- he was obviously created to serve a certain purpose, and Bowles wasn't too concerned beyond that purpose. Until a late chapter, when he gets some depth, he seems more like a misplaced "Friends" cast member.
But it's made up by the surroundings. Nature -- including that desert sky -- is as much of a character in that book. And it isn't a benevolent presence.