(The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Travelling. Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2015)
As a kid of the 70’s from a rural town in the upper Midwest, I dreamt of seeing the world. I used to mail-order foreign currency from a print catalog just to see what it looked like. To this day, I can’t decide if that was admirable or pathetic, but it certainly indicated that I was inquisitive. I didn’t ride in an airplane until I was 22 years old, and it’s actually hard to remember how truly cut off we were without the Internet. At the time, reading was the closest I could get to scratching that itch.
My world began to open up when, as a college student in Wisconsin, I took an insane summer job. I would be selling educational texts door to door, books I was to hand deliver at the end of the summer …even though I had no car. Nevertheless, I made my way to Nashville for training and learned that I would be working in Lowell, Massachusetts. I was ecstatic: I was going to the home of Jack Kerouac. The job itself was hideous: six-days a week, 14-hour days, rain or shine, sick or tired …and I was always tired. But walking those streets was bearable because I always imagined I was following Kerouac’s path. Would some of his creativity, talent, and unique worldview somehow become available to me? Eighty percent of the kids doing that job quit each summer. I doubt they were following anyone’s footsteps.
These memories came immediately to mind when I first read Peter LaSalle’s The City at Three P.M., which follows the author’s journey to areas where great literature has been written by authors he loves, such as Gustave Flaubert, Christy Brown, and Saul Bellow.
Moreover, The City at Three P.M. is a reminder that traveling rarely delivers what we expect. Instead it renders surprises at the moments in between. For example, LaSalle travelled to Buenos Aires because of his fascination with Jorge Luis Borges but his incidental connections seem of equal importance. LaSalle writes:
Some man of the world I am – I mean, there I was lost in what most of my life has been lost in, these obsessive imaginings in and about literature, wildly taking notes, and I didn’t even know enough about how the real world works to recognize a hooker when I saw one, when I was solicited by one.
The City at Three P.M. points out the importance of experiencing the world: travel accelerates our development and improvement as humans. It allows us to connect to people in gratifying, albeit sometimes unusual, ways and to expand our worldview into dimensions that our going about our mundane existence can simply never provide.
LaSalle’s book is undeniably entertaining, but more importantly, it demonstrates an invaluable inquisitiveness. The City at Three P.M. ratchets up curiosity about the world from a cultural standpoint and also illuminates the realities of politics, war, and various forms of oppression. For example, LaSalle’s journey to Jamaica in 1976 to perform research for his own writing was also motivated by V.S. Naipaul’s novel, Guerillas, and served to place him at the center of political and cultural upheaval exacerbated by gang violence.
LaSalle also focuses on the connection people feel between location and art. More specifically, he illustrates the intense feelings that are possible by existing in a place where a great writer has done their finest work.
Furthermore, the prose is airy and easy to read, making it a joy to spend time with. LaSalle’s descriptions of place conjure images and make it easy to be there with him, and he rises well above a fundamentally boring regurgitation of facts. For example, he describes a section of New York City:
The bars on Ninth Avenue are empty in the warm October sunshine. Walking the grimed sidewalk and passing the narrow cross streets, you can look down any one of them and right across the fragilely blue Hudson, to the other side and New Jersey, where the trees have already turned to pastels – soft red, soft yellow.
Here we can clearly see the added pleasures of traveling with an artistic purpose.
Of course, it is inherently exciting and rewarding to visit new places even if there is not a direct correlation to literature. LaSalle, however, reminds us that traveling in a way that connects you to an author, a musician, or an artist introduces an additional, important variable: the traveler is forced to reckon with history. When visiting Rio de Janeiro after being inspired by the work of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, LaSalle writes:
One of the sad truths of this particular moment in Brazilian history was that street crime was rampant, a product of the larger truth that Rio is a place where the Third World of utter poverty seems to be thrust flat against a First World of economic success and even outright glitz.
The historical Rio of LaSalle’s journey and Machado’s life overlap. I myself have been fortunate to do my own share of travelling. In Frankfurt and Hamburg, because I knew to look for it, I was immersed in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve also visited sites by the Opera House where the Frankfurt School first began discussions of European nihilism. I was forced to consider a time of German Unification and incredible contributions to the world of philosophy. The gorgeous opera house itself only exists today because Allied bombers during World War II refused to level it. Isn’t knowing that important?
Thinking back to my book-selling days, there was, and still is, a Kerouac commemorative park in Lowell along the Merrimack River canal. I spent countless nights sitting in that park, drinking a beer and reading the monuments dedicated to his unique mingling of Christian and Buddhist ideals. The man was clearly on a journey of his own creation. I didn’t want to drink myself to death like old Jack but I did want to experience life fully the way he did. It inspired me. To sit in this place triggered for me the incredible connection between art and place. The influence of and history behind great authors and artists absolutely, fundamentally changes the experience for the better.
The City at Three P.M. encourages its readers to return to great books read and great journeys taken, to consider how such experiences inform our lives. More importantly, it makes us reflect on why we continue to search at all. Why is literature, art, music—anything that expands our experiences as humans—worth pursuing? Perhaps literature sends us on a figurative journey that is best paired with a literal one.
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Jeff Knops has degrees in History and Political Science. His work and pleasure has brought him to Asia, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East. He lives and reads in the Pacific Northwest.