Life, in no particular order

1. I don’t do dragons. I think they’re silly. For all their fiery tantrums and wing-flapping fury, I can’t take them seriously. Humans ride on their scaly backs like they’re horsies and fly through the sky. I crack up whenever I see that. 

So needless to say I’m not watching HBO’s “House of the Dragon” or Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” big ticket fantasy orgies that by turns bore and baffle me. I don’t even know if “Rings of Power” features dragons — halitosis-impaired Smaug looms large in Tolkien’s Hobbit-verse — but I also don’t do elves or wizards, Orcs or even swords, so I’m pretty much locked out of those good times. 

But I’m not a complete dragon-phobe. My favorite dragon movie is easily “Reign of Fire,” starring Christian Bale and a bald Matthew McConaughey as gnarly post-apocalyptic dragon slayers. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s a blast. McConaughey chews on a big fat cigar throughout. There’s fire and volcanic sludge and dragons all over the place. It’s also pretty grim. And nobody rides a dragon.

2. My brother and his wife just got back from Madrid — precisely where I am headed 20 days from now. No conspiracies, no subtext, we just happened to agree that Spain’s capital is the place to be this month, this year, right now.

What’s great is that I sent the lovely couple on a sort of expedition to scope the city, suss out all the hot tapas bars and cocktail bars, the most electric neighborhoods, what sights to see and what to skip. 

And they delivered resoundingly, finding me a better hotel in a livelier area, several hip restaurants and bars, a shrine to Goya, and a slew of invaluable practicalities. Teamwork! High five! Madrid is famous for its blaring all-night carousing. You still hear people banging bongos in the street at five in the morning. I land on Halloween. I hope it’s batshit. 

3. The ongoing saga of my misadventures in sneaker shopping — the subject of a prior post — is finally winding down. I spent the summer agonizing over what shoes to get to replace my moldered, moth-eaten collection of casual kicks. 

Halt. Mere minutes ago, after I wrote that paragraph, I ordered the final pair of sneakers I will order this year. (I hope.) Just as I was getting comfortable with some slick new Cole Haans, I stumbled on a pair of rare New Balance sneaks that I fell for instantly. Now what? I put the Cole Haans back in their box (for the moment) and clicked “Place My Order” on the New Balance. 

Which means I’ve now, since July, bought seven pairs of sneakers, an unholy sum that has me and my Visa doing barfy loop-the-loops. What else: I got another pair of New Balance, two pairs of Italian-made Oliver Cabells, a cheap pair of white Adidas Stan Smiths, and some Asics that I promptly returned. Incidentally, one pair of the Oliver Cabell shoes are all but unwearable, causing oozing blisters at each step. And it’s too late to return them. My Visa is writhing.

The indulgence is appalling. I’m no sneaker-head. I don’t collect footwear. I am not Imelda Marcos. I just need a fresh fleet of shoes to replenish the worn and rejected. If the latest New Balance are good, I will return the Cole Haans. That will mean I will own only five new pairs of sneakers. One of those causes blisters. So that means four new pairs. Not so dramatic after all. But still: really?

4. Next to Michael Mann’s cop thriller “Heat 2,” a brilliant, blistering, book-form sequel to his 1995 crime movie masterpiece “Heat,” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino among other badasses, the best book I read this summer was Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” — sticky auto-fiction that giddily pinballs through its meandering idiosyncrasies. This jagged, brainy book functions with the itchy buzz of life. It’s hilarious. Awkward. Wincing. Wonderful. Yeah, life.

Narrated by a 30-ish Heti, it’s aptly described as “part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse.” It happily recalls the sui generis first-person fictions of Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill and Elif Batuman, currently my favorite writers. They kind of drop you mid-thought into their lives, then roll on from there with chatty, funny, unembarrassed realism. The works revel in their mundanity, which becomes a kind of magnificence.

Heti’s 2012 novel was named one of 15 “remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write in the 21st century” by The New York Times. A bold but clear choice I wholly endorse. Heti has a new novel, “Pure Colour,” that I wasn’t bonkers about, but you might find worth a peek. For now, “How Should a Person Be?” is what I’m bellowing about from the mountaintop. (Me. Megaphone. A towering crag.)  

5. If you want to know something about me, read this tart and telling passage from Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel “The Hero of This Book”:

“Myself, I loathe having my picture taken. I have for as long as I can remember, even in the old days when you could go weeks without somebody trying. In all group shots I am not pictured. It’s beyond vanity and in the realm of superstition. I don’t like people looking at me. I don’t like being the center of attention except under very specific conditions. … I will not stop for a photo. I will not look at myself in a mirror for you. I will not watch myself pass in a plane-glass window.”

There. Now you know a bit more about me. Also, I’m not big on dragons. 

My current cultural playlist

1. Way behind on the cult British crime saga, I’m discovering the gritty and gruesome pleasures of “Peaky Blinders,” an uncompromising gangster epic bristling with politics, razor blades, gamblers, guns, and unvarnished thuggery. 

Set in Birmingham, England, just after World War I, the Netflix series is a fearsomely atmospheric blood opera starring a rogue’s gallery of dapper gangsters with deep family roots and a hunger to stay in power. It openly, inevitably recalls “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos” and, on a knife and knuckle street level, “Gangs of New York,” with perhaps more thematic tentacles.

The show is fronted by Cillian Murphy as crime boss Thomas Shelby, whose smoldering menace can burn a hole like a bullet. One website has voted him the Greatest TV Character of All Time, a testament to Murphy’s pit bull commitment and conviction. He unnerves every time he’s onscreen, makes you shift in your seat. Pepper the grimy period setting with tunes by Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and White Stripes and you get more than anachronistic friction; you get gang-banging with a boogie beat. 

2. Listening to Nirvana’s short, punchy songs, it struck me again why the band is so good and lasting: Almost lick for lick, Nirvana is as infectiously hooky as the Beatles.

And on the Beatles — my favorite band, and I’m not a hundred years old — I liked this line from “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman’s riotous novel of the head and heart: “The Beatles turned out to be one of the things you couldn’t avoid, like alcohol, or death.”

3. You also can’t avoid Marvel and its muddleheaded mayhem in the current cinema, a soul-battering bummer. But there do exist little oases floating past the aesthetic carnage, attractive indie films like the raunchy, uproarious “Zola” and my latest favorite, “The Worst Person in the World.” 

The grabby title is slyly misleading in this dark rom-com drama about a young woman who skitters between jobs and lovers while surfing life’s foibles. Joachim Trier’s prickly Norwegian charmer, ablaze with insinuating characters and sexy anecdote, is told in 12 fluid chapters, led by endearing star Renate Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for her intricate portrayal of a woman in flux. Hardly the worst person in the world, she’s a millennial supernova.

4. Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel “Lapvona” is grossing out reviewers with its blithe violence and panoramic depravity. (Is Moshfegh the worst person in the world?) The medieval fable, set in a village rife with plague and other misfortunes, is earning wildly mixed reviews, many of them lashing in their displeasure, even from fans of Moshfegh’s previous dark fictions (“Eileen,” “Homesick for Another World”). 

I’m a fan as well, and I’m steeling for a rough ride. I’m only on page nine, and here’s a verbal taste: “disemboweled” “heads of the dead,” “a bone sticking out through the flesh,” “animal excrement.” (Page nine.) The book, in all its gloppy mucus and viscera, came out this week — which makes it the perfect summer beach read. You heard it here first.

In praise of small pleasures

Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog. 

This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.

There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy. 

Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy: 

“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.” 

Or any number of absurdist gems: 

“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”

But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you. 

Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic. 

So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.

What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.

The dog. 

The dog. 

The dog.

Culture in the time of Covid

My Covid’s gone and I feel strong as an ox, even though I barely know what an ox is. A big cow? Paul Bunyan’s interspecies BFF? Actually, I just looked it up. An ox is a “castrated bull used as a draft animal.” So let’s scratch the whole ox analogy entirely. 

Point is, I’m back — non-contagious, symptom-free, fit as a fiddle. (I don’t know what that means either. Skip it.) It took about five days to vanquish the virus, and it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. It was like a mild cold, but without mucus violently erupting from my lungs. This was a dry cough, little hacks, as if an infant was smoking a cigarillo.

As hoped, I got a lot of reading done during my convalescence. I wrapped up “The Sportswriter,” Richard Ford’s extraordinary, bittersweet novel about life, love and letdowns, and started three more books, all highly acclaimed and released in the past few weeks.

Alas, two of them tanked. Those would be Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” and Mieko Kawakami’s “All the Lovers in the Night.” 

I’m not sure what critics are going on about with Smith. They go bananas for her Seasonal Quartet novels — I failed miserably to warm up to two of them — and seem to regard the new book as the prosaic sublime. I read 175 pages of “Companion Piece” and surrendered with a mere 50 left. She’s a slog, oblique, flirting willfully with incoherence. I wasn’t having fun. I was having a migraine.

I enjoyed Japanese super-author Kawakami’s earlier novels, the shrewd and touching “Heaven” and “Breasts and Eggs,” which sounds like a particularly provocative breakfast dish. But her latest, though not totally displeasing, never takes off. It’s slow going … going nowhere.

But I hit pay dirt with “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to “The Idiot,” tracing the turbulent interior life of a female college student who’s trying to figure it all out. It’s at once wildly funny and erudite, catchy and sparkling, and that’s about all I can ask for in a book. Bonus: the author’s name is Elif.

For someone isolating with time to burn, I watched very little in the way of shows and movies. I did stay abreast of the series “Hacks” (hilarious), “Top Chef” (harrowing) and “Barry” (hilarious and harrowing). And I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into “Irma Vep,” the great Olivier Assayas’ dramedy about a vamp, vampires and the insanity of making movies.

Meanwhile, everybody and their easily-scared tweens are bingeing Netflix’s gimmicky genre mash “Stranger Things.” I preferred the show when it was called “Scooby-Doo.”

I also got to anticipate my July journey to Buenos Aires as I was spread out, aching and sniffling with dramatic moans of self-pity. It’s something to look forward to, and, from a piece I read recently, that’s not only a good thing, it’s a healthy thing: “Having something to look forward to boosts your mood and lowers your stress. It can increase motivation, optimism and patience and decrease irritability.” Huh.

Not quite a Covid cure, but it can’t hurt. So much so that I started looking forward to my annual October trip, leap-frogging the July trip I haven’t even taken yet.

I’m thinking Budapest, a European joint I have yet to visit. Or perhaps a return to Krakow. Or Berlin. I’ll have to see what Covid is up to in those places. I might be cured, but the tenacious bug, mean and mercurial, still has the world in its gooey grip. 

Is reading for sissies?

As a kid, from ages seven to 17, I had subscriptions to sheaves of magazines I eagerly awaited to hit my mailbox — Dynamite, Ranger Rick, Hit Parade, Modern Drummer, BMX Action, Omni, Heavy Metal, Movie Monsters and more.

Each title represented a discrete passion — showbiz, animals, rock, drums, science, bikes — and the glossy journals were bibles of my interests. I read them rapt, lapping up interviews, gossip, photos, front-of-the-book ephemera, often scissoring them to bits for bedroom wallpaper and school-locker decor. (Try that with an online subscription.)  

At about 17, I started reading the local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, with a new seriousness that went beyond comics “Bloom County” and “The Far Side.” I loved the stylish writing, current events, cranky columnists and clever critics. It was a daily feast, and each week I’d spend up to three hours poring over the overstuffed Sunday edition, an inky ritual I savored.   

I also read lots of books — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to freak show biographies; “Slaughterhouse-Five” to Jim Morrison’s (dreadful) poetry — but that’s a given. When I was eight I read the fat paperback of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws,” and I’m still proud of it.

But is it normal, for a boy at least, to spend so much time with the written word, reading? Shouldn’t he be outside, say, throwing balls, or blowing things up?

While I hated most sports — except soccer, skiing and BMX — I was your average knee-scraping, war-playing, B.B.-gun-shooting, lizard-catching, fire-setting, doorbell-ditching, girl-crazy, grungy little scamp. 

Still, I adored words and what they imparted — ideas, information, whole worlds. I used to wade through our World Book encyclopedias and ginormous Mirriam-Webster dictionary just for fun. My best friend Gene and I wrote little books about devils, murder and other unspeakable mischiefs. We had a thing for horror.   

But did all that bibliophilia and word-love mean I was a giant wuss?

This week teacher and novelist Joanne Harris — bestselling author of “Chocolat” — said that reading is far more rare in boys than girls, for rather macho reasons:

“When I was teaching boys particularly, I found that not only boys did not read as much as girls but they were put under much more pressure by parents, largely fathers, to do something else as if reading was girly,” she said via LitHub. Boys, apparently, “ought to be out playing rugby and doing healthy boy things.”

And I reply: Can’t boys do both — reading and “healthy boy things” — like I did (and what’s a healthy boy thing, anyway)? 

Forbes reports that boys are way behind girls in reading comprehension and writing skills, because “reading and writing are stereotypically feminine endeavors, and boys tend to avoid anything that’s remotely feminine. In other words, it’s just not cool to read, because reading is for girls.”

This is clumsy and reductive (and offensive) reasoning, more fitting for the playground than a hard, rational study. Reading is for girls? You don’t say.

What then to make of all the wildly famous male writers overpopulating the literary canon who have (unjustly) eclipsed their female counterparts? Call Hemingway or Mailer a wuss and see where that lands you. 

I don’t doubt that girls read more than boys; I’ve seen it borne out. If it’s because boys are discouraged and intellectualism is deemed unmanly, then we have a real societal problem. I don’t have the answers — just my umbrage — but if you have any thoughts, please comment.  

I know many bibliophobes, people, almost all male, who would never think of strolling the living, fragrant stacks of a bookstore, or simply pick up a book for that matter. To me, they’re the wussies, un-evolved, willfully ignorant, with the vocabulary of third graders and the critical thinking skills of a hubcap. I don’t trust adults who don’t read. Philistinism is a cultural crime.  

World travel has largely usurped my juvenile need to start fires and catch lizards, but I still read at a mad clip and write as much as I can. Call me a sissy. I’m having a ball.

Sick daze

Well, I got it. Or it got me. Whatever. It’s my turn. For Covid, that is. 

Some crabby cold symptoms — the usual gunk: light cough, wet nose, swimmy head, a generalized ick — proved to be the real deal today. A test said so. My achy-breaky body bears it out.

Now what?, I wonder. First, I’ll be isolating for five days. Then I’ll take another test. Meantime, lots of fluids, rest, crushing boredom, gratitude that I haven’t lost my taste or smell (yet!), and some reflecting on how foolish I was to think I was impervious to the virus, as I took all the precautions — two rounds of shots plus a booster, regular mask-wearing, mega doses of arrogance, etc. Small irony: I was slated to get my second booster this afternoon. 

They say most of us will get Covid, so I don’t feel completely singled out and picked on (mmm, yes I do). Still, it’s a drag. I’ve had to rearrange my schedule, cancel appointments, and, sorely, I will miss a public reading of one of my brother’s stellar plays. Plus, I have a wee dry cough that sounds like a choking Munchkin.

Reading. I’ll catch up on some reading. I’m already waist-deep into a re-read of Richard Ford’s beautifully observed 1986 novel “The Sportswriter.” A piercing slice of contemporary realism, the book is tinged with rue and humor and grit, and profoundly meditative about the everyday struggle. It’s oddly comforting, despite the sting. 

On deck is “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s brand-new sequel to her hit novel “The Idiot.” Like its predecessor, critics adore it (“This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations” — NYT) and the way it sweeps you into a bright young woman’s woolly world of self-discovery. (That’s all I got. I haven’t read it yet.)

I can get all philosophical about contracting the virus, or not. It’s plain as day, and because it’s physical, intellectualizing it, cataloging the myriad ways the body betrays us, is just so much wheel-spinning. So far, the malady feels like a mild head cold — every so often I wonder if I really even have it — and I’m banking on it staying that way. 

Covid can kill you, but so can the flu, or a drive to the pharmacy. I know lots of people who’ve had it and each one pulled through famously. So I’m not too tangled up about it. Everything will be just fine … right?

As the lead in “The Sportswriter” says, “Sometimes I’m afraid … It’s natural to the breed.”

Books, actually

So let me bore you silly and tell you that I’m currently re-reading Joseph Conrad’s slim epic “Heart of Darkness,” a smidge more than 100 pages of nightmarish adventure up the African Congo, rife with colonial violence and brushes with death, and co-starring a renegade colonist named Kurtz who’s apparently gone mad in the jungle.

It’s been decades since I’ve read the classic novella, which of course inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam phantasmagoria “Apocalypse Now,” back when ELO and C-3PO held cultural sway. And it felt about right for a revisit, don’t ask me why. 

(No, ask away. Okay, I needed a shortish book to hold me over while I wait for a copy of the new Michael Cimino biography. A mysterious figure, Cimino directed the Oscar-winning Vietnam drama “The Deer Hunter” and the catastrophic flop “Heaven’s Gate,” both right about the time of ELO and C-3PO.)  

Before re-picking up “Heart of Darkness” only yesterday, I was hopscotching between three books: Tove Ditlevsen’s mesmeric memoir “The Copenhagen Trilogy”; humorist Lindy West’s caustic movie reviews, “Shit, Actually”; and cartoonist Roz Chast’s lauded memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” 

Ditlevsen’s “Trilogy” bundles three smallish memoirs — “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency” — in a single volume, and the cumulative effect is powerfully poignant. She traces her life in the 1930s and ‘40s, from about age 6, when her interest in poetry flowered, to her twenties, as a young mother and successful author addicted to painkillers. The prose is clean and unflinching and recalls the transfixing autofiction of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Lindy West is the opposite of Ditlevsen — tart, messy, sophomoric, fueled entirely by pop culture punch. Her rambunctious movie reviews aren’t primly unfurled; they’re yelled in a neon hailstorm. Mainly they’re plot synopses with running commentary festooned in ALL CAPS, promiscuous italics and serial exclamation points (because they’re funny in bulk!!!!!). It really is like she’s yelling at us.

She LOVES!!!! 1993’s “The Fugitive” and rates movies — from “Face/Off” (a misunderstood masterpiece she direly underestimates) to “Harry Potter” — on how they stack up to the Harrison Ford thriller.

“‘The Fugitive’ is the only good movie. We didn’t need any more movies after ‘The Fugitive,’” she gushes. “We don’t need any movies before it either. We should erase those.”

That would be funny if it wasn’t so wrong. I’ve always thought “The Fugitive” was one of the most overrated movies of the ‘90s. But she’s obviously exaggerating for comic flash and bratty button pushing (right?). I’ll give her this: The title of this book, “Shit, Actually,” is also the title of her scorched-earth review of the barfy, saccharine rom-com “Love, Actually.” Good show.

Yet ultimately West is so insincere and strenuously flip that you can’t tell what she really likes or loathes for all the jokiness. She’s a little Andrew Dice Clay-esque — it’s hard to tell where schtick ends and truth begins.

You’d know these characters anywhere: the nervously quivering bodies, gaping grimaces, dark rings around the eyes, skinny arms and big heads. Roz Chast draws consummate depictions of raw, buzzing angst — humanly and hilariously — with squiggly lines that look like she has a bad case of the shakes. Why’s she so rattled?

Well, life to begin with. That’ll do it. But in her 2014 memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?,” Chast, the longtime New Yorker cartoonist, tackles the dreaded situation of “an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die.” Oof. Grim.

And funny. Because it’s true. Chast, for all her squirms and squiggles, draws and writes with unvarnished precision about the tragicomedy of becoming your parents’ caregivers, when the roles reverse. You could say she goes straight into the heart of darkness, and finds bittersweet laughs.

But I digress

Another installment of haphazard thought doodles, six hors d’oeuvres that I’m too lazy to whip into full meals. They’re presented numerically, but that’s just for looks. Rest assured, each item is equally trivial. 

1. In a thud of disappointment, I put down a book today that I had great hopes for — I hate that. Brandon Taylor’s story collection “Filthy Animals” just won the prestigious Story Prize for best book of short stories, so I snatched it up, cracked it, and eventually let out a blustery sigh of resignation, thinking, Pshaw. Not dreadful but not great, Taylor’s sexy social realism traces the romantic exploits of young LGBTQ+ couples, which is no longer novel yet still refreshing. His writing is spare and precise, but it’s also facile and shallow, sanded to a sterile remove. Physical descriptions trump psychological and emotional depth. Taylor’s stories have been compared to the light and prickly millennial sexcapades of Sally Rooney. Fair enough. But she’s sharper, cuts deeper. Has fangs. 

2. Cubby the über-pooch is doing fine, thank you, and he’s watching me as I type this, so things are sort of meta. I look at him back and see that his fuzzy Ewok face has striking human attributes. Like his eyelashes, which I rarely notice, are almost as luxuriant as Tammy Faye Bakker’s big, fake, bat-wing lashes. And his lower lip is like a little man’s with black lipstick. And his bottom teeth are just like tiny baby teeth. OK, now I’m starting to get creeped out.

3. Not creeping me out are the warm sentiments I received on my recent birthday, especially the nice words from one of my dearest exes, who wrote, “Our time together is one of my favorite chapters in life, for sure.” For three and a half years we had a blast, traveling Europe — Paris, Italy, Vienna, Istanbul, Greece — going to concerts, movies and plays, carousing and canoodling, and I’m thankful she’s still in my orbit. We were sweet and snarky. Here’s how she signed off: “Write me back, asshole! And have a very Happy Birthday.” Aww.

4. After quitting “Filthy Animals,” I grabbed the even more acclaimed “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” a collection of three memoirs by late Danish author Tove Ditlevsen, which comes wreathed in panting praise and strewn with confetti. Written from 1967-71 and embraced by a new generation of readers and critics, the memoirs, “Childhood,” “Youth” and “Dependency,” have been hailed a masterpiece, “the product of a terrifying talent.” Having just started the book, my opinion of it is at best embryonic — the writing is stupendous — yet I’ve tweezed a piercing line from the early pages: “Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.” That both chills and cheers me.

5. Once when I was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, a young girl was selling sunscreen on the roadside. I asked her how much and she gave me an absurdly high price. I blurted, “You’re crazy!” She hissed back, “You crazy!” Just two weeks ago in Rome, I approached a taxi driver and told him the address to my hotel. “Forty euro,” he said, as if he wasn’t trying to blatantly fleece me by a full 25 euro. “You’re crazy,” I scoffed, to which he replied, “You’re crazy!” I really need to come up with a new line.

6. The latch on the back gate has broken, so the fence no longer makes a catching noise, it just sort of swooshes shut. That means you can’t tell if someone is coming or going. A ghost might as well be walking in. Or a serial killer.

Naples, knockout

Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact). 

Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.

Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians. 

Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life. 

But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.   

Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished. 

But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more. 

He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.  

Me, I already see it that way. I’m sold.

Ready for takeoff

The airport security line today was groaningly long, but it moved with ease and speed and I hardly complained about the grabby strip search. Soon enough, I was on my way to Gate C123, where I’ll be boarding a Boeing something or other to Rome, an eight-hour redeye that will land tomorrow just past the crack of dawn. 

My brother, who meets me in Rome on Tuesday, drove me to the airport. I was very appreciative until he tried to fist bump me as I got out, a gesture that isn’t really in my physical vocabulary. I indulged him, with a blush — what am I going to do, reject the fist? Then I exclaimed, Ciao! Grazie!, getting into the spirit of the trip and all. He drove off, perhaps flushed with shame.

Checking in at the United kiosk, no one asked to see my Covid vaccination card, but whatever. That’s one less micro hassle. United on its website cautioned to get to the airport early due to a possible surge in spring break travelers, the worst kind. But it didn’t seem overly crowded, and only once did I hear “bro” uttered. 

I wound up overcompensating by getting to the damn airport way too early, as I almost always do. I still, now, have a little more than two hours to kill at the gate. I’ve had an $11 beer and a $13 turkey sandwich wrapped in cellophane — airport haute cuisine. Now what?

I can get some reading done. I brought along novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’ cult classic “The Virgin Suicides,” which I read long ago and have meant to reread. So here I am, and the book holds up better the second time. 

If you’ve read it, or seen Sofia Coppola’s gauzy movie, you know it’s a suburban American gothic hinged on the suicides of five teenage sisters over one year. That sounds grim, but the story, suffused with Eugenides’ glinting lyricism and arch humor, moves with a lush, dreamy drift that’s slightly removed from reality, yet remains wise and true and fine.

I’m already about halfway through the novel, which means I’ll probably have to buy another book for the return trip. Ah, the pleasurable perils of world travel …