Phinney Books, the Elkin test, and the eternal joy of Fup

A couple weeks ago, I visited the delightful Phinney Books for a reading. Customers at Phinney Books always have huge smiles plastered across their faces, and when you walk in, it's easy to understand why: from the categorization of books as either "TRUE" or "MADE UP" to the giant Ferris wheel along the wall of the kids' section, the whole store seems designed to maximize happiness in humans.

In preparation for the store's upcoming one-year anniversary, owner Tom Nissley was talking up a neat new idea: he had recently purchased a Polaroid camera (or whatever they call cameras that take instant photos nowadays; Polaroid got out of the Polaroid business a few years ago) and he was taking photographs of Phinney Books customers holding their favorite books. He wanted to decorate the store with the photographs.

This is a deeply lovable idea. How better to illustrate the shelves of a bookstore than with demonstrations of what the love of books can do to a person? Could there be a better advertisement for books than smiling humans, holding books they adore?

Nissley asked if I wanted to pose for a photo. Of course I did. But my enthusiasm quickly soured into a quandary. People ask me all the time for my favorite book, and the truth is, I don't have one. I don't believe in favorite books. I've written about this before: Out of the thousands of books that I've read, with the enormous palette of ideas and emotions they've represented, how could I choose only one? Why not ask for a favorite orgasm, or laugh, or grain of sand?

But I went out on safari anyway, scouring the shelves of Phinney Books in search of a photographic partner. In the fiction section, I spotted a copy of Stanley Elkin's masterpiece, The Franchiser. That seemed like an appropriate choice. Here's something I wrote years ago about what I call The Elkin Test:

Find the fiction section, locate the Es, and look for Stanley Elkin. If a bookstore carries Elkin's novels, it's a sign of all-around quality. Elkin, who died in 1995, was a masterful writer with a playful love of language that few authors this side of Nabokov could match—it's a good bet that almost every literary author you admire has read and loved Stanley Elkin's fiction. But many bookstores don't carry Elkin's novels because they're obscure and they don't sell—you'd be lucky to have one stolen every other year, compared to perennial sellers like Kerouac. Granted, any bookstore can order Elkin's books—the nonprofit Dalkey Archive Press keeps them all in print, supposedly forever—but so can I, from my laptop, on my couch. A bookstore that carries Stanley Elkin has more than good taste; it has a commitment to its stock and a willingness to shelve excellent books that don't pay for their own real estate.

My hand was almost on The Franchiser's spine when my eye caught a familiar friend a couple shelves away: Jim Dodge's sublime novella Fup. Sorry, Stanley: I instantly knew that Fup was going to be my date for this particular dance.

It's not that Fup is my favorite book, though it is one that I'll recommend to practically anybody. The thing is, Fup is my most memorable reading experience. It's the only book I've read three times in one day. I still remember the comfy chair I sat in to read the book, the sunbeam I almost unconsciously followed across the living room as I read the book once, came up for air, then went down again and again in a state of wonderment. I've read better books, but I've never fallen so quickly for a book. Every time I re-read it — and I re-read it often, sometimes even aloud — I relive the feeling of that day, when nothing mattered to me but sunlight and this remarkable new book that I had discovered.

People who love Fup have a hard time explaining why Fup is so important to them, but I'll give it a shot: it's a novella — actually, maybe "novelette" is more exact — about a young man who is raised by his taciturn, grumpy grandfather. Together, the boy and his grandfather find a young duck and adopt him as a pet. They name the duck Fup because it's a good, dumb joke — its full name is "Fup Duck" — and they grow into a family together. That's basically it.

Except it's not. Fup is a story that resonates with the weird magical crackle of an American tall tale. It's profane and hysterically funny and deeply moving. I've never read any book even remotely like Fup, although Tom Robbins at his very best sometimes brushes past it. And even after all these paragraphs, I'm not even coming remotely close to identifying why Fup is as important to me as it is.

Anyway, I went back up the counter and Nissley took my picture holding a copy of Fup and I didn't even blink when the shutter clicked down. I am someone who avoids looking in mirrors when he shaves, and even I have to admit that the picture came out okay; my smile is genuine and I look happy to be there. Fup is that kind of a book, and Phinney Books is that kind of a place.