Some time ago, I worked in another bookstore in San Francisco. Once, during Fleet Week, a rather dazed-looking man came in amidst the roar of jets. Speaking in his loudest voice, he announced, “They messed up my voice! I can only talk this loud! Look what they did with my voice!” Probably only then realizing he had walked into a bookstore, he asked me the most terrifying question a bookseller can think to hear: “Hey, do you have that book by that guy?” Miraculously mustering up a reserve of patience I didn’t know I had, I quietly took him over to the stacks of books and started to name names, trying to get a read on who “that guy” was. I’ll admit with pride that I was able to figure out who this poor, deluded soul was searching for when he stated that “that guy” watched fires on hills. Though there were probably more pyromaniac authors than the ones we know about, I figured only one author wrote to any degree on the subject of hill-sitting and fire-watching, and that was Jack Kerouac. I stated the answer to the loud man’s riddle, and for my trouble he regaled me with alarmist ramblings about jets and who-knows-what-else for another ten minutes, before he went on his way, forgetting to ask, now that we knew who “that guy” was, about “that book”.
The whole incident had the feeling of some inscrutable test this fellow was putting me through, but at least I can assume I passed it. I suppose we can take heart in the fact that even the most riddling and koan-like of questions can have clear answers, even if such answers serve little purpose.
Click here to watch one of the best clips in existence, in which Kerouac is asked some “square questions”.