Around the Press in 80 Books: My Bright Midnight

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Marketing Manager Erin Rolfs writes about My Bright Midnight.

RussellBRIGHT_covfrontHRTo be honest, I find debates about the merit of ebooks versus their wrinkly, smelly ol’ print counterparts tiresome, especially when the speculation revolves around qualitatively comparing the two in an effort to make one the victor. Save for the economic implications, once the “e” against “p” argument veers into claims of aesthetics, tactile experience, and portability, and starts to whiff of nostalgia or hyperneophilia I tend to tap out.

Yet despite my resistance to cheerlead for one format over the other, when I started writing this blog for my eightieth-anniversary pick I could not imagine selecting this title if I had read it digitally, and that made me question my neutrality a little bit.

Every time I glance at the cover of Josh Russell’s My Bright Midnight—which LSUP published as part of the Yellow Shoe Fiction series—and my eyes catch the cheery profile of a blonde in a turquoise bathing suit, flying over a checkerboard sea, I feel at once the panic, loneliness, excitement, and timidity of spending my twenty-eighth birthday alone on a six-hour train ride from Paris to Cannes.

In the summer of 2010, I was two weeks away from starting my job at the Press but had planned a vacation months prior, so I took a galley of Russell’s novel to read during my travels. I didn’t consider how the shadows of time and place would deposit themselves into this book, how I would look on Russell’s novel as a token that granted passage from one point in my life to another.

The main character in My Bright Midnight, Walter Schmidt, is a German immigrant living in New Orleans during World War II. Though he moved to the city over a decade before the war began and despite his efforts to acclimate, the memory of his father—who was presumably slain by U.S. troops in WWI—the bad blood with his cousin Andreas, and the growing American disdain for German heritage keep Walter suspended between two loyalties, between two visions of himself.

Many episodes where Walter is causally called a “kraut” at best or a “Nazi” at worst, are paired with moments in which he believes his American-ness is fully realized—a family trip to the beach, an Uptown home, and a demonstrated love of movies, baseball, and fried food. But you are never allowed to fully sympathize with Walter. He makes selfish, hurtful decisions perhaps out of jealousy for the man he isn’t and can’t ever become. So you’re stuck too, with Walter Schmidt, in a state of seemingly endless transition, much like being on a long train ride, in a foreign place, headed toward a destination you’ve never been to before, surrounded by strangers.

Walter’s life—composed of hardship, loss, confusion, and deceit—bears no resemblance to the privilege of traveling abroad or getting a new job. But that book, on a personal level, shook lose the fears of being unfit for your own ideal—whether in relationships or professionally—and on a bigger level, the consequences of humanity’s targeted prejudice. Now, every time I see this fair-haired variation of Ester Williams frozen in midair at the peak of excitement like Mardi Gras beads snagged on a tree limb, I’m reminded of the insidious nature of past, the volatility of the present, and the hopes we pin on the future. Those notions wouldn’t have had the opportunity to tap me on the shoulder if the book were buried inside my Kindle app. The omnipotent digital edition lacks the substance to carry such a weighty memory, and it could truly be never there, on that train with me, only on a server in Palo Alto or Seattle.

So I have to concede that physical books, for me, are mementos of the story therein as well as the time in which I read them. They represent the person who gave me the object or place I acquired it. They become diplomats returning from a particular episode in my life to negotiate what lies ahead. I know that Walter is still with me because I can still see him even when I’m not looking for him.

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