How the West was Won

You mean Richard Gere didn't bring Buddhism to America?!

Lawrence Sutin
All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West
Little, Brown

Nothing gets past Fluffy. The woman behind the Book Trader's counter seems to know that I'm here to interview Lawrence Sutin even before I introduce myself. Maybe it's the tape recorder I'm holding as I enter the densely stocked south Minneapolis book and curio shop, one of Sutin's favorite haunts for more than a decade.

"I am Fluffy," she tells me solemnly, "mistress of books." Sixtyish and bespectacled with a regal air that partakes more than a little of '30s screwball comedies, she raises an eyebrow, continuing: "I made bars for the interview." Fluffy produces a tray laden with chocolate-covered Rice Krispies squares, each about the size of Fridley.

Fluffy's deputy is a real stuffed chipmunk with white fake wings, who stands vigil like a Wal-Mart greeter in a Guy Maddin film. The fantastic creature is perched angelically at the end of the long glass counter—beyond a profusion of ancient bottle stoppers, miniature flags, animal figurines, an emu foot, and a conch shell bearing a delicate, hand-carved cameo. I'm pleased to see it: One of the frequent complaints one hears about the ailing American literary scene is that booksellers don't offer the contemporary reader nearly enough taxidermy. "So whaddya doin' talkin' to Larry?" she asks (Fluffy, that is, not the chipmunk).

A blur in a blue oxford shirt and faded jeans, Sutin bounds into the shop a minute later, bearing a coffee for the booksmistress and getting me off the hook. Wheeling toward the celestial rodent, he fishes a packet of antique postcards from the dizzying collection on the counter. Clearly, he's a regular. "Can you hold these for me?" he asks.

Sutin's interest in postcards is more than casual. The author and Hamline professor used them to enhance the autobiographical A Postcard Memoir, published by Graywolf in 2000. "I've led a pretty ordinary life," he says, "much of which has happened in my head. I've always been a great admirer of William Blake—a wonderful writer and a wonderful artist who combined his talents to maximum effect. Since I don't paint, I thought using postcards of some importance to me might be the next-best alternative."

A little over 6'2", with broad shoulders, red hair, and matching full beard, the 54-year-old Sutin radiates a robustness rarely encountered among middle-aged academics. This temperament may owe something to Sutin's bent for lively topics.

The good professor's latest work, All Is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West (Little, Brown), boasts a healthy complement of incredible adventures and lurid interludes—all grounded in serious scholarship. (Sutin will discuss the book at the Twin Cities Book Festival at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 14 on the MCTC campus.) While Sutin largely performed his research at the University of Minnesota's Ames Library of South Asia—"I was very lucky, living in Minneapolis," he says—he has previously gone to great lengths in pursuit of hidden lore. His first book, 1989's Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, took him to Glen Elm, California, where he spent weeks in a rented room poring over the science-fiction visionary's archive, then housed in writer Paul Williams's garage. "God, I wish I'd written that book now," Sutin says.

His regret makes perfect sense, given that Dick is bigger now than ever before. Currently in production is Next, an adaptation of The Golden Man—the seventh Dick vehicle committed to film since 1990's Total Recall—and a biographical picture, directed by frequent CP contributor Matthew Wilder. The author, a longtime amphetamine enthusiast who often questioned his own sanity, is widely lauded as a major 20th-century literary figure—at least now he is. But back in '89, he was still ensconced in the genre-fiction ghetto.

To the best of his knowledge, Sutin is the only person to have read the Exegesis, Dick's 10,000-page metaphysical manifesto. "Much of it is reworkings of a few central ideas, not at all interesting to the general reader," says Sutin, who went on to edit In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis, published by Underwood in 1989. "I think I pretty much got all the good stuff," he says—a claim that only Dick could really contest.

Dick isn't the only challenging subject Sutin has tackled: The year 2000 saw the publication of Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley. And then there's Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance, Sutin's account of his parents' escape from Polish ghetto work camps and their subsequent resistance against the Nazis during World War II. "The story was theirs; I just helped with the words," he says. "In no way was it an easy project for me."

Living in postwar Poland, a hotbed of violent anti-Semitism, wasn't exactly easy for the writer's parents, either. In 1949, they made their way to St. Paul, moving to St. Louis Park nine years later. "I really enjoyed growing up in St. Louis Park," Sutin says. "I was one of those rare kids who really liked the 'school' part of high school." After attending a few different colleges, Sutin ultimately collected a law degree from Harvard and made his way back to Minnesota.

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