December 2009 | Steve Alburty

Hunting for Halldór

It is important for the understanding of this post that you understand that I live three miles from Phoenicia, New York, a village that is two blocks long, but has a library.  There. That's as much of the back story as you need to know.  Let's begin ...

When I obsess, I like to choose something small. Let others focus in on their dysfunctional relatives, or their receding hairline, or whether Fiji will disappear when the oceans rise. Been there, neuroticised about that.

I choose to hunt in my own pack for flotsam other obessive-compulsives would ignore as chump change.

And so this is how I began my quest for what I soon decided was the most under-appreciated out-of-print novel ever written. My obsession began on a Sunday in the early 1990s.
The last page of the New York Times' Sunday Book Review is always reserved for an essay where a literary critic or author is given a page to say whatever they want to about themselves, other authors, books in general, the publishing industry or anything else that's sticking in their craw.  On this particular Sunday, in the early 1990s, someone was writing rhapsodic about a favorite long-lost novel by an author from Iceland.

Wait a minute. Iceland?  This is a country where road crews will build expensive detours around big rocks just because locals think they're inhabited by "hidden people."  They read books in Iceland?  Indeed they do.  In fact, they are rumored to have more bookstores per capita than any other country in the world.

The essay was about Halldór Laxness and his masterpiece (at least in the mind of the essayist) entitled "Independent People." 

I'd never heard of Halldór Laxness.  Wikipedia was useless because it had not been invented. But some research showed that Laxness had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

What was the book about? Sheep. Sheep with worms. Sheep that are threatened by cows. Ice. Snow. Wives who die in childbirth. More sheep. And a hero with the roll-off-the-tongue name, Gudbjartur Jonsson.

This minutiae was all that was needed to pique my interest.  Who, after all, is not fascinated to read about worm-infested sheep?

I searched every available online bookstore for some trace of "Independent People."  Nothing. While on a cross-country driving trip, I even drove several hundred miles out of my way to search for it amongst the thousands of titles in Larry McMurtry's ultimate used bookstore in Archer, Texas.  No luck.

And then, in 1995, I was strolling down the storefronts of Phoenica, NY. (See first sentence of this post to reset backstory.)

I stopped in front of the library, which had several carts of used books available for $1 each.  And there, as if a book had been waiting all these years to yell "surprise!," the title "Independent People" leapt out at me.  The price was $1.00, but I went into the library, told them the story of my quest, and insisted that they accept a twenty-dollar bill.

I took the book home and instantly felt .... well, neurotic.  Would it live up to my expectations after all these years? Was this going to be like finding a long-lost high-school sweetheart only to discover she now had hair on her upper lip?

"The read" (for which you may insert the phrase "the high") was everything I wanted it to be. I suddenly adored sheep and worried about their worms, and I thought of Gudbjartur Jonsson as one of the great creations of fiction.

And when I finished, there I sat as pleased as Buddha parked under a tree.  I told everyone I knew about this miraculous novel that none of them could read.  Their looks were well-meaning, but glassy-eyed, as if I'd just said "Don't you understand, I've come from the past to tell you how wondrous your future could be if you'd only read this book!"

I was able to maintain this messianic demeanor for a lousy three years.

And then, in 1997, "Independent People" was published in paperback.  My book now belonged to everyone.

Then came Laxness' other novels, "The Fish Can Sing," and "Atom Station."  Everyone can read them.  My quest was extinguished.

I was no longer a rock in the path of a highway project in Reykjavik.  I was no longer a "hidden person" for whom diversions should be built.  I was merely a hidden person.

But I had found and read "Independent People."  Nyah, nyah, nyah.

And in some small way, perhaps my quest (or the piece in the Sunday Book Review) caused all of Laxness' novels to come back into print.

You can find now buy "Independent People" with the click of a mouse.  I had to find it like a ... well, like an independent person.