I came into the pub in the middle of the day, not for any reason really, not even to have a beer, just aimlessly, because I had nothing else that needed doing that afternoon, and there was a guy at the bar, the only other person in the pub, reading a book.
“What are you reading?” I asked him, because I always ask people this, even if I’ve already seen what they’re reading. I like to give them the chance to say it out loud, to confess it with their own lips.
“It’s Bolano’s 2666,” he answered. He said this quietly, only flicking his eyes away from the book for the barest of moments, annoyed, then hunched down with his brown corduroy jacket up around his neck.
“What do you think of it?” I persisted. I still hadn’t ordered anything, and the bartender hovered across the bar from me, but I wouldn’t meet his eyes, wouldn’t give him the chance to ask me if I needed anything. I turned my back to the bar to avoid him.
The reader looked up this time, set the book on the bar, open, hard covers spread, without its dust jacket. “Are you really asking,” he said gravely, “or are you just making small talk, because if you’re just making small talk, I’ll probably punch you in the mouth.”
His eyes were dark and round and something else, speckled maybe, and I saw that he meant it, and I thought, “This guy reads for real,” and I wanted to talk to him even more. “I really want to know,” I assured him, and I tried to sound as sincere as I could, because I’ve read 2666 twice now, and I love that book, and I’m always trying to get people to read it, so I really did want to know.
“Fine,” he said, gripping the lapels of his jacket like a child reciting a presidential speech, “let’s just start by saying it’s the greatest novel written by anyone in any language in at least a quarter century.”
“Good,” I answered, “as long as we don’t end there, I think that’s good.”