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HERB BENHAM: Going hand in hand with these great storytellers

Two at once. Two of my favorites. If it had to be any two, I’m glad it was these two because maybe they can go hand in hand to where storytellers go.

Larry McMurtry and Beverly Cleary. One kept me company when I was younger and the other later on.

When I saw Cleary’s obit — 104 years old — I couldn’t believe she was still alive. If she didn’t live forever, her books and the characters they celebrated might. Henry Huggins, Ramona and Ribsy — what a great name for a dog.

I will never tire of saying Klickitat Street. Klickitat. It rolls off the tongue like a jazz riff.

I wasn’t alone, but I must have read those books 10 times. Books are where you escape when your life is good or not good. In other words, books are like chocolate cake, bacon and Hot Tamales. There is never a bad time for a good book.

We have friends and those friends can be good friends but sometimes there are no friends like book friends and the stories inside.

“I don’t think anything will ever replace the pleasure of holding a book and turning its pages,” Cleary said in a 2011 Atlantic interview.

Pleasure because Cleary’s writing had lightness and a sense of humor. She was fun. Fun to a 10-, 12- or 14-year-old, and I may have snuck some Henry Huggins in in college when I was pretending to be world weary while grasping with the seminal issues of the day.

By college, Cleary had handed the storytelling baton to Larry McMurtry. His books were literature but didn’t masquerade as such. It was less important where his books ended up in the literary hierarchy than his ease as a storyteller. Good stories to keep us warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Stories that not only provided comfort but confirmation. Confirmation that we’re not alone, we’re not nuts and we’re not as strange as some of the indicators say we might be.

Stories with moments of clarity. Clarity that comes when a passage confirms something you thought might be true or contains an insight that is so spot-on, it doesn’t matter whether you thought of it or not.

“But just let me tell you something, son, a woman's love is like the morning dew, it's just as apt to settle on a horse turd as it is on a rose. So you better just get over it.” (Larry McMurtry, "Leaving Cheyenne")

I always loved the story about McMurtry showing up at the Stanford University writing program with “Leaving Cheyenne” in his briefcase already roughed out. Turns out, I had it wrong, it wasn’t “Leaving Cheyenne,” it was “Horseman, Pass By.”

“Cheyenne” or “Horseman,” imagine you’re a student in the class and McMurtry has that book in his pocket? You’re slightly intimidated unless you’re Ken Kesey and you’re working on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

I remember being in my bed when I was a kid, the one with the knotty pine ceiling about three feet away, reading "Henry Huggins" and having that out-of-body experience books can give you. It is simultaneously being comfortable in your own bed and being a million miles away. It’s the perfect blend of traveling while never leaving home.

Traveling hand in hand with a storyteller who will not let go.

Herb Benham is a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at hbenham@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7279.