ST. MARYS, Pa. - Welcome to the home of Straub beer, Pennsylvania elk, and a book club that has been meeting for 48 years.
Once stuck in the double digits, the number of elk in the area is approaching 1,000. Straub just introduced a new lager.
And on April 16, the book club closed the cover on its 800th selection, All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy.
As it has almost every three weeks since October 1959, the book group gathered around the big cloth-covered table in the dining room of Dick Dornisch, 78, the club's founder.
One of the newest members, Sarah Henry, 22, volunteered to begin. Dornisch, meanwhile, unwrapped two boxes of Jose Olé Mexi-Minis and popped them in the oven.
The first meeting was devoted to George Orwell's
followed by J.D. Salinger's
The Catcher in the Rye,
and Evelyn Waugh's
Decline and Fall
. Members have consumed nearly everything by Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck and Isak Dinesen. They have read
Crime and Punishment
Spoon River Anthology
, and the
(which they are rereading). Also, operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan, plays by Hellman and Chekhov, and poems by Don Marquis.
Once, when a book order was delayed, they turned to Mad magazine.
Over the years, about 125 members have cycled through, about as many men as women, a rarity in book circles. Of the 11 who first gathered in Dornisch's 19th-century farmhouse, just Dornisch and two others remain among the dozen current members. Moves and deaths have taken their toll. And Dornisch has his own quirks.
In 2006, membership, which had been as high as the 20s, fell to eight. More disturbing than the number was that "no new people were turning up," Dornisch says.
But this year, a father and son joined, and then came Henry, a recent Pennsylvania State University graduate who moved here with her boyfriend and felt "intellectually starved."
Everyone agrees with the opinion voiced by Jim Mallison, one of the charter members: "If it weren't for Dick, there wouldn't be a book club."
Dornisch selects and orders the books, and serves wine and snacks afterward. He has missed only three meetings, all in 2004 when he was walking across the country. (He made it to Sioux City, S.D. It took 51 days.)
Dornisch has spent his life in St. Marys, in forested Elk County, north of I-80. The town has a population of 13,719. The movie theater, barely heated in past years, shut down this winter. The closest bookstore is 30 miles away.
Raised in a household where the eight children never went to bed without being read to, Dornisch is an Army veteran and onetime supermarket produce manager, hobby-store owner, plant worker, and reporter and artist for the local paper.
Currently a member of the City Council, he is 6 feet tall and lanky, with flyaway white hair, a pointed chin covered with a clipped beard, and arched eyebrows that give his face a mischievous cast.
His manner inspires a mouthful of adjectives: long-winded, opinionated, set in his ways. And those are from his friends. He has been known to intimidate would-have-been members.
"Confrontation and contention is like food to me," he has said. "I feed on it. I live on it."
Club members praise their leader's quick mind and prodigious memory.
To Dennis McGeehan, 59, a 27-year veteran who teaches history at nearby campuses of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, the club "is a way of life. It's kind of like reading a book that never ends. It just has different chapters."
Mary Mallison, the third original member, once boycotted several meetings after one too many spats with Dornisch, her high-school classmate. But she had to return. "I don't ever want to read without discussing something on a book."
Dornisch is pushing to finish what he considers must-read books before the club's 50th anniversary in 2009. In February, it plowed through The Pilgrim's Progress, "a tedious struggle," he says, but no matter.
"Books that everybody likes don't generally make for good book discussions. You go around and you say, 'Well, I liked it.' 'And I like it.' You don't get off the ground. But many of the books that no one liked - books we've despised - have made wonderful discussions."
All the Pretty Horses
describes the odyssey of two teenage Texans and a sidekick they pick up while traveling by horseback through Mexico in 1948.
Opening the meeting, Henry called Horses, "a coming-of-age novel." Like herself and her friends, the lead character was "trying to find where he belongs in the world. I could relate to it."
"I don't like cowboy movies, so you know where that left me," Mary Mallison opined. She picked at the facts. She wasn't sure there were black Arabian horses like the one in the book. And would an Arabian have crossed the Rio Grande? "I always heard they were afraid of water."
Jim Mallison proclaimed the book "in some ways very interesting and some ways boring," in all "a novel of teenage despair." Dave Sorg, a physicist and recent arrival, found Horses "essentially dark."
McGeehan drew a large laugh when he noted, "We learned an awful lot about tack."
A scene in which Cole breaks horses referred frequently to "hackamores." "I finally looked it up," said Rita Wehler, Dornisch's sister-in-law.
"All the horse stuff," chimed in Mary Mallison.
After an hour of discussion punctuated with bursts of laughter, Dornisch took his turn. As he spoke, the odor of burning food and wisps of smoke drifted in from the kitchen. Oblivious to these signs that the Mexi-Minis were in trouble, Dornisch continued to hold forth.
McCarthy, he said, was the "most fascinating new writer that we've read in a long time," but he agreed it was "a gloomy, pessimistic book."
Noting the author's nationality, he said that in his observations, the Irish divide into two groups. "Half of them are sitting around drunk, having a good time. The others seem to be dragging a tombstone around on their shoulder." McCarthy, he said, "is a tombstone dragger."
The meeting had begun at 9:30 p.m., an hour when couples had children to put to bed. Now it was almost 11 p.m. Rescued and washed down with boxed merlot, the singed Mexi-Minis went fast.
Last to speak, Dennis "Bucky" Lecker, a Spanish teacher by profession, saw little original in McCarthy's novel. Lecker, 41, was 14 when he read 52 cowboy books by writers such as Max Brand and Zane Grey. "This guy read all the same Westerns."
After older members said their goodbyes, Lecker, Henry, and McGeehan and his wife, Debbie, stayed behind for the verbal free-for-all that always follows meetings. It began with a lively debate over book selection. Henry had said that she suspected Dornisch's mandate to reread author Lawrence Durrell was for the benefit of younger members.
"It's like making the kids read because it's good for them - like eating your vegetables."
"You read the books you want to read on your own time," Dornisch declared loftily. "Book club reads the books you ought to read."
On leaving, the guests picked up copies of Sunday Jews by Hortense Calisher.