Saturday, May 19, 2007

Seventeen-mile-long nuclear accelerator

A little after nine, this morning. I pull into the parking lot in the mall next to the Montecito Library, a gray, single-story frame building where, most Saturday mornings, I host a writer's workshop.

The character I see, pacing with eager nervousness, looks familiar to me, but I have worked late the night before and am now wishing I'd had a second coffee this morning. Getting out of the car, I see the pacer advancing on me, a rolled up magazine in one hand, a paper cup of coffee bearing the distinctive Peet's logo in the other.

Okay, things are beginning to fall into place. The "character" is no character, he is a writer. Jerry Freedman. The magazine is the current Harper's. The intent of his visit and the energy behind it are clear to me.

Is that urn coffee? I ask, pointing at the paper cup.

"What do you take me for?" he responds.

I take him for a man who, having had at least six novels on The New York Times bestseller list, had damned well better be drinking a latte or a cappuccino. I take the cup and sip from it. All is well.

"So you know about it?"

I nod. The story is by Nicole Kraus. It is--well, it is wonderful. It is the kind of story that is sad and tragic and affirming all at once, a reminder that our current president and his vice-president are not anomalies; there were and have been persons we'd trusted in the past, persons we'd hoped would lead us to, as Lincoln put it, the better angels of our nature.

Is this what a short story should do?

Damned right. It should and does offer moments in an arc of time in which the two grotesques, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, appear just long enough to help us connect a few dots and see a history, a tendency.

We both found her novel A History of Love as something to rejoice over, then, as such things go, Richard Powers came along with The Echo Maker and Nicole Kraus was set aside with the hope that there would be something from her soon.

Now, there is, and from the looks of it, it could be a part of a novel.

Very quickly, we each discover that each has just finished Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, each thinking to loan it to the other.

We are now into serious bidding. No One Belongs Here More Than You, I venture. Short stories by Miranda July?

Okay, Jerry says, you win. When will you be finished?

Maybe next week.

A sudden smile comes into his face. Nathan Englander. The Ministry of Special Cases.

I was going to get that.

No need, he says. We'll trade.

Nothing else to say. The energy and excitement are out there buzzing around.

Jerry heads for his car. I cock my head toward Sally, who has been sniffing the grass just beyond the No Dogs Allowed sign. She starts after me toward the library.

Somewhere, there is a new seventeen-mile-long nuclear accelerator, just the thing to get particles up and running on a collision course, looking for answers about how things are made, how they behave, and how they produce unexpected results. The same kind of thing some writers do in short stories and books.