Thursday, January 10, 2008

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Chapter Eleven

Along with my copy of the signed agreement to publish from Yale University Press came a note from the editor, J. Digby Wolfram, giving me editorial and production schedules and suggesting how, as he put it, it would accrue to our mutual advantages if I could get to New Haven as soon as possible.

J. Digby. It was redolent of English, of Beau Geste, and Pimm's Cups. And "accrue to our mutual advantages'? Made me feel as though I were entering an entirely new dimension where scholars vetted works they considered worthwhile, where words such as collegial were used at faculty meetings and tea was served in china cups.

I showed the note to the departmental chair, thinking only to get the academic equivalent of a hall pass--some time off--but Janet McHenry, Herself, as we called her, went me even better. "Seems to me there's some discretionary money in the departmental travel fund," she said. "The department ought to be able to get you part of the way there. And I will see that this venture is posted on our web site."

Such are the shifting tides of academic life. The "part way" was a business-class round trip from LAX to JFK, leaving me to pay only for train fare between New York and New Haven.

One week later, my classes covered by no less than Daniel Binford, I took the red eye to New York, trained up to Yale, and arrived at the University Press offices on a brisk Saturday afternoon. Wolfram proved to be a small-boned, athletically trim man with prematurely gray hair and a nose that seemed to have come from a Roman coin. By my estimate, Wolfram could wear size thirty-eight suits right off the rack--provided he ever wore suits. He greeted me in tennis togs that day and the next. His concession to formality the following Monday, when the Press offices were in full function, was to wear Cambridge gray flannels, Everything else--shoes, sox, shirt, and jacket were intended for life on the tennis court.

There was something disconcerting about the way Wolfram spoke as he outlined his plan of attack for me. "There's the Taft Hotel not too far from here," he said. We'll get you set up, then you can take the manuscript with you, look over some of my suggestions and--" he peered about a scrupulously neat office until he spotted what he was after, a small laptop computer. "I could get you a Mac if you fancy it."

"First of all," I launched forth, "what am I going to need a computer for? And secondly, I'm no expert on these things, but isn't yours an Australian accent?"

Wolfram brightened. "Do you think so? That's wonderful." He lowered his voice to conspiratorial level. "Actually, I'm a Brit, but it does one better here to be thought of as Aussie. Makes one seem more cutting edge. Being thought of as a cohort of Les Murray carries a better cachet than that traitorous Blair."

I'd been given something here, but I wasn't sure what or how to respond to it.

"Well," he said at length. And I reintroduced the question of why I would need any computer.

"Things are complex in scholarly publishing," a thesis he set forth to explain for several moments, then stood abruptly. "This won't do." He led me out into the Yale campus, setting a brisk pace past the School of Art, beyond the School of Architecture, and alongside the British-American Museum, where he paused for a moment as though the building had some purpose or memory for him. He paused again in front of the J.Press store, looked critically at my jacket, then at the two jackets being featured in the window. "You might want to leave your measurements with them," he said. "You could do with something more--"


"--substantial." Wolfram was off again, taking us around the corner, where I saw the facade and canopy of the Taft Hotel. But that was not our immediate destination.

Crossing the street, Wolfram led us to Christie's, a decidedly working-class tavern. It was not like any of the establishments I'd seen in West LA or Santa Monica, where students were encouraged. This was a place for serious drinkers and sports fans. A number of signs on the wall set the tone. Students should be seen but not heard except during hockey games. Yet another one warned: Acting out by students will not be tolerated in this establishment.

For a time I was worried that our appearance, Wolfram's tennis gear in particular, would cause some acrimony if not outright grief. In that apprehensive frame of mind, I steered myself for the worst, but it soon became apparent that Wolfram was an individual who could manage in any setting. A number of the regulars greeted him with one or two staves of dialogue, clearly part of an in-progress conversation.

"So how's the slice coming, Wolfie?"

"That's backspin, mate. Slice is golf."

"Whatever. Gold. Tennis. Same silliness, different togs."

Two particularly quarrelsome drinkers, railroad employees to judge by their striped denims. appeared to be debating which of the two would approach Wolfram, then deciding to do so together. "We were wondering," the shorter of the two asked, "if you think Marxism is dead, now that Communism has had it."

"Not bloody likely," Wolfram pronounced. "News of its death has been greatly exaggerated."

"See," the other replied, taking a swipe at his companion's engineer's cap. "I told you."

Wolfram grew into his secretive mode. "Americans," he said. "So quick totake sides. They think all Brits who don't err suits have gone to the London School of Economics and become radiclized."

"Where did you go to school?"

"LSE," he said, placing drink orders for u. "But the thing is, you see, I was radicalized before that."

I waited until our drinks came before I returned to the unanswered question. "Why am I going to need a computer?"

Over the course of the next hour or so, while fending off my questions about his questions relating to my manuscript, Wolfran set about a methodical course of gtting me drunk and garrulous. He steered me through the treacherous landscape of Canadian beers and ales, all of a much higher alcoholic content than their American counterpart, matching me bottle for bottle, the distinction being that his bottles were Cock & Bull ginger beer, alcohol content 0. We ran the gamut of William Butler Yeats' alleged fascist tendencies, the new epistemology, gender as metaphor, and why existentialism had become a rallying cry for the Fundamentalists of the American Far Right.

At one point, Wolfram had to place himself between me and the man with the engineer's cap to prevent that worthy--as drunk or drunker than I--from throwing a punch at me. Some time later, while gnawing on a large platter of Buffalo chicken wings, we were discussing D.H. Lawrence with another group of Christie's regulars, me taking Lawrence's side against those who argued that Lawrence had missed several vital points in his Classic Studies in American Literature.

Seeing Wolfram in a conference with two of the Christie's bartenders who seemed to be pointing at me, I became aware that it was time for us to leave. My relief at this being our immediate agenda was enormous because I was growing sleepier by the minute.

Wolfram made a to-do about settling me in at the Taft Hotel. I knew it was rude of me, perhaps even unforgivably so, but with the briefest of apologies, I tumbled into the large, springy double bed, reaching with some immediacy for the outer edges of the mattress on either side of me when the room began to spin.

"Not to worry," Wolfram assured. "You just doze off for a bit. I'll leave the laptop, the manuscript, and my notes and see myself out."

"Why am I going to need a computer?" I said, but before he had time to respond, I also felt the need to say "The room. The room."

"It will settle down," Wolfram said. "All in good time."

No comments: