Many writers of my generation grew up aware of and in subtle ways in awe of The New Yorker; we were familiar with the short fictions of John O'Hara and, later, John Cheever, each of whom we tried to incorporate into our own work before learning the most difficult lesson of all.
Imitation may be a form of flattery but it is not effective in developing what each of these two and another unheralded New Yorker writer, George A. S. Trow, so clearly had--an original voice.
It was a good time and a good way to grow up, seeing on a weekly basis such idiosyncratic and memorable fiction. After a time I became aware as writers do of such things that the fiction editor was William Maxwell, a fact born home once when a submission of mine bore a neat "sorry" and a WM.
But I had no idea of his writing reach and skills until, one day on a chatty phone conversation to Swindell at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, I heard Swindell say, "I'm thinking of sending you the new Maxwell collection." Our tastes were close to being in sync, and so I said "Why not? and he said, "Well, you know, he is not to everyone's taste." I was more aware of how my old college chum had picked up a Texas twang than I was of the fact that he seemed to regard Maxwell with such reverence. "Yes," he said, "I think I will." Which gave me a few days to hit the library hard, the better to be ready.
It quickly evolved that William Maxwell was the kind of writer I wanted to be, simple in his eloquence, honest with his depiction of responses and motivation, revelatory of the segment of the human condition of which he wrote so many stories and novels. Many of his narratives were set before my birth or as a consequence of things set in motion before my birth; his landscape was a series of small towns in Illinois.
Today, I am listening to a podcast of an earlier interview he gave Terry Gross on NPR, perhaps five years before he didn't so much as die as slip out the door, unnoticed. The interview was in connection with the publication of Maxwell's work by The Library of America, a nice tribute to the literary tradition of America.
Reading Maxwell reminded me of the habit I have of checking out the contents of bathroom cabinets in houses where I am a guest, looking for clues that will help further define the inhabitats of the place, revelations of illnesses, allergies, preoccpations, preferences.
What good, you ask, is it to know if a person prefers Colgate Total toothpaste to, say, Crest or original Pepsodent? The devil is in the details, I respond. I, who once used Ipana and Crest, could never trust a user of Pepsodent because as a callow youth, I listened to radio programs sponsored by Pepsodent where the star was Bob Hope.
Maxwell used the detail of feelings to bring forth his characters, constantly playing the dialectic between what they said and the interior life of what they felt.
I still admire and read John O'Hara and John Cheever; I revere William Maxwell, the quiet, steady observer of the small details that help define us all.
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Many writers of my generation grew up aware of and in subtle ways in awe of The New Yorker; we were familiar with the short fictions of John O'Hara and, later, John Cheever, each of whom we tried to incorporate into our own work before learning the most difficult lesson of all.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
1. As a follower of blogs for some time now, it is my observation that some bloggers become angry with their blogs and threaten to return them to Blogger dot com or other blog platforms, reminding me of petulant youngsters who, before the time of the computer, computer games, and the internet, were wont to hate their toys.
2. There are those who decide to use a pseudonym, starting a new blog in hopes of getting a new cyber life. Reminds me of the famous Flitcraft sequence Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon in which he introduces the parable of a man named Flitcraft who, walking home from work one evening, narrowly misses being struck by a beam falling from a scaffolding. Aware that he could have been killed then and there, Flitcraft realizes also how meaningless his life has been. On the spot he decides to run away and start over. Sam Spade, the detective narrating force of The Maltese Falcon, tells of being hired to track Flitcraft down. When Spade finds Flitcraft, he discovers that Flitcraft has exactly replicated the life from which he fled.
3. Some bloggers indulge in self-recrimination for not blogging, beginning with excuses--was busy, or didn't feel like it--then longish paragraphs of defensiveness. What am I anyway, a slave to a cyber post? I'll blog when I please.
4. Some bloggers take umbrage at the comments left by visitors, some of whom may be spammers, nut cases, sincere and considered presenters of opposing points of view, or yelling in from the bleachers, as in way out in right field.
5. Some bloggers are angry with themselves for not having become the writer they want to be and in consequence taking up the literary equivalent of waterboarding in the exercises and schedules they set for themselves, rendering themselves so fearful and convention bound as to make themselves even angrier for not having achieved their goals. Last I heard, writing was supposed to be fun and rewarding.
6. Some wonderful bloggers engage with blogmates in sincere, heartfelt exchanges of opinion and idea that make the best kind of eavesdropping. (I am currently eavesdropping on one such discussion between three women, one in Massachusetts, one in Tennessee, the other in France; it provideth energy to fuel my day.)
7. Nineteenth century Americans often learned to write from having learned to read from Webster's Reader and from The King James Translation of the Bible; examples of journals, diaries, and letters from such persons are remarkable in their expressions of eloquent individuality. Some twentieth and twenty-first century Americans learned to read from the Hearst papers, from readers featuring Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot. This is reflected in their blogs and it is small wonder they are unhappy with their progress as writers.
8. It has been called to my attention that I am quick to use the expression "a mountain-goat leap of logic," to which I bow in acknowledgment and hereby forswear, laying it to rest with very.
9. It is better to have readers irritated with one for having quit too soon rather than staying on too long, the last guest to leave the party, the explanation offered when none is needed.
10. Most people love an engaging story; what they aren't so fond of are complaints about why the story was so long in production.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
On any given day, the A section of The New York Times contains more than a few remarkable photographs, remarkable in the sense of burning into one's consciousness the zeitgeist of the moment. Indeed, such photos become a part of our collective history, a fact underscored by several ads appearing daily in the same newspaper, offering for sale matted and framed photos it had run in earlier times, even earlier centuries.
(I am particularly taken with and often tempted by a triptych showing Lyndon B. Johnson, when he was the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, coaxing wheedling, arguing with a colleague over some long forgotten issue in which LBJ was attempting to get a vote assured. Three panels, reflecting the process of politics in operation.)
In today's issue, January 29, 2008, of The New York Times, there is a photo of such magnitude as to make anthropologists, historians, politicians, and the likes of Joseph Campbell and Mircia Elliade slather. The photo is of George W. Bush, lame duck president of the United States, bearing the enormous grin of triumph, having just delivered his seventh and last SOTU speech before the combined members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Not only does he appear with a sushi-eating grin, he is surrounded by a group of individuals who also appear to have snatched sushi from nearby trays. They are congratulating him. They are to some extent acknowledging his valedictory, his accession to lame-duckness; they are also congratulating themselves for having been a seven-year co-conspirator in the man's looting and plundering of the U.S. Constitution, the persona of America, and the middle-classes of America. One appropriate caption for this photo might well be: Circular firing squad, SOTU, 2008.
If you did not know this man, this lame-duck; if you did not know these others to be United States Senators and Congresspersons, you would think, my, my; what a group of attractive, impressive, middle-agers. Surely, you would think, they seem fashionable, neat, bright of eye and demeanor. They could be scholars, moral and ethical leaders, captains of industry, perhaps even scientists .
Wrong, of course.
America has no indigenous criminal class, wrote Mark Twain, unless you consider Congress.
In what may seem a mountain goat leap of logic, I now introduce the fact that as the new semester begins at the university where I teach, it is possible to visit the university web site, enter my log-in information, the chose to see a roster of students enrolled in my classes, including their photos. None of these photos is as transformitive or sociological as the one in The New York Times of which I speak.
One such student, had he a line of numbers across his chest, might have come from a mug shot; another might have looked like a fugitive from a rap band, and yet another from a Stamp-out-gangs poster. This last turned out to be one of the more gifted and all-around pleasant persons I have met in some time. Which leads me back to the point.
Beyond the notion of not being able to judge a person from his or her looks or a book by its cover, or the quality of the pearl by the shell of the oyster, the point is that there are individuals bopping around among us who in many ways have some control over our collective destiny, men and women who believe in strange things. One of the United States Senators fro the State of Maine, for instance, believes the surge is working, Al Queda is on the rout, we are safer than at any time in our history, and that the economy, while possibly experiencing some anemia at the moment, is robust. There is a former Governor of Arkansas (no, not that one) who believes the world is only six thousand years old. There are those who...well, you get the picture.
This transcends Red Sox vs. Yankees fandom (go, Sox) and reminds us that there are about us nutcases, man and women who are the equivalent of army ants in the service of some ism or ology whose goal is to protect the queen, and the queen is not a person, the queen is the row of dials and prisms and mirrors behind the curtains in the emerald city of Oz.
We, too, are in service, feeling the pull of an ism and ology and acy; it is democracy. It is particularly, I believe, the democracy that allows us to line up our respective hopes and to focus our sense of love, duty, and the price of admission for having become a part of a democracy to the vector of, in this case, Barack Obama.
Back for a moment to the photo in today's NYT: those smirking individuals are part of a valedictory which, by its very definition, is a salute to what has passed. They are already adding yet another miscalculation to our sense of what democracy is; they are writing the future's historical take on them.
Wrong again, folks. But, happily, Th-th-that's all, fuf-fuf-folks. Or to be more cruel, in like the uniter, out like Porky Pup-pig.
Senator Obama calls our attention to the potential for realizing our future. (Are you listening, Sen. Clinton?)
Whatever happens next, we will have had this moment and this flare-up of hope, articulated so well yesterday by yet another United States Senator, who happened to be in the neighborhood and who dropped in to deliver some talking points and some thinking points.
For these moments early in 2008, we once again have a Pole Star by which to navigate.
Monday, January 28, 2008
1. Time of the week to consider a Golden Oldie for the review column, a process that generally begins a few minutes after I have edited, proofed, and e-mailed the current week's essay, and which often arrives between going to bed that night and awakening the following morning.
2. It's taken a bit longer this time, but it has come. America's neglected story teller. Stephen Crane.
3. Yes, yes, to The Red Badge of Courage, which could make an excellent frame for a more modern narrative of inner conflict, say cancer or unconventional sexual preference, or even preference for the life vector of an artist.
4. It has just come to me that I do not like the word artist, perhaps because of what has been made of it, perhaps because of my own contributions in giving it a judgmental meaning that is not in its lineage. I don't even like it when it is applied to Mary Cassat or Velasquez or El Greco, even less when they and those like them are referred to as fine-art painters.
5. My own favorites of Crane are short stories, Nine White Mice and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky. Each is a plausible drama, each with characters who have the interesting goals of characters who have given parts of themselves over to introspection, which is to say I think Crane's understanding of human psychology and diversity is excellent.
6. Which leads me to wonder, is there a Viking Portable Crane? I have two Viking Portables, one of Chaucer the other of Ring Lardner (who makes another good candidate for a Golden Oldie): let's look at the series roster. No go in Lardner. Hot dog! Bingo in Chaucer, which means a quick look at Amazon dot com.
7. As a younger person I much valued the Viking Portable editions, inexpensive entry into the landscapes of so many writers I have come to treasure. At one point, my entire "library" was Viking Portables, Modern Libraries, and Everyman editions. As a younger person still, my treasured library was of Big Little Books, observations that send warm recollections churning through me.
8. At the moment I sit before a Queen Anne-style secretary, one of many splendid gifts passed along to me by my late mother. Directly atop the secretary is a three-tiered shelf, early American motel or some such, repository of books that seem most likely to be used on some kid of regular basis, books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, a few thesauri and a number of recently read fiction and things I am likely to shove into my brief case at the slightest fear that I am venturing off to class with nothing to say and thus need something to refer to. Top shelf is a clutch of art and photography books. I am pleased to discover that among such things as Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel and Francine Prose's estimable How to Read Like a Writer and Susan Rabiner's How to Think Like Your Editor are indeed a number of Modern Library volumes, at least two Everyman volumes, and six Big Little Books. You can take the boy out of the library but you cannot take the library out of the boy. By golly, there's even a paperback reprint of a James M. Cain noir, Serenade.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
1. Not the start because who can say where such things really begin, rather the rallying point for a close look at narrative authority and reliability came from having finished for review J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year.
2. Several pages in, Coetzee reminds us of Barthes and Foucault, architects of deconstructionist critical theory, doing away with the author and drawing us toward the text as the be all and end all, reminding us of Diderot and Sterne.
3. I'm especially sensitive to Sterne and Tristram Shandy, which informs in tone a portion of my in progress Exit, Pursued by a Bear. I admire Dennis Diderot for his encyclopedia constructions, which inform my in the works Writer's Tool Kit, a kid of cross-referenced irreverence that speaks to construction and attitude.
4. Coetze literally tells three stories at once, all on the same page, each layer or level separated by a horizontal line. Thus we hear informal opinions on such things as politics, literature, music, the rule of law, morality, which we readers understand as being the very Strong Opinions one of the characters in the book (who bears certain similarities to Coetzee) was engaged to write by a German publisher. The middle section of the page relate to the author's relationship with a stunningly attractive woman he has hired to be his secretary, and the bottom section is the ongoing relationship between the secretary and her braggart, self-made-man live in boyfriend.
5. The writer is called Senor C and has won a slew of awards; he also has enough money that the secretary's boyfriend, an investment counsellor, is interested in appropriating.
6. Although Coetzee, a Nobel Laureate, has migrated to Adelaide, in south central Australia, this small ensemble cast lives in a high-rise on Sydney's ocean front.
7. Is this novel a roman a clef? Is it a complete fantasy?
8. Doesn't matter. What matters is that it kicks format for a field goal, blurring lines between real and invention, making the invention seem plausible, making the plausible seem somehow like the very confessions tortuously wrung from prisoners of war that Coetzee so firmly resents .
9. How much has the concept of a reliable narrator shifted since the tail end of last century? What constitutes reliability in 2008?
10. The kinds of novels and stories that provoke the most thought are the ones that stray in one way or another from conventional narrative format.
11. Used to be, the most significant ingredient to be found in fiction was suspense, and if you could not manufacture suspense, you were obliged to infuse the next best thing which was tension, and we all know that racial, political, artistic, and sexual tensions are powerful primary causes.
12. Now the ingredient is ambiguity, which can be made to contain tension and perhaps even suspense.
13. What do identities mean? What are motives? What is reality? We had at one point to memorize the names of the Nine Muses. 2008 we can replace them with the nine ambiguities.
14. I think I will be spending more time with Coetzee, especially this one, and looking for ways to tear Exit, Pursued by a Bear farther away from the satire I'd intended and more into a moral ambiguity that seems to be hanging about like the coastal fogs or marine layers that sit off shore here during June and July.
15. I wanted to get this down before it got away.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
1. Midway on the journey through the 2008 American Presidential election, we find ourselves grown tired, bitter, and cynical.
2. To jump right in with a mixed metaphor, we find ourselves in solidarity with the first audiences of Romeo and Juliet who upon hearing the famed imprecation, "A plague on both their houses" were so tired of the squabble between the houses of Lancaster and York that they stood, hooted, applauded, and otherwise cheered for several minutes.
3. It is bad enough to have one candidate who calls himself serious and yet wants to rewrite our constitution to make it more congruent with what he calls God's constitution. Please.
4. It is already beyond the pale of voter endurance to see the sniping among the candidates and the growing awareness that the concept of Swift Boating has found its verby way into the lexicon.
5. Add to that Hillary grandstanding to get her hooks onto the delegates from Michigan and Florida.
6. Add to that we now have two presidents of the United States cowboying around the countryside, those being numbers 43 and 42, each in hos own way braying across the landscape, Mission accomplished. Yeah, right, mission accomplished..
7. Living in one of the more entitlement-oriented venues in the U.S., I am used to being impatiently waved out of the way by SUVs piloted by harrassed mothers with cell phones, dropping their progeny at the Montecito Union or the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, or The Crane Country Day Schools, slipping through traffic signals and left turns as though having money and a real estate license are cartes blanches. Nevertheless. Hillary, piloting her presidential bid through the traffic of dissatisfied Democrats is becoming Mitt Romney with a wig, changing her stance and history as it/they suit her; when she is not, she is letting the forty-second president do it for her.
8. Politics being what they are, it is a given that she will have an attack dog, but it should not be a retired president of the United States, his being her husband notwithstanding. Former presidents of the United States should be above all that, even such largely discredited ones as Jimmy Carter, who, on close observation, turns out to have been pretty good in his emeritus role.
9. Get Bill back on his meds.
10. For all that GWB has, for the past seven years, made a rubber duck toy of the presidency, Hillary threatens to continue in the same reckless sense of having the family car on prom night.
11. Writers are warned at the outset of their vocation to avoid sex, religion, and politics. As they mature, they come to see these three human activities as the entry way to dramatizing the human condition. Imagine telling Van Gogh or Gauguin to avoid using red, blue, and yellow. Imagine telling Gershwin not to write in the key of F.
12. Gimme a break.
13. Accordingly, it is not merely okay, it is vital to make fun of GWB and HRC and, for that matter, WJC. The unthinkable come to pass, hubris writ large, right over the Hollywood sign, for everyone to see.
Friday, January 25, 2008
On your birth certificate there is an address listed for your parents, an address on Fourteenth Street in Santa Monica. You were surely brought there from the hospital where you gained entry into this remarkable and scary planet, but your only memories of it have to do with your mother talking about "the house on Fourteenth Street" and your sister recounting tales of attending the school some few blocks away.
In recent years, you park in front of the house, watching it, as though it could give you some clue to your process if not your identity. They--your parents--carried you down that walkway, entered through that very door with you, brought you there for the first time. As you grew, stories were extended, stories in which your mother and one of two or three maids transferred you into a car along with a collapsible pram, then drove you to the Palisades above the beach, where you were walked. You have no memory of that, only second-hand source material. The house on Fourteenth Street and the rides along the Palisades were before your memory kicked into gear. You look at the house speculatively, daring it to reveal something of itself to you or, indeed, something of you to you.
There were times in more recent years when you ran from the Santa Monica Canyon/Chautaqua area to the Palisades, all the way to the terminus at Colorado. You did this perhaps a few hundred times and gradually there came a memory of having been taken to a building on the Palisades, The Camera Obscura, where as a boy you were able to watch the magic of imagery being projected on a large, circular platform, bringing in the streets and bustle of downtown Santa Monica and on one occasion you were able to see the image of your father, heading toward Second and Broadway in order, as he later explained to you, to make a guess about the relative speed of a horse, the guess backed up with money left in an escrow account, he explained, at Grecco's Barbershop.
The beginnings of memory.
The memories expanded when your parents moved inland to Burbank. There, in a Mediterranean house on Providencia Street, more memories came, memories that were verified by your parents and sister, memories of neighbors named Brown, dog named Silver, other neighbors who had the most bizarre things you had yet seen, two baby alligators which were kept in the wash basin in the laundry room.
In recent years, you sat in front of that house, waiting for it to whisper secrets. You knew that one of the bathrooms had yellow and black tiles, that the door to the bathroom had a pane of corrugated glass that matched the door on the shower stall. You knew about a waffle iron with an ornate image of a peacock on its enameled lid. Memories, albeit scattered ones.
From Providencia Street in Burbank, your family moved to significantly more modest circumstances at 6145 1/2 Orange Street in the Wilshire-Fairfax district, more west than most parts of the city. Your memory came into significant play there; you can recall secret hiding places in and about the neighborhood, the then equivalent of a skate board which was a two-by-four with a wooden fruit box nailed vertical as a kind of wind shield and trunk compartment, a portion of a broom handle nailed across the top as a handlebar, a discarded roller skate, unscrewed into two parts being the wheels. Somewhere you;d secured benough black paint to affix a crude skull and the even more crudely lettered name, War Hawk. You remember times you were bidden to take War Hawk down to the market at the corner of Sixth and Fairfax for some forgotten item which was necessary for the evening meal. You remember games with your sister, climbing a tree in front of 6145 1/2, you remember crudely assembled crystal radios which brought in KFAC, a classical music station, and thus, with ear phones, you could listen to music when you were supposed to be sleeping. You could remember your sister promising not to rat you out provided you agreed to do the dinner dishes, you could remember the patch of garden up toward the cross street where it was possible to get enough sour grass to chew on for minutes at a time.
You could remember the Helms Bakery truck and its jelly donuts which for reasons you never learned were forbidden you and which you nevertheless essayed thanks to your discovery that Earl of Earl's Dry Cleaners on Fairfax was good for one penny per every two respectable wire coat hangers you brought in. You of course recall your mother wondering where all the wire coat hangers in the house had gone.
You remember, and so you returned to see what more 6145 1/2 Orange could tell you about the small, shy boy you were. But it was not there. 6145 1/2 Orange Street no longer exists; it is a part of a large condo complex, one that looks woefully undistinguished, institutional rather than residential.
It can tell you nothing because it is a break in the fabric of your memory. It cannot tell you of your first kiss--Elise Bernstein of the flaming red hair--nor of the chocolate-coated graham crackers six for a nickel at Weiner's market on the corner, nor of Sid Weiner, who made you wash your hands before plunging your arm into the pickle barrel for one of the crunchy new pickles, nor of the Good Humor trucks that plied the neighborhood selling ice cream goodies.
It is a warning that memory is a fabric that can wear out. What used to be Miller's Drug Store at Sixth and Fairfax is now a 99
Cent Store, with no pin-ball machine where you were sent to inform Jake that dinner was ready. "You can't read that," Ruth, the saleslady at Miller's said when she saw me holding Don Quixote. "Why not?" I said. ""Because you don't understand it." "I do, too. It's an adventure." "That's what I mean," she said. "It isn't either." Which became a kind of cause celebre in which we shifted our patronage, such as it was, to the Thrifty Drug on Wilshire and Cochran, or the Sontag Drug at Wilshire and Detroit.
Memory, the thing that makes a place a place, a person a person, an experience an event.
Memory. Our story. Our interpretation. Our version. Our entire self.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
I approach blog time in a retrospective frame of feeling, which means that although I know what is to come next in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, those bear feelings are trumped by this sense of metaphor:
1. Being a writer is much like being a tourist.
2. You are committed to going somewhere, but at the outset you shop around for a glamorous destination.
3. Then you listen to other writer/tourists describing their journeys, and you think...
4. After you have stopped thinking long enough to get back to work, you begin looking about for bargain fares.
5. I spent about five years in that life, signing a number of contracts, but never getting beyond having to tell myself that the accommodations were only so-so.
6. Indeed, I came to the point where fiction stopped being fun.
7. Looking at those magazine, newspaper, and TV ads of various cruises was of a piece with looking at the persons in the waiting rooms of clinics or emergency rooms--both populations were hopeful of finding recovery.
8. "Where have you been?" young Jovanovich asked me as I sat in his office at 652 Third Avenue. He was not wondering why I was late, because I wasn't; he was wondering what other publishing houses had I worked for, which was why I was in his office, hopeful of being hired by what was then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. One or two of my answers surprised him to the poit where we actually talked for more than an hour.
9. "Where have you been?" is a question I have asked myself over and over again, not at all happy with the early answers, not happy until one day, with no warning, the right answer popped out. No more cheap cruises or bargain packages.
10. The right answer is terra incognita.
11. When you return from terra incognita, you have answers to questions that may or may not have been asked, answers you may not think to ask yourself for some time to come. But they are embedded within you, waiting for you to recognize them. No cruise lines ply those waters, no guides lay in wait to sell you trinkets or show you ruins less dramatic than, say, the lobby of the Pantges theater on Hollywood Boulevard or the men's room of the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Nor does terra incognita threaten to become a theme park somewhere because nobody but you knows where it is until it is discovered.
12. My late father had some fluency in other languages than English, but Italian was not one of those languages. He could say "Go be fruitful and multiply yourself," but this is no surprise because it is my belief that most men know how to say this in a dazzling array of languages. The other thing he knew how to say in Italian, and did say with come regularity as a kind of parting shot was "Cuand' arrive, scrive." When you get there, write. Toward the end of his life, our partings would begin with him sayig, "Cuand'arrive--" and me finishing the mantra, "--scrive." Thus once again, Jake had it all laid out for me.
13. Where have you been?
14. Terra incognita.
15. Cuand'arrive, scrive.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
1. Even though you are not a vegan and have given scant thought to becoming one, it is best to order the vegan lunch at faculty meetings. Even when they mean well, the catering services can do just so many things to chicken.
2. While eating said chicken, it is wise not to consider the equation of what they could do to you if they could do THIS to a chicken.
3. They may try to cover up their tracks by giving the chicken some high falutin' name such as Chicken Torquemada.
4. As an undergraduate and worse, working summer jobs for your auctioneer uncle, you once had an long and unhealthy relationship involving the preparation for auction of a chicken-processing plant in Lancaster, not the more complex Lancaster of Pennsylvania but rather the Lancaster of southern California, which is of itself another unhealthy relationship.
5. Same uncle, some years later during the hiatus between realizing any money from short stories and pulp novels. Wilshire Boulevard (east-west) near Western Avenue (north south) midtown Los Angeles: the remains of a popular drive-in. Your mission impossible: remove from several commodious aluminum bain maries the dessicated remains of chickens. It is no wonder you are not on the best of terms with the chicken.
6. Trust the tale, not the artist, D. H. Lawrence warns us from the beyond.
7. If someone tells you That's not funny, it probably is.
8. Macaroni and cheese is perhaps the most overrated dish in the entire American cuisine. People come to it with expectations that cannot be met.
9. Mashed potatoes are the most underrated dish in the American cuisine.
10. There were moments during the debates when it was possible to see Hillary as a metaphor for the crook-necked squash.
11. Individuals spend a good deal of time and significant sums of money learning how to write but relatively little time or money learning to write for themselves.
12. More good stories have been ruined by too much thinking than by too much dialogue.
13. When Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, he was thinking about adverbs.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
1. Wouldn't it have been fun to see Hillary so aggressive before her brother and sister senators when the issue of invading Iraq came up?
2. Does this recent arc of Hillary's behavior, from the teary-eyed to the vindictive, project an aura of competence or rather of Bush-like intransigence?
3. Miles Davis was thought by some critics to have been a great player in spite of his occasional fluffs. Bill Clinton is thought by many critics to have been the brightest, most politically savvy president since and perhaps even before FDR. Isn't it possible that Miles Davis and the Big Dog never fluffed a note or lost their temper by accident? You know--deliberate.
4. If a row of semi-colons begins to appear in one's blog template, resolutely resisting all attempts to restore stasis and order, it probably behooves one not do to leave one's Moleskine notebook resting on the keys of the wireless keyboard.
5. Was Tolstoy right about happy families being all alike?
6. Will future students in Freshman Comp be assigned Things-to-Like-about-Hillary themes?
7. Do we really have more things to be cynical about in 2008, or will it always seem that the present moment is the one to be most cynical about?
8. Is there really a memorial to the Sepoy Rebellion in San Francisco?
9. Which is worse, the hour glass on a PC or that whirling disc on a Mac?
10. Whose face will be most prevalent on 2008 Halloween masks?
11. If you answered Hillary to any of the questions above, go to the front of the line.
12. If Edgar Allen Poe were able to speak to us from Beyond, what would he think of what's happened to the short story?
13. Do you get the feeling that super market cashiers are beginning to laugh at you?
14. Do you become suspicious if a complete stranger telephones you and asks you right off the bat how you're feeling?
15. What's she going to do next?
16. Who will Bill get mad at next?
Monday, January 21, 2008
I didn’t notice the skin-colored surgical dressing between Rae’s navel and her left hip for two days, which says something about my state of mind. When I noticed it, a list of possible disasters went through my mind, which says something even more about me. I began by trying to recall if she’d ever said anything about her mother needing surgery for anything cancerous.
Rae responded with what I took to be a stoic smile. Given our life experiences, stoic was big. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, pushing past me on her way into the small bathroom.
I swung off the bed where I’d been reading, pressing after her. “You’re gone for two weeks with no word, and now I notice something that might be serious—“
“Is serious. Is.”
“But you don’t want to talk about it.”
Rae plunked her hands on my shoulders, leverage to tug me into a crouch. This was a tactic she used especially after The Spaghetti Wars in order to remove any advantage the difference in our heights might make while we argued. “I can’t let you out of my sight for two weeks without you stuffing things into boxes and letting the plants die.” Satisfied that I’d remain in a crouch, she turned on the hot water and began steaming a washrag.
“If something’s gone wrong with you, I have a right to know. If there were something wrong with me, I’d tell you.”
She smeared Noxema over her cheeks, brow, and chin, giving her a Marcel Marceau appearance. She wrung out the washrag, then covered her face with it. “You wouldn’t have to tell me,” she spoke through the cloth before removing it for a fresh soak. “I already know what’s wrong with you. You aren’t secure with me.”
Whatever it was I had in mind to say, nothing but a croak of frustration came out. Rae capitalized on her advantage. “If this is what you’re like now, think how you’d be if I married you.” Her eyes glinted mischief. “You’d probably stalk my gynecologist. God help me if I were a man.”
I broke from the crouch and started toward her. “Are you suggesting I’m jealous?”
“Howard. Howard. Howard.” She shook her head. “Jealousy is just plain dumb. I don’t think you’re dumb but maybe a bit compulsive.”
I watched in frustrated silence for some moments a she gave herself a sponge bath. “Will you at least tell me where you were?”
She began to brush her hair. “Portland.”
“What did you do for money?”
“I have funds there. Pacific Northwest Bank on Burnside. Don’t you have money in Portland?”
Actually, I did and so it came as no surprise to me that she’d have an account or safety deposit box in a city the size and convenience of Portland.
“Should have stayed away until it was all over and the healing completed,” she said, still brushing her hair.
“And not tell me?”
“I suspect you’d find out soon enough.”
“Is it that serious?”
Rae nodded, her solemnity touching me.
“So what time frame are we looking at?”
Rae faced me, her arms going limp, the tube of styling gel and the brush falling from her hands. Her eyes passed over me like scanners searching for a bar code to read. For a moment, I thought she might cry. “You are such a baby, Howard Camden,” she said.
The mist in her eyes reminded me of the fine droplets on a windshield just as the critical merge of humidity and temperature took place and the rain began in earnest. I saw in her gaze everything a person can see in someone he cares for. Then her face broadened. “I can’t watch you suffer any more.” She reached for my hand, then led me back to the sleeping area, where she pushed me down on the edge of the bed. Sitting next to me, she removed with great are the flesh-colored adhesive on the bandage, removing it to show me an area perhaps the size of an index card, where there were vestigial traces of scab and black-and-blue discoloring.
The next few days didn’t matter nor did the fact that except for an extraordinary play of luck, I mightn’t have been there when she returned. What mattered was what I saw at the moment.
Luminous and stunning through a residue of scabs and flesh repairing itself of bruises shone a finely tattooed trunk of a tree, etched in dark blue. On the gnarled trunk, looking as though it had been carved, a heart was rendered in red. There were two words on the heart. Rae and Howard.
“There,” she said. “I told you it was serious.”
Sunday, January 20, 2008
1. One of the reasons you've made the protagonist of a project in the works, a short-ish novel called Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a specialist in Nineteenth-Century literature is because the dialectic between duty and individual passion is so striking.
2. Neither of these two things (the business about the tidal opposites in the Nineteenth Century, or your considered awareness of this fact) occurred to you before the fact, only after you'd reviewed written pages to see where things were going, then was hit by the implications
3. What the Lit major forgets is often as important as what the Lit major remembers.
4. In a letter he wrote to Anne Sexton on August 9, 1967, Ted Hughes said, "[Y]ou've no need to worry. When you've got it you've got it--you don't have to worry about poetry, you just have to be truthful (which is where the brain and all its hideous lies leap in, I know.")
5. A lovely argument for not thinking, complete with possible idiosyncratic side effects, as in How does one keep on course of being truthful?
6. Answer: Write quickly, revising only locution, not emotion nor event, and especially not outcome.
7. Reviewing Bernhard Schlink's newly published Homecoming, by all accounts an emotional and intellectual joy, produced echoes of 1, 2, 3 supra in the sense that one of the major themes of the novel was The Odyssey as quintessential homecoming archetype, leading you to remind the reader that Odysseus' name may without any great leap be translated to mean "a man of many turns" which indeed he was, employing sophistication and sophistry. After sending in the review, you wondered why you mentioned this, then remembered a series of stories you wrote about an actor name of Matthew Bender, who is returning home after having performed on stage in New York in a successful play with a backstory of contentiousness. And you were thinking Bender=man of many turns=bingo; you were thinking homecoming without even thinking homecoming.
8. This week the subject for review is by design and now of a two-year tradition a previously published book. Machado de Asisi, the author of this week's book died in 1908, two years after Leopold Bloom made his famous tour through Dublin. Epitaph of a Small Winner, a novel I first read over forty years ago, is a series of short chapters, sometimes as short as a paragraph, rarely over three or four pages. The chapter numbers appear flush on the left margin of the page, just as the numbers of this list and how many dozes of lists on these blog pages appear. Did this wild, Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy romp of a novel have any effect, affect, and influence on me? Dare to question your inner Lit major.
9. Will tomorrow's installment of Bear explicate a homecoming? Rely on it.
10. Does knowing outcomes in advance undercut their meaning?
11. Only if it forecloses further discovery.
12. So it's all about discovery? Could James Carvavelle have tagged this on the writer's wall?
Saturday, January 19, 2008
After my wine-enhanced debacle at the Crescent City AA meeting, I returned to the mobile home court in Brookings, where I began steadfastly packing. My purpose was to distance myself from what I’d lost, get located, possibly visit Wolfram, but definitely immerse myself in some writing projects, This time, there was no thought of forwarding or storage; my goal was to travel light, to get rid of physical things that might remind me of Rae.
A local supermarket was a good source for boxes. I began with the cooking utensils, starting with an electric rice steamer that had attracted Rae on one of our ventures to Grants Pass. Then came her clothing, which I folded with the meticulousness and detail born of ominous purpose.
Later in the afternoon, as I filled another large plastic bag with material for discard, I was distracted by a jaunty knock at the door. The caller, an amiable, bushy-browed man into his fifties, wore a baseball cap and patterned golf pants. He carried a clipboard. “Lady of the mobile home in?”
“Gone off to visit relatives in Grants Pass,” I said, returning to my work.
He watched me for a few log moments, then snickered at some interior humor. “Usually it’s the man who visits relatives while the wife does the cleaning.”
In our life style, we had to consider everyone on a more survival-oriented scale. This fellow could be just another good old boy, or he could be a well-packaged serious problem. I played it out, bringing him around to stating his business.
“The little lady, she won herself a free five-by-seven enlargement of a candid camera shot our man took of her shopping over at the mall.” He pulled a pack of snapshots from his clipboard, riffled through it, then presented one to me. “Sam Apthecker,” he said. “People tend to call me Sam. I’ll be honest with you, I’m retired, but I work on commission from Deitz, the photographer. This here==“ he extended the photo toward me. I made no move to accept it. “This here’s a promotion, Deitz, he figures you’ll like his work and maybe want a portrait of the little lady. He does color, black-ad-white, sepia tone, and hand tint. That’s where I come in—me and my commission.” He reached the photo closer toward me. “The snapshot here’s a gift. So’s the five-by-seven enlargement. No strings.”
Squinting at the snapshot, I decided on a gamble. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong place. I’ve never seen this woman before.” The woman in the photo was Rae, but he didn’t have to know that.
Sam Apthecker didn’t miss a beat, which was making me even more suspicious. “Son of a gun,” he shook his head. “Lady in this picture, she gave this very address. Now why do you suppose she’d do a thing like that?”
“Maybe to get rid of you.”
Perhaps Sam Apthecker was at the moment thinking he’d made a mistake. It was also possible he was thinking me as cool a character as I considered him. Whether his response was innocent or a ploy, I was buying some time. When he came back, I’d be gone. If he were someone for me to suspect, he’d have a cold trail.
Apthecker scratched his head through his baseball cap a few times, said son of a gun a few more times, and made his way out into the late afternoon. I returned to my packing for another half hour or so, the sauntered over to the mobile home park convenience store, where I bought a pack of cigarettes and made for the Brookings phone book. There was a listing for Dietz the photographer, there was also a listing for Apthecker, Saml L which I called.
A taped message informed me I’d reached the Aptheckers, Sam and Jenny. “We’ve taken the month off to visit the kids and grandkids in Astoria and Vancouver. Ma didn’t want me to say how long we’d be gone because she’s counting on the dishes and silverware all being here when we get back,” There were a few more snippets of Apthecker wit, a local number and a number in Astoria to call if there was anything serious.
My questions were not comfortable ones: Who was looking for Rae and why?
After a take-out supper of hamburgers and a six-pack of Henry Weinhart beer, I attacked my own things, being merciless about the books I’d leave behind. It was nearly midnight when I got to Rae’s identity files, driver’s licenses for several states, ATM cards, social security cards, and the like. My plan was to take these with me and systematically destroy and scatter them along my new route. I’d cope with calling the appropriate trash hall and Good Will the next morning, attacking the problem of what next, Howard Camden, when I was under way somewhere. Thanks to the last bottle of Henry Weinhart, I got to sleep just after eleven.
Living in motels, furnished apartments, trailer courts, and mobile home parks, you grow accustomed to random noises and outbursts, particularly at night, when the denizens of the transient life so often cry out in anguish, frustration, or the remembrance of more comfortable times. Learning to sleep through or at least around such outbursts is an accomplishment for which there should be some form of merit badge.
Leading the kind of life Rae and I were accustomed to, you learn precautions the average person doesn’t think of. Items such as collar stays, credit cards, Venetian blind slats, and toothpicks would cause no eyebrows to raise were they discovered in the homes of a sales person, a waiter, or even a college-level instructor. In the possession of a robbery suspect, they enhance a presumption of guilt.
In the right hands, such implements are the Swiss Army knives of burglars and robbers. They can get you into buildings, rooms, and automobiles with minimal effort required. A policeman would think nothing of you having an American Express or Visa Gold, Gentle Reader, but in our hands, the policeman’s presumption begins to build. Were the same policeman to find our set of lock picks, battery-powered drills, and chisels, the presumption would grow nasty indeed.
You also learn another practical truth in the life: If “they” are going to come for you, “they” will probably arriver early in the morning, and if “they” do come for you, it will be in a relatively well-thought-out maneuver, designed to catch you when you are most vulnerable. Beyond not being “there” when “they” come for you, there isn’t much you can do about it.
It did not seem as though I’d been asleep too long before I heard an angry outcry. “What the hell kind of mess is this?”
Even though it had roused me, my first sense of it was that someone in the mobile home park was cursing some perceived flaw or inequity in the quality of her life. But then came the sense of the voice being too close to be from one of the neighboring homes. I heard a scrape of boxes skidding across linoleum, possibly being pushed. Another possibility was of the boxes being kicked. “What the goddamned hell is going on?” Then the voice called my name. “Howard, what is all this—this business?”
My first thought was Mrs. Birdwell, the crusty park manager, who called everyone by first name, had opinions on everything from immigration to the way to arrange trash for a pick-up. My anger flared in the darkness of my drowsy mind. I was then disabused of my thoughts of Mrs. Birdwell by an altogether other presence and a voice in the entryway to the sleeping area. “Will you please tell me what the hell kind of stunt you are up to with these boxes?
I’m not sure which of us hit the light switch, but no matter. The lights were on and Rae and I were blinking at each other in the sudden glare.
Friday, January 18, 2008
The day before I left New Haven, while walking the streets beyond the Taft Hotel in search of a liquor store, I had an experience that made a significant impression on me and gave my life a direction every bit as significant as my association with Wolfram and the result of my impending publication by Yale University Press.
If the incident had happened before I met Wolfram, academic that I was, I’d have likely seen it as dialectic between good and evil, Manichean in its implications. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps existential, perhaps Zen-like. Maybe even a result of Chaos theory. Had he heard all the details, Wolfram would have penciled in neo-Marxist. I did start to tell him, by the way, but by then he had his own agenda.
There was a moment when I did start to tell him, but there was a point in our conversation where I found myself teetering on both sides of a chasm, my own inner voices speaking to me with an enthusiasm and sense of being right that quite out spoke this dapper, quick man who I so much admired.
I was looking for a liquor store in the first place hoping to buy a bottle of the best brandy, perhaps even cognac, I could find under the circumstances and, with no illusions, as good a cigar as I could find in such a neighborhood. My intent was ceremonial and symbolic, arrived at with the help of at least one brandy at Christie’s.
My transmogrification began with spirits on my breath, was enhanced by my need for a shave, given further scope by my wrinkled shirt and a jacket needing a good pressing. No doubt my facial expression was visited by a certain wildness in the eyes, brought forth by the moral inquiries I put myself through and to the weight of responsibility clinging to me, Determined to show I was made of better stuff than to simply take the money from Yale and run, as it were, I nodded in recognition to Wolfram’s assessment: Facile, energetic, blessed with a good memory, but derivative. I took a nolo contendere plea to that judgment; I was a synthesizer, an in-dog-out-sausage man who’d had the stroke of luck to have produced a particular sausage a step ahead of his rivals.
Nursing a coffee and brand in Christie’s, I resolved to a kind of future behavior where I would be honest to my interests. No false modesty, but as well, no hubris and arrogance of truth for its own sake because even at that relative point, I was neither fooled nor daunted by the abstraction of truth. I was forswearing smarminess, false modesty, and action for action’s sake. Howard Camden may well be an arriveste, a poseur, and a man of extraordinary luck, but he was not going to build any edifice on so shaky a platform, Howard Camden was going to take risks and the responsibilities of consequence that went with such behavior, devil take the hindmost. Devil take the tenure as well, if it came down to that.
By no means your New Age acolyte or Middle-Aged hippie looking for an on-ramp to the karmic fast lane, I lurched out of Christies on that early autumn night in the spirit of Stephen Deadalus, eager to encounter reality and in the smithy of my soul forge an identity for Howard Camden.
Half an hour later, my collar turned up against the chill, I found the liquor store. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty; historical revisionists are not only factually right, they are morally right as well. That said, I can testify under pain of perjury to not interpreting the fact of the liquor store having a pint bottle of Remy Martin cognac as any kind of omen. It simply meant my ritual would be smoother, my prognosis for a hangover greatly reduced. My right hand brandishing the bottle, my left clenched for warmth in my jacket pocket, I approached the counter.
“Give me the best cigar you’ve got,” I told the man at the cash register.
“No, no, please,” the man, said, his voice even in those few words redolent of the East Indian exaggerated emphasis on vowels. His skin, the color of walnut-dyed furniture, was a handsome match with his silvery hair. “Please do not do this.”
“A good cigar,” I said, plunking the bottle on a rubber counter mat with an advertising logo for Camel cigarettes, “and I’m out of here.”
He regarded me nervously, lifted a hand as if to assure me, then brought forth a paper bag.
I shook my head. “No need for that.” I hitched my head toward my pocket. In the great clarity of retrospect I am able to allow for the possibility that the clerk thought I was indicating the gun in my left pocket. At the time it seemed an absurdity to me that he opened the register and began stuffing bills from it into the bag.
Alarmed at the turn of events, I shook my head and started to back toward the door. The clerk’s eyes bulged as he reached for a button. Surely an alarm system in some nearby security system or police station would be activated. “Not necessary,” I said, bringing my left hand from the pocket and spreading both hands before him. Some semiotist Howard Camden was, his hands now spread in what he considered the universal sign of friendly intent. The clerk pressed at the button again, his eyes focused on me. I nodded assent, thinking it would take the police to straighten this out.
I quickly saw how wrong I was. The button the clerk jabbed with such fury was no alarm at all; it triggered the opening of a larger cash drawer.
“You are please not to shoot,” the clerk said, thrusting bundles of bills at me.
Again I shook my head, which caused the man to begin to shiver. Leaning over the counter, he pushed thick bundles of bills at me,
“You’re making a mistake,” I said.
“No, please,” he said. “No mistake. Have nothing larger.” He pressed a packet of bills into my hand, topped it off with the Remy Martin bottle, and then thrust it toward me. “Look,” he said, dropping to his knees, then ceremoniously spreading his hands before him, extending his body until he lay prone on the floor. “Not to shoot. Total cooperation.”
I reached for one of the packets of bills, thinking to drop it and the others like it next to him, then get out of there, But a sense of great excitement squirted through me. Looking down at the clerk, I realized that I could do this; I could walk out of the store, taking the stacks of bills.
When I got back to the Taft, I spread the money out on the bed, arranging it in neat piles; There were some hundreds, a great many twenties, some tens and fives. I slipped the protective envelope from a drinking glass in the bathroom then poured myself a generous splash of the Remy Martin. Standing next to the bed, I lifted my glass in salute to the money before me. Only then did I realize I’d come away without the cigar.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Bono, the lead singer for rock band U2, is seen in some places as being a bit self-righteous.
At a recent U2 concert in Glasgow, Scotland he asked the audience to be totally quiet. Then he started slowly clapping his hands, once every few seconds.
In the cavernous silence, he said into the microphone: "Every time I clap my hands, a child dies in Africa."
A voice from the gallery, in a broad Scottish accent, pierced the quiet of the auditorium:
"Well, fookin' stop doin' it then, ye evil bastarrrrd!"
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
“I don’t know what your problem is, Mitch,” the dapper-looking man in the front row interrupted me, “but you sure aren’t one of us.” He had an anomalous gray end-of-the-day stubble on his wrinkled face. His nose bore the blotch campaign ribbons or acne roseacae. “I know alcoholics,” he said with overstated modesty, “and you sure ain’t one of us.”
A swell of agreement erupted throughout the room, a damp basement in a neighborhood church, in which some twenty-five men and women sat resolutely on folding chairs.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” a skinny, pageboy blond in a K-Mart worker’s tunic said. “He came here looking to get laid.”
This observation brought forth a chorus of agreement from both sexes, all of whom ratified their negative response to my opening statements.
Alcoholic or not, my presence in the meeting had been fueled by one good bottle of pinot noir with dinner, about half a bottle of plonk, and a good deal of self-pity at the Harbor View Grotto. “I came here,” I said, trying to make myself heard over the rumble of discontent, “hoping to find some understanding.”
Strike two called on Howard Camden. This last admission, seen as egregious grandstanding, was greeted with hoots and catcalls. The “here” I had come to was the nine o’clock AA meeting at the Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Crescent City, California.
“Sympathy is more like it,” someone in the group insisted. “Got any spare sympathy?”
Nearly at a shout in my defensiveness, I countered, “What is so awful about sympathy?”
Called strike three. It is okay to ask some rhetorical questions at AA meetings, questions such as What could I have been thinking? But even that is open to suspicion. Even the vaguest hint of self-pity doesn’t make it.
The mobile home park twenty-five miles north in Brookings was to have been our home for at least four months. I had a good deal of work to catch up on and Rae had felt another bout of reading coming upon her. With Rae gone, my feelings for the place and my plans in general were in a riot of conflicting emotions.
Brookings is far enough away from anywhere else to require a cable service or dish antenna. Replays of long-forgotten sitcoms, adventures, and game shows dominate the regular scheduling, making it possible to see The Fonz jumping the shark, Groucho mischievously baiting a mother of six children, and the iconic moose wandering through the fictional domain of Cicely, Alaska, a unique version of the Greek chorus.
After two days of housecleaning, rearranging my computer files and reading every paperback novel available from the rack at High-Time Liquor and Groceries, then watching enough ancient television to give me for a doctoral thesis in sociology, I made a list of new priorities:
Get out of Brookings.
Find someplace else to live.
Loose self in work.
Find creative ways to get over Rae.
I began by driving south to Crescent City with the plan of treating myself to a crab or lobster dinner and a bottle of the best wine available. Thus fortified, I’d be able to address the specifics of my priorities.
The luck of the season favored fresh crab, my own luck further enhanced by the presence of a pinot noir from Santa Ynez. The succulent crab and rascally wine led me toward a calculus wherein a second bottle would produce greater equanimity yet and the imagination with which to give my new priorities a practical shove.
Or so I told myself.
A sympathetic waiter kept my wine glass filled and inquired with solicitude about the temperature of my coffee while I made an inventory of my current resources, considered places I might go to begin this new life I was to lead, then spent some time considering the projects in which I’d immerse myself while working off my grief at having blown it with Rae. This is what I imagine it would be like to make the arrangements for one’s own funeral. We can offer you our New Age options, Dr. Camden. There is, of course, the straightforward burial at sea with an actor reciting Father Mapple’s eulogy from Moby Dick, your choice of before or after the scattering of the ashes. There is also the option of scattering the, er, remains in some mountainous area such as the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Adirondacks. If you have a particular mystical bent, we have arrangements with several Native American tribal organizations, giving us access to even more remote areas for the, um, scattering…
In hindsight, I realized I should have stayed with the agreeable buzz from dinner and the pinot noir, but the second bottle gave my sanguinity about the future an enological equivalent of a rabbit punch. When I lurched out of The Harbor View Grotto I had as companions those most unreliable carouse companions Self-Pity and Maudlin.
It was not long before I found the small sign, the A.A. circle-within-a-triangle logo, followed it to the meeting hall I the basement of a wood-frame church.
“I didn’t come here to be ridiculed and shouted at,” I said. “I came here for understanding.”
The meeting leader, a balding, avuncular man with frameless glasses and an encouraging smile, spoke in a raspy voice. “Listen, Mitch,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be ridiculed and shouted at for the understanding to work.”
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
My initial dealings with Wolfram were uniform in their traumatic effect on me, but even trauma has its limitations. After a number of consultations and revisions, I settled into a funk that continued until I had the unlikeliest of epiphanies in the unlikeliest of places.
Returning from another session with Wolfram to my room at the Taft, I ordered a carafe of coffee from room service. While waiting for it, I set up the Mac on the desk. Either the chair or the floor was uneven, requiring me to use the complementary copy of a magazine, What’s Doing in New Haven, as a leveling agent. The working surface of the desk had scars from cigarette burns and ring-like stains from moody hotel drinking glasses in which the ice had melted like lost hopes. My most immediate view from where I sat was of a large air vent on the other side of which was the window of a room the mirror image of mine.
The room service waiter, a middle-aged man who needed a shave, winced when he walked. He made a waiterly production of pouring coffee and arranging the sugar and creamer, waited for a tip, shook his head when he got it. I wondered how many salesmen had sat at this desk, drinking coffee, looking at this same view while going through their order books, wondering about the new sales quotas they’d been pressured into projecting.
I had the coffee cup to my lips, letting the aroma block out the smells of mildew and dead hopes emanating from every corner of the room.
During the next week I met with Wolfram for at least two hours a day while he went over my revisions, penciled in corrections, struck out entire paragraphs. By Friday I was, discouraged, frustrated, angry. Finally I exploded and threw the manuscript at him. “Even though this book is poorly reasoned,” I said, “it is nevertheless not written very well.”
“You’re missing the entire point,” Wolfram adjudicated.
“And what might the entire point be?”
“This is not an agreeable process for you,” he said, prodding his index finger into my sternum, “because you are taking it so bloody seriously. It is a truth universally recognized that people who take things too seriously are foreclosing on any possibility of risk.”
If I’d had anything else at hand, I’d have thrown it as well. “Words to live by.”
“As a matter of fact,” my faux Australian acquisitions editor said, “they are.”
In time we became close friends, you might go so far as to say conspirators, but at the moment there was an unspeakable chasm yawning between us.
Monday, January 14, 2008
There is some good material here, said the handwritten note at the bottom of the rejection slip. It was one of my earliest experiences with “ink,” actual comments from an editor, the equivalent of healing hands at a tent show or political revival.
I wish, the note continued, you wouldn’t work so hard for your effects. Loosen up. You tend to over prepare, ambushing prospects of spontaneity. Your use of the objective correlative is heavy-handed.
I’d already developed a fondness for the salty comments of Robley Wilson on my stories when he returned them. Wolfram had not only put me on to him but warned me in advance about the high standards of the man as an editor and writer of his own fiction. Wolfram took it as a good sign that I was getting handwritten comments.
With time, as I grew more confident, my stories did loosen up. So did my robberies. The first success with a story came from a respected journal in the South, where I’d submitted on my own, without mentioning Wolfram in the cover letter. When I called him with the news, he seemed gratified.
Any robbery in which one gets some loot, however humble, without being caught is a success. But as I began to realize, the triumphs had nothing at all to do with the value of the loot. I was certainly in it for the money, but more important to me was the élan of execution.
An overheard conversation between two salesmen in a cocktail lounge at the new Denver airport reminded me of an article I’d read in the L.A. Times years before about a successful restaurateur in Sherman Oaks who’d tired of what he called Life in the Basin, cashed out, and moved across country to a small town in Tennessee.
Flush with the results of a recent venture in Boulder, I decided to heed Wilson’s advice by loosening up. As a consequence, I broke my one-job-per-outing rule. Instead of flying northwest, where I was staying at the time, I changed directions and flew southeast. After several excellent t-bone steaks at the Peerless Grill in Johnson City, Tennessee, my plan was formed. I was going to single-handedly rob a steak house restaurant.
When I speak of abandoning caution and over preparation, you must not suppose I then threw all caution aside and embraced whim at the expense of planning or that I had lathered myself up to the sense of invulnerability I see in so many political candidates. My respect for precaution was healthy to the point where I’d even researched the Tennessee penal institutions where I might be sent were I caught in flagrante or later.
I also spent some time in nearby Kingsport, checking out a fallback option, Scoby’s, a restaurant with a lesser-known national reputation than The Peerless, but with a lively clientele nevertheless.
On the evening of the event, I carefully surveyed both places. One of the back rooms at Scoby’s had been reserved by a group of off-duty Kingsport police and Tennessee highway patrol officers for dinner and poker. My choice was made for me. I drove back to Johnson City, parked in a strategic spot, entered, and ordered the top sirloin, charred and rare, with a double helping of the famed Peerless cole slaw.
Midway through the meal I left a generous tip for the waitress, rose as though heading for the men’s room, then made my way to the cashier.
Because of the traffic I arrived at The Tri Cities Airport behind schedule, lost a bit more time at the Avis counter while trying to return the rental car, and was red-lining my window of get away opportunity as the line at the Piedmont Air counter seemed to take forever.
Southern hospitality deserves its reputation. The clerk at the Piedmont counter stamped my ticket and made a hurried phone call. Five minutes later, I was on a baggage buggy, driving across the runways with great abandon by a young man with a nametag reading John Eaton sewn to the front of his overalls. Draped over my left shoulder was my carry-on bag. In my lap was a plastic take-out bag from The Peerless containing close to three thousand dollars.
A small jet was poised on the runway, engines yowling with take-off eagerness. John Eaton pulled us alongside the ramp. “You come back and see us again, hear?” he said. I gave him a ten-dollar tip which he steadfastly refused. “Taking money for being polite? It doesn’t calculate,” I scrambled up the steps, was directed by a stewardess to the only available seat on the flight, an aisle seat about a third of the way toward the front of the plane.
At first glance I saw only the profile of an attractive woman who reminded me vaguely of photos I’d seen of the thirties actress, Louise Brooks. The stewardess urged me to sit. She placed my carry-on bag in the overhead rack. I clicked my seat belt, tucked the bag from The Peerless between my legs, at which point I noticed the legs of the woman sitting next to me. She wore black pumps with the merest trace of heels, no hose. I felt myself beginning to gape at what I saw.
Another stewardess appeared, asking my seatmate if she would like to be rid of the small canvas bag she held on her lap. The woman smiled sweetly, shook her head. “I’ll hang onto it,” she said. When the stewardess left, the woman regarded me. “I see you’ve discovered my tattoo.”
She’d caught me, not only looking, but looking and fascinated. I began to redden, and as I did, the recognition of who she was burned into me. What had begun as a simple moment of erotic fascination at the tattoo erupted quickly into a more complex mélange of excitement, vulnerability, and remembered anger.
“Hush,” she said as my hands reached toward her. “I know what I done to you before.” There wasn’t the slightest trace of defensiveness or guile about her, only a cool, amused self-possession. “We’ll talk about it.” She spoke in a near whisper, and then she smiled and hitched her head toward the Peerless bag wedged between my feet.
“I’ll show you mine,” she said, moving the canvas bag on her lap with a lift of her knee, “if you’ll show me yours.”
I sank back in my seat, my eyes closed.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
“The thing I’m interested in finding out,” I said into the bedside telephone, “ is why you accepted the manuscript for publication in the first place.” There were six small cans of grapefruit juice in the small refrigerator in my room when I checked in. Now I sipped on the last of them, the dreary prospects of tomato and a kiwi-guava hybrid awaiting me if I didn’t go out for real coffee instead of making do with the instant powder provided by the hotel in small foil packets. Not to mention the chemical farrago of a nondairy creamer.
“It’s really quite simple.” Wolfram sounded entirely too agreeable for my taste. “We think we’ll have a book that is the last word in its area of expertise, one which will make us a good deal of money.”
In my foggy mind I juggled the academician’s dialectic of scholarship against money, which I naturally equated with giving over to entrepreneurship. As though he could actually see them, I hefted the thick sheaf of Wolfram’s notes. “What you want here is a major rewrite.”
“Well then,” Wolfram said. “You’re up, clear-headed, and working, are you? Give me an hour to get showered and I’ll be over. We can hash things out.”
Hash, it turns out, was exactly what Wolfram had in mind. He steered us to Jake’s, another establishment with a heavy appeal to a working-class clientele. I had a good deal of coffee, served hot enough to ameliorate its acidity. Hangover wisdom dictated thickly buttered biscuits for me, appetite directed Wolfram to the Sunday Special: roast beef hash, three eggs, salsa, and toast.
Getting the coffee and something buttered into my stomach helped me mount an attack. “You did that deliberately, didn’t you? Purposely got me drunk.”
Wolfram tucked egg and hash into his mouth, chewing for a moment, then plopping in a bit of toast as an afterthought. “Creating a distraction. Taking the edge of self-consciousness away from our discussion about the possibilities.” He chewed, reflected, sipped coffee, and then smiled. “You held your own quite well with the lads and their peer review of your thesis last night. Caused a bit of a row with some of your views, but when it comes down to the definitive orals exams, you’re an articulate man, Camden.”
If I’m so articulate, why all the deletions and changes to my manuscript? Why, for instance, is my central thesis literally removed from the text and placed in a footnote?”
Wolfram eyed me speculatively while buttering more toast. “May I speak frankly?”
Now it was my turn to search for clues.
“The whole picture with university presses, even prestigious ones such as ours, has undergone great changes since, shall we say, the Reagan years.” Toast in hand, he conjured forth a web of funding problems, a massive number of new titles appearing from unexpected sources. “Commercial houses are bidding against us now.” He spoke of a lost chance on a catalogue raisone of primitive women artists, the bid to publish lost to a New York house famed for its bodice rippers. “Random House, if you can imagine such a thing, beat us out on a splendid new Talmud. Somehow Princeton was able to outbid us on a commanding study of the history of ideas. I thought we had that sewn up.” He seemed shocked by the prospect. “It goes back to the time when we had an I Ching that would have knotted your knickers and left you for dead. Monumental thing it was, done in verse, calling for a built in pocket with book-sized yarrow sticks. One could have cast one’s lot on any convenient surface. Imagine casting on the top of a washer-dryer combination.”
He saw the exasperation seething within me. His gestures speeded. “We were a bit late getting it done and Princeton beat us to press with the Wilhelm I Ching. Do you have any idea how many copies that abomination has sold over the years? “
“I don’t see where getting me drunk fits in and I don’t see where all this is going.”
Wolfram looked questioningly toward the uneaten biscuit on my plate. Irritation continuing, I nodded. He pounced on it, baptized it in strawberry jam. “Had to see what if anything we could expect from you in the future.”
“What was your conclusion”?
“You truly are a splendid fellow and although you don’t handle the spirits too well, you gave much better than you got last night. But you see, the thing is—“
“What is the thing?”
Wolfram could not have looked more ill at ease. “Have you,” he proposed, “ever considered fiction?”
There was an uneasy silence of some duration, one of those contests you associate with a salesperson trying to sell you something you don’t need or want.
A waiter broke the spell by asking if we’d like our coffees refreshed. Each of us answered with his hands and thus by not speaking was able to consider himself as having outlasted the other.
“What about my scholarly work?’” I asked
“You have the quality to make persons, places, things all come to life.”
“Right. I’m good with nouns. You have pointedly not mentioned ideas, concepts, and the theoretical.”
Wolfram dabbed a napkin at some biscuit crumbs. “You’ve eked a shaky career of talking and writing about the fiction of others. Don’t you think it’s time you evened out the equation?”
“Is it that bad?”
Wolfram smiled at me. Some invisible membrane had been broken. “You and the Wizard of Oz, Camden.”
“Then why are you publishing me?”
“If we can get your book out on schedule, we can beat three or four projects now in the works at other publishers, one of them notably Princeton. We can make a tidy sum of money, which will support some scholarly work for us, and who knows what will open for you.”
My head was pounding again. “Open up for me? This is worse than I thought.”
“We’re back at Oz, Camden. You are not a bad scholar, but you are not a great one. Your strength is your ability to synthesize. You have a gift for anticipating the great anachronism of scholarly mass appeal.”
“I could open some doors. Commercial publishers like the thought of academics with secret, fictional lives.”
“Like failed priests.”
Wolfram snorted agreement. “See, you have the gift. Meanwhile, we’d have this relationship.”
My silence now had nothing to do with attitudinal pissing contest but rather the sorting out of implications. To his everlasting credit in my ledger, Wolfram saw the moral seesaw I was on. “I’ll spell it out for you,” he said. And he did.
The Widening Gyre, characterized by Wolfram’s suggested revisions, would be published with all deliberate speed, containing a long introductory overview by Auberon Fagan, an emeritus critic now well into his eighties, whose name was often offered on the same scholarly Mt. Rushmore as Leavis, Cowley, and Penn Warren. Fagan’s career had been a cornucopia of originality and élan until he had endorsed as original a typescript purporting to be a lost novel of James Joyce, which later proved to be an elaborate hoax from the English department t Sarah Lawrence, ranking a tad more effective than the Java Man hoax.
The Press, Wolfram, explained, was eager to help Fagan regain any status he might have lost and, as Wolfram put it, “ride the comet’s tale through the heavens with valetudinarian splendor.”
I could almost hear the English –our spelling as Wolfram drew out the word splendor, and although I could see the strategy in having Fagan publish a seemingly safe overview essay in connection with my book to whet the academic appetite for his Final Scholarly Statement, I was also dazzled by the prospect of Fagan’s name appearing on the front cover of my book.
Do not think I was being so naïve at to ignore the facts: I was being suborned. I was being offered a large, shiny apple.
An enormous crash and clank of glassware, stainless service, and restaurant porcelain jarred my attentions as a sleepy busboy collided with a waitress exiting the kitchen.
“Aha,” Wolfram intoned. “On a sudden open fly/With impetuous recoil and jarring sound/Th ’infernal doors, and on their hinges grate harsh thunder.”
“Paradise Lost,” I said.
The Press wanted my title more than they wanted my book. They wanted my input—as dangerous and insidious a word as ever came out of the buzzword grinder—on interdisciplinary projects, which is to say they wanted first look at any thoughts I might have. I was poise on a cusp, a Tireseas, a Mitt Romney, an Odysseus, all of us knowable as a man of many turns.
Tenure and some degree of respectability were within my grasp. Even Sylvia was within my grasp after six years of being married to her. Sipping my coffee and feeling my stomach turn sour, perhaps from the excess acidity, perhaps not, I pondered Faulkner’s Nobel speech about fiction reflecting the agony of moral choice and wondered how in my imagination I could rise above what was set before me so plainly in my everyday life.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
1. Each individual has a narrative, which may be informed by an ideal or attitude or routine.
2. The individual performs with that narrative as a script, reflecting boredom at routine, a sense of being caught up in some form of destiny, a sense of mission, or even a sense of profound disappointment.
3. The narrative is broken.
4. Story begins.
5. Yep, story begins precisely when the regular narrative is broken.
6. Now the individual has something to face that has not been considered before.
7. Blogger dot com is only one narrative-breaking agent.
8. Objective correlatives (See Shakespeare and His Problems by T. S. Eliot)if not overdone, can be helpful in transmitting story elements.
9. The area between what characters say and what they really mean is the beginning of story.
10. Academic writing goes after story the way heat-seeking missiles chase targets.
11. No matter what happens in the primaries, the junior senator from Illinois has already sufficiently interrupted a particular narrative and high time and hooray.
Friday, January 11, 2008
2. Tastes change with the passage of time. Some of this has to do with you having read more, thought more, experienced more, allowing you to see what you did not see earlier.
3. Not all of what you did not see earlier comes out of your account; what you saw earlier might have seemed wonderful and lost its luster or, conversely, may have bored the pants off you then only to have achieved some sturdier ground in the shale and sandstone of your perceptions.
4. Raymond Chandler pretty well stands up now, having stood up then.
5. James M. Cain stands up, particularly Postman, but also Serenade.
7. Paul Cain. Fast One. Yep. Holds up.
8. But the one that doesn't hold up, but rather falls apart, is Eric Knight.
9. Are you kidding? Isn't he the one who wrote Lassie, Come Home? And you're talking noir.
10. I first encountered Eric Knight when my mentor gave me a book containing her novella, Turnip's Blood, and Knight's The Flying Yorkshire Man, I was so caught up with Rachel Maddux's work that some years passed before I got around to reading, and forgetting The Flying Yorkshire Man. As the title suggests, it was a fantasy.
As the years progressed and my reading of pulp/noir/hardboiled writers blossomed to the point where I was actually editing some of my favorites and editorially supporting such projects as the Hard Boiled Dicks Anthology and The Pulp Jungle, and The Human Encyclopedia stories, I also began amassing a collection of the noirest and hardest boiled of all the pulp magazines, Joe Shaw's Black Mask, which featured stories by Chandler and Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner. At that time I also began editing William F. Nolan, who seemed incredulous that I had not yet read You Play the Red and the Black Comes Up, Eric Knight's one and only venture into noir writing. Nolan took me to an amazing used book store in Long Beach, Acres of Books, and searched the shelves until we found a readable copy of the Knight novel. Back at home, I worked my way through it in a few hours, then read it again, just to make sure I had the rhythm and near nihilistic drive down pat.
11. Toward the waning months of 2006, I was told that the Montecito Journal was going to go weekly and thus did I want to contribute my review column every week or stay on the every-other-week schedule. What about, I asked, alternating weeks reviewing a book from out of the past with currently published works. Same schedule, the MJ said. Copy due on Thursday.
Switch to a few weeks back, when in the midst of shaving, two titles appear out of the shadows of memory, like long lost relatives from another continent. One of them was the Brazilian, Machado de Asisi, and his remarkable Epitaph for a Small Winner, which in some ways I have unconsciously been trying to take over in my own work. More about that in another post. The other title was the Eric Knight, which I promptly--well, promptly after shaving--Amazoned and ordered forthwith.
13. Silly. Illogical. A patchwork of effect and sketch, not unlike what we would do just before publication time when the college humor magazine was shy some pages of copy. Quick, what's funny?
14. So one golden oldie is down in the fieriest of flames.
15. Really; no more fiction right onto the blogger dot com template.
three or four projects now in the works at other publishers