Who is Rich?

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I’m not in the habit of shilling for friends, but please do yourself a favor and go read my buddy Matt Klam’s long-awaited (by those in the know) first novel, Who is Rich? Don’t get me wrong. I love to support my friends. But I also kind of hate it. Especially when they’re fellow writers, and especially when they’re tilling some of the same ground I do (as Gore Vidal put it, “every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.”) In fact, after reading Who is Rich, I told Matt that I might actually have to kill him. On the other hand, I can’t totally hold the book’s greatness against him because he spent a lot of years in the wilderness and this novel was a long time coming. Seventeen years to be exact.

It’s even longer ago that Matt and I met in Provincetown during the winter of 1993 when he was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center and I was spending the winter there in my uncle’s house, trying to write my own first novel. Soon after arriving in town in the cold October chill, I met Susanna Sonnenberg, who was staying a few houses down, doing pretty much the same thing I was doing, trying to figure out her life and become a real writer (which for her, like me, didn’t happen that winter but did happen later). One evening the two of us made our way over to the Work Center for the welcoming party for the new fellows, who had just arrived for their eight-month residencies. As we entered the reception area and came upon a frankly odd and scruffy  assortment of writers and artists, Susanna and I nodded at one another knowingly and said, “These are going to be our friends this winter.” We were right. Among the talented group were the late Lucy Grealy, Elizabeth McCracken, Paul Lisicky, and the man Susanna would later marry and divorce, Andrew Peterson.

Over the next few weeks and months, she and I assumed the role of honorary fellows, hanging out with our kindred spirits at the few bars and restaurants open during the offseason and having them over for dinners at our storied housesits (Susanna’s had once belonged to John Dos Passos, and mine belonged to my uncle, Norman Mailer). I don’t remember how exactly my friendship with Matt blossomed, but it’s possible we played tennis on the high school courts a couple of times before the weather got too cold, or maybe we just stayed up late drinking one night and discovered that we were a good audience for one another, appreciative of each other’s sense of humor (though he was definitely funnier). Matt was a large physical presence, tall and gangly with coat-hanger shoulders, shaggy blond curls, a big honker of a nose, slightly bugged-out eyes, and a wide and sometimes goofy grin. Though the youngest and least accomplished of the fellows at the Work Center, his status changed, practically overnight, when The New Yorker decided to buy his short story “Sam the Cat.” Giddy and full of himself but also self-deprecating and incredulous, Matt imagined a future in which writers like him would become stars on MTV, something he felt was inevitable and highly possible but also clearly ridiculous and improbable.

In the years that followed, the MTV dreams were never realized, but he did publish more stories in The New Yorker, and then a collection of them called Sam the Cat, which, when it came out, garnered a lot of attention and great reviews and prompted The New Yorker to name him to their annual list of the twenty best writers under the age of 40. By then he had married Lara, a beautiful, sharp-eyed psychotherapist, who had a bedside manner with him that was amused, cool, knowing and tolerant but with an edge. At their wedding, in Washington, D.C., only the best man fainted.

After their daughter, Pixie, was born, Matt did his share to support his family and the continuation of his literary output by teaching creative writing and doing pieces for GQ and other glossies. But several attempts at writing a novel were unsuccessful, and time just kept ticking by; the heady days of his early success were quickly receding in the rearview. Matt was still quintessentially Matt, but he felt himself drowning in the confines of domesticity and responsibility. His remedy was to look for transcendence outside his marriage. Unlike the Thomas Haden Church character in Sideways, who answers his questioning friend Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, by saying, “You don’t understand my plight,” Matt understood his plight all too well. It was that understanding, coupled with his scorching honesty about it, that became the engine of his belated but triumphant return, the fulfillment of his great early promise.

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In Who is Rich?, Matt takes on the sinkhole of his missing years, the pain of his slow-motion flameout and what it turned him into, in what can only be called an act of heroic self-immolation. I get a little crazy when reading the customer reviews of the book on Amazon. A depressingly large number of readers see in the once-sort-of-famous cartoonist Rich Fischer, Matt’s narrator/stand-in, an entitled, whiny middled-aged white man who has no right to feel anything but privileged and fortunate (“Klam’s complaint festival” one calls it). Some of them accuse Matt of simply using the book to try and justify his having cheated on his wife (“A self-serving, self-centered man-boy”). A few even malign the writing itself (“sloppy, convoluted”). I suppose I can understand where reactions like these are coming from (I might call them “low-information readers”), the same way I can understand the anger and disappointment that led some people to vote for Donald Trump. But I can’t support the conclusions and am left with one thought only: They just don’t get it. Because it seems in this increasingly polarized world, people either do or they don’t. And if they don’t, nothing I say is gonna persuade them.

For everyone still with me, let me just say that what Matt has pulled off in his novel is like a magic trick inside of a magic trick. I can’t figure out how he does what he does. I can only tell you that he arranges words in unlikely combinations that read like nothing you’ve ever read before. I can tell you that his narrator is like the real-life Matt on steroids: hilarious, poignant, heartbreaking, sarcastic, knowing, naive, worldly, goofy, cutting, generous, and sometimes–make that often–all these things at once. I tried leafing through the book after I finished, to find examples of what I’m talking about, and there were literally too many to choose from. Pretty much the whole goddamn book. That’s my pull quote. The whole damn book. Every time I wanted to start underlining, I couldn’t see a place to stop. And looking up above where I’d started, I wanted to underline all that stuff too.

In fact, just opening the book randomly now, I find this passage in which Rich is describing the state of his married sex-life after the birth of his children:

“In a previous life, she bit my neck and licked my ear when we did it. After Kaya, I worried about courting her in my pajamas, with our little angel breathing down the hall, and lost focus and cringed as Robin’s patience ran out if I finished too fast or not fast enough and overstayed my welcome. Bad sex was better than nothing, but Beanie effectively ended the badness. Fuckless weeks, excused by parenting, turned weirdly okay. Like our anniversary, we weren’t sure anymore when it was supposed to happen. And, with the exception of my tongue on her clitoris every who knows when, she didn’t need to be touched. She had vibrators for that. I think she mostly thought of what I did as a way to save batteries.”

But Rich’s comic takedown of married sex is only part of his discontent. He is a man caught up in a maelstrom of conflicting desires, which become for him a kind of Venus fly trap of love, money, and success counterbalanced by what one must sacrifice to acquire them–freedom, loyalty, self-respect, time with one’s children–in short, the modern condition, in which so much is promised and so little is attainable without the sacrifice of one’s humanity.

The main action of the book takes place during a week-long workshop at an annual summer artist’s retreat where Rich has taught for years (though he now fears that even this small fruit of his early success is in jeopardy due to the appearance on the scene of a younger, more successful, less white, version of himself). Adding to his agita is a long-anticipated reunion with Amy, the woman he met at the retreat and began an affair with the previous summer. A year-long torrent of texts and emails has got them both hot and bothered and wondering where things will lead. For Rich, Amy fills the void of love and passion that his marriage no longer seems to provide, and he both desires her and feels repulsed by her, by the need she stirs in him, and by her married-to-a-billionaire other life. Here Rich’s quandary, his ambivalence about Amy and about money, is made manifest: “They lived in a monstrous stone-and-shingle masterpiece and also owned a $20 million duplex overlooking Central Park, and a ‘crappy’ place in London, and a ‘nice’ place in Chamonix. She employed a French-speaking Moroccan chef name Yasmine. I hated her life but thought I should have it.”

The reason I call what Matt has done a magic act is because, while he has a story to tell, the story does not drive the book. Language does, the abundance of acutely observed details, the descriptions of people and places. And, most important, the narrator’s ability (see below) to riff like Coltrane about what he is going through, to describe the texture of his life, to let us in on his struggle:

“We’d put a lot into our emails. It was a gigantic pain in the ass. If either of us slacked off, the other one got offended. You had be timely and consistently thoughtful. Although it was nice knowing that on nights when I couldn’t sleep, at least someone out there was listening. When I started spiraling into my own black hole, or when Beanie went loco at two a.m., or when Kaya cried because her pillow was too hot, or when the magazine sent back my drawing thirty-seven times for revisions and then killed it, or when I received actual death threats for a cartoon I drew mocking military methods of interrogation, or when the dental surgeon sent me a bill for two thousand nine hundred fucking dollars, or the neighbors hated me because my car blew clouds of whitish-blackish smoke, or when Robin said I tasted like something she had for dinner that she didn’t feel like tasting again, when I thought nobody would ever want me again, that I’d never crawl into bed with someone and fall into her arms, grateful, protected, in love–I could say it, through that doohickey in my pocket, and by the power of instantaneous electronic transmission it would find her, rising out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night, and she’d zap back a little something to cheer me up, and that would be enough.”

So like I said, I may hate my old friend a little for being able to write like a virtuoso and slay me with what he knows not just about his life but about my life, everyone’s life, about marriage and money and work and kids and all the important things that we think we know but don’t really understand until someone like Matt points out something about us we felt but hadn’t recognized–e.g. “the increasing awkwardness of disrobing in front of my wife”–and we go, “Holy shit!” So yes, fuck that guy, but also I love him and admire him. I love him for the way he digs down deep into the uncomfortable innards of his ugliest urges, his most primal needs, and finds the truth there and makes the truth funny and hot to the touch and dangerous and necessary. And I love him because he then has the balls to put it out there for any friend or stranger to see. And I love him because even if I were a stranger, I’d want to be his friend.

 

 

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Why I’ll Probably be Blogging More

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The last time I sat down to write an entry here, I was certain that I was revving up again and would be penning one of these entries on a regular and ongoing basis. However, that was before the first round of submissions on my novel had received a disquieting chorus of nays. Let me amend that: the response wasn’t all negative. We heard back from a few editors who actually liked the book but couldn’t see a way to publish it or couldn’t get support in house. My main takeaway was that things out there in bookland were as bleak as I’d heard. Rather than kicking my nonexistent dog or lying down in bed for a week, I decided to put aside the new novel I had started and dive back into the old one. I thought I might spend a couple of weeks on it. Somehow that turned into two months.

Now I’m finished, and next week the revised manuscript goes out again. Hopefully, the results will be different this time. My agent, even before she saw the new rewrite, was upbeat when we talked. She said, “We’re going to sell this book.” A writer friend I talked with yesterday said she received 39 rejections on her last book before someone finally said Yes. I’ve only had 14 No’s, so I guess I’m ahead of the game.

Last night, I went back and read the beginning of my new novel, the one I put aside for two months. I was encouraged by what I read. But instead of getting back to work, I’ve been procrastinating all day today.  I’ve spent time listening to the Allman Brothers live at the Fillmore East on Youtube (the book is set in the 1970s). I’ve spent time reading other people’s novels. I’ve spent time making notes. I have not spent time writing. Am I afraid? Well, let’s put it this way: it’s a little bit like riding the chairlift up the mountain for the first run of the season. You get off the lift. You stand there for a while on the ridge, adjusting your boots and your gloves and staring down the mountain. You know you’re going to push off eventually and head down that mountain, but you’re just not quite ready, not yet, so you take another few seconds, make a few more adjustments…and then…

Well, now you know why I’m here.

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What’s going to happen to us?

 

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People are getting ill and dying. Friends of mine. They’re having strokes, succumbing to cancer, developing bad stomachs, having trouble sleeping. Sure, we’re all getting older. This stuff happens. But not at the rate at which it seems, in my very unscientific study, to be afflicting us. Is this Trump’s fault? I know there’s a lot of anxiety because of him. A lot of stress. Are we going to wind up in a nuclear war? A civil war? A fascist state? A water world? A new ice age? All of these things seem increasingly possible. I know I’ve been losing sleep. It’s especially tough if you have young children. What kind of world have we brought them into? What are we leaving them?

A lot has been written, a lot said, in connection with Trump’s most recent atrocity, his refusal to stand up or speak out in a clear and forceful way about the events in Charlottesville that cost a young woman her life and left many others injured.

He’s an abomination, a clear threat to our continued survival. At the same time, I feel like we are playing right into the hands of the true enemy when we focus all our energy on Trump himself and the emotionality of “identity politics.” The “owners,” as George Carlin called the richest Americans, want nothing more than for us to focus our anger on one another. They want us to take our eye off the ball. Make no mistake about it, as despicable as neo-Nazis and white supremacists are, they’re not the real enemy. They have always existed and in all likelihood always will exist. They should certainly be called out and shunned. But our real enemy is economic inequality. The real enemy is the unfair influence of a tiny minority of society, the superrich 1%, owners of corporate America, who are stealing the rest of us blind and trying to continue their thievery while we focus our ire not on them but on each other. The symbolism of Confederate statues and flags, while offensive, is not worthy of our energy right now. As Yaphet Kotto said about the company owners in his stirring rant against them in the movie Blue Collar, “They’ll do anything to keep you on the line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white—everybody—to keep us in our place.”

I don’t know how we defeat the oligarchy. The game is so rigged now – and they’ve succeeded so spectacularly in pitting half the country against the other half – that it’s hard to see a way to overcome the corruption, to elect representatives who truly represent the people’s interests and not theirs. It’s hard to see a way for the general populace to be properly educated, to have their most basic needs met, so that they’re not focused on the wrong things, on issues that don’t actually address their concerns. The owners count on ignorance and petty prejudices, emotions that they can manipulate. In this regard, Trump has been a useful foil and distraction. The greed of the Kochs and the Mercers is so large that even at the risk of the planet and of their own safety, the urge to keep acquiring drives them to keep up their unholy plunder. They build their bunkers and hide their assets in case we get wise and the whole thing tumbles down. But they hope that by the time the revolution comes, or nuclear war, or the rising of the seas, they’ll be long gone, and only their children will have to suffer.

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In Search of Lost Time

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For the first time in a year, I have some time on my hands. Such a funny phrase that. I have actually had 62 years of time on my hands. But I guess what I mean to say is free time. A year ago, I announced in this blog that I had finished a draft of my first novel. Little did I suspect, that it would be almost a full year later that the novel would actually begin to feel “finished.” Or at least as finished as it can feel at this point. Finished to the point of giving it to an agent who is going to take it out into the world and I hope find a home for it. I think that I have never better understood Balzac, who was famous for making changes right up to and past the time one of his novels was at the printer. It’s hard to stop trying to improve the thing or to let it go.

How did a year pass though? I was astonished just now when I looked back and saw that the second to last entry I wrote here, You. Complete Me, about finishing a first draft, was written in May 2016. What the fuck? But it all goes hand in hand with the ever accelerating clock. Life is flying by. Flying the fuck by.

That encroaching sense of and acquaintance with mortality has been underlined by two mortal events in the past year: the death of my dad and the death of my dear friend Josh Gilbert. To my surprise, the death of my friend Josh in some ways hit me harder. Obviously my dad was my dad. But I had been bracing for his death and mourning his loss for years, ever since his dementia had started making it harder for us to have the kind of deep dive conversations that I’d always loved having with him. That served as a pre-loss loss. It helped to prepare for the real and irrevocable loss that was to follow. But with Josh, who was younger than me, there was no preparatory mourning. Even though he had a particularly rare and nasty form of cancer and had it for three years, I never once doubted that he was going to beat it. He was a fucking warrior, a honey badger in human form, a vital subversive madman whom I loved, and when I arrived at the hospital, five minutes too late, I could not believe that I was looking at his dead lifeless face. It didn’t compute. It couldn’t be. He was too alive to be dead.

Johs and Henry

Not having him around in physical form, not having him accessible, hurt more than I ever imagined it would. He lived right across the street from me and for the past few years I had frequently stopped off at his cluttered third-floor walkup after dropping Eden at school. Coffees in hand, we’d talk about writing and work and love and movies and the madness of the world and what it meant to be a parent in this day and age. Josh left behind a young son, Henry, whom he had adopted with his longtime girlfriend Cheryl before he got sick and before they stopped trying to make their incredibly complicated relationship work. More than anything, it was Henry who made me think that Josh would never succumb. He wanted so much to live for Henry.

I am not alone in missing him, of course. Along with Henry and his family, Josh had more best friends than anyone I’ve ever known. At his memorial, the unifying theme was that everyone who got up to speak, and there were many and from all over the country, all thought they were Josh’s best friend. He had that gift of making you feel special and loved and that his connection with you was unlike his connection with anyone else.

I didn’t start out planning to write here about Josh, mostly because all I could hope to do here is capture a small part of him (and to paraphrase my uncle, sometimes it’s better to write only a few sentences because anything more would require a novel), but I will tell you that Josh was the greatest champion anybody could ever have, and I know that if he were still alive, no matter what his own fight demanded, he’d summon the energy to fight for my novel too, and with the same ferocity he brought to his own battles. In my mind, I can hear him strategizing with me,  thinking of connections, of people he knew, saying, “Don’t worry, Bub (he called everyone Bub and Chief), we’re going to figure out a way to get someone to buy this.”

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More than his help and support and the undoubtedly amazing advice he’d give me for making the book better, what I’ll miss, what I do miss, is his unwavering belief. Josh believed in the healing power of art. But more than that, he believed in friendship. He believed in his best friends. All several hundred of us.

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Dad

It’s been months since my last entry here and a lot has happened in that time. I finished my novel, for one thing. But the other thing is that my dad died.

He took a fall back in July and broke his hip, which is what precipitated his eventual demise. But the truth is that he actually recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. I think it’s only when he realized that he was going to be forced to use a bedpan going forward that he decided that he’d had enough. I’m pretty sure that’s what I would have been thinking, at any rate. Up until then, despite suffering from dementia, he was still finding enough pleasure in living to keep him going.

This past Sunday, we had a memorial celebration of his life, and what follows are the words that I chose to honor him with:

Dad and Peter 1955

It’s obviously impossible to convey the richness and fullness of the man I called my father in a few sentences, or paragraphs or even pages. All I know is that I was lucky to have a father like him for as long as I did, which, since he was almost 96, was a fair stretch of time, even if it wasn’t enough. I also have to say that these last few years, when his dementia made it difficult for us to have the kind of meaningful dialogue that we’d always had, were tough for me. I really missed our conversations. I’d always counted on his feedback, his pushback, his opinions about everything. He still lit up whenever he saw me. He still had the same sweetness he’d always had. His essence was there, and I was grateful to still be able to get him to laugh. But I missed the back and forth, being able to deep dive into things and analyze and discuss them.

Now that he’s gone, I miss that even more, but I’m also noticing the absence of his smile, that great and contagious laugh. I admit that I sometimes poked fun at him just to hear that laugh, because he was almost always able to laugh at himself, at his foibles. In fact, in the hospital during the last week of his life, I was trying to explain something to him, and he said, “You know, Pete, I used to be a lot smarter than people understood, and now I’m a lot dumber than they know.”

The other quality Dad kept until the very end was his underlying optimism. I don’t mean that in a Pollyanna way. Far from it. Before complex conversations became too challenging for him to process, we could sometimes get pretty gloomy talking about things both trivial and large, from the state of the Mets to the state of the world, but Dad was an eternal optimist in the sense that his spirit was unsinkable. He liked living, and he liked to express his opinion both about life’s bounty and life’s dreck, often with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down (long before Siskel and Ebert, by the way). Even at the end, as long as there was a lobster roll or piece of good chocolate to be consumed and appreciated, then whatever else might be wrong didn’t matter.

Dad had a phrase that he often uttered, “La vie est dure,” which literally translates to “Life is hard.” And his life, especially the latter part of it, wasn’t always easy. Twenty years ago, I wrote about the deteriorating conditions of the house on Spring Valley Road that he and my beloved stepmother Libby lived in for so many years. I wrote about the many jobs that he was forced to take during his 70s and into his 80s, jobs that I know he would have preferred not to do at an age when most men would have been enjoying their retirement. Later on, there were health problems. With him, and then of course with Libby. But through all of it, even up to the very end, he remained cheerful and upbeat.

That, more than anything, is his legacy to me, to my sister Kate, to his grandchildren, to all of us here, the idea that life can be hard but is without doubt worth living.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Dad was multifarious. His mind had many twists and turns, hidden corridors, trap doors. I would sometimes get frustrated with him, because in conversation he invariably and sometimes maddeningly took turns here and turns there, rarely going in a straight line from point A to point B. He liked to detour, to go off on tangents. He was not a linear thinker. I once kidded him that he should write a book of short stories and call it Stories Without a Point.

But even if I sometimes got frustrated with him, I always wanted to understand him. In my late teens and early 20s, we took to having regular lunches. It was something I always looked forward to. When he was working at Bantam Books, he took me to the Japanese restaurants on 47th street and introduced me to sushi, pleased to be able to explain how it all worked and what things were called and what were his favorite kinds of fish. He had a favorite sushi chef, who at Dad’s urging elaborated on what he was doing and how he’d been taught. Dad loved being an aficionado.

Another place we often went was Alfredo’s restaurant on Hudson Street. We were among the first customers there when it opened, and we had many lunches there over the years. There was one dish, Tortellini della Nonna, that was my favorite. I came to think of it as Tortellini della Poppa. It was at Alfredo’s that I conducted a number of interviews with Dad for a biographical portrait that I was writing about him for a psychology class at Harvard.

One of the things I learned in the course of interviewing him was that when he didn’t get into Harvard, himself, his father Jack Alson said to him “I paid for champagne and I got beer.” It was a remark that Dad took to heart and really never got over. But when I dug deeper and tried to contextualize it, I discovered that Jack had taken Dad out of Boys High and sent him to Brooklyn Poly Prep for a year because he knew that the headmaster at Poly Prep had a relationship with someone in admissions at Harvard. Unfortunately, it turned out that the headmaster’s contact was on sabbatical that year, so the guy wasn’t able to pull the necessary strings to get Dad in. It wasn’t until I got around to writing the biography that I realized that Jack wasn’t talking about Dad when he made the beer remark, but was actually talking about Poly Prep.

All of which is to say, relationships between fathers and sons can be tricky. Dad and I were alike in many ways and the fact of that sometimes proved problematical. I was lucky enough, for example, to inherit some of his athletic prowess, his hand-eye coordination, his competitive fire. This played out with us in all things athletic, especially on the tennis court.

Dad was a great tennis player, a huge fan of the game. He’d played in high school and with his brother, Ernie, and he liked to tell the story of how he once beat a highly ranked player on a wooden indoor court because the ball skidded and his opponent couldn’t get used to the bounce. He took me to my first U.S. Open in 1966 when it was still played on the grass at Forest Hills. As with the sushi, he derived immense satisfaction in sharing his knowledge, expertise and love of the game.

But when he played tennis with me, there was no coddling or going easy. He simply refused to lose to me, even years after I’d actually surpassed him in ability. I’d throw tantrums and he’d laugh and critique my game, and tell me what I was doing wrong. I remember well the first time I ever beat him. He was miffed but proud of me at the same time.

Years later, when I was in my forties and he was in his late seventies, we beat a couple of top-flight players in a club match. That was one of our best days together ever. He never got tired of talking about it.

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Our father-son rivalry was even more charged around writing than it was around tennis. As close as we were, the writing—his and mine—caused us difficulties, starting around the time I was 20, until I was 38 and sold my first book. We talked about craft all the time, debating the best way to tell a story, the importance of a good opening. He was a fount of advice and wisdom and often sent me letters with ideas for novels that I should write. He encouraged me to push the envelope in my writing, to go big, to not be afraid to say “fuck you” to the reader.

 

Much of his advice was good. It was just when we got down to actual cases that we ran into difficulties.

Part of the problem was that he was caught up in writing a novel himself that he spent decades on and was never able to finish. The book had begun as an instructional manual that he was co-authoring with a tennis teaching pro named George Edis. Scribner’s was supposed to publish the book, but something went wrong, I can’t remember what, and the book was killed at the eleventh hour. Dad decided to make lemonade out of his lemon by turning the instructional book into a novel. It gradually evolved into a story about the invention of tennis, and somewhere in writing it, he got lost.

Dad at work

One thing Dad was never at a loss for, though, was an opinion. Because he was my El Exigente on just about everything—you remember that coffee commercial, “I choose only the best beans?”—and because I desperately wanted his approval, his thumbs up, I could be easily devastated by his criticism.

I don’t think he ever consciously intended to discourage me, but too often that was the effect of his words. I abandoned numerous projects, including a couple of novels, after he said things to me indicating that he thought I could do better. No doubt, he was right. But I didn’t find it helpful. And so there came a time—as I say, this was the only real rift or difficulty we ever had—when I told him that I would never again show him any of my writing until it was published. It was painful to tell him that. I think he was hurt. But he said he understood. Incredibly, the gambit worked! He never said another critical thing to me about my writing. Not until near the very end of his life—which I’ll tell you about in a second.

No, the fact is, he read all of my articles and books after they were published, and he was as proud and as full of praise for them as could be. And our relationship improved after that and was never strained or rocky again.

The one time I did go back on my vow never to show him anything came in the hospital, near the end. Dad had defied all the doctors’ predictions and come back from the brink. I was with him in ICU late one night, and we were having a lively conversation, and he was asking me about my novel, a draft of which I’d just completed. Moved by his interest and just the fact that at that point he was able to express it, I said, “I can show you the opening to the book.” It so happened I had my computer with me, and I flipped it open and began reading the first chapter to him.

He actually lifted the computer out of my hands at that point and held it up in front of him and silently read what I’d written, nodding in approval and smiling. But the next morning when I came back to visit, he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about the beginning to your novel, Pete. I think it needs work.”

I laughed out loud. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Understanding that with his dementia it wasn’t even possible that he’d remembered, I said, “Dad, do you even remember what you read?”

He smiled and shrugged helplessly and amiably.

“Here,” I said, and opened my computer and read him the first few sentences again.

He listened, and then said, “You’re right. It’s good.”

And I had to laugh again. The old leopard wasn’t going to change his spots.

Though Dad never finished his own novel, and I’m sure judged himself harshly for that, and yes there was a time when I might have too, I don’t any more. I look at his life, and I think about the pleasure he found in things small and large, in the way he could name a certain bird in a faraway tree that he could see but almost no one else could, in that wonderful suspended moment when a tennis ball is in the air about to be struck, in the sublime garlicky taste of escargot, or the way an image in a poem grabs your imagination and won’t let go, in the pleasure of being able to explain to your son, when he asks, that an Objective Correlative is “that which best illustrates through action the thesis or premise of something.”

Above all, I think about the great pleasure he took in loving—my sister Kate, me, and especially his lovely Libby. I was lucky enough to have had a ringside seat for the early days of their great romance, sitting in the back of a convertible Austin Healey 3000, at the age of seven with two Welsh Corgis, as we ate, drank and drove our way through Europe in the summer of 1962. We even had a soundtrack, the title song from Melina Mercouri’s Never on Sunday. We whistled it all through the cobbled streets of Rome and along the coast roads of the Mediterranean.

Dad and Lib

The life that followed might have had its twists and turns; it might not have always been as fabulous and romantic as that magical time. But Dad’s love for Libby and her love for him endured, through thick and thin, over many, many years. And wherever they are now, on their continuing journey, I just want to picture them, riding in a blue Austin Healey with the top down toward a horizon that never ends.

Austin Healey

 

 

 

 

 

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You. Complete Me

WHIcourage-1

 

Back in January I wrote that I thought I would be able to finish my novel by putting in a solid month of work. I suppose the general rule of thumb is that you need to take an estimate like that and multiply it by four (or, given my history, by infinity). Still, I actually think I would have been able to do it if life had not intervened; there were a number of distractions, foremost among them Alice’s new job as a writer for the TV show Billions, which forced me to assume more childcare duties and various other responsibilities, significantly compromising my daily writing time.

Mind you, no complaints on this front (because who wouldn’t want their significant other to land an amazing job?), but one month turned into four. Then, this past Saturday, to my delight and astonishment, I actually got there. I completed what I set out to do seven years–or more accurately five decades–ago. I won’t say I finished my novel (because as we all know they’re never finished). But I reached the end of a draft. I wrote the final sentence of the first actual novel I have ever managed to “complete.”

If you had told me when I was  19 and embarking on my maiden fictive voyage that I wouldn’t reach the far shore until I was 61, I would have seriously questioned your sanity–just as you might now question mine. Seriously, who keeps sailing into the same hurricane-force headwind for 42 years? And why?

Alice, in fact, asked me that very thing. “You’ve written memoirs and biographies. You’ve proven to yourself that you could write and publish a book. Why was it so goddamn important to you to write a novel?”

I tried to explain. “Reading novels,” I began, “is what made me want to become a writer in the first place. That’s no small thing. Every single book that made an impact on me in my teens and twenties was a novel (with the exception of Frank Conroy’s Stop/Time–a memoir that read like a novel). I wanted to be able to do to other people  what those writers did to me. God, I wanted to be able to do that!”

The problem was, writing a novel turned out to be hard. Really hard. Harder than Chinese Algebra, as Tom Waits once said about love. So why did I persist? My explanation to Alice though true, somehow doesn’t really explain my doggedness. Maybe nothing does.

I spent six years on my second crack at a novel before finally abandoning it on my 30th birthday. Over the years, though I never again spent as much time on any one effort until the present one, I cumulatively spent at least half my life in wheel-spinning futility. Today, the bodies and pages of these aborted efforts litter the road behind me like casualties of war. Until now, the novel always won the war and I always lost.

I came to admire anyone who could start and finish a novel, no matter how bad the end result. In some ways, it seemed to me that it was even harder and took more character to finish writing a bad novel than a good one. I’ve since realized I was probably wrong on that count. The truth is, most bad writers tend to be too sure of themselves; they’re insulated from self-doubt, which is actually helpful in getting to the end.

One of the reasons the current book took me seven years to complete is that I started it over from page one at least three times. Oh, there were reasons that went beyond the usual self-loathing and flagging conviction. The interruption of a full-time job and a toddler, the necessity to make money–I’d come back to the book after time away and find that I needed to start anew just to find my way back in. Yes, this is rationalization. Still….If you want to be kind to me, you’ll allow that it’s only taken me two years to actually complete my first draft, since that’s the last time I persuaded myself that I needed to start over from the beginning.

I’m proud of myself for having finally broken through the paper ceiling this time. I also feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed, not least because I’m not really done. My plan, now that I’ve finished this draft is to wait a few weeks, then take a deep breath and read it through, from page 1 to page 298 where it ends (short, right? After all this time I ought to have written Ulysses or Magic Mountain–or at least some overly long tome that would help prop open a door). I already know that the editor in me will see both good and bad in what I’ve done, and will have strong opinions about what to do next. I actually look forward to that. I look forward to deepening the characters, shading them, cutting, refining, adding, rearranging, etc. I’m guessing it will take me at least a couple of months to do what I need to do. In fact, better multiply that by at least two, given my track record. After I’ve done what I can do, I’ll give it to one or two people I trust, who will I hope have the necessary objectivity to tell me what I should do after that.

What I feel right now, honestly, is a sense of relief. A monkey off my back. I hope the book will ultimately be seen as worthwhile and publishable. I hope that it will be read. I truly hope that at least one person will read it and have the same experience I had when I read books like Dog Soldiers and The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Sun Also Rises and The Moviegoer; that it will inspire them, that it will make them want to write a novel themselves, that it will make them want to put themselves through the same kind of torture that I have put myself through all these years.

Only then will I truly feel that the circle is complete.

 

 

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No Badge of Honor

video_game_journalism

I am a reader first. Then a writer. Then an editor.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship amongst these identities because they are so intertwined. Reading is what made me want to write. Writing forced me to understand how to edit. Learning how to edit enabled me to become a better and more critical reader.

I’ve also been thinking about the relationship amongst these identities because I’ve been reading a wonderful little tone poem of a book by Vernon Klinkenborg called Several Short Sentences About Writing. Klinkenborg takes exception to the idea of “flow” in writing, postulating that it comes not from inspiration but from hard work and firm attention to detail. In other words, it is crucial to be in control of your craft. “You can only judge intentionality in context,” he writes. “If all the sentences in a piece are clear and sharp, then perhaps–perhaps!–we can say that a slightly aberrant sentence is intentional, if there seems to be a reason for it. But if many of the sentences in a piece are unclear, ambiguous or weak, we have to assume that intention is irrelevant–indiscernible at best. We have to assume the writer lacks control.” Klinkenborg goes on to say that a writer’s job “is making sentences.” Other jobs include “fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.”

These prescriptives came to mind yesterday when I received a post from the blogging site Medium in my email inbox, that began “I am a terrible writer. I am almost ashamed of myself when I post on Medium.”

I confess that I was taken in. My curiosity was aroused. It was a good hook. Why would someone say that? So I clicked through and read the piece in its entirety. The writer was a young woman whose life had nearly been destroyed by her addiction to heroin. There was an honesty to the writing, in the sense that it was confessional and lacked artifice, but she was right in saying that she was a terrible writer.

There were sentences that tried to convey several ideas at once, some in contradiction to others, without the specificity that would imbue real meaning:  “I couldn’t assimilate, and it was torture really. I had been locked up, living on the streets , and High School was too much of a culture shock.”

There were sentences with misplaced modifiers: “Got a boyfriend in a band that was older than me and was getting into every bar I wanted to, before the age of 18.”

There were cliches: “I sank into that dark hole of heroin.”

There were typos, improper capitalization, misspellings.

Near the top of the piece, right after the confession of being a terrible writer, she doubled down–“And then I’m going to tell you why I keep writing in a sea of Grammar Nazis with brilliant minds that perfectly articulate whatever they want .”–as if being a terrible writer were a badge of honor signifying bravery and authenticity, as if it actually gave her a kind of added street cred, as if it absolved her of responsibility to the reader.

I am the first to champion honesty as a virtue in a writer. It may well be the greatest virtue. But honesty does not excuse laziness, lack of effort, a dedication to make one’s writing as good, as precise, as controlled (in the best sense) that it can be.

I will grant you that this writer, this self-confessed “terrible writer,” was not without her virtues. At times her writing had a rhythm, an odd pleasure to be found in her awkward syntax, and always the sense that she was not trying to hide behind her words but was in fact trying to reveal herself. Maybe that was why I found it so frustrating to read. I had the sense that if instead of using her failings as a shield, if she had actually tried to be better, spent more time editing herself, she might have created something worthwhile and truly revealing. That is what good writing does. Bad writing, at its best, can only suggest what might be there.

As frustrated as I was by the piece, I found myself even more frustrated by the comments.

“This is the first piece of yours that I have ever read. So it feels a little odd to be so obnoxiously assured in telling you how incredibly mistaken you are when you say you are a terrible writer. Terrible writing is many things, but to move someone in the way that you have me, is not something terrible…”

“Wow!

Who’d even notice grammar?

Powerful. Honest. Real, lyrically paced. I can’t wait to read more.

You are right: it would be a shame not to share and worse, to hide and be afraid. The only thing for which you might need to apologize is not writing. Don’t stop. Don’t…”

“When writing from the heart, it is impossible to “suck”. I need you here to teach me to be courageous, writing just as you write. You’re very easy to read because (I’m guessing) you write like you talk… and that is not the most common of gifts.”

There were many more such comments. After a while, I had to stop reading them. They were just too fucking depressing. The bar is set so low these days. Writers no longer have editors to help them improve. There is no one to stop them from foisting unfinished work on readers. And readers, like children raised on a diet of fast food, are increasingly unable to distinguish between the good and the bad. Their palate has been dulled. They respond only to things with a strong and easy taste.

It’s tempting to extrapolate from here. All roads these days lead to Trump. But suffice to say that we live in a time when the mere appearance of authenticity seems to be the only thing required to elicit an emotional response and a positive feeling about the cathected object.

One antidote to this dangerous illusion is to read the work of great writers. To keep reading them. To read intelligently, with an eye toward understanding what makes them great. And then when you write yourself, if that is something you choose to do, try to apply what you have learned. And understand, as Klinkenborg writes, that “most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. That this will be true for a long time.”

 

 

 

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