East Bay Writers

Reflections on: One Writer's Big Innings

One Writer's Big Innings appeared in the Fall, 1992 issue of Black Warrior Review, was reprinted in the December, 1992 issue of AWP Chronicle, and was nominated for a Puschcart Prize. In 2002, the Black Warrior Review awarded One Writer's Big Innings its Best of the 1990s Award for Nonfiction, recognizing the best nonfiction to appear in the magazine in that decade.




I was a frustrated apprentice writer, thirty-one-years-old, six unpublished novels composting beneath my bed, when I received a call from James H. N. Martin, the fiction editor of the Black Warrior Review, in the spring of 1992. He told me he was excited about an autobiographical essay I'd written concerning an ambitious young writer who, despite his wild scheming to glad-hand every famous author from San Francisco to Cairo, cannot get a damned book published. My work had appeared in print before, but only in stapled literary magazines. BWR was perfect bound, and this guy was talking about a check. In the ten years since the appearance of ONE WRITER'S BIG INNINGS, I've placed work in many literary magazines, have won some modest prizes, have published one novel, have been a guest at conferences, and have even been informed that the friend of a friend spotted a stranger reading my book on a train. None of this, however, has made me as happy as hearing that voice from Tuscaloosa in 1992: "We want to publish your piece and send you seventy dollars."

Things happened quickly after the appearance of that issue of BWR. The essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It was reprinted almost immediately in the AWP Chronicle (now The Writer's Chornicle), stuffed into the campus mailbox of every writing student in the country, including that nasty poet in Houston who had called my work "reductive." I received two fawning greeting cards with sunsets on them, both from unpublished female writers, in two far-flung states. A friend of mine started teaching my essay in his Advanced Placement high-school English course; during the same semester, a professor who disliked me took up two hours of a graduate writing seminar ranting at her students that my essay had no place in academia. A month later, the girl I had loved in college, who had always rejected me, and who hadn't spoken to me in seven years, saw the new BWR in a bookstore in California, wrote me a long horny letter, and embarked on an affair with me that lasted three years.

And then some strange things started to happen. In the essay, I describe a certain breakfast with Raymond Carver and Chuck Kinder. Chuck had a big briefcase with him, and I had wondered if it contained the 3000-page sex-and-drinking novel he was writing about Carver's life. The next thing I know, I'm hearing that Chuck Kinder is not pleased that I've reported he's working on such a project. My former thesis advisor is fuming that I'm publishing essays about real people without asking their permission. He stops talking to me. I feel bad about it. At least, I feel bad about it until Michael Chabon writes a long novel called Wonder Boys about a Kinderlike character who teaches writing at Kinder's university and is at work on a 3000-page novel. Now Kinder isn't mad at me anymore. He's mad at Chabon. Then somebody makes a motion picture out of Chabon's book and gets Michael Douglas to play the Kinder character, and Kinder, who does not look anything like Michael Douglas, not even at 100 paces in a Pittsburgh fog, isn't mad at anyone anymore, even though he's getting no money. He cuts his 3000-page novel down to 368 pages and at long last it is published as Honeymooner's: A Cautionary Tale. This book I recommend highly. Through the consciousness of Raymond Carver (long before I killed him), Kinder's book surveys the warped melon of Every Novelist in a manner far gentler than I was able to summon in ONE WRITER'S BIG INNINGS.

ONE WRITER'S BIG INNINGS
by Robert Clark Young


1. DOCTOR GOD AND BRODSKY


When I was eighteen, Doctor God made me want to become a writer. Doctor God was not his real name. He was Doctor Something-Unpronounceable-in-German, and because his name began with a G and he had escaped from Hitler and he had devoured the whole of English Literature and he had begun the first session of Contemporary Poetry, in which I was enrolled, by stating "I too am One of These"--meaning a Contemporary Literary Figure--everyone called him Doctor God.

He published obscure poetry in obscure journals with names like Bleeding Ox and Two-Headed Muse, but we didn't know that. We only knew that we knew nothing and that He knew everything.

Here is how he made me want to be a writer:

Toward the end of the semester, he announced that an old friend of his, a man who had written poetry which some people considered so bad that they had asked him to leave Russia, would be coming to the university to read us his work. His name was Joseph Brodsky. He was going to read in Russian, said Doctor God, and we were required to attend.

With thrilling bravery, a clear-thinking girl in the front row raised her hand and said, "What if I don't understand Russian?"

"I will be translating," said Doctor God.

One week later, we were all sitting in a lecture hall. Doctor God and Joseph Brodsky were seated on stage, whispering in Russian as they flipped through books and notes resting on their laps. I thought Doctor God was a lot more impressive-looking than Brodsky, who, dressed in a white knit sweater and cream-colored slacks, looked like the man who picked up stray balls at Wimbledon.

From offstage came Duke Scofield. He was one of Doctor God's graduate students. He lived in a little room over Doctor God's garage and tended to his garden, Volvo, and guests. Scofield had white hair--he had been a graduate student a long time. He inspired less awe than the man who picked up stray pins in a bowling alley.

Scofield lumbered onto the stage carrying a tray with a water pitcher and glasses on it. He looked nervously at the Russian poet, squared those narrow graduate-student shoulders, then tripped over a microphone wire, spilling water and broken glass at Brodsky's feet.

I don't remember much of the reading itself. Brodsky would recite a line in Russian and Doctor God would repeat it in English. They went back and forth like this for an hour. Then Doctor God came to a line containing the word fuck. "Blah blah blah blah fuck," he said.
We students, who had been dozing on our elbows for an hour, were suddenly awake and hissing: "Did you just hear what Doctor God said? " We hadn't been aware that Doctor God knew such a word, much less that he was capable of uttering it in a lecture hall--dispassionately at that.

That was when I learned what a writer was: a magical person in a nerdy sweater who could make people spill water and break glass and say the word fuck in public.

I craved such power.


2. I MEET THE BEATS: SNYDER AND GINSBERG


After graduating with a Bachelor's degree in English, I wrote a novel about a Southern California serial killer and sent the manuscript to the creative writing program at the University of California, Davis. Two weeks later, I got a letter from Jack Hicks, the program director, offering me a $28,000 writing fellowship. Hicks enclosed an airline ticket, so I could "come up to Davis and scope the place out before deciding. Please be my guest for wine and cheese at Gary Snyder's book signing at Plato's Bookstore, 2 p.m., next Thursday."

Of course I was thrilled--I had seen Hicks' profiles of Joan Rivers and Rita Moreno and Ed McMahon in TV Guide, and I knew that Snyder had bummed around with one of my biggest heroes, Jack Kerouac. Snyder had even appeared in one of Kerouac's books, The Dharma Bums, disguised as "Japhy Rhyder." And now I was going to be wining and cheesing with him!

Only one thing puzzled me--what was a writing fellowship? I called Duke Scofield, the water spiller, and asked him.

"It means they give you $28,000 and you get to hang around with a bunch of writers, meet a bunch of writing chicks, do a bunch of writing, take a class once in a while, booze it up like a goddam pharaoh, and sleep in. They pay you for this. At the end of it, they give you a master's degree."

"Will they force me to teach?"

"Of course not. That's what they've got mouth-breathers like me for, to teach freshman composition. I'm a grunt. They must think you have talent."

I had a new respect for Scofield. He couldn't have spent all those years under Doctor God's tutelage, after all, without attaining self-knowledge.

At Davis I enrolled in Gary Snyder's wilderness-literature course. I was a little disappointed when I saw the reading list, because it included books about bears and salmon and redwoods, but nothing about Kerouac and the Beats. What the hell, I thought, and signed the registration form, figuring that just knowing a famous author like Snyder would help my writing career.

I remember about as much of Snyder's class as I do of Brodsky's poetry. But one memory does emerge from the fog. Snyder announced at the beginning of the first class that we had a special visitor. Through the door came Allen Ginsberg! He clasped his hands in prayer-fashion and bowed at Snyder. "Professor Snyder," said the bearded poet, full of ironic glee. Then he turned to us, his hands still in prayer position, bowed and said, "And honorable students!"

I had a writer-girlfriend by now; she was sitting next to me. She was pretending to be dreadfully bored by all this. "You know," she whispered to me, "Allen and I used to have our dry-cleaning done at the same shop in Greenwich Village."

Ginsberg produced a stack of paper. I thought he was going to read his work to us, or--better yet--hand out airline tickets and invitations to a cocktail party at the famous, rent-controlled apartment he'd had in Manhattan since 1962.

No such luck.

"Professor Snyder has asked me," he announced, "to hand out these bibliographies." Then, in geeky imitation of every teaching assistant who ever crawled out of the basement of a campus library, Ginsberg, the crotch of his pants hanging ridiculously between his knees, glasses cockeyed on his face, waddled up and down the aisles handing out the dittos. "Take one," he said. "Take one, take one." It was a moment of ecstatic illumination with a great author, I can tell you.

When Ginsberg was through, Snyder said, "Does anyone have any questions for Allen?"

Nobody said anything for a while. Then my writer-girlfriend raised her hand and said, "Do you still get your dry-cleaning done at East Village Cleaners on Fourteenth Street?"

"Yes I do!" boomed the great poet, conclusively.


3. BYE-BYE, VIDAL


Where was I going? What was my life? What would become of me?

Yes, I had met some famous writers, but my novel about the serial killer was being rejected all over New York. Would I ever find a mentor, a real teacher, a writer who would guide me to success?

About this time, Gore Vidal returned from Italy, where he had been living for many years, to announce he was a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat from California. He began to make strange, coldly cerebral, messianic appearances in bookstores up and down the state.

I read in the paper that he would be speaking at Brentano's in Del Mar the following Saturday. When I told my new girlfriend--a nonwriter who did her dry-cleaning at Presto-Wash--where I was planning to go Saturday night, she looked at me in bovine wonder and said, "What is a gorvey doll?"

I had an idea: I would buttonhole Vidal over the wine and cheese, introduce myself as an aspiring writer, name-drop Snyder and Ginsberg and Brodsky, press a novel outline into Vidal's palm, and ask for help.

I was twenty-two years old, anxious as a hare, and dumb enough to think this would work.

My nonwriter girlfriend in tow (she continued to believe we were in quest of Gorbachev 
dolls), I arrived at Brentano's half-an-hour early. The bookstore was packed. We had to wrestle our way through the door. Everyone looked about twenty-two; everyone carried a tattered manuscript. From the wine-and-cheese table--once I'd fought my way to it--I could barely see the life-size cut-out of Tom Clancy, just three feet away.

I lost my girlfriend in the crush and have not seen her since.

There was applause and a pressing forward of bodies; manuscripts fluttered in the air. Vidal had arrived. I thought I could see the back of his head next to the back of Clancy's cardboard one. Vidal began to talk. The crowd became quiet. I realized Vidal was giving a speech. It was a very long speech. At last, Vidal finished. Then Vidal was gone.

What happened next made the eleven o'clock news. Many of the frustrated writers, their unread manuscripts sweaty in their keyboard-stiffened hands, their brains boiling over the quick departure of Vidal, took advantage of the size of the crowd to steal books. I read in the next day's paper that over one thousand books had been taken. The writers stuffed them under their shirts, into their pants, down into their underwear. They stole Shakespeare, Anais Nin, Mickey Spillane. They stole every book they could find by Gore Vidal.

I wasn't bitter enough to steal books. Instead, I ate the rest of the cheese and got drunk on the good California wine. The following Tuesday, I voted for Jerry Brown.


4. REJECTION SLIPS


My literary frustration soon found a suitable punching bag. With the help of my Davis connections, I was hired as fiction editor for the California Quarterly.

Now, instead of receiving rejection slips, I would be writing them. In two years as editor, I read approximately 17,429 short stories. I remember exactly two of them.

W.P. Kinsella sent us a story. Or rather, his agent did. I had read Kinsella's novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and had thought it lightweight, cartoonish, implausible--a fake. It was every bit as bad as my own writing. I had bristled for years at the success of authors who couldn't write any better than I could: John Jakes, Erma Bombeck, Andy Rooney, Ernest Hemingway, and the compilers of my 1964 Buick owner's manual. Now, in my clenched hands, I held the defenseless manuscript of W.P. Kinsella.

I tossed it at Feinbaum. "Feinbaum," I said, "read this and reject it."

"Okay, boss."

I instructed Feinbaum to write, at the bottom of the rejection slip, the cruelest, most 
insensitive, most venomous line of hypocrisy any editor could spew: We wish you better luck elsewhere.

That pleasure lasted two or three months. When it was beginning to fade, we received a short story--agented, of course--by Joyce Carol Oates. I had to rip it out of Feinbaum's hands before he could reject it.

"Oh no you don't," I said. "This one belongs to me."

I actually read Oates' story. To this day, I cannot remember a word of it. So it probably wasn't much different from her published work. I will never forget, however,
the rejection slip I wrote:

Dear Joyce,
Rejections are hard
Contracts are dear
Your story's too long
And so's your career


5. HOW I KILLED RAYMOND CARVER


Jack Hicks, my old Davis pal, called one day and said, "How would you like to meet Ray Carver? He's going to be in Davis for a couple of days. You ought to show him the first chapter of your novel, see what he thinks of it. Maybe he can help you."

I sat up straight. "How do you know Raymond Carver?"

"I used to bail him out of jail when he was a drunk."

I was excited. Unlike the yuppie bores who dominated American letters--Bellow, Updike, Tom Wolfe--Carver was a real writer: He had worked for years as a janitor in a hospital, had had dirty fingernails, had once broken a Scotch bottle over his wife's head, had been destitute and desperate enough to have a phone installed under the name of his ten-year-old son, then use the phone to commit an interstate fraud so brilliantly complex that his biographers would never untangle it. When the FBI came crashing through the door, looking for the ten-year-old, Carver went out the back window. Then he quit drinking, snapped a new ribbon into his Smith-Corona, and became the most famous short-story writer in the English-speaking world.

Carver was serious business, a giant, and he was going to read the first chapter
of my book, tell me what he thought of it, perhaps even forward it to New York--I was on my way.

Hicks arranged a breakfast meeting. He had given Carver my manuscript the night before, and Ray would discuss it with me while it was still fresh in his mind. Also present was Chuck Kinder, a Pittsburgh writer who was working on a 3000-page novel based on Ray's sex and drug and drinking parties of the '70s. The four of us ordered bacon and eggs, then turned immediately to the topic of literature.

Ray set the manuscript next to his coffee and said, "This is extremely well done, but your narrator is a bit surly. Are you aware of the surly tone in your work?"

"Surliness," I said, "is my trademark." What I really felt like saying was Hey, at least I never smashed a bottle of Chivas Regal over my old lady's head, buster.

I looked around the table. Jack Hicks was signing a copy of TV Guide for an adoring waitress. Chuck Kinder was ignoring his food, clutching a huge briefcase to his chest. I wondered if the briefcase contained the 3000 pages of his famous sex-and-drinking novel. His fingers were shaking on the case, and his head trembled as he spoke: "Jack, what time do the bars open in this gopher-hole town?"

"The Paragon opens at ten."

"Oh, Jesus!"

Years later I was standing in a bookstore in Houston when my eye strayed across the title When We Talk About Raymond Carver. It was a book of interviews conducted with writers who had known Carver. On page 133, Chuck Kinder was quoted as saying,

We went up to Davis . . . had breakfast with Jack Hicks and some students.
[Carver] was going to read some of the students' stories and talk with them.
We hugged and said good-bye, and that was the last time I saw him. I
didn't know that at the time.


I was touched that Kinder, after all these years, had remembered me well enough to omit my name. Also, an old sadness came back. After that meeting, I had been sure Carver would show my novel around; barely a week later, he lay dead of a brain tumor.

Ray's death shocked the literary world. In twenty years, he had touched thousands of beginning writers. I was doubly devastated, for I would lose what I had never had--his friendship, his counsel.

I was ordering a cappuccino at Caffe Tutti when the girl who ran the espresso machine rushed up to me and sputtered, angrily, through her tears, "Raymond Carver read thirty pages of your novel, then--" She couldn't finish.

"Then," said the furious young man behind me, "he grabbed his head and fell over!"

One good thing did result from the tragedy. I landed a New York agent. I had my pick. They were calling every day, crazy about my novel, which none of them had read. They wanted to market it--to my befuddlement and horror--as "The Book That Killed Raymond Carver."


6. WORDS OF SORROW


Despite the high hopes of my agent, my novel about the Southern California serial killer was rejected another 47 times. She sent me the editorial reports; I've kept the better ones.

Random House: "Flat and artificial."

Pocket Books: "We didn't believe a word of this."

W.W. Norton: "This is not our cup of poison."

Ballantine: "The story degenerates into trash!"

Harper & Row: "We wish you better luck elsewhere."

7. THE NOBEL PRIZE


After my book was rejected, I left the country for a year. Like Melville and London and Kerouac, I went to sea, hoping that the sailor's life would enhance my fiction. I signed on with a defense contractor, Central Texas College, which places instructors aboard U.S. Navy ships to teach junior-college courses to sailors. The military owed a lot of people an education, and the Navy had decided to give it to them at sea. My mission: to teach freshman comp aboard submarine tenders like the U.S.S. Proteus, amphibious-landing ships like the U.S.S. Fresno, and on bases in choice locations like Guam and Subic Bay, the Philippines.

In twelve months I visited every continent except Antarctica, earned a technical rank equal to that of a lieutenant commander, and even ran across the assassins of President Kennedy in a resort town in the Philippines. Years before Oliver Stone filmed JFK, years before Don DeLillo wrote Libra, I wrote a Kennedy-assassination novel set in Southeast Asia. I figured anyone could write a book about Kennedy's murder and set it in--say--Dallas. It would take a literary genius to set it in the tropics.

After sending the book to my agent, I jumped ship in Alexandria, Egypt. Norman Mailer had just published his Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings, and I wanted to collect material for a spoof called Modern Mornings. I got a job teaching English to wealthy Arabs. I rented a ten-room apartment that came with French furniture, a cook, a cleaning girl, and a view of the Mediterranean. I set up my typewriter in one of the parlors and began to write.

Egyptian telephones, when they are working, emit two kinds of rings: short ones close together, indicating a call from within Egypt; and long rings spaced farther apart, signaling a call from overseas. Hard at work on my novel, I would ignore the local calls. But whenever I heard the overseas rings, I would race to the phone, convinced my agent was calling with a big advance. Invariably, I'd find myself talking to my ex-girlfriend, who wanted to know what time I would be home.

"I'm not coming home tonight. I'm in Egypt!"

Then I got an amebic infection and couldn't work anymore. I lay all day in a huge canopy bed, rising only to crawl to the bathroom to throw up. One night I fell asleep with my arms around the toilet and my head in the bowl. The telephone woke me--long rings, overseas. I was too weak to move. I called out, but did not know that my servants had stolen my IBM Selectric and left me to die. Was the call from Hollywood? New York? I never knew.

When I was well again, my boss from the language school called. "Listen," he said, "maybe I can help you out. How'd you like to meet Naguib Mahfouz?"

"Who's Naguib Mahfouz?"

"He's an Egyptian who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I've gotten to know him at the embassy parties. Maybe he can help your writing career."

A Nobel Prize winner . . . at last, after years of dues-paying, I would be showing my work to someone who could really help me. For ages, I'd been kicking myself for not having befriended Brodsky. Six years after I'd heard him read, he'd been awarded the Nobel, eclipsing better-known authors of 1987 such as Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, and Dr. Seuss. I would not miscalculate again. I would show Mahfouz my Egyptian novel.

I was told to meet Mahfouz at one p.m. in the dining room of the Sheraton-Montazah Hotel. I wore a suit and tie and carried my manuscript in a Louis-Vuitton attachÈ case. In the lobby, I had an Arab boy shine my shoes, then I went to the dining room.

"I'm here to see Naguib Mahfouz," I told the headwaiter, a large man with a fez.

He shrugged, unimpressed. "That is Mahfouz in the corner." I followed the headwaiter's finger and found a tiny, hunched-over man, about 102 years old, wearing enormous sunglasses, picking rabbitlike at a nicoise salad.

I stood over him and gave my well-rehearsed introduction: "Mr. Mahfouz, I feel
extremely privileged to be meeting you at last. I have come all the way from California, and I want to thank you for taking the time to help an unknown writer like me. I hope this meeting will be the first of many."

He continued to pick at the salad, head bowed.

"Mr. Mahfouz? Excuse me?"

Pick and chew. He was refusing even to look at me.

I had made a terrific error. Did I think a writer as important as Naguib Mahfouz would condescend to waste thirty minutes with a small-time literary-climber like me? What a lesson!

"Tell Mr. Mahfouz," I instructed the headwaiter on the way out, "that I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset him."

"But what is the problem?"

"He wouldn't even look at me, and I don't blame him."

The headwaiter laughed, his stomach and fez shaking. "Mahfouz is blind," he said.

"Blind! But why wouldn't he answer me?"

One of the bus boys stared at me as though I were an Alzheimer's patient drooling on the carpet. "Mahfouz," he said, "not able speak English."


8. SOUR GRAPES


When I got back to my rooms, there were two letters from America waiting for me. One was from my agent; I tore it open. It contained the first rejections of my JFK-assassination novel.

William Morrow: The plot is too long and convoluted.

St. Martin's Press: There is no plot.

I crumpled the rejection slips, threw them to the floor, and opened the other letter. 

It was from Texas. I had been accepted, on the doctoral level, into the creative-writing program at the University of Houston. I had been trying for five years to get in. It was a prestigious program, headed by Donald Barthelme. Five times I had applied, and five times Barthelme had said no. 

Then, in the summer of 1988, Barthelme succumbed to cancer. I don't know if he was reading one of my manuscripts when he died, but I know this: The minute he was off the scene, I was accepted into the program.

I moved to Texas, took writing workshops, got a new writer-girlfriend. Her birthday was coming up. Her favorite writer was Larry McMurtry, so I thought I'd pick up one of his novels as a present. As it happened, McMurtry owned a bookstore in Houston, a tiny place called Booked Up. I'd heard you could go there, meet the famous author, and buy signed first editions of his novels. I drove over right away.

A little bell rang as I opened the door. McMurtry was sitting behind the counter, speaking softly into the phone. I heard him say, "Get me twenty." Twenty what? Twenty showgirls? Twenty thousand shares of Paramount? Twenty hard-boiled eggs? Twenty million dollars? I leaned casually against a bookcase, trying to listen. He looked up at me but did not recognize me. Of course, there was no reason for him to recognize me. I pretended not to recognize him.

I wandered through the aisles of the store. I had never seen so many copies of Lonesome Dove. McMurtry, savvy professional that he was, had decided to sell the extra copies himself, rather than let Simon & Schuster dump them into New York Harbor. I lost myself in aisles of The Last Picture Show, acres of Texasville, herds of Buffalo Girls. Finally, I came to a little room with a chain hung across the entrance. There was a sign affixed to the chain: KEEP OUT! 

I stepped over the chain and entered the room.

I couldn't believe what I saw--bound galley proofs, shelves and shelves of them! Galleys are prepublication copies, sent to the author for correction. Here were the galleys for Lonesome Dove, Cadillac Jack, Terms of Endearment, Anything for Billy. There were several copies of each--I took one down and saw that it was signed. I took down another, and another. All signed. A signed galley is worth a lot more than a signed first edition. What was I going to do? A piece of paper taped to the shelf read DO NOT TOUCH! NOT FOR SALE! McMurtry was probably saving these for his old age, when he could sell them to fans for a thousand bucks a crack.

Holding these bricks of literary gold, I was immobilized by a moral dilemma: To steal or not to steal? I remembered what had happened after Gore Vidal's speech at Brentano's. What those writers had done had been wrong, wrong, wrong. I could never do anything that sleazy.
I shoved a few of McMurtry's galleys down the back of my pants. They felt good there. I walked in a circle, trying them out. I sauntered to the front of the store. He was still sitting behind the counter, just hanging up the phone.

I said, "You ever read anything by this McMurtry guy?"

"Oh, once or twice." He fingered his round Texas belly.

"He any good?"

"Better than some, not as good as others."

If there was one thing that really made me angry, it was a celebrity with a mature perspective. "You know," I said, "I saw that movie of his, Terms of Endearment. It was a bucket of sentimental slop."

"Mmm," he said, nodding, considering.

How dare he take criticism well. I stormed out of the place, banging the door
behind me. 

There were two cars in the parking lot, mine and his. Mine was the 1964 Buick--the spare tire on the junker was older than most of the women who had turned me down. His car was a cherry-red Mustang convertible. With the top down. I meandered over for a look, hoping he'd left the keys. No keys--but he had left his dry-cleaning, laid out in plastic on the backseat. I wondered if he had his shirts done at the same dry cleaner as Allen Ginsberg. Then, without even looking around, I reached in, selected a nice blue button-down, and swiped it.

9. AT COLUMBUS AND BROADWAY


I flew back to California for the Christmas holidays. Feinbaum, my old assistant from California Quarterly, met me at the San Francisco airport.

"How are things in Texas?" he said.

"Great. I met Larry McMurtry."

"No shit. What's he like?"

"Superb chap, all-around superb. Give you the shirt right off his back. In fact, I'm wearing it now."

Feinbaum and I went to Vesuvio's, in North Beach, to drink and talk. "You'll notice," he said as we took stools at the bar, "there've been some changes around here." He nodded toward the window.

I looked outside and noticed something different about the neon-lit, naked woman at the corner of Columbus and Broadway. After a moment's study I said, "They've refurbished Carol Doda's nipples." The city fathers had been talking for years about doing this. "What did they do," I asked, "pass a special bond initiative?"

"That's not the only civic improvement," said Feinbaum. "Look at the name of this alley."

There was an alley separating Vesuvio's, the beat bar, from City Lights, the beat bookstore. Jack Kerouac used to crawl back and forth across this alley when he wasn't paralyzed by delirium tremens--there was a scholar, in the English department at Berkeley, who claimed he could identify certain stains in the brick as Kerouac's vomit. On the brick wall of City Lights, there used to hang a rusty sign identifying the alley as ADLER. Now there was a new sign, reading JACK KEROUAC.

"That's nice to see," I said, literary warmth and affection glowing in my chest for the first time in--five years? "His own alley." I thought I was going to start crying, right there in the bar, without getting drunk first. "Look, Feinbaum, if you just try hard enough, if you don't give up--you might go down fighting--but eventually, you'll be rewarded. Think of all the times Jack staggered across this alley, convinced he was a failure."

"There's just one difference between him and us; we are failures." Feinbaum knocked back a shot of Wild Turkey. "We're BUGs," he said. "B, U, G. BUGs."

"Bugs?"

"Bitter Unrecognized Geniuses."

We had a few more drinks, discussing, bitterly, the Literary Situation. Then Feinbaum decided we should go next door to City Lights Books, ask Lawrence Ferlinghetti to validate our parking. "Okay," I said, and we strolled over.

The clerk looked at us as though we were, indeed, bugs. "Larry," he said with annoying familiarity, "is in Mongolia, giving a reading with Gary and Allen. "I'll validate your parking."

"No way," I said. "We validate with famous authors only."

"I had a poem," said the clerk, "in the winter number of Erect Follicle."

We fell into doing what unpublished novelists always do in bookstores--taking books off the shelves and wondering, aloud, how those lobotomized gum-labelers in New York could agent, edit and publish this crap.

"This novel," said Feinbaum, "is a turd."

"Ah, but this one," I said, "is a turd on the sidewalk."

"This one is a turd on the sidewalk in the morning."

"This one is a turd on the sidewalk on a winter's morning."

"This one is a hot steamy turd on the sidewalk on a winter's morning."

We were successively holding, with thumb and forefinger, the "Brat Pack" novels--books by people younger and richer than we would ever be--writers with names like McInerney and Ellis and Chabon and Pliscou and Leimbach and Gummerman. In their jacket photos, they looked like the Little Rascals wearing J.C. Penney sweaters.

"The biggest loser here," said Feinbaum, "is Bret Easton Ellis. His family has money. He could've been a lawyer, a broker, a front man for Donald Trump. Instead, he's a writer. He's got downward mobility."

"I knew Lisa Pliscou," I said, "when we were in Junior Toastmasters together in high school. She always introduced herself as ëLisa Pliscou, rhymes with Crisco.' Then she went off to Harvard and wrote all this rich-kids-on-drugs kind of porno--but it's a fake. You want to know the truth? She grew up on a carrot farm two miles from the Mexican border."

"I can just see her," said Feinbaum, "bopping around Cambridge in her L.L. Bean, picking carrot-bits out of her teeth and reminding herself not to say Crisco. But what the hell--I knew Jay McInerney at prep school in New York. Every lunch hour I used to nut-twist him for his Perrier money. You think he'd drop a subway token in my cup today?"

We stood there depressed, staring out the window at an immense billboard reading GERALDO--THE MAN WHO EXPLAINS US TO OURSELVES.

"Let's go drink," I said. "Let's go to Gino & Carlo's, on Green Street." It was one of my favorite bars in The City. It was where Richard Brautigan had last been seen alive. He had paid his tab, put on his twenty-gallon straw hat, stretched to his full seven-foot height, yawned, and announced he was going home to sleep. The author of Trout Fishing in America locked himself in his room. Brooding--it was later speculated--over his lost fame, his anonymity in a CNN world which cared nothing for the written word, Brautigan loaded and cocked both barrels of his shotgun, propped it against his forehead, and blew the top of his head off.


10. ONE WAY, RIDICULOUS AND DESPERATE, TO BECOME FAMOUS


Since 1957, my father had worked for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. This fact had given Feinbaum a brilliantly stupid idea, which he now began to uncoil, over drinks, like the oily neighbor who wants to draft you into Amway.

Feinbaum pulled a tattered paperback from the inside pocket of his coat (corduroy, of course, with elbow patches), and placed the book between our shots of Cuervo.

"Pynchon," he said. "The Crying of Lot 49. Ever read it?"

"Hell yes. Most frightening book I ever read." 

Feinbaum nodded. "Compared to that Stephen King comic-book stuff, the Tristero postal conspiracy is really terrifying. Have you met Pynchon?"

"Of course I haven't." I was getting suspicious. Everybody knew that Thomas Pynchon had been in hiding for thirty years. He was a hermit, afraid to give interviews or go to book signings. He had once sent an impostor to accept an award for him. Agents and publishers communicated with him through a network of mysterious P.O. boxes in California. When Time magazine ran a story on him, they couldn't find a current photograph, and finally resorted to the senior picture from his high-school yearbook.

"Just think," said Feinbaum, "how much publicity you'd get if you could find Thomas Pynchon. Follow him around with a camera, write a big magazine piece--we're talking Playboy, Esquire, the Atlantic fucking Monthly. You--we--would be in for the biggest break of our lives."

"Oh yeah? Just how are we supposed to find Thomas Pynchon?"

Feinbaum threw back his tequila. Then he gripped the bar and gazed at me steadily. "Everybody in California," he said, "has a driver's license. Your old man works for the DMV. He can get us Pynchon's address in a computer-second."

"Is that ethical? From a professional, literary point of view?"

"Don't joke around with me," said Feinbaum. "Literature isn't a profession--it's a dysfunctional relationship with paper products. Ethics have nothing to do with it."

I fingered the collar of Larry McMurtry's shirt. "Interesting point of view."

We went back to Vesuvio's to use the pay phone--the famous phone from which Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey and Charles Manson had called their mommies, collect, for more cash. I dialed my father in San Diego. Feinbaum had gotten Pynchon's birthdate and middle name out of the World Almanac; I read the information over the phone; in less than a minute I was copying Thomas Pynchon's DMV record onto a cocktail napkin.

"Thanks, Dad. I'll send you a Vesuvio's swizzlestick-bookmark for Father's Day." I hung up.
"Aptos," I told Feinbaum. "Do you know where Aptos is?"

"Just outside of Santa Cruz, about ninety minutes from here. Come on, we've got camera equipment to pick up."

"Are you sure you gave me the right info? This guy drives a 1974 Datsun."

"It's gotta be him! Consider the Pynchonian theme of entropy--you can't experience it in a Mercedes. . . . I think I'll pick up a spray can, too."

"What for?"

"Do you remember the symbol of the Secret Tristero Empire in Lot 49? The image that haunted Oedipa Maas?"

"Of course: The Muted Post Horn." 

"Well," said Feinbaum, adjusting his sunglasses, "if this sucker isn't home, I'm going to draw the biggest fucking muted post horn in the world, gonna spray paint it right on his front door. That'll teach him to write stuff that makes people paranoid."

"I don't know about this."

"Remember the guy from Newsweek who went looking for Salinger fifteen years ago? Went crawling through a tunnel in New Hampshire? That made his career."

"J.D. Salinger," I said as I stuck the cocktail napkin into McMurtry's shirt, "and Thomas Pynchon are the same man. Think: No one's taken a picture of either of them in thirty years, they're both hermits, they've never been seen together, and Pynchon started publishing when Salinger stopped. We're wasting our time looking for a guy who doesn't exist."

11. HENRY MILLER'S BEST FRIEND


While Feinbuam looked through the phone book for a place where we could rent cameras and camcorders and microphones, I sat at the bar and worried.

What if we were successful? What if we succeeded beyond our most absurd expectations? What if we not only secured an interview with Pynchon, but became his best buddies, went out for beers with him every Friday night, discussed Art with him in the patio of the Steinbeck Library in Salinas? What would it matter? We still wouldn't be as good as Pynchon.

I began to think about Henry Miller's best friend.

When I lived in Davis, I used to take my girlfriend down to Big Sur each summer. We enjoyed the cliffs and the views, and I enjoyed walking the same trails that Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller had walked. We went to Henry Miller's house a couple of times. He was dead, the house was now the Henry Miller Museum, and the curator was Henry Miller's best friend, an old painter named Emile White. He was Hungarian and had met Miller in Europe fifty years ago.

The house--a small cabin, really--was packed with Miller's library, all the books he had ever owned, paperback and hardcover, fiction and nonfiction, poetry, art books, leaning stacks of erotic picture books. Here and there, standing against and between the piles, were paintings by Emile White. I don't remember any of Emile's paintings (except that they contained the occasional naked woman), and I don't much remember what Emile looked like (he was thin with an accent and a cane), and yet I will never forget him:

The moment he saw my girlfriend, who was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, he said, "May I kiss you?"

"Of course," she replied happily. Women are always willing to kiss a harmless, horny old man they feel sorry for. Emile was one of the few horny old men who knew this.

As she leaned over the information desk and kissed Emile on the mouth, I flipped through a signed copy of On the Road, sulking bitterly. Kerouac and Miller had been the kind of guys who could walk up to a woman, ask "May I fuck you?" and receive, a stunning number of times, an emphatic "Yes." 

Famous writers!

The next summer, we went back to visit Emile. He had had a stroke, and was paralyzed on the left side. He was sitting on Henry Miller's couch, eating cherries. He could barely chew them. Pulp and drool ran down the side of his chin.
"Henwy Millah," he said, "was my besht fwend."


12. THE WIND ON BLEECKER STREET


When I was done thinking about Emile, I asked the bartender for a matchbook. I got out the cocktail napkin, struck a match, and set Pynchon's address afire in an ashtray.

"Well," said Fienbaum, returning from the phone, "there's an electronics shop on Taylor Street that'll rent us everything we need."

"I'm not going," I said.

"What?"

"Even if we succeed beyond our wildest dreams, even if Pynchon welcomes us like brothers, we're just going to end up sitting on his couch after he's dead, eating cherries with half-paralyzed mouths and trying to feel up the two or three fans who show up every year. Is that the kind of future you want?"

"It beats the pork rinds out of teaching freshman comp at a community college."

"I'm going to make it as a writer in my own right. I don't want to be known for the people I've known."

"You'll be scribbling in a little room when you're sixty-five, teaching Remedial Penmanship at Upper Fresno Junior College. Do you know what it's like to be that kind of failure? Do you?"

I smiled. "Good-bye, Feinbaum." I clapped him on the shoulder; he looked up at me with unbelieving eyes.

I stepped into the sunny chill of Jack Kerouac's alley. Did I know what it would be like to fail as a writer? I knew. It would be like loving someone from a distance. It would be like sitting down to write love letter after love letter to that person. It would be like addressing, stamping and mailing each letter. And it would be like getting each of those letters back, unopened, unread.

Someone had once asked Kerouac what fame was like. "It's like old newspapers," he said, "blowing down Bleecker Street." 

There was a breeze blowing down his alley. I turned up my collar, stepped onto Broadway, and lost myself in a sea of pedestrians.

The End