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Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author
Though Henry Bech, the author, in his middle years had all but ceased to write, his books continued, as if ironically, to live, to cast shuddering shadows toward the center of his life, where that thing called his reputation cowered. To have once imagined and composed fiction, it seemed, laid him under an indelible curse of unreality. The phone rang in the middle of the night and it was a kid on a beer trip wanting to argue about the ambivalent attitude toward Jewishness expressed (his professor felt) in Brother Pig. "Embrace your ethnicity, man," Bech was advised. He hung up, tried to estimate the hour from the yellowness of the Manhattan night sky, and as the yellow turned to dawn's pearl gray succumbed to the petulant embrace of interrupted sleep. Next morning, he looked to himself, in the bathroom mirror, markedly reduced. His once leonine head, and the frizzing hair expressive of cerebral energy, and the jowls testimonial to companionable bourbon taken in midnight discourse with Philip Rahv were all being whittled by time, its relentless wizening. The phone rang and it was a distant dean, suddenly a buddy, inviting him to become a commencement speaker in Kansas. "Let me be brutally frank," the dean said in his square-shouldered voice. "The seniors' committee voted you in unanimously, once Ken Kesey turned us down. Well, there was one girl who had to be talked around. But it turned out she had never read your stuff, just Kate Millett's condemnation of the rape bits in Travel Light. We gave her an old copy of When the Saints, and now she's your staunchest fan. Not to put any unfair pressure on, but you don't want to break that girl's heart. Or do you?"
"I do," Bech solemnly affirmed. But since the dean denied him the passing grade of a laugh, the author had to babble on, digging himself deeper into the bottomless apology his unproductive life had become. He heard himself, unreally, consenting. The date was months away, and World War III might intervene. He hung up, reflecting upon the wonderful time warps of the literary life. You stay young and merely promising forever. Five years of silence, even ten, pass as a pause unnoticed by the sluggish, reptilian race of critics. An eighteen-year-old reads a book nearly as old as he is and in his innocent mind you are born afresh, your pen just lifted from the page. Bech could rattle around forever amid the persisting echoes, being "himself," going to parties and openings in his Henry Bech mask. He had his friends, his fans, even his collectors. Indeed, his phone over the lengthening years acknowledged no more faithful agitator than that foremost collector of Bechiana, Marvin Federbusch, of Cedar Meadow, Pennsylvania.
The calls had begun to come through shortly after the publication of his first novel in 1955. Would Mr. Bech be so kind as to consider signing a first edition if it were mailed with a stamped, self-addressed padded envelope? Of course, the young author agreed, flattered by the suggestion that there had been a second edition and somewhat amused by the other man's voice, which was peculiarly rich and slow, avuncular and patient, with a consonant-careful accent Bech associated with his own German-Jewish forebears. Germanic thoroughness characterized, too, the bibliographical rigor as, through the years, the invisible Federbusch kept up with Bech's once burgeoning production and even acquired such ephemera as Bech's high-school yearbook and those wartime copies of Collier's and Liberty in which his first short stories had appeared. As Bech's creativity--checked by the rude critical reception given his massive chef-d'oeuvre, The Chosen, and then utterly stymied within the mazy ambitions of his work in progress, tentatively titled Think Big--ceased to supply objects for collection, a little flurry of reprinting occurred, and unexpected foreign languages (Korean, Turkish) shyly nudged forward and engorged some one of those early works which Bech's celebrated impotence had slowly elevated to the status of minor classics. Federbusch kept a retinue of dealers busy tracking down these oddments, and the books all came in time to the author's drafty, underpopulated apartment at Ninety-ninth and Riverside for him to sign and send back. Bech learned a lot about himself this way. He learned that in Serbo-Croatian he was bound with Washington Irving as a Hudson Valley regionalist, and that in Paraguay The Chosen was the choice of a book club whose honorary chairman was General Alfredo Stroessner. He learned that the Japanese had managed to issue more books by him than he had written, and that the Hungarians had published on beige paper a bulky symposium upon Kerouac, Bech, and Isaac Asimov. On his Brazilian jackets Bech looked swarthy, on his Finnish pale and icy-eyed, and on his Australian a bit like a kangaroo. All these varied volumes arrived from Federbusch and returned to Federbusch; the collector's voice gradually deepened over the years to a granular, all-forgiving grandfatherliness. Though Bech as man and artist had turned skimpy and scattered, Federbusch was out there in the blue beyond the Hudson gathering up what pieces there were. What Federbusch didn't collect deserved oblivion--deserved to fall, the dross of Bech's days, into the West Side gutters and be whipped into somebody's eye by the spring winds.
The author in these thin times supported himself by appearing at colleges. There, he was hauled from the creative-writing class to the faculty cocktail party to the John D. Benefactor Memorial Auditorium and thence, baffled applause still ringing in his ears, back to the Holiday Inn. Once, in central Pennsylvania, where the gloomy little hilltop schools are stocked with starch-fed students blinking like pupfish after their recent emergence from fundamentalism, Bech found himself with an idle afternoon, a rented car, and a map that said he was not far from Cedar Meadow. The fancy took him to visit Federbusch. He became, in his mind's eye, a god descending--whimsical as Zeus, radiant as Apollo. The region needed radiance. The heavy ghost of coal hung everywhere. Cedar Meadow must have been named in a fit of rural nostalgia, for the town was a close-built brick huddle centered on a black river and a few gaunt factories slapped up to supply Grant's murderous armies. The unexpected reality of this place, so elaborate and layered in its way, so El Grecoesque and sad between its timbered hills, beneath its grimy clouds, so remote in its raw totality from the flattering bookishness that had been up to now its sole purchase on Bech's mind, nearly led him to drive through it, up its mean steep streets and down, and on to tomorrow's Holiday Inn, near a Mennonite normal school.
But he passed a street whose name, Belleview, had been rendered resonant by over fifteen years of return book envelopes: Marvin Federbusch, 117 Belleview. The haggard street climbed toward its nominal view past retaining walls topped with stone spikes; on the slanted street corners there were grocery stores of a type Bech remembered from the Thirties, in the upper Bronx, the entrances cut on the diagonal, the windows full of faded cardboard inducements. He found number 117: corroded aluminum numerals marked a flight of cement steps divided down the middle by an iron railing. Bech parked, and climbed. He came to a narrow house of bricks painted red, a half-house actually, the building being divided down the middle like the steps, and the tones of red paint not quite matching. The view from the gingerbread porch was of similar houses, as close-packed as dominoes arrayed to topple, and of industrial smokestacks rising from the river valley, and of bluish hills gouged by abandoned quarrying. The doorbell distantly stridulated. A small shapeless woman in her sixties answered Bech's ring. "My brother's having his rest," she said.
Her black dress had buttons all down the front; her features seemed to be slightly rolling around in her face, like the little brass beads one maddeningly tries as a child to settle in their cardboard holes, in those dexterity-teasing toys that used to come with Cracker Jack.
"Could you tell him Henry Bech is here?"
Without another word, and without admitting him to the house, she turned away. Federbusch was so slow to arrive, Bech supposed that his name had not been conveyed correctly, or that the collector could not believe that the object of fifteen years of devotion had miraculously appeared in person.
But Federbusch, when he came at last, knew quite well who Bech was. "You look older than on your chackets," he said, offering a wan smile and a cold, hard handshake.
This was the voice, but the man looked nothing like it--sallow and sour, yet younger than he should have been, with not an ounce of friendly fat on him, in dark trousers, white shirt, and suspenders. He was red-eyed from his nap, and his hair, barely flecked by gray, stood straight up. The lower half of his face had been tugged into deep creases by the drawstrings of some old concluded sorrow. "It's nice of you to come around," he said, as if Bech had just stepped around the corner--as if Cedar Meadow were not the bleak far rim of the world but approximately its center. "Come on in, why don'tcha now?"
Within, the house held an airless slice of the past. The furniture looked nailed-down and smelled pickled. Nothing had been thrown away; invisible hands, presumably those of the sister, kept everything in order--the glossy knickknacks and the doilies and the wedding photos of their dead parents and the landscapes a dead aunt had painted by number and the little crystal dishes of presumably petrified mints. Oppressive ranks of magazines--Christian Age, Publishers Weekly, the journal of the Snyder County Historical Society--lay immaculate on a lace-covered table, beneath an overdressed window whose sill was thick with plastic daffodils. In the corners of the room, exposed plumbing pipes had been papered in the same paper as the walls. The ceilings, though high, had been papered, too. Kafka was right, Bech saw: life is a matter of burrows. Federbusch beside him was giving off a strange withered scent--the delicate stink of affront. Bech guessed he had been too frankly looking around, and said, to cover himself, "I don't see my books."
Even this missed the right note. His host intoned, in the sonorous voice Bech was coming to hear as funereal, "They're kept in a closet, so the sun won't fade the chackets."
A room beyond this stagnant front parlor had a wall of closet doors. Federbusch opened one, hastily closed it, and opened another. Here indeed was a trove of Bechiana--old Bech in demode Fifties jackets, reprinted Bech in jazzy Seventies paperbacks with the silver lettering of witchcraft novels, Bech in French and German, Danish and Portuguese, Bech anthologized, analyzed, and deluxized, Bech laid to rest. The books were not erect in rows but stacked on their sides like lumber, like dubious ingots, in this lightless closet along with--oh, treachery!--similarly exhaustive, tightly packed, and beautifully unread collections of Roth, Mailer, Barth, Capote.... The closet door was shut before Bech could catalogue every one of the bedfellows the promiscuous Federbusch had captivated.
"I don't have any children myself," the man was saying mournfully, "but for my brother's boys it'll make a wonderful inheritance some day."
"I can hardly wait," Bech said. But his thoughts were sad. His thoughts dwelt upon our insufficient tragedies, our dreadfully musty private lives. How wrong he had been to poke into this burrow, how right Federbusch was to smell hurt! The greedy author, not content with adoration in two dimensions, had offered himself in a fatal third, and maimed his recording angel. "My dealer just sent some new Penguins," Federbusch said, mumbling in shame, "and it would save postage if ..." Bech signed the paperbacks and wound his way through ravaged hills to the Mennonite normal school, where he mocked the students' naive faith and humiliated himself with drunkenness at the reception afterward at the Holiday Inn. But no atonement could erase his affront to Federbusch, who never troubled his telephone again.
In the days when Bech was still attempting to complete Think Big, there came to him a female character who might redeem the project, restore its lost momentum and focus. She was at first the meagerest wisp of a vision, a "moon face" shining with a certain lightly perspiring brightness over the lost horizon of his plot. The pallor of this face was a Gentile pallor, bearing the kiss of Nordic fogs and frosts, which ill consorted with the urban, and perforce Jewish, hurly-burly he was trying to organize. Great novels begin with tiny hints--the sliver of madeleine melting in Proust's mouth, the shade of louse-gray that Flaubert had in mind for Mme. Bovary--and Bech had begun his messy accumulation of pages with little more than a hum, a hum that kept dying away, a hum perhaps spiritual twin to the rumble of the IRT under Broadway as it was felt two blocks to the west, on the sixth floor, by a bored bachelor. The hum, the background radiation to the universe he was trying to create, was, if not the meaning of life, the tenor of meaninglessness in our late-twentieth-century, post-numinous, industrial-consumeristic civilization, North American branch, Middle Atlantic subdivision. Now this hum was pierced by an eerie piping from this vague "moon face."
Well, the woman would have to be attractive, women in fiction always are. From the roundness of her face, its innocent pressing frontality, would flow a certain "bossiness," a slightly impervious crispness that would set her at odds with the more subtle, ironical, conflicted, slippery intelligentsia who had already established power positions in the corporate structure of his virtually bankrupt fantasy. Since this moony young (for the crispness, this lettucy taste of hers, bespoke either youth or intense refrigeration) woman stood outside the strong family and business ties already established, she would have to be a mistress. But whose? Bech thought of assigning her to Tad Greenbaum, the six-foot-four, copiously freckled, deceptively boyish dynamo who had parlayed a gagwriter's servitude into a daytime-television empire. But Tad already had a mistress--stormy, raven-haired, profoundly neurotic Thelma Stern. Also, by some delicate gleam of aversion, the moon face refused to adhere to Greenbaum. Bech offered her instead to Thelma's brother Dolf, the crooked lawyer, with his silken mustaches, his betraying stammer, and his great clean glass desk. Bech even put the two of them into bed together; he loved describing mussed sheets, and the sea-fern look of trees seen from the window of a sixth-floor apartment, and the way the chimney pots of the adjacent roofs resemble tin men in black pajamas engaged in slow-motion burglary. But though the metaphors prospered, the relationship didn't take. No man was good enough for this woman, unless it were Bech himself. She must have a name. Moon face, Morna--no, he already had a Thelma, his new lady was cooler, aloof ... doom, Poe, Lenore. And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!" Lenore would do. Her work? That kindly bossiness, that confident frontality--the best he could think of was to make her an assistant producer for his imaginary network. But that wasn't right: it didn't account for her supernatural serenity.
She became as real to him as the nightglow on his ceiling during insomnia. He wrote scenes of her dressing and undressing, in the space between the mussed bedsheets and the window overlooking treetops and chimney pots; he conjured up a scene where Lenore primly lost her temper and told Tad Greenbaum he was a tyrant. Tad fired her, then sent Thelma around to persuade her not to write an expose for TV Tidbits. Experimenting with that curious androgynous cool Lenore possessed, Bech put her into bed with Thelma, to see what happened. Plenty happened, perhaps more gratifyingly to the author than to either character; if he as male voyeur had not been present, they might have exchanged verbal parries and left each other's yielding flesh untouched. However, Thelma, Bech had previously arranged, had become pregnant by her ex-husband, Polonius Stern, and could not be allowed a Sapphic passion that would pull Lenore down into the plot. He cancelled the pregnancy but the moon face hung above the plot still detached, yet infusing its tangle with a glow, a calm, a hope that this misbegotten world of Bech's might gather momentum. She seemed, Lenore, to be drawing closer.
One night, reading at the New School, he became conscious of her in the corner of his eye. Over by the far wall, at the edge of the ocean of reading-attending faces--the terrible tide of the up-and-coming, in their thuggish denims and bristling beards, all their boyhood misdemeanors and girlhood grievances still to unpack into print, and the editors thirsty to drink their fresh blood, their contemporary slant--Bech noticed a round female face, luminous, raptly silent. He tried to focus on her, lost his place in the manuscript, and read the same sentence twice. It echoed in his ears, and the audience tittered; they were embarrassed for him, this old dead whale embalmed in the anthologies and still trying to spout. He kept his eyes on his pages, and when he lifted his gaze, at last, to relieved applause, Lenore had vanished, or else he had lost the place in the hall where she had been seated. Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!
A week later, at his reading at the YMHA, she had moved closer, into the third or fourth row. Her wide, white, lightly perspiring face pressed upward in its intensity of attention, refusing to laugh even when those all around her did. As Bech on the high stage unrolled, in his amplified voice, some old scroll of foolery, he outdid himself with comic intonations to make his milk-pale admirer smile; instead, she solemnly lowered her gaze now and then to her lap, and made a note. Afterward, in the unscheduled moment of siege that follows a reading, she came backstage and waited her turn in the pushing crowd of autograph-seekers. When at last he dared turn to her, she had her notebook out. Was this truly Lenore? Though he had failed to imagine some details (the little gold hoop earrings, and the tidy yet full-bodied and somewhat sensually casual way in which she had bundled her hair at the back of her head), her physical presence flooded the translucent, changeable skin of his invention with a numbing concreteness. He grabbed reflexively at her notebook, thinking she wanted him to sign it, but she held on firmly, and said to him, "I thought you'd like to know. I noted three words you mispronounced. 'Hectare' is accented on the first syllable and the 'e' isn't sounded. In 'flaccid' the first 'c' is hard. And 'sponge' is like 'monkey'--the 'o' has the quality of a short 'u.'"
"Who are you?" Bech asked her.
"A devotee." She smiled, emphasizing the long double "e." Another devotee pulled Bech's elbow on his other side, and when he turned back, Lenore was gone. Darkness there and nothing more.
He revised what he had written. The scene with Thelma was sacred filth, dream matter, not to be touched; but the professional capacities of the moon face had come clearer--she was a schoolteacher. A teacher of little children, children in the first-to-fourth-grade range, in some way unusual, whether unusually bright or with learning disabilities he couldn't at first decide. But as he wrote, following Lenore into her clothes and the elevator and along the steam-damp, slightly tipping streets of West Side Manhattan, the name above the entrance of the building she entered became legible: she taught in a Steiner School. Her connection with the other characters of Think Big must be, therefore, through their children. Bech rummaged back through the manuscript to discover whether he had given Tad Greenbaum and his long-suffering wife, Ginger, boys or girls for children, and what ages. He should have made a chart. Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis used to. But Bech had always resisted those practical aids which might interfere with the essential literary process of daydreaming; Lenore belonged to a realm of subconscious cumulus. She would have wide hips: the revelation came to him as he slipped a week's worth of wastepaper into a plastic garbage bag. But did the woman who had come up to him, in fact, have wide hips? It had been so quick, so magical, he had been conscious only of her torso in the crowd. He needed to see her again, as research.
When she approached him once more, in the great hot white tent annually erected for the spring ceremonial of the American Academy on those heights beyond Harlem, she was wearing a peasant skirt and braless purple bodice, as if to hasten in the summer. To be dressy she had added a pink straw hat; the uplifted gesture with which she kept the wide hat in place opened up a new dimension in the character of Lenore. She had been raised amid greenery, on, say, a Hardyesque farm in northeastern Connecticut. Though her waist was small, her hips were ample. The sultriness of the tent, the spillage of liquor from flexible plastic cups, the heavy breathing of Bech's fellow immortals made a romantic broth in which her voice was scarcely audible; he had to stoop, to see under her hat and lip-read. Where was her fabled "bossiness" now? She said, "Mr. Bech, I've been working up my nerve to ask, would you ever consider coming and talking to my students? They're so sweet and confused, I try to expose them to people with values, any values. I had a porno film director, a friend of a friend, in the other day, so it's nothing to get uptight about. Just be yourself." Her eyes were dyed indigo by the shadow of the hat, and her lips, questing, had a curvaceous pucker he had never dreamed of.
Bech noticed, also, a dark-haired young woman standing near Lenore, wearing no makeup and a man's tweed jacket. A friend, or the friend of a friend? The young woman, seeing the conversation about to deepen, drifted away. Bech asked, "How old are your students?"
"Well, they're in the third grade now, but it's a Steiner School--"
"--and I move up with them. You might be a little wasted on them now; maybe we should wait a few years, until they're in fifth."
"And I've had time to work on my pronunciation."
"I do apologize if that seemed rude. It's just a shock, to realize that a master of words doesn't hear them in his head the way you do." As she said this, her own pronunciation seemed a bit slurred. An empty plastic glass sat in her hand like an egg collected at dusk.
Perhaps it was the late-afternoon gin, perhaps the exhilaration of having just received a medal (the Melville Medal, awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence), but this encounter enchanted Bech. The questing fair face perspiring in the violet shade of the pink hat, the happy clatter around him of writers not writing, the thrusting smell of May penetrating the tent walls, the little electric push of a fresh personality--all felt too good to be true. He felt, deliciously, overpowered, as reality always overpowers fiction.
He asked her, "But will we still be in touch, when your sweet confused students are in the fifth grade?"
"Mr. Bech, that's up to you." In the shade of her hat, she lowered her eyes.
Her blue eyes lifted boldly. "Who else?"
"How do you feel about dinner then, if we can find the flap to get out of this tent?"
"The two of us?"
"Who else?" Of course, he was thinking, with the voice of reason that dismally mutters accompaniment to every euphoria, there is a rational explanation. God forbid there wouldn't be a rational explanation. I have conjured this creature, by eye-glance and inflection, from the blank crowds just as I conjured her, less persuasively, from blank paper. "What did you say your name was?"
"Ellen," she said.
So he had got that slightly wrong. He had been slightly wrong in a hundred details, the months revealed. Their affair did not last until her students were in the fifth grade. It was his literary side, it turned out, his textbook presence, that she loved. Also, she really did--his instincts had been right in this--see the male sex as, sexually, second-rate. Still, she gave him enough of herself to eclipse, to crush, "the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore," and once again Think Big ground to a grateful halt.
* * *
An irresistible invitation came to Bech. A subsidiary of the Superoil Corporation called Superbooks had launched a series of signed classics; for an edition of Brother Pig bound in genuine pigskin Bech was invited to sign twenty-eight thousand five hundred tip-in sheets of high-rag-content paper, at the rate of one dollar fifty a sheet. He was to do this, furthermore, during a delightful two-week holiday on a Caribbean island, where Superoil owned a resort. He should take with him a person to pull the sheets as he signed them. This "puller" could be a friend, or someone hired in the locality. All this was explained to Bech as to a fairly stupid child by a hollow-voiced man calling from corporation headquarters--a thousand-acre variant of Disneyland somewhere in Delaware.
As always in the face of good fortune, Bech tended to cringe. "Do I have to have a puller?" he asked. "I've never had an agent."
"The answer to your question," the man from Superbooks said, "is one-hundred-percent affirmative. From our experience, without a puller efficiency tapers very observably. As I say, we can hire one on the spot and train her."
Bech imagined her, a svelte little Carib who had been flown to emergency secretarial school, but doubted he could satisfy her after the first proud rush. So he asked Norma Latchett to be his puller.
Her reply was inevitable. "Super," she said.
In weary truth, Bech and Norma had passed beyond the end of their long romance into a limbo of heterosexual palship haunted by silently howling abandoned hopes, They would never marry, never be fruitful. The little island of San Poco was a fit stage for their end drama--the palm trees bedraggled and battered from careless storage in the prop room, the tin-and-tarpaper houses tacked together for a short run, the boards underfoot barely covered by a sandy thin soil resembling coffee grounds, the sea a piece of rippling silk, the sunshine as harsh, white, and constant as overhead spotlights. The island was littered with old inspirations--a shoal collecting the wrecks of hotels, night spots, cabanas, and eateries swamped by the brilliant lethargy. The beach resort where Bech and Norma and the twenty-eight thousand five hundred pieces of paper were housed had been built by pouring cement over inflated balloons that were then collapsed and dragged out the door; the resulting structures were windowless. All along the curve of one dark wall were banked brown cardboard boxes containing five hundred sheets each. Superoil's invisible minions had placed in the center of the hemisphere a long Masonite table, bland as a torturer's rack, and cartons of felt-tip pens. Bech never used felt-tip pens, preferring the manly gouge and sudden dry death of ballpoints. Nevertheless, he sat right down in his winter suit and ripped through a box, to see how it went.
It went like a breeze. Arrows, to be trimmed away by the binder, pointed to the area he must inscribe. Norma, as if still auditioning for the role of helpmate, pulled the sheets with a sweet deftness from underneath his wrists. Then they undressed--since he had last seen her naked, her body had softened, touchingly, and his body, too, wore a tallowish slump that appeared unfamiliar--and went out to swim in the lukewarm, late-afternoon sea. From its gentle surface the lowering sun struck coins of corporate happiness; Bech blessed Superoil as he floated, hairy belly up. The title of his next novel, after Think Big was in the bag, came to him: Easy Money. Or had Daniel Fuchs used it during the Depression? When he and Norma left their vast bath, the soft coral sand took deep prints from Bech's bare feet, as from those of a giant.
Wake, eat, swim, sun, sign, eat, sun, sign, drink, eat, dance, sleep. Thus their days passed. Their skins darkened. Bech became as swarthy as his Brazilian jacket photos. The stack of boxes of signed sheets slowly grew on the other side of the cement dome. They had to maintain an average of two thousand signatures a day. As Norma's tolerance for sun increased, she begrudged the time indoors, and seemed to Bech to be accelerating her pulling, so that more than once the concluding "h" got botched. "You're slowing down," she told him in self-defense, the third time this happened in one session.
"I'm just trying to give the poor bastards their buck-fifty's worth," he said. "Maybe you should pay attention to me, instead of trying to pull and read at the same time." She had taken to reading a novel at their signing table--a novel by, as it happened, a young writer who had, in the words of one critic, "made all previous American-Jewish writing look like so much tasteless matzo dough."
"I don't need to pay attention," she said. "I can hear it now; there's a rhythm. Mm-diddle-um-um, boomity-boom. You lift your pen in the middle of 'Henry' and then hurry the 'Bech.' You love your first name and hate your last--why is that?"
"The 'B' is becoming harder and harder," he admitted. "Also, the 'e' and the 'c' are converging. Miss O'Dwyer at P.S. 87 tried to teach me the Palmer penmanship method once. She said you should write with your whole arm, not just your fingers."
"You're too old to change now; just keep doing it your way."
"I've decided she was right. These are ugly signatures. Ugly."
"For God's sake, Henry, don't try to make them works of art; all Superbooks wants is for you to keep touching pen to paper."
"Superbooks wants super signatures," he said. "At least they want signatures that show an author at peace with himself. Look at my big 'H's. They've turned into backward 'N's. And then the little 'h' at the end keeps tailing down. That's a sign of discouragement. Napoleon, you know, after Waterloo, every treaty he signed, his signature dragged down right off the page. The parchment."
"Well, you're not Napoleon, you're just an unemployed self-employed who's keeping me out of the sun."
"You'll get skin cancer. Relax. Eleven hundred more and we'll go have a pina colada."
"You're fussing over them, I can't stand it! You just romped through those early boxes."
"I was younger then. I didn't understand my signature so well. For being so short, it has a lot of ups and downs. Suppose I was Robert Penn Warren. Suppose I was Solzhenitsyn."
"Suppose you were H. D., I'd still be sitting here in this damn dark igloo. You know, it's getting to my shoulders. The pauses between are the worst--the tension."
"Go out in the sun. Read your pimply genius. I'll be my own puller."
"Now you're trying to hurt my feelings."
"I'll be fine. I know my own rhythm."
"The Henry Bech backward crawl. I'll see this through if it kills us both."
He attempted a signature, hated the "nry," and slashed a big "X" across the sheet. "Your vibes are destroying me," he said.
"That was a dollar fifty," Norma said, standing in protest.
"Yeah, and here's the sales tax," Bech said, and X-ed out the preceding signature, whose jerky "ch" linkage had disturbed him as he did it, though he had decided to let it pass. He crumpled the sheet into a ball and hit her with it squarely between the two pieces of her bathing suit.
After this, when they sat down on opposite sides of the long table, fear of this quarrel's being repeated clotted their rapport. Fear of impotence seized his hand. The small digital muscles, asked to perform the same task thousands upon thousands of times, were rebelling. Sabotage appeared on the assembly line. Extra squiggles produced "Hennry," and the "B" of "Bech" would come out horribly cramped, like a symptom of a mental disease. While the sun poured down, and the other resort guests could be heard tinkling and babbling at the thatched beach bar not far away, Bech would write "Henry" and forget what word came next. The space between his first and last name widened as some uncappable pressure welled up between them. The whole signature kept drifting outside the arrows, though he shoved with his brain while Norma tugged the stacks of sheets into repeated readjustments. Their daily quota fell below two thousand, to seventeen hundred, then to three boxes, and then they stopped counting boxes.
"We must sign them all here," Norma pleaded. "They're too heavy to take away with us." Their two weeks were drawing to a close, and the wall of unopened boxes seemed to grow, rustling, in the night. They sliced them open with a blade from Bech's razor; he cut his forefinger and had to pinch the pen through a Band-Aid. The pens themselves, so apparently identical at first, revealed large differences to his hypersensitive grasp, and as many as six had to be discarded before he found one that was not too light or heavy, whose flow and his were halfway congenial. Even so, one signature in five came out defective, while Norma groaned and tried to massage her own shoulders. "I think it's writer's cramp," she said.
"There's a paradox," he said. "You know, toward the end of his career Hogan would absolutely freeze over a one-foot putt."
"Don't make conversation," Norma begged. "Just inscribe."
The loudspeaking system strung through the palm trees interrupted its millionth rendition of "Yellow Bird" to announce his name. Over the phone in the manager's office, the man from Superoil said, "We figured you'd be a hundred-percent done by tomorrow, so we've arranged for a courier to jet in and ship the sheets to our bindery in Oregon."
"We've run into some snags," Bech told him. "Also, the pullers are restive."
The voice went a shade more hollow. "What percent would you say is still to be executed?"
"Hard to say. The boxes have grown big as freight cars. At first they were the size of matchboxes. Maybe there's ten left."
A silence. "Can you stonewall it?"
"I'm not sure that's the phrase. How about 'hot-dog it'?"
"The jet's been commissioned; it can't be cancelled. Do the best you can, and bring the rest back in your luggage."
"Luggage!" Norma scoffed, back at the igloo. "I'd just as soon try to pack a coral reef. And I refuse to ruin my last full day here."
Bech worked all afternoon by himself, while she sauntered on the beach and fell in with a pair of scuba divers. "Jeff wanted me to go underwater with him, but I was scared our hoses would get tangled," she reported. "How many did you do?"
"Maybe a box. I kept getting dizzy." It was true; his signature had become a cataclysmic terrain of crags and abysses. His fingers traced the seismograph of a constant earthquake. Deep in the strata of time, a hot magma heaved. Who was this Henry Bech? What had led him up, up from his seat in his row in Miss O'Dwyer's class, to this impudent presumptive scrawl of fame? Her severe ghost mocked him every time an "e" collapsed or a "B" shrivelled at his touch.
Norma inspected his work. "These are wild," she said. "There's only one thing to do: get some pina coladas and stay up all night. I'm game."
"That makes one of us."
"You bastard. I've ruined my life waiting for you to do something and you're going to do this. Then that's it. This is the last thing I'll ever see you through."
"As Joan of Arc often said to the Dauphin," Bech said.
His dream-forgetting mechanism drew a merciful curtain over the events of that night. At one point, after the last trip to the bar had produced a bottle of rum and a six-pack of grape soda, his signature reached up from the page and tried to drag him down into it. Then he seemed to be pummelling Norma, but his fist sank in her slack belly as in muddy water. She plucked an arrow from an unsigned sheet and fended him off. The haggard dawn revealed one box still to be opened, and a tranquil sea dyed solid Day-Glo. They walked along the arc of beach holding inky hands. "Bech, Bech," the little waves whispered, mispronouncing the "ch." He and Norma fell asleep diagonally on the bed, amid sliced cardboard. The commotion at their louvered door woke them to a surge of parched nausea. Two black men were loading the boxes onto a trolley. The bundles of opened and resealed wrapping paper looked altogether strange, indecent, and perishable out in the air, among the stark morning verities of sky and sand and sea. Bathers gathered curiously about the pyramid, this monstrous accumulation hatched from their cement egg. To Bech's exhaustion and hangover was added a sensation of shame, the same shame he felt in bookstores, or after vomiting. One of the black men asked him, "This all there is, mon?"
"There's one more box," Bech admitted. For the first time in two weeks, a cloud covered the sun.
"Big jet from de state of Delaware at de airport waiting for Sea Breeze Taxi deliber all dese boxes," the other black man explained. Suddenly rain, in gleaming globular drops each big enough to fill a shot glass, began to fall. The onlookers in bathing suits scattered. The cardboard darkened. The ink would blur, the paper would wrinkle and return to pulp. The black men trundled away the mountain of Bech's signatures, promising to return for the last box.
In the dank igloo, Norma had placed the final sheaf of five hundred sheets, trim and pure, in the center of the table. She seated herself on her side, ready to pull. Groggily Bech sat down, under the dome drumming with the downpour. The arrows on the top sheet pointed inward. Clever female fingers slipped under a corner, alert to ease it away. The two San Poco taximen returned, their shirts sopping, and stood along one wall, silent with awe of the cultural ritual they were about to witness. Bech lifted a pen. All was poised, and the expectant blankness of the paper seemed an utter bliss to the author, as he gazed deep into the negative perfection to which his career had been brought. He could not even write his own name.
Excerpted from Bech is Back by John Updike Copyright © 1999 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 8, 2004
Bech Is Back reads more like a series of related short stories than a traditional novel. It is clear that Updike knows how to write. He does occasionally abandon charcters or scenes too soon for my taste, but that's a minor quibble.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 21, 2004
Updike is the great master of precise description of American realities. His small- town seeings have a special beauty and poignancy all their own especially in the Rabbit novels. Updike came to fame in a time when the American- Jewish novelists, and perhaps more importantly American- Jewish critics of culture were moving into first prominence. His encounter with them is an essential part of his literary - life experience. As they explored the wider world of the other through the consciousness of Gentile heroes ( Bellow's Henderson is a most conspicous example, and Mailer is almost all this) so Updike here takes on a Jewish alter ego. Bech the bumbling low- level literary celebrity is Updike's Jewish voice. Updike is a master, but as with all these kinds of imitations he almost gets it right . And there is a hint of something too forced and even false in the Bech- voice. This is not the best Updike but of course when a master moves into minor art he nonetheless remains a master, and there are fine touches here. It's worth a quick read, but for the real Updike go to the misadventures of Mr. Harry Angstrom in the Rabbit novels. And also go to those remarkable essays of his in which he shows himself to be America's first - rate man- of - letters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.