Christopher: A Tale Of Seductionby Allison Burnett
“Either he’s channeling Truman Capote’s spirit, or Allison Burnett has created, all by himself, one of the more assured narrative voices in recent memory. His B. K. Troop is a pitch-perfect creation: bitchy-funny with a twist of rue.” —Louis Bayard, author of Fool’s Errand and Endangered/i>… See more details below
“Either he’s channeling Truman Capote’s spirit, or Allison Burnett has created, all by himself, one of the more assured narrative voices in recent memory. His B. K. Troop is a pitch-perfect creation: bitchy-funny with a twist of rue.” —Louis Bayard, author of Fool’s Errand and Endangered Species
“Christopher is the literary equivalent of sparkling banter whose aftermath is trenchant poignancy. The deep, sad truths of this slyly funny novel continue to gather force long after you’ve finished reading.” —Kate Christensen, author of In the Drink and Jeremy Thrane
The delicious debut of a hilarious new voice in fiction. It’s Oscar Wilde meets Nabokov meets something entirely new.
Unemployed, middle-aged, bipolar, gay, bitingly witty, erudite, unattractive, and lonely, B. K. Troop, the narrator of Christopher, isn’t exactly looking forward to a life of exciting prospects—until he meets his new neighbor. Christopher Ireland is a twenty-five-year-old idealist and aspiring novelist still reeling from a bitter divorce. Even though B.K. knows full well that Christopher is hopelessly heterosexual, he wants nothing more than to seduce him, so he sets about his self-appointed mission with all the cunning and zeal of the Big Bad Wolf.
Christopher recounts B.K’s year long attempt to consummate his lust, with hilarious results. But it also charts the coming of age of Christopher who, like all true idealists, throws himself body and soul into the quest for a meaningful life. He develops a crush on a married waitress, gets involved in politics, enrolls in a New Age workshop, struggles to begin his first novel, and battles to free himself from the clutches of his monstrous mother. Thankfully, all of this is seen through B.K’s eyes and narrated in his deliciously incisive and witty voice.
As often happens in tales of seduction, the seducer winds up being seduced by his prey, and that is precisely what, to his horror, B.K. discovers as his feelings turn more tender than predatory. Both darkly ironic and poignantly romantic, Christopher is a remarkable debut by a brave, acerbic, and original new writer.
- Crown Publishing Group
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- 5.52(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
My story, which is not mine alone, but also that of a far finer spirit, takes place in 1984. As those of you alive at the time will surely remember, this was the most important year in the realm of the literary imagination since the death of God. The reason was, of course, Mr. George Orwell's notoriously unreadable 1984, which warned of society's descent into an authoritarian hell, reeking of cabbage and old rag mats.
For decades, critics had bestowed upon Mr. Orwell's arbitrarily chosen title a profound significance, and so when the actual year finally arrived it was greeted with a collective exhalation of very bad breath. Sleeves were rolled up and typewriters shaken free of tobacco ash. In every periodical and newspaper, the novel was discussed, dissected, and reassessed. On television, pundits scoured the cultural landscape for any sign of Big Brothera bootprint, a mustache hair, even a stray lump of scat. By spring, sales of 1984 had reached fifty thousand copies a day.
Of course, none of this meant anything. (So little truly signifies in the realm of the literary imagination.) For most people, 1984 was just another year: a ribbon of time marked by a seam or twoa birth, a divorce, a slow, stinky deathand as soon as it had passed it was all but entirely forgotten.
But I confess I am not most people.
For better or worse, 1984 changed me into something that quite closely resembles a human being.
B. K. Troop
On Sunday, January 1, 1984, Manhattan awoke to find itself buried under a clichea blanket of white. For the next few hours, before a million tires got hold of it, the streets of the City would look, dare I say it, almost pretty. I had a mad whim to fling myself facedown in Times Square and execute a flabby snow angel, but I resisted the temptation and set myself to the matter at handboxing up my life. The moving van was set to arrive at noon.
Packing was no small task. I had lived in that basement apartment for the past twenty-three years and had picked up, in that time, a vast embarrassment of rare and beautiful objects. If the choice had been mine, I would certainly have avoided this day forever, but, just a week before, my beloved friend and landlady, Sasha Buchwitz, had nudged me awake with the imaginary handle of an imaginary hatchet, explaining that Satan was standing naked on her fire escape, demanding that she cut off my head. (Hers had been a spirited twenty-year battle with paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression; she was losing.) I scampered out the very next morning and, greasing a few palms, secured for myself a one-bedroom apartment in a tenement just a few blocks away.
The doorbell rang as I taped shut the final box. I stood by with pride and watched as my life was whisked away on the shoulders of giants. The transition went off without a hitchsave for the queasy glare I was thrown by one of the removalists (a strapping, high-buttocked Dominican named Santos) in reply to my suggestion that he help christen my new digs by spending the night. His colleagues dragged him away by the elbows, and I set to work.
Sixteen hours later, just after cock's crow, I slid the last of my vast antiquarian library into its alphabetized place. What had once been an empty apartment was now a home. As I had yet to sleep a wink and am highly allergic to dust mites, I descended to the street, lost in a bleary, malevolent haze. My goal, a Denver omelet and Bloody Mary at my beloved Parnassus Diner, followed by a twelve-hour snooze.
I little suspected what the Fates held in store.
We nearly collided as he ran up the marble steps three at a time. He was of medium height with longish black hair and equally dark eyes. His head was large, well shaped. Our conversation was limited. "Oh, excuse me," we both said as we passed. It was only I, however, who glanced around for a peekhe was slender and strong all over. The fact that he did nothing to confirm that I was flagrantly neither all over, I took to be an ill omen, but one which I had come to expect whenever my fancy was stoked.
Our more substantial introduction came the next afternoon when I cunningly emerged from my lair at the precise moment that he entered his.
"Hello!" I said, stopping him in his tracks.
"Oh. Hi. I guess we're neighbors." He flashed the shy smile of an intelligent person who has just stated the obvious. And it was obviousour doors were just three feet apart.
"I suppose so," I replied cleverly. "My name is B. K. Troop. What's yours?"
"Chris Ireland," he said, extending a smallish hand. Even in the dim light of the hallway I could see that he was a nail-biter; thankfully, the kind in whom vanity trumps self-loathing, which is to say that his nails were short enough to lift my eyebrows, but not turn my stomach. We shook. His hand was cold. No surprise, Manhattan was in the grips of an Arctic freeze.
"The pleasure's all mine," I murmured. And it was. His features were fine and pretty, his complexion faintly olive, and his smile so pearly white that I, as one deprived of dental care until the age of fourteen, could only marvel.
"Rumor has it that there's a superb Greek diner in the area," I crooned. "Do you know where?" I knew exactly where the Parnassus was, of course (a playful snapshot of me was tacked above the cash register), but I wanted to prolong our intercourse.
"Sure," the boy said. "Right on the corner. But I'm not sure it's superb." Then he smiled at his door in a way that said, "Enough, ye pest, be gone."
I smiled back in a way that said, "You haven't seen the last of me, dearie. Not by a long shot."
I hurried off to the Parnassus, where, wolfing down a piping-hot Welsh rarebit, I told my dearest friend, Cassandra Apopardoumenos, all about my meeting with the fetching lad who lived next door.
A less worldly waitress would have said "good luck" or "fingers crossed," but not the Athens-born Cassandra, who, over the course of a rich and varied life, had become a veritable storehouse of signs, charms, divinations, and other quaint prospects of love.
"Do yourself a favor," she instructed. "Get yourself a four-leaf clover. When you swallow it, think of the kid, and you'll end up marrying 'im."
I choked, but passed it off as a laugh. Inwardly, I was seized by the oddest distortion. The thought of marrying anyone had always been anathema to me. There was no limit to my hatred of such a picture. And, yet, Cassandra's words had delighted me.
"Marry him?" I said. "Good God! I only want to seduce him!" She answered with a knowing smile. "Besides," I snickered, "where on earth would I find a four-leaf clover this time of year?"
Weeks passed before Christopher and I spoke againwhich is not to imply that in the meantime I did not get to know him much better. The wall that separated our apartments was made not of brick or stone, but of some contemporary amalgam of plaster dust and spit. I overheard quite a bit of what went on in his cell. Plus, as a committed smoker of cigarettes, I left my front door ajar during waking hours, rendering me privy to a great deal of what Mr. Marcel Proust would have called la vie d'escalier.
The following is what I learned, or, to be more accurate, deduced. First, that my young neighbor was a reader. I rarely heard his television, except at seven o'clock on weekdays when he parked himself with a self-cooked meal before the grim journalistic stylings of Mr. Daniel Rather. The rest of the time, silence. And what else does a young solitary with flashing Mediterranean eyes, vivid with intelligence, do hour upon hour in a silent apartment but read?
Second, he was chaste. For not once in those weeks did he entertain a single visitor or spend an evening out. With one exceptionevery weekday afternoon teenagers came a callin'. Which led me to my third conclusion: Christopher was a tutor. I did not learn what sort of tutor until one afternoon when I met on the steps an icicle-nosed Medusa with big bosoms and hundred-dollar sunglasses (then, a hefty sum), who, as we passed, dropped a spiral notebook at my feet. I picked it up and handed it back, but not before I had glimpsed, inside, an alphabetized list: ablution, abomination, abrogate. The mystery was solved: Christopher prepared youngsters for the verbal section of their standardized college admittance tests.
"Thanks," the beast snarled.
"Don't mention it." I smiled, but my heart already ached for the lad. The only thing more dreary than teaching is teaching something useless.
Fourth, I guessed that my neighbor was an aspiring writer. One afternoon he lugged past my open door three reams of typing paper. The fact that there had yet to emanate from his apartment the clack of a typewriter brought me to my last deduction. He was, among writers, the most unfortunate sort: the hopelessly blocked. A storyteller without a story. Of course, it was possible that he wrote by hand, but I doubted it. He did not seem like the pretentious sort.
On Tuesday, January 24, I reached the limits of my patience and, unannounced, applied my knuckles to his door. In Manhattan, such an act is as rare and startling as a pheasant-sighting in Central Park. I heard a rustling of trousers and a slow, creaking advance to the peephole. I stepped closer and flashed my oyster-grays. A moment later, the door opened, sliding back a steel pole that extended from the lock to a metal divot in the pine floor.
"Hi," he said shyly.
"Good afternoon, Master Ireland. I would like to invite you to dinner. My place. Tonight."
I set my jaw, daring him to rebuff me. I saw it allhis desire to do exactly that, his suspicion that I would put up a fight, and his final surrender to neighborly civility.
"Oh. Okay. Sure," he said, "but I don't eat meat."
I twinkled archly. "Pity."
Before he could utter another word, I vaulted back into my apartment and set to preparing our meal; which is to say that I let my fingers sashay through the Yellow Pages until they stopped on a pizzeria which promised to deliver to one's door, for a modest sum, a mouth-watering spinach lasagna.
Christopher appeared at 8:01, wearing what I soon discovered was his daily costume: faded blue jeans, white leather sneakers, and a button-down Oxford. I swept him into the room and savored the moment when he beheld for the first time my Bloomsbury aesthetic: comfy antique furniture, gem-tone brocades, Persian carpets, exquisite oil paintings, and, jammed onto every shelf and into every nook and cranny, a multitude of great, dusty books.
"Wow," he said.
"Wow, indeed," I replied, then I popped the cork on a four-dollar Pinot Noir (high notes of black pepper; lament of trombone). I might have served better, but I lived on a fixed income. After letting it breathe, asthmatically, for a full ten seconds, I poured him a generous tumbler. He sipped, I gulped, then we retired to a walnut tea trolley and sank our forks into what I allowed him to believe was a delicious home-cooked meal.
Christopher proved to be a charming guest, never at a loss for words. When excited, which was most of the time, he spoke very quickly, gulping for air. The subject that riled him at present was the impending arrival of his mother, a psychiatrist from Milwaukee. Not only would her two-week visit disrupt his tutoring schedule, but his peace of mind, as well, for she was nothing short of a horror.
I repaid him with some candor of my own.
I told him all about myself.
He was naturally surprised that I had never taken a stab at creative writing myself. Flattered, I explained that while nothing would make me happier than a career in letters, I lacked the voice for poetry, the ear for drama, and the spigot for fiction. The spigot confused him. I explained that the great, horse-countenanced novelist, Ms. George Eliot, had once counseled, "Novels are easy. Simply turn on the spigot and let it run." Or something like that.
He chuckled. "Maybe that's my problem. I have a faucet, but I'm afraid to let it run."
"Of course you are," I said, "Every hour of every day we're bombarded with televised commands not to be a water rat. You've taken your civic duty to a ludicrous extreme."
He was lovely when he laughed.
For the next four hours, our conversation came as naturally as leaves to trees. We discovered that we shared a passion for the mighty dead of English verse. We compared geniuses. I showed him mine, he showed me his. After dinner, we retired to the living room, which was nothing more than a love seat parked six feet away. (Our apartments were more dog-runs than proper dwellingstypical of Manhattan, where every day someone brags about his fabulous new place, which is actually nothing more than five hundred square feet of crooked flooring with the sofa close enough to the fireplace on the opposite wall to toast marshmallows without leaving the cushion. This I do not find alarming; we swap comfort for culture. What I do find alarming is that so few of us know we've made the swap.)
Soon, the conversation turned even more intimate and Christopher spoke for the first time about his wife. I was astonished! I had been certain he was a homosexualist. Now it seemed I might be wrong. But I did not despair. I refilled his glass. Sexual preference is not and never has been an exact science.
Because he and his wife had split up only weeks before, the boy's wounds were still fresh, which meant he unburdened himself to me more out of compulsion than choice. In fact, the boy did have a spigot and I did nothing to stanch its mighty gush. As he spoke, his cheeks dampened and a single vein appeared between his eyes like an earthworm. Because every detail of Christopher's life is crucial to our story, I will share his tale of woe with you exactly as I heard it, but with less angst and far more economy.
Christopher had tied the knot a year before in a simple Yuletide ceremony on Cape Cod. Sadly, his bride was an aspiring actress, which meant that their union was doomed from the start. Unaware of this, Christopher cantered down the aisle with unbridled optimism. He realized now, looking back, that he and Mary should simply have lived togetherthere was nothing religious or societal to prevent itbut ours was a licentious age and their marriage was more public statement than private sacrament. They were saying to their peers, "Go ahead, screw yourselves silly, but we are building something strong, fine, and lasting." Whether or not anyone else believed it, did not matter. They proudly did.
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