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INTRODUCTION: Ominous Remarks for Late in the Evening
Both Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald discovered a peculiar syndrome that affected critics of their work. They learned in the roughest way imaginable that if they were praised as great, fresh talents early on in their careers, that as they approached the middle years of writing they were "reevaluated." The second guessers and the parvenus who could not, themselves, create the great and fresh stories, made their shaky reputations by means of pronunciamentos that advised those few literati who gave a damn, that les enfants terribles were now too long in the tooth to produce anything worth reading; that they were past it; and in the name of common decency should embarrass themselves no further by packing it in and retiring to the cultivation of Zen flower gardens. So they both croaked, and did the heavy deeds of assassination for their critics. But had they somehow managed to overcome cancer and alcoholism, had they managed to squeak through for another decade, they'd have found themselves lionized. Each would have made it through the shitrain to become le monstre sacrï¿½. Grand old men of letters. National treasures. Every last snippet they'd tapped out on yellow second-sheets sold at Sotheby's for a pasha's weight in rubies.
They never made it. Not rugged, spike-tough old Ernest, not lighter-than-air Scott. Time and gravity and the nibbling of minnows did them in. And so they don't know that they are still famous--though seldom read--in the way that talk show guests are famous: you know their names and often their faces, but you can't quite remember what the hell it is they did tomake them "famous."
The lesson we who work behind the words learn from this is that if your life is as interesting as your work, or even approaches that level of passion, there will be those who are not-quite-good-enough waiting in the tall grass, waiting to compound your fractures when your brittle bones splinter.
Never get too fat, never get too secure. The rat-things are waiting. Just hang in there long enough, like Borges or Howard Fast or Graham Greene or Jean Rhys, and the sheer volume of accumulated years will daunt all but the most vicious (who quickly self destruct when they try to savage the icons).
The fine novelist Walter Tevis, a sweet man who died on August 9, 1984, knew more than his share of pain. Walter once told me, when I was bitching about constantly being pilloried for trying to startle readers into wakefulness with fiery prose, "You can't attract the attention of the dead."
I am well in mind of that epigraph as I sit here writing an introduction to a book of occasional pieces, essays, columns done to a monthly or weekly deadline, that passed along to my readers the world I observed at those times. In the words of Irwin Shaw: "He is engaged in the long process of putting his whole life on paper. He is on a journey and he is reporting in: 'This is where I think I am and this is what this place looks like today.'"
Well in mind of Walter's consoling observation as I consider a scurrilous bit of business published in a jumped-up comic book called Heavy Metal last October 1983. A vitriolic hate-piece accurately titled "Hatcheting Harlan," as written by one of the universe's great prose stylists, Gus Patukas. If the name rings no carillons, don't go searching through THE READER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA or WEBSTER'S AMERICAN BIOGRAPHIES. Turns out Gus is a kid who lives in Brooklyn; buddy chum of a Heavy Metal editor whose own literary accolades are on the level of sucking fish-heads. They're into swagger, but not much into writing anything that will outlast the paper it's printed on.
But the best part of the attack came several issues later, in the letter column of this illustrated irritation dedicated to drawings of women with breasts the size of casaba melons and comic strips in which people get their heads blown open like overripe pomegranates. Rather than admitting that they'd received several hundred outraged letters from readers who thought I might have a few good minutes left in me, they presented a "balanced response" by dummying up a couple of letters saying good for Patukas and ever-vigilant Heavy Metal, for bringing to his knees that fraud Ellison, who never could write for sour owl poop to begin with. One of these letters contained the statement that Ellison is an enemy of the People.
"Liberty is better served by presenting a clear target to one's opponents than by joining with them in an insincere and useless brotherliness."
I thought about that one for some time. And then I had to smile. The author of that letter, someone who signed himself "William Charles Rosetta, LA, California" (though no such person--as one with the "Jon Douglas West" you will encounter in these pages--seems to exist in Los Angeles or anywhere else), had miraculously stumbled on a hidden truth.