Lowell Limpett and Two Storiesby Ward S. Just
The acclaimed author of A Dangerous Friend explores his signature concerns-the moral dilemmas of journalism, law, and public life, and the limits of love-in a new play and previously uncollected fiction. Lowell Limpett is a journalist at the end of his career. He addresses the reader in a voice that is melancholy, honest, and wonderfully, comfortably compelling about the beauty of a clean lead, the death of old friends, and what we read when we read the news. Two stories, both previously uncollected, will follow Lowell Limpett. The issues of work, love, and duty to the self are addressed as only Ward Just could in the three pieces. In a new foreword, Just discusses the new-for him-experience of writing a play and the process of compiling this new collection.
Author Biography: Ward Just is the author of twelve novels, including, most recently, A Dangerous Friend, the National Book Award finalist Echo House, and Jack Gance. Just was recently named one of the first recipients of a Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy. He lives in Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Sarah Catchpole.
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Read an Excerpt
Sitting Down a Novelist,
Getting Up a Playwright
I have never thought writing novels was hard work. Hard workwas commercial fishing out of New Bedford or Gloucester ordriving a sixteen-wheel truck. Novels have more to do withdesiretranslating desire into proseand a temperament thataccepts concentration over the long haul, meaning the abilityto sit alone in one place day by day.
Writing novels bears some modest (very modest) comparisonto grinding on the higher slopes of the PGA tour, magicalafternoons bunkered by afternoons of routine or appallingplay and reminding yourself every minute to trust your swing.
Middle-aged golfers watching the Houston Open on televisionin May 2000, turned their faces to the wall when forty-six-year-oldCraig Stadler, playing beautifully from tee to green,missed short putts on four consecutive play-off holes to losethe match to Robert Allenby, not yet thirty. Allenby was notplaying well, except on the green, where it counted.
My heart went out to Stadler, gray-haired, red-faced, soweary and impatient, so eager to get it over with. During thefour-day run of the tournament he had used up his ration ofconcentration. He needed a distraction, something droll oralarming, anything that would divide him from the task athand and cause him to reflect. His five-foot putts had become akind of tyranny. (And the five-foot putt is the golfer's equivalentof the successful sentence that completes the chapter.)
I hoped for a monstrousrainstorm so Stadler could go away,get a good night's sleep, and return the following morning.Meanwhile, Allenby, as steady as a metronome, completing hischapters with the authority andit has to be saidthe slowmotion of Henry James in his late period.
For many years I have tried to find an agreeable distraction,something more sideline than hobby, some avocation that wasnot too difficult or tyrannical or long-term. When the sentencesbegan to fall apart, there would be this other thing todo, my equivalent of a good night's sleep: except the sleepmight last for weeks. Of course, there would be money in it,whatever it was.
I was willing to try almost anything. The truth is, I thoughtof this activity as a day at the racetrack. If you forgot abouthunches, if you studied the form and bet every race, the oddswere good that you would cash at least one ticket. Perhaps, ifyou were clever enough, a win ticket or even the daily double.
My children described this as Dad's search for a get-rich-quickscheme. But I only wanted to get out of the office.
For a long time I thought I could do voice-overs, the sort ofthing that David McCullough does so well for The AmericanExperience. I have what I have always believed was a nicely modulatedbaritone, perhaps riddled a little around the edges bytobacco and scotch, but inviting nonetheless. That voice, Iimagined people saying, that voice has been around. I asked afriend where I might take this undiscovered talent, and after listeningto a tape, she said commercials. An arthritis remedy orsomething to do with heartburn or anxiety. McCullough issafe, she added.
And that brings me to Paris, February 1991. A long, gray winter,the dollar falling. My wife and I had moved from one overpricedapartment to another. I had completed the novel I wasworking on and was unwilling to begin another right away.
The worm of avocation had begun to crawl yet again, to nopositive result. I spent my time watching the Persian Gulf Waron television and visiting museums, never neglecting a nourishingmeal at the end of the day. It was at one of these thattwo German friends, a diplomat and a historian, suggested wego together to see Patrick Suskind's play La Contrebasse, at theTheatre des Arts-Hebertot. The author was a friend of theirs.
I very much admired his novel Perfume, and under normalcircumstances I would have agreed at once. It's always interestingwhen writers change hats: poets to novelists, novelists toplaywrights. But circumstances were not normal. La Contrebassewas in French, and I did not speak French. My wife spokeFrench. She dealt with the plumbers, electricians, doctors, dentists,and Le Monde. I was the one who sat in cafes and listenedto conversations, inventing my own translations.
Don't worry, the diplomat said. We'll translate for you.
The historian seconded the motion.
My wife insisted that I knew more French than I thought Idid, and, en tout cas, everyone would chip in with key wordsand phrases.
What a pleasure for those sitting around us, I thought butdid not say.
So we attended La Contrebasse by Patrick Suskind at the Theatredes Arts-Hebertot. It turned out to be a one-character playinvolving a musician and his double bass. I had matters prettywell in hand until about the fifth minute, when the narrative collapsed.I had no idea what the actor, Jacques Villeret, was saying.
I inferred that he and his double bass had an extremely complicatedrelationship, and that things were not going wellbetween them. The action transpired in the musician's apartmentsomewhere in bohemian Paris; the Marais, perhaps, orMontparnasse.
The audience was laughing; my wife and our Germanfriends were enthralled. So any idea of assistance with thesalient words and phrases was forgotten. For me these wereminutes of oceanic boredom until my mind slipped intoanother realm altogether. As I did in cafès, I began to supplymy own translation. Just as suddenly, the musician and his doublebass vanished. In their places appeared a newspaperreporter and his typewriter.
The newspaper reporter was middle-aged, as was the musician;and the typewriter was well worn and talismanic, as wasthe double bass. The reporter seemed to have an affectionaterelationship with the machine; it was his career that was goingto hell.
The set remained the same: a couch, a desk, two tables,chairs here and there, a bookcase. But Paris had becomeCincinnati because in my mind's eye I saw a poster that hungon my office wall in the rue des Saints-Pères: Edward Hopper'sStreet Scene, Gloucester, Cincinnati Art Museum.
My newspaperman was fifty-nine. He was a soloist, a littlescornful of the ensemble. Along the way he managed to win aPulitzer Prize, a badge he thought was not entirely deserved.When the curtain rose, Act I, Scene 1, he erupted on the stagein a fury, as Jacques Villeret had done.
I have no idea of the cause of the musician's agitation, butthe newspaperman was returning from the funeral of a colleague,with the justified suspicion that his editor wanted tofire him. If my newsman had thought of himself as a musician,he would have chosen Bach, for the measured cadence and formalityof expression. But since he though of himself as anartist, he believed that on his best days he captured somethingof Hopper. His editor preferred Roy Lichtenstein, so my manwas headed for the shelf.
How did it go? my wife asked when La Contrebasse was over.
Wonderful, I said.
She looked at me with astonishment.
You understood it?
Everything, I said. Nothing.
Lowell Limpett took four days to write. Really, all I had to dowas transcribe what I had written in my head during theninety-minute reverie in the Theatre des Arts-Hebertot. I hadbeen given a free bet at the track, so the writing was a lark, as ifI had decided to compose a long letter to a friend or a bedtimestory for my grandchildren.
I put into it all I had ever known or heard about newspaperreporters reaching the end of their one-way street, all seenthrough the lens of my own newspaper experience of decadesbefore; alternative histories, as someone called it. My characterwas more restrained that Patrick Suskind's, at least as JacquesVilleret played him. But his double bass and my typewriter werebrothers, and I can remember now the unfathomable rapid-fireFrench mutating into measured American idiom, and my surprisewhen the curtain fell and the audience broke into applause.
I wrote the play, had a good laugh, and thought that I hadfound my sideline, except that I had no expectation that anyonewould want to risk a production. So it was a pro bono sideline,with some vanity thrown in.
Lowell Limpett had its debut in Paris in March 1991: a livingroom full of invited guests; many, many drinks before the curtainrose; Alan Riding, a reporter for the New York Times, in thetitle role. Somewhere a videotape survives, but owing to inattentionor too much Bordeaux or mechanical failure, the tapeis without sound. Since virtually everyone in attendance wasconnected to the news business, there was high hilarity. Everyonethought it had commercial possibilities. What a vehicle!And so funny!
That summer I sent it around, first to friends in the theaterbusiness, then to friends of the friends, finally to the theatercompanies. But you know this story. This is an old story withoutpossibilities, because all unhappy theater stories are alike.Each happy theater story is happy in its own way. I put LowellLimpett into the discard file and forgot about it, reminded onlywhen I glanced at Hopper's picture on my office wall.
And there matters stood for eight years. My wife and Ireturned to New England. I published four novels, did a voiceover,continued my struggles with golf; searching always for anagreeable sideline.
Then one fine day I got a call from the playwright MichaelWeller. He had seen the manuscript of Lowell Limpett in 1991and liked it, and now he proposed that I sign up with the mentorprogram for emerging playwrights at the Cherry LaneAlternative Theater in Manhattan. You get a mentor to smooththe rough edges and the promise of a ten-day run at theCherry Lane Alternative.
If I had any doubtsand what doubts were there to have?theywere forgotten when I learned the identity of my mentor.Wendy Wasserstein owns a Pulitzer Prize, just like LowellLimpett. Unlike Lowell Limpett, she's young enough to be mydaughter.
Mentee, she said, and began to cackle.
What can I expect? I asked.
This is a get-rich-quick-scheme, she said, and laughed andlaughed.
Lowell had his ten days of fame at the Cherry Lane Alternativein Greenwich Village, a slow start but full houses the last fewdays of the run. I was present opening night and the next nightand then went home. For me, the experience was the reverse ofLa Contrebasse. I knew the lines as well as that fine actor, GerryBamman, did. But it was disorienting for me to watch Gerryact, and the audience react. A novel or short story is read in private,and the reaction is private; it is as private as the writingwas, an unmediated experience, only the writer and the lineson the page. By contrast, the theater's a circus, the actor, theset, the lighting, the audience, and it's likely to be a differentexperience night to night. Still, it is unsettling when the audiencedoes not laugh when it should. Specifically, the line"Reporters are like Germans, they are either at your feet or atyour throat," yielded few smilesand that was a line I liked sowell I pirated it from a novella I had written fifteen yearsbefore. (Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women.)
Gerry Bamman was blunt.
They don't like it, Ward. They don't smile. They don't laugh.
Do they think I'm being disrespectful to Germans?
I don't know what they think except they don't think it'sFunny.
All right, then, I said. Cut the damn thing.
Thank you, he said. I will.
Yet this is also true. When everything is working right, a hushsettles over the theater. It is the hush of the graveyard, a palpablehush, a hush that raises the hair on your neck. There is nothingquite like it, not even the occasional a-giant-walks-among-usreview you get in the book section of the newspaper, or thewarm letter from a reader you have never met. This happens infront of your own eyes, and you do not look around you tojudge the expressions on the faces of the audience, because youare as taken with the moment as they are. In that moment, youhave willingly surrendered your identity and become justanother fanny in the seat, enthralled by the actor's art.
Lowell Limpett is backed by a story and a novella, both writtenin the early nineteen-seventies. Wasps was written in Warren,Vermont, and Born in His Time in Washington, D.C. I havenothing to add to the words on the page. Enjoy them in the privacyof your own home, airplane, train, bus, or beach.
West Tisbury, Massachusetts
Excerpted from Lowell Limpett by Ward Just. Copyright © 2001 by Ward Just. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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