Read an Excerpt
December 12, 2005
Last night Leon dangled the carrot of a fancy literary award before my greedy snout and I, like the pig I am, lurched for it.
Arrived on time for the Humphrey, freshly shaved, in suit and tie, and joined the throng of hipster literati milling outside the ballroom. I was shown to a table near the back of the room. Not a good sign. An aging socialite stinking of chardonnay and Chanel No. 5 leaned in, "Are you a writer? I hope someone at this table is a writer!" I beamed as if we were sharing a witty joke. A salad adorned with flower petals was put in front of me. Wine was poured.
I spied Leon seated three tables closer to the front of the room. He waved. I nodded. He turned away. My own editor could not be bothered to come over to my table and say hello. Of course, Leon wanted me there because he can't waste precious bucks promoting my new novel. No budget means there will be no display ads. No audio book. No parties given in my honor at Balthazar or the Four Seasons. All I will get is an abbreviated book tour (flying coach and residing at budget hotels). No NPR appearances. No magazine covers. If I'm lucky, I'll get two or three guest lecture gigs at second-rate colleges. It's all nickels and dimes to him.
At my table for eight, the chocolate mousse lay unforked and the decaf cooled as the jovial movie stars onstage speculated on the names of the winners present in the crowd (forgetting to mention me, of course). An honorary award was given out to a publisher of progressive children's books. A eulogy was intoned for the CEO of a major media corporation who had died rock climbing a week earlier. And so the circus draggedon and on. Finally, a winner was announced.
Upon hearing a name, not my name, my neighbors dropped their eyes to inspect their silverware. At adjacent tables, heads turned to gauge my humiliation. An obese publicist to my right patted my hand in consolation. "I'm sure your book was much better, Richard." His pupils dilated with the thrill of witnessing my pain.
The winner, a tweedy, aging Ivy Leaguer, florid-faced and wet-eyed (due to the quarts of vintage wine he has consumed daily since his first literary bestseller) jogged up to the podium. The lickspittles leapt to their feet and applauded. With his usual tennis club jocularity he snatched the prize from Catherine Zeta-Jones, took her in his arms and kissed her on the mouth. I shivered with disgust.
The victor leaned into the microphone, thanked his wife, his agent, his housemaid and, of course, Leon, who digested this morsel with beatific sliteyed joy. I could only think, don't thank me, motherfucker. Your writing is vapid and ironic to no purpose. It is a wretched blend of overwrought creative writing school frosting. It is "cute" and it is pointless. All designed to sucker in the peanut gallery. I could never write what you write my friend. I don't "do" sentimentality and I don't do glib. I don't do cliché.
BUT WAIT, what the fuck had I been smoking? I forgot our hero's spot on the bestseller lists! I overlooked the most important aspect of this enterprise, that we're all in it to get RICH! Of course! The true measure of the artist. Does your stuff SELL? Why would anyone be doing this, making all this effort, if not to sell millions of "units" so that the authorhero can become a wealthy author-hero! Then the author-hero can attend more dinners and receive more awards and sell more movie options to the corporate leviathans, and spend more time at more Hamptons get-togethers to cluck and kiss the other author-heros' bronzed cheeks, dazzled by the reflection of the collective genius present. The artist is the antenna of the race and the race is venal and shallow.
When the speeches finally sputtered out, young people in black T-shirts and slacks, Secret Service earbuds wired to their skulls, herded the crowd toward the exit. The literati scrabbled like fiddler crabs, snatching their swag bags packed with glossy consumer magazines, CDs and bad perfume, pinching and clawing, then scuttling off to flag a cab. I was aiming for an exit when one old fool sneezed on me! For a moment, I wanted to beat his face in, but then...
Success has its price. But it also has its rewards. And here she was, my compensation for enduring this trial. Brown-eyed, smooth-skinned, scented like the spring flower she was. She smiled shyly at me and said, "Richard Morris! I can't believe it! I...I..." She actually stuttered as she pretended to be awed. This goddess wore designer glasses, signifying erudition. Her hair was smooth and perfectly cut, her face unblemished. Her fragrance was like wine before the first sip. Before I said a word she blurted, "I read your book. It was so wonderful! The judges have their heads up their asses!"
Out of the corner of my eye I spied Leon laughing it up with the winner. I turned my back on them and ingested the lovely praise. When my new friend was a student at Amherst or Princeton or wherever, she wrote her thesis on my first novel, blah-blah-blah. But wait, there was more! With cocksure vigor she launched into a debate of magical realism (she had read my pointed essay in The New York Review of Books last year) and announced "You're full of shit"! She argued her case with a verbatim quote! Nothing in the world is more erotic than a beautiful stranger uttering one's exact words. I fell into her eyes, the pact was sealed.
I had a car and driver for the evening so I offered her a ride home on my way to my own uptown pied-a-terre where I would be staying the night. As we maneuvered the traffic, she chattered on about aesthetics and style, theme and structure. I focused on the aquarium world drifting beyond the tinted windows where people strolled, lapped ice cream cones, hailed cabs, entered and exited buildings. Each individual represented a single priority, living from moment to moment, fleeing or pursuing, praying or narcotizing.
In a deep reverie by the time we stopped outside my building, I discovered that my acolyte had decided she didn't want to go home just yet. I understood. She was curious, eager to see my unique two thousand square feet of living space. She had an urge to visit my library, my art collection, my media center, my kitchen. My shower cabinet.
Earlier in the evening, I had dimmed the lights and thrown open the drapes, anticipating a guest. I never do this for Sarah but upon reentering the apartment, I thought of her. It was her fault she was being replaced this evening. She couldn't join me tonight and I was forced to go stag. Her loss. Thus orchestrated, the apartment lay before my visitor like a movie set: vistas, twinkly lights out there in the black, the rising moon. I flipped on the stereo and poured brandies. Everything proceeded per usual.
She was a writer, of course. And marginally interesting because twenty years ago when she was eight years old, her father accidentally shot her mother in the leg, severing the femoral artery. This brilliant young woman, then a brilliant little girl, witnessed her mother's death as she bled out on the living room floor. I brought up my own mother's premature death and we discussed that for a while until I sensed that tears were imminent and I changed the subject. After endless all-night sessions with various ex-girlfriends and lovers, I am no longer available as therapist to fucked-up beauties. I want my perquisites with no strings attached.
The awards dinner was a fading memory as we flirted. It was fait accompli, wasn't it? We were striking a deal. She would permit me to caress those mysterious thighs, nuzzle those breasts and enter her. In return I would grant her access to the inner sanctum of a great man's life. She would be allowed to entertain the illusion that she had melded with a great mind. (A mind not unlike hers, of course.) This entitlement would nourish her grandiosity, which she mistook for authentic talent.
My venerable cum was still cooling (or warming?) in her somewhere when I began to get restless. (No, no condom. I'm fixed. Furthermore I always make a pretense of being a person who rarely gets laid, ergo, the logic is, I carry no STDs. Girls like my new friend are usually clean and so am I. I hope.)
At two a.m, I let her know I had an early morning appointment and invited her to depart. She seemed surprised by this. As she redressed, I killed time scanning the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, then escorted her down to my driver, who had been waiting patiently under the awning of the building. Something simultaneously chivalrous and vulgar about that.
I handed her an autographed copy of A Gentle Death, slammed the door of the car, blew a kiss, turned on my heels and marched smartly back into the mild glow of the lobby, where my stoic doorman kept vigil. His face betrayed nothing.
In the elevator I discovered myself in a mirror. I am in my mid-fifties, almost handsome, gray-haired, bespectacled. I have the bearing of what? A successful man of the city. Or just one more putz? I am a Jew, an "Eastern intellectual" -- the kind of man the conservatives hate. Unlike my numerous uncles, I am neither overweight nor short. Like them, I wear the mask of one who is both focused and bemused, benign and angry. A wry smile and a furrowed brow lend an enigmatic quality. Here I am, as the world sees me, as I see me. No matter what I do, I can't get past myself.
There's nothing like the relief of reentering a vacant apartment after a date. It was as if I'd been holding my breath for hours and could finally exhale. All the disturbances had been cleared away, life was calm once more. The storm had passed, the rain had fallen and the sun was peeking out. I washed down a tab of Ambien with a mouthful of Fiji water and hit the sack.
I must have been asleep for twenty minutes when the phone rang. For a moment I had no idea where I was, or even who I was. Total disorientation. My companion's scent garnished the sheets. The early morning gloom of my bedroom was deep and soporific. I swam back to wakefulness and reached for the phone thinking that the call must be from the young lady. She'd probably left something behind. Wanted to come by in the morning to pick it up. That old trick.
Ready for a fight, I picked up the phone. But the voice on the other end was unexpectedly male. As the shadows congealed into solid reality, I caught on that my father was speaking. I tripped through a list of potential emergencies including a car accident, a brain aneurysm, even death. That he could call me after dying of a heart attack did not at that moment seem illogical. I groped for a light switch and the room exploded, yoking a band of pain around my skull. Only at that point did I realize I'd spent most of the previous evening drunk.
My father was neither dead nor ill, not in any trouble at all. He was calling because his aged aunt Sadie (my great-aunt) had died. She had resisted to the end. He described a gruesome final few hours, in which she had to struggle for every breath. Things had resolved as they do. Ninety-six years old and Sadie was at peace at last.
I assured him I would drive up in the morning. I had planned to use the day to lay out the bones of an essay for the Times op-ed page, another tactic on the part of Leon to billboard the book sans expense. But I didn't want to write it in the first place ("Literacy and the Internet") and now I had an excuse to postpone it. In the world of contemporary publishing, there are two emergencies that are never questioned: a death in the family and a request to fly out to Hollywood to "take a meeting." The Times would wait.
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