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Riding the Yellow Trolley Car
By William Kennedy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 William Kennedy
All rights reserved.
The Writer on the Examining Table
THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK:
Riding the Yellow Trolley Car
The Yellow Trolley Car is a realistic, or perhaps surrealistic, vision I may, or may not, have had in Barcelona in 1972 when I was there to interview Gabriel García Márquez. When my wife, Dana, and I crossed into Spain at Port Bou, we asked at the tourist window for some literature on Barcelona and were given a brochure that detailed the trolley lines in the city, by number and destination. At Columbus Plaza we tried to find the trolley that would take us to Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church, one of Barcelona's wonders. A vendor of fresh coconut at the plaza explained that there hadn't been any trolley cars in Barcelona for fourteen or fifteen years.
Why, then, were they still mentioning them by name in the tourist literature? The coconut vendor had no answer and so we boarded a bus instead of a trolley and rode toward Gaudi's monumental work. We stood at the back of the bus and watched the mansions and apartment buildings make splendid canyons out of the street, which at times looked as I imagined Fifth Avenue must have looked in its most elegant nineteenth-century moments. And then I said to Dana, "Look, there's a trolley."
She missed it, understandably. Its movement was perpendicular to our own. It crossed an intersection about three blocks back, right to left, visible only for a second or so, then disappeared behind the canyon wall.
When we reached García Márquez's house we talked for some hours and eventually I asked him, "What trolleys still run in Barcelona?" He and his wife, Mercedes, both said there were no trolleys in Barcelona. Mercedes remembered a funicular that went somewhere.
"This one was yellow," I said, "and old-fashioned in design."
"No," she said. "The funicular is blue."
García called his agent, Carmen Balcells, on the phone. "Is there a yellow trolley car in Barcelona?" he asked. "I'm here having an interview with Kennedy and he saw a yellow trolley." He listened, then turned to us and said, "All the trolleys were yellow in the old days."
He asked about the blue trolley, but Carmen said it was outside of town, nowhere near where we had been. In a few minutes she called back to say that about two years ago there was a public ceremony in which the last trolley car in Barcelona had been formally buried.
What had I seen? I have no idea.
"To me," García said, "this is completely natural."
He had already told us a story of how a repairman woke them and said, "I came to fix the ironing cord."
"My wife," García said, "from the bed says, 'We don't have anything wrong with the iron here.' The man asks, 'Is this apartment two?' 'No,' I say, 'upstairs.' Later, my wife went to the iron and plugged it in and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it."
In a later year a friend pointed out that I had included trolley cars in all my books except Legs, and in that I included a train. I grew up riding trolleys to school, hated to see them displaced by the mundane bus, and obviously gave them a significant place in my imagination.
When I wrote about my Barcelona vision, I equated riding the trolley with writing fiction, but in trying to find a title for this collection of essays, journalism, reviews, interviews, and other pieces that seem to create their own categories, it became clear I should also equate the trolley with writing nonfiction.
That said, I must also say that I am torn. García Márquez, in an interview in The Paris Review, said he didn't think there was any difference between fiction and nonfiction. "The sources are the same," he said, "the material is the same, the resources and the language are the same. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is a great novel and Hiroshima is a great work of journalism."
And in a panel discussion in Albany that opposed fiction to nonfiction, Mary Gordon raised a comparable argument: "Do we have to say that War and Peace is more important than The Confessions of St. Augustine? ... I think that's an unnecessary and a false choice and I think it's a very human thing. People like to feel that they know where they stand, that there is a truth, there is a superior genre."
I find validity in both arguments; and genius is genius in whatever form. But I also believe that fiction, at its most achieved, comes from a source — a profound wellspring in the unconscious — that is not accessible to nonfiction, unless the form is stretched to the point where it overlaps with, or is indistinguishable from, fiction.
It is axiomatic that nonfiction is the collection and interpretation of information; and that fiction is information invented and interpreted. If done well, fiction reads the soul of a nonexistent being, dramatizes it, and creates an effect on the reader that is beyond the reach of reporting, or analytical or theoretical writing.
That said, nonfiction is the genre at hand, and I love it extremely well. I have worked in it all my writing life, and have enormous respect for its pitfalls and its exalted reaches.
I began my writing career as a newspaperman, and fragments from those early days are here, along with the story of my first effort at fiction. My original career plan was to live the life of the reporter who could go anywhere and write about anything, and, on the side, toss off an occasional short story to satisfy the craving for art; also to help pay the rent, newspaper salaries being scandalously low.
This is not how it worked out. I quit newspapering in 1957 to write a novel, but was back in the city room two years later. I quit again two years after that to finish a novel, yet continue to work part-time as a journalist even to this rainy July day in the early summer of 1992. I have covered sports, crime, trials, slums, city hall, politics, race, movies, books, and theater. I've done investigative work, raked muck, written columns and editorials, been an editor, and I've loved it all. But along the way something happened to my head and I turned into a novelist.
Yet I valued the nonfiction experience and always dreamed of making a book out of it: this book. The earliest story in the collection, the demise of Langford the cat, dates to 1954, and the most recent, a story about Damon Runyon, a hero of mine, I wrote a month ago. I have included, in large measure, pieces about literature, other art forms, pop culture and Albany. I left out my writings on politics, crime and other hard news; though they may turn up another day.
The problem from the beginning was in deciding what work survived, what had gone rancid. One piece that survived was a review of Hemingway's journalism, and I quoted him saying this:
The "newspaper stuff I have written ... has nothing to do with the other writing which is entirely apart. ... The first right that a man writing has is the choice of what he will publish. If you have made your living as a newspaperman, learning your trade, writing against deadlines, writing to make stuff timely rather than permanent, no one has any right to dig this stuff up and use it against the stuff you have written to write the best you can."
Of course you have the right to do this yourself, if you can live with it, and I decided I could. This book, in a way, is a writer's oblique autobiography (of his taste, if nothing else). It is the tracking of a writing style as it develops. It is about reading, and it can stand as a chorale of contemporary voices, also a chorale of my own assumed voices. It is a historical chronicle of what some of the world's best writers were writing in the decades the book spans, and it is an analysis of how fiction is written: writers talking of their craft, their ideas.
The latter element is the result of my own need to know. I was still an apprentice in fiction when I moved back home to Albany from Puerto Rico in 1963, starving for conversation about writing and literature. I'd worked for the Albany Times-Union from 1952 to the spring of 1956 and now I was back, writing anything that appealed to me, working half-time. I also became a stringer for a new national newspaper, Dow Jones's staid National Observer; and I self-propelled myself into covering, among other things, the literary life upstate for these two papers.
I sought out James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and others, and when writers like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Penn Warren came to town I was there, cajoling them into telling me how they created literature, how they imagined it, lived it. Of these literary encounters, I've included only those that still seem worth reading twenty or more years after the fact.
After I did these interviews, my editors decided I was such an aficionado of writing that I should become a book reviewer. Also, because I had lived in Puerto Rico, I was considered expert in Latin American literature, and so I was thrust into assuming a point of view on the works of others: a critic, can you believe it? This was not what I was supposed to do in life. I was a newsman, a writer. I well knew where, in descending order, Beckett had ranked the critic: moron, vermin, abortion, morpion, sewer-rat, curate, cretin, and finally, "crritic!"
But there I was, working in the eighth circle of judgmental hell, and somehow glad to be there. I relished being force-fed good books, even less-than-good books, for it is also important to know how a book is badly written. The reviewing paid next to nothing, but I took what came. I remember the late David Boroff, also working for the Observer and one or two journals of opinion, calling what we were doing "dirty-shirt journalism," for at these wages you couldn't afford to send out your laundry.
It was painful to read a bad book and then have to write a negative review. I did a few, but even when I was right I regretted it. In time I sent back books I knew I'd have to knock. I found no pleasure, as some critics do, in denigrating the work of others; my ego was never so needy, nor was rejection my way to define a critical canon. I remember an academic friend, who liked almost nothing, telling me I shouldn't be so ready to praise, but should look for the flaws in any work. I decided this was literary sadism in the service of highmindedness. Not my way. I mentioned flaws when I thought I'd found them, but I was far more interested in discovering what I felt was valuable in a work, and illuminating that.
Eventually I resented reviewing, and writing essays, and even doing journalistic work, for it took time from fiction writing; and yet there was always the pleasure of completing any piece of writing, serious or frivolous, to my own satisfaction. And although I've gone for long periods of time without writing nonfiction, I always come back to it — to challenge the imagination in a new way, or to take on an assignment too good to reject, or to extend my knowledge of a subject, or to redefine my memory. What's more, any work that lets me run loose with the language needs no other justification.
One of the high points of my reporting came in 1973 when I was in Dublin to cover a week-long symposium of James Joyce scholars. By what I presumed to be happenstance, but which I would like to think was something mystically richer than that, I was driving along and stopped at a street corner, looked up, and saw the sign ECCLES STREET. I quickly found number 7, where Leopold and Molly Bloom lived.
It was one of four row houses, gone now but part of their façades still erect, including, at number 7, two boarded-up windows, the doorway nailed over with corrugated aluminum, a black iron picket fence in front, and the chalky discoloration where the 7 used to be. The bedroom door from number 7 had been installed at The Bailey, a Dublin pub. Grass and weeds grew just beyond the doorstep in the now vacant lot that was once the house. What remained had been marked long ago by a reverent Joycean or two: over the absent door, erratically printed in faded black paint, and also carved on a horizontal board, was the name "Molly Bloom." There was also the mark of, perhaps, an anti-Joycean: the word "shit," the only legible item among the faded bits of graffiti.
It is probably psychically confusing to visit a house in memory of people who lived there but never actually existed. And yet in Ulysses such is the detail available about the Blooms and how and where they lived that they have a bygone reality equivalent to our dead relatives'. Through the use of the real in service of the fictional, said one scholar, Joyce "canonized the obsession with being Irish — the whole love of place, of knowing a particular street in Dublin and talking all night about it."
As to myself, there on Eccles Street, what I was doing was journalism. But I was also, as I now know, riding the yellow trolley car.
THE BEGINNING OF THE WRITER:
My first short story I wrote for Collier's magazine. Collier's didn't know this when I wrote it. It was called "Eggs" and concerned a man who goes into a diner and orders scrambled eggs. The counterman doesn't want to serve him eggs and suggests goulash. The man insists on his eggs, the counterman reluctantly serves them, the man eats them and leaves. End of story. I was eighteen, my first year of college. After I wrote "Eggs" I showed it to my mother and as with everything else I had done in life she thought it was very good. I also showed it to my banjo teacher, Mike Pantone. Very good, he also said. He did not say it was very very good, which is what he said when I played well during my banjo lesson.
I showed the story to my father and he read it at the breakfast table while eating eggs of his own. He liked soft-boiled eggs with a teaspoon of sugar on them, and tea with three teaspoons of sugar. I never saw him eat scrambled eggs. What could he know of my story? He read it and said, "What the hell is this?"
"It's a story, a short story," I said.
"It's about a guy who goes in and eats eggs," he said.
"That's right," I said.
"What the hell kind of a story is that?" he said.
"It's a realistic story," I said. "I'm sending it off to Collier's."
"They publish stuff like this?"
"Every week," I said.
"Who the hell wants to read about a guy who goes in and eats eggs?"
"The whole world reads Collier's," I said. "The whole world eats eggs."
"Is this what you learned in school?" My schooling had cost serious money.
"I don't want to argue about it," I said. "You either like it or you don't."
"Take a guess," my father said.
Well I'd show him. I sent it off to Collier's that afternoon and I've still got the rejection slip to prove it. I never showed any more stories to my father. This is known as writer's block. However, I reread the story last week for the first time in forty-five years and my father emerges from that day as a masterful literary critic. A retarded orangutan could write a better story than "Eggs."
Be that as it may, writing the story was valuable for an assortment of reasons. It was the first step of a career. It proved I'd get better because I couldn't get worse. It acquainted me with rejection and I didn't die from it. It taught me that whether they're right or wrong, don't trust your parents with literature. It was about a particular place, the diner down the block, that I went to five nights a week, and about a counterman named Herbie who had been a batboy for the Yankees and was a pal of mine who died of cigarettes and who was such a singular man that I wrote "Eggs" two more times in later years. I called it "Counterman on Duty" and then just "Eat," and the story got better without getting good. Finally I abandoned it and put Herbie in a novel under another name and there he is at last, even though he missed out on Collier's.
Eudora Welty once wrote that a writer should write not about what he knows, but what he doesn't know about what he knows. I translate this to mean that the writer should understand and value mystery. But the only mystery about "Eggs" is why I didn't know it was awful. In time I did put some of my own mystery into the places I wrote about, and my fiction improved.
I'm sorry my parents didn't get to appreciate what happened to me as a writer. My mother died while I was still trying to get my short stories published, and my father was at the cusp of senility when I published my first novel. But he bragged about the book down at the State Supreme Court, where he worked. He said it was about how two thousand cows get swept out to sea in Puerto Rico. Actually the book is set in Albany and doesn't have any cows. But you can see how with that kind of imagination and critical apparatus in my genes it was inevitable that I'd become a writer.
Hearst Is Where You Find Him (And I Found Him in Albany)
Charlie Davis was an old and amiably cynical newspaperman who had the falsest set of false teeth I ever saw, who had genius when he played high-low seven-card stud, who owned a bad stomach (every night he drank a cup of soup, every night he threw it up), a backwardly sloping bald pate with straight white threads hanging off it like icicles, a belly like a bowling pin, a talent for making up a front page so that you wanted to read every story, a reverence for authority that came from a lifetime of working for William Randolph Hearst and a penchant for uttering zingers.
Excerpted from Riding the Yellow Trolley Car by William Kennedy. Copyright © 1993 William Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
William Kennedy, author, screenwriter and playwright, was born and raised in Albany, New York. Kennedy brought his native city to literary life in many of his works. The Albany cycle, includes Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Ironweed.The versatile Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Ironweed, the play Grand View, and cowrote the screenplay for the The Cotton Club with Francis Ford Coppola. Kennedy also wrote the nonfiction O Albany! and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car. Some of the other works he is known for include Roscoe and Very Old Bones.
Kennedy is a professor in the English department at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the founding director of the New York State Writers Institute and, in 1993, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has received numerous literary awards, including the Literary Lions Award from the New York Public Library, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Governor’s Arts Award. Kennedy was also named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and a member of the board of directors of the New York State Council for the Humanities.
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