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It all starts at Cambridge University, where Dr. John Bentley throws his book burning parties—“a little active, symbolic literary criticism”—in which guests are invited to state their grudges against their least favorite books, and then toss them into a fire. It is at one such party that the brilliant but sheepish Gregory Collins meets Mike Smith, a handsome classmate. They become fast friends. And then their friendship takes a decidedly strange turn.
When Gregory’s first novel, The Wax Man, is published, he convinces Mike to take his place on the book jacket. Now Mike is the one invited to be a writer-in-residence at an insane asylum run by Dr. Eric Kincaid, whose obscure therapeutic philosophy centers on the soothing powers of literature. When Mike compiles a book of the inmates’ writings, and it becomes a literary success, this comedy of errors threatens to take another, far darker turn.
“Completely addictive and very, very funny. Great.” —Jonathan Lethem, author of A Gambler’s Anatomy
“Donald Westlake meets Ken Kesey in this . . . compulsively good read.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
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I first met Gregory Collins at a book-burning party given by my Director of Studies in his college rooms in Cambridge in 1974. I was as surprised to be invited as I was appalled to learn that such things went on in what I took to be an enlightened and liberal institution. I was, I admit, extremely young and extremely naive.
My Director of Studies was Dr John Bentley. We called him Dr John the Night Tripper, which was the least appropriate name we could come up with. He had a reputation for intellectual audacity, not to say offensiveness. He embraced 'tradition', the Augustans, Milton, Hobbes, right-wing politics, beagling, Wagner, the Salisbury Review, although, in retrospect, I'm sure he did much of it to annoy. He could also on occasions be extremely surprising. Once, in a tutorial ostensibly about Dryden, he delivered an extraordinarily detailed and well-informed, if ultimately dismissive, critique of the early films of Andy Warhol. It came as no surprise that he dismissed them, but it was pretty amazing that he'd taken the trouble to become informed about them at all; and not only was he informed, he'd actually been there at a showing of the full-length version of Empire at the Arts Lab, in London in 1967.
'I wouldn't have taken you for a fan of experimental cinema, Dr B,' I'd said at the time.
'I'm not,' he'd replied. 'I'm a fan of good jokes.'
We students wanted to find him both hateful and ridiculous; but we could never convincingly write him off as either, especially not when he was known to be such a good host. His parties, even the ones that didn't feature book burnings, floated on limitless reservoirs of college claret.
At first I thought the invitation must have come to the wrong man. I have a woefully common name – Mike Smith, a name shared with all sorts of people: the English cricketer, the keyboard player in the Dave Clark Five, to name but two. But I spoke to Bentley and he assured me there'd been no mistake.
The invitation wasn't at all explicit about how the party would proceed, but before long lots of information came my way. It was as though I'd joined some secret society. People I'd never spoken to before came up to me in Hall or in the bar, as though they were about to discuss, if not offer, drugs or sex, but all they wanted was to share gossip about this party. Some had actually attended previous ones, but mostly they'd just heard rumours, and they all wanted to know what book I was going to take along, and when I said I had no idea, they took the opportunity to school me in the various strategies.
The format, I was told, was quite simple. Each guest had to bring a book, just the one, and towards the end of the evening, when everyone was good and drunk, we would each in turn briefly state our reasons for wanting to burn our particular book, and then throw it into the fire in Bentley's study.
Of course, I was not the only one to be shocked by this flirtation with the imagery of Nazism. I was told there were those who got round the problem by bringing along a book that was itself fascistic, Mein Kampf or a volume of Nietzsche or Ayn Rand. Another option was to go for books which, if not evil, were at least transparently worthless: Agatha Christie or Barbara Cartland or Frederic Raphael. Other people apparently took what seemed to me a rather silly option and burned the Bible or Shakespeare or Chaucer, a reaction against being forced to read these texts as part of their education rather than because of anything the texts actually contained.
But in a way, it seemed to me that all these gestures somehow missed the point. From knowing the man a little, I felt Bentley's real interest was in castigating what he took to be the trendily, vapidly liberal, the emptily left-wing. Bentley didn't want us to burn the great works of English literature, he wanted us to burn Barthes and Marcuse, Chomsky and Foucault. I had actually read something by all these people and if I was cornered I'd probably have been forced to agree about their vapidity, but I tended to think they shouldn't be burned, if for no other reason than that they clearly annoyed and threatened people like Bentley.
I knew I should have turned down the invitation to the party, and yet there was some perverse honour in being invited. No doubt Dr Bentley chose his guests carefully, for their sense of irony or perhaps their moral ambivalence, and if some people went along with trepidation, or even with an urge to denounce the proceedings, that was all part of the show. Bentley didn't want to invite a bunch of Nazis to his book-burning parties; that would have been too easy. He wanted to invite a group of self-conscious, self-regarding students who had pretensions to civilisation and intellect, and he wanted to watch them squirm and implicate themselves.
His rooms were comfortable in a dusty, bookish, scholarly sort of way. There were a couple of leather wing chairs, a pair of frayed chaises-longues, a few upright chairs; but there was certainly not enough seating for the number of people at the party, so most of us stood awkwardly by the fireplace, or wedged in against glass-fronted bookcases filled with the dark, bare spines of English literary texts. These were serious, scholarly works in standard editions, nothing so frivolous as a paperback, nothing so gaudy as a book jacket. There were a few paintings on the walls, dark landscapes and still lifes thickened with the painters' disdain for brightness or colour. This seemed somehow deliberately joyless. The walls of my own room, naturally, were decked out with posters: Raquel Welch and Frank Zappa (not the one with him on the toilet – I thought that was a bit corny), and there was a reproduction of Hylas and the Nymphs, a painting I'd found indecently erotic when I first saw it, although the effect had started to wear off now that it had been up there for the best part of two years.
If Bentley's rooms were masculine, he was not. Like plenty of other Cambridge dons I'd met he managed to be effete without appearing at all homosexual, to be soft without being feminine. At the time he seemed ancient to me, a fading old scholar who had been immured with his books and his thoughts for decades. Now, I realise he could only have been in his mid-thirties, and his patrician, musty air had no doubt been developed precisely to disguise any vestiges of youthfulness or frivolity.
The invitation said 'lounge suits' were required, and I did happen to own a suit. My parents had bought it for me in my last year at school, saying it would come in handy for university entrance interviews, if nothing else. It still just about fitted me. The suit was sober, grey, smart, precise; everything I didn't want to be. Yes, I had worn it to interviews and it had apparently done no harm since I'd got in to Cambridge, a surprise to everyone except me, but I liked to think that my hair, long, thick, clean but out of control, did something to subvert the meaning of the suit. To make the point even more forcibly, I arrived at the book-burning party wearing a scruffy orange T-shirt under the suit, and if Dr Bentley wanted to bounce me for being improperly dressed, that was just fine by me. I intended to treat this party with at least some of the contempt it deserved. But Bentley didn't remark on the T-shirt at all, and welcomed me to his rooms with easy, effortless politeness, and then a college servant, a sullen, understandably resentful seventeen-year-old from the town, handed me a glass of wine.
The others at the party, a dozen or so undergraduates, plus a few research students, had made less effort to be subversive. They were all wearing collars and ties but most of them looked very ill-at-ease in this regulation dress. This was a time of shoulder-length hair and ornate facial fuzz, of faded, flared denim, of cheese-cloth shirts and grandad vests. Just about everyone wanted to look like a hippie, even some of the dons, but Gregory Collins was untouched by such influences.
He stood out from the crowd because he looked so at home in his suit. It was certainly not a smart suit and certainly not fashionable. It was a baggy three-piece, thick, hot, hairy, and looked as though it might have been handed down through the family, but Gregory inhabited it comfortably. He wore his hair in a short back and sides, and it shone slickly in a style reminiscent of Brylcreemed footballers from the nineteen-thirties. He was wearing what looked like an old school tie, perhaps one that he'd had since the second form.
He was big but not fat, not yet anyway, but he had difficulty manoeuvring his clumsy, uncoordinated bulk, and he moved as though constantly correcting himself, reining himself in, struggling to keep control of legs that threatened to walk into furniture, of arms that were constantly about to knock over glasses or elbow people in the stomach. He had one of those heads that appears to widen as it approaches the neck: the top of the skull a small dome, the cheeks slanting outwards, the jaw wider than the ears, disappearing into what one day soon would be heavy jowls.
There was something amusing about his clumsiness, and yet he was a person who demanded to be taken seriously. His size, his awkwardness, his uncompromising look of being out of place, gave him a presence, a gravity that had to be dealt with. I'd never met him before, in fact I only knew one or two people in the whole room, but he came across to me immediately and said, 'I saw you in some play or other, didn't I?' I admitted this might be so. I'd had a brief, humiliating fling with the world of student theatre.
'Aye, I thought it was you.'
By now I'd taken in his voice, an unembarrassed, even ostentatious, Yorkshire accent. This was not an unfamiliar ploy at Cambridge. Although some people at university tried to disguise their origins, either because they were too fancy or too humble or, as in my own case, simply too dull, others wore them like a badge. Personally, I was trying hard to appear classless and deracinated, and I admit that I did feel a little superior to Gregory Collins, not because he was working class, whereas I was more solidly, boringly middle class, but because he felt the need to turn his origins into a performance and I did not.
'You looked the part all right,' he said, 'but every time you opened your mouth, I thought, What a twat.'
His criticism was undoubtedly justified but it still took me aback. It did so happen that I was a good-looking young man at that time. I took no particular credit for it. I knew it was completely accidental, that it carried no morality with it, but others seemed to see it far less clear-sightedly than I did. Some people liked me because of the way I looked. People were willing to trust me, they were willing to make allowances, willing to do me favours. Sometimes they wanted something in return, perhaps there was an occasional sexual motive, people who fancied me, although they were almost always the wrong people. But sex wasn't the whole story, not even very much of the story. People attributed qualities to me because of my attractiveness. They wanted me around. They wanted me at their parties. They wanted me for their friend. I had an advantage that I thought the likes of Gregory Collins would never have.
And so, thinking I might be able to do something with these accidental good looks, I had gone into student amateur dramatics. The majority of the other people involved didn't seem to think of themselves as either students or amateurs. They preferred to think of themselves as serious young thespians, artists who were on the springboard to great things in the professional theatre, and I might have been willing to go along with the self-deception, but my few appearances on stage had convinced me I was absolutely, irredeemably amateur.
I tried to be good. I wanted to be charismatic and magnetic, the kind of performer audiences couldn't take their eyes off. But they could, and they did. Such charisma and magnetism as I genuinely seemed to have in my real life evaporated completely the moment I walked on stage. No doubt the whole audience thought, What a twat, but none of them had expressed it quite so directly as Gregory Collins.
At that point the sullen boy came round asking if we wanted our glasses refilled and Gregory Collins said, 'That'd be champion.' I thought he was trying to be funny, but no, 'champion' seemed to be a regular part of his vocabulary.
I discovered he'd seen me in a minor role in an experimental production of Huysmans' Against Nature, a project that would have been quite bad and ludicrous enough even without my own contribution. He said, 'I should think that's a book you wouldn't mind seeing burned.' I smiled thinly. The fact that he was almost right didn't make him any less annoying. I got away from him.
Our choice of book had to be kept secret, so we had arrived at the party with our volumes in sealed envelopes as though it were the Oscars or the Miss World Contest. But I did notice that Gregory Collins brought his offering in a locked metal case. This surely was taking things too far.
I spent the rest of the evening trying to keep my distance from him. He seemed like a bore. The party went on for a long time and nothing much happened. We all got slowly but not extravagantly drunk, and it was nearly midnight before the book burning started. I managed to get one of the few seats in the room from where I could see the proceedings clearly yet appear detached from them.
Bentley stood unsteadily on a footstool, called for order, and the burning began. He chose the sequence in which guests had to make their denunciations, but there seemed no particular pattern to it. I was hoping he'd choose me early so I could get it over with, but perhaps he sensed that and deliberately kept me waiting.
Envelopes were opened, books were produced, displayed, jejunely denounced and tossed into the fireplace. A couple of people played along with Bentley's prejudices. Someone burned Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. Someone went for Mythologies. But naturally there were also more liberal, combative elements present, and someone burned Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer for reasons Kate Millett would have agreed with.
A slight, red-haired Scot with a squint and asymmetrical, triangular sideburns had brought along a copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, not because he thought it deserved burning for anything it contained, he explained, but simply because of the title.
'When you consider it,' Bentley said thoughtfully, 'I don't suppose four hundred and fifty-one degrees Fahrenheit can really be the temperature at which all paper burns, can it? Paper comes in different varieties, made from all sorts of materials, and it's treated with any number of different chemicals and acids and so forth, depending on the quality and the purpose. So different kinds of paper must have widely differing flash points. Still, it's a catchy enough title.'
The fire burned erratically in the hearth, swallowing up books, occasionally choking with paper and ash, and requiring Bentley to attend it with a poker and tongs. He did it cheerfully and fastidiously, and he muttered ironic phrases about the dignity of labour.
Then a big fleshy bruiser took the floor. He was called Franklin, a medical student, treasurer of the JCR committee, captain of the college rowing team, who made pin-money by selling cheap pocket calculators to science students, assuring buyers that these little plastic suckers were going to change the world. Most of us were not convinced.
'I'd certainly like to rid the world of this novelettish little volume,' he said.
He opened his envelope and displayed a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, and in one movement he whipped it across the room like a frisbee, so that it thwacked into the fire back, creating a messy little eruption of ash and soot.
'Oh, come on,' I said loudly, 'that's not funny.'
'Wasn't trying to be funny.'
I started to get up from my chair. I don't know precisely what I had in mind, whether I was going to flounce out of the party or whether I was going to offer to horse-whip the anti-Semitic bounder; but inevitably I did neither and Bentley did his amused best to placate me.
'You shouldn't take this too seriously, you know,' he said. 'We aren't actually trying to rid the world of these books. That would be as wearisome as it would be futile. We're simply engaging in a little active, symbolic literary criticism.'
I was usually quite good at thinking on my feet and coming back with a snappy answer, but I couldn't think of anything worth saying, so rather awkwardly I sat down again, had another drink, and I was still gently glowering when Bentley said, 'So, Michael, have you solved your own liberal dilemma in this area?'
'You mean, have I found a book I want to burn?'
He pursed his mouth to show that he thought I was being a little vulgar and needlessly explicit.
'As a matter of fact, I have,' I said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bedlam Burning"
Copyright © 2001 Geoff Nicholson.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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