Fair Warning is acclaimed novelist Robert Olen Butler's enthralling glimpse into a Manhattan auction house that caters to the shopping pheromones of the rich and powerful. At age forty, the company's charismatic star employee, Amy Dickerson, is capable of selling a Renoir painting of a pudgy nude for twice its value. Her customers are intoxicated by the objects they covet. And sometimes, such as when the dark and mysterious Trevor locks eyes with Amy as she closes an auction with "fair warning," that object is Amy herself. Selected as a Book Sense 76 title and as a New York Times Summer Reading title, "[Fair Warning] is as frank and sassy as its heroine." Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe "Engaging ... fascinating ... accompanied by the wealth of evocative detail one might expect from a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize." Les Standiford, The Miami Herald "Once again, [Butler's] language is right on the money in this alternately witty and moving meditation on value and values." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor "Butler has created one of the more fascinating female protagonists in recent history." Kirkus Reviews "Fair Warning deserves our praise, but its author also deserves our gratitude, for his continued risk-taking and stubbornly singular sensibility." Todd Kliman, The Washington Post
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Perhaps my fate was sealed when I sold my three-year-old sister. My father had taken me to a couple of cattle auctions, not minding that I was a girlthis was before Missy was born, of courseand I'd loved the fast talk and the intensity of the whole thing. So the day of my seventh birthday party, where Missy did a song for everyone while I sat alone, my chin on my hand, and meditated behind my still uncut birthday cake, it seemed to me that here was a charming and beautiful little asset I had no further use for and that could be liquidated to good effect. The next day I gathered a passel of children from our gated community in Houston, kids with serious money, and I had Missy do a bit of her song once more, and I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, no greater or more complete perfection of animal beauty ever stood on two legs than the little girl who stands before you. She has prize-winning breeding and good teeth. She will neither hook, kick, strike nor bite you. She is the pride and joy and greatest treasure of the Dickerson family and she is now available to you. Who will start the bidding for this future blue ribbon winner? Who'll offer fifty cents? Fifty cents. Who'll give me fifty?" I saw nothing but blank stares before me. I'd gotten all these kids together but I still hadn't quite gotten them into the spirit of the thing. So I looked one of these kids in the eye and I said, "You, Tony Speck. Aren't your parents rich enough to give you an allowance of fifty cents?" He made a hard, scrunched-up face and he said, "A dollar." And I was off. I finally sold her for six dollars and twenty-five cents toa quiet girl up the street whose daddy was in oil. She was an only child, a thing I made her feel sorry about when the bidding slowed down at five bucks.
Needless to say, the deal didn't go through. Missy tried to go get her dolls and clothes before she went off to what I persuaded her was a happy, extended sleep over, and Mama found out. That night my parents and Missy ate dinner in the dining room and I was put in my own room upstairs with a TV tray to eat my spaghetti alone. If I wanted to sell any one of them, then I wanted to sell them all, they claimed, and eating alone was supposed to show me how it would feel. I was supposed to be lonely. Of course, they were wrong. It was just my sister I wanted to dispose of. And all I was feeling was that somehow Missy had done it to me again. She was at my daddy's elbow downstairs, offering her cheek for pinching. I felt pissed about that but I also felt exhilarated at the thought of what I'd done at the sale. I figured she wasn't worth even half the final bid.
I am forty years old. Recently turned, and it's true I don't look it. But splendid conditionand enchanting provenancenotwithstanding, an object also is what it is by its objective standards. I'm forty now. Missy is thirty-six. My daddy is dead. For more than a year. Mama sits in the same rambling faux Queen Anne on the same gated street in Houston.
And I'm sure she continues to wonder why her two daughters have chosen to live seventeen hundred miles away. She's long wondered that, though she's always been forgiving of Missy because there was a husband involved. As for me, I still feel exhilarated when I can sell something to somebody, especially when they end up valuing the thing more than anyone else possibly could. Perhaps in some way all our fates were sealed.
Still, these past weeks following my fortieth birthday have been, at the very least, unexpected. It started with the Crippenhouse auction. Near the end of the morning, after I'd gaveled down dozens of lots of major artwork for big money from a big crowd that nearly filled our Blue Salon, a tiny, minor Renoir came up. Barely six inches square. One fat naked young woman with a little splash of vague foliage behind her. Generic Impressionism on a very small scale. Like a nearsighted man looking through the knothole in a fence without his glasses. And yet I stood before these wealthy people and I knew them well, most of them, knew them from playing them at this podium many times before and meeting them at parties and studying the social registers and reading their bios and following their ups and downs and comings and goings in the society columns and the Wall Street Journal and even the Times news pages. I stood before them and there was a crisp smell of ozone in the air and the soft clarity of our indirect lights and, muffled in our plush drapery and carpeting, the rich hush of money well and profusely spent. I looked around, giving them a moment to catch their breath. The estimate on the Renoir was one hundred and forty thousand dollars. Often we'd put a relatively low estimate on a thing we knew would be hot in order to draw in more sharks looking for an easy kill, and if you knew what you were doing, they wouldn't even realize that you'd actually gotten them into a feeding frenzy until they'd done something foolish. But this was one of those items where we'd jacked up the estimate on a minor piece that had one prestige selling point in order to improve its standing. Renoir. He's automatically a big deal, we were saying. In fact, though, we were going to be happy getting eighty percent of the estimate. I had just one bid in the book lying open before memine was bound in Morocco with gilt pageswhich is where an auctioneer notes the order bids, the bids placed by the big customers with accounts who are too busy sunning themselves somewhere in the Mediterranean or cutting deals down in Wall Street to attend an auction. For the little Renoir, the one book bid wasn't even six figures, and I knew the guy had a thing for fat women.
So I looked out at the bid-weary group and I said, "I know you people," though at the moment I said this, my eyes fell on a man on the far left side about eight rows back who, in fact, I did not know. There were, of course, others in the room I didn't know, but this man had his eyes on me and he was as small-scaled and indistinct to my sight as the fat girl in the painting. But he was fixed on me and I could see his eyes were dark and his hair was dark and slicked straight back and his jaw was quite square and I know those aren't enough things to warrant being caught stopping and looking at somebody and feeling some vague sense of possibilityno, hardly even thatfeeling a surge of heat in your brow and a little catch and then quickening of your breath.
I forced my attention to the matter at hand. "I know you," I repeated, getting back into the flow that had already started in me. "You're wearing hundred-dollar underpants and carrying thousand-dollar fountain pens."
They laughed. And they squirmed a little. Good.
I said, "You will not relinquish even the smallest detail of your life to mediocrity."
Now they stirred. I am known for talking to my bidders. Cajoling them. Browbeating them, even. At Christie's and Sotheby's they would grumble at what I do. But they value me at Nichols and Gray for these things. And my regulars here know what to expect.
I said, "But there is a space in the rich and wonderful place where you live that is given over to just such a thing, mediocrity. A square column in the foyer, a narrow slip of wall between two doors. You know the place. Think about it. Feel bad about it. And here is Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dead for eighty years, the king of the most popular movement in the history of serious art, ready to turn that patch of mediocrity into a glorious vision of corporeal beauty. Lot 156. Entitled 'Adorable Naked French Woman with Ample Enough Thighs to Keep Even John Paul Gibbons in One Place.'" And with this I looked directly at John Paul Gibbons, who was in his usual seat to the right side in the second row. He was as famous in the world of these people for his womanizing as for his money. I said, "Start the bidding at forty thousand, John Paul."
He winked at me and waved his bidder's paddle and we were off.
"Forty thousand," I said. "Who'll make it fifty?"
Since John Paul was on my right, I suppose it was only natural for me to scan back to the left to draw out a competing bid. I found myself looking toward the man with the dark eyes. How had I missed this face all morning? And he raised his paddle.
"Fifty thousand ..." I cried and I almost identified him in the way I'd been thinking of him, as "Dark Eyes." But I caught myself. "... to the gentleman on the left side." I was instantly regretful for having started this the way I had. Was Renoir's pudgy beauty his type?
My auctioneer self swung back to John Paul Gibbons to pull out a further bid, even as the thoughts of another, covert self in me raced on.
"Sixty from Mr. Gibbons," I said, thinking, If she is his type, then I'm shit out of luck. All my life I've been in desperate pursuit of exactly the wrong kind of butt.
And sure enough, Dark Eyes bid seventy. I was happy for womanhood in general, I guess, if this were true, that men were coming back around to desiring the likes of this plumped-up pillow of a young woman, but I was sad for me, and I looked over my shoulder at her and my auctioneer self said, "Isn't she beautiful?" and my voice betrayed no malice.
John Paul took it to eighty and Dark Eyes took it to ninety while I paused inside and grew sharp with myself. You've become a desperate and pathetic figure, Amy Dickerson, growing jealous over a stranger's interest in the image of a naked butterball. "Ninety-five to the book," I said.
And there was a brief pause.
I swung back to John Paul. A man like thishow many times had he merely seen a woman across a room and he knew he had to get closer to her, had to woo and bed her if he could? Was I suddenly like him? "A hundred? Can you give me a hundred? No way you people are going to let a Renoir go for five figures. You'd be embarrassed to let that happen."
John Paul raised his paddle. "A hundred thousand to John Paul Gibbons."
The bid had run past the order bid in my book and a basic rule for an auctioneer is to play only two bidders at a time. But I didn't want to look at Dark Eyes again. I should have gone back to him, but if he had a thing for this woman who looked so unlike me, then to hell with him, he didn't deserve it. If he was bidding for itand this thought made me grow warm againif he was bidding for it merely out of his responsiveness to me, then I didn't want him to waste his money on a second-rate piece. "One ten?" I said and I raised my eyes here on the right side and another paddle went up, about halfway back, a woman who lived on Park Avenue with a house full of Impressionists and a husband twice her age. "One ten to Mrs. Fielding on the right."
She and John Paul moved it up in a few moments to the estimate, one forty. There was another little lull. I said, "it's against you, Mrs. Fielding." Still she hesitated. I should turn to my left, I knew. Dark Eyes could be waiting to give a bid. But instead I went for all the other Mrs. Fieldings. I raised my hand toward the painting, which sat on an easel behind me and to my left. My auctioneer self said, "Doesn't she look like that brief glimpse you had of your dearest aunt at her bath when you were a girl? Or even your dear mama? Her essence is here before you, a great work of art." But the other me, with this left arm lifted, thoughtfor the first time ever from this podium, because I was always a cool character in this place, always fresh and coolthis other me that had gone quite inexplicably mad thought, My god what if I'm sweating and he's looking at a great dark moon beneath my arm?
I know about desire. It's my job to instill itblind, irrational desirein whole crowds of people. But doctors get sick. Lawyers go to jail. Evangelists get caught with prostitutes. There are impulsive attractions that make you feel like you're in control of your life somehowhere's something I want, even superficially, and I'm free to grab it. Then there are the impulsive attractions that only remind you how freedom is a fake. You might be free to pursue your desires, but you're never free to choose them.
And I had no choice that morning. I lowered my arm abruptly in spite of the fact I hadn't sweat from nerves since I was sixteen. But I'd already made my selling point. I'd stoked the desire of others and Mrs. Fielding took up the pursuit, as did another wealthy woman for a few bids and then anotherI played them two at a timeand then it was one of the moneyed women against a little man who dealt in art in the 'Village and should have known better about this piece, which made me wonder if he'd had a life-changing glimpse of his corpulent mama at her bath, but that was the kind of thing my auctioneer self rightly ruminated on during the rush of the bidding and I had more or less put Dark Eyes out of my mind and we climbed over a quarter of a million and my boss was beaming in the back of the room and then it stopped, with the little man holding a bid of two hundred and sixty thousand dollars. "It's against you," I said to the woman still in the bidding. She shook her head faintly to say she was out of it.
There is a moment that comes, if you've done your work well, when the whole room finally and abruptly goes, What the hell are we doing? I knew we had reached that moment. But I would have to look back to my left before I could push on to a conclusion.
"Two sixty," I said. "Do I hear two seventy? Two seventy for your sweet Aunt Isabelle? Two sixty then. Fair warning."
Now I looked to him.
His eyes were fixed on me as before and then he smiled, and the unflappable Amy Dickerson, master auctioneer, suddenly flapped. I lost the flow of my words and I stopped. It seemed that he was about to raise his paddle. Don't do it, I thought, trying to send a warning to him across this space. I wrenched my attention away and cried, "Sold! For two hundred and sixty thousand dollars."
I normally use the lull after the gavel, while the lot just sold is taken away and the next one set up, to assess certain buyers that I've learned to read. One woman who sits perfectly still through the bidding for items she has no interest in will suddenly start shuffling her feet when something she wants is about to come up. Another refreshes her lipstick unnecessarily. One distinguished retired surgeon, who always wears a vest, will lift up slightly from where he's sitting, first one cheek and then the other, as if he's passing a perfect pair of farts. But on that morning I was still struggling with an unreasonable obsession. I thought of nothing but this complete stranger and I finally realized that the only way to exorcise this feeling was to confront it, but when at last I worked up the courage to look once more to my left, Dark Eyes had gone.
Though I'd more or less always competed with her and resented her and criticized her and argued with her and ignored her and heeded her every foolish thoughtwhich is to say I loved her like a sisterMissy and I had lunch once a week in the Village. Sometimes, when we'd grow vaguely irritable with each other for reasons neither of us could put a finger on, one of us would smile a brittle smile at the other and say it just that way. "I love you like a sister," she'd say or I'd say, and then the other would reply, "Just so" or "Me too" or even "Go to hell." And still, we'd tell each other everything, as if there was an actual bond of trust between us, which there was.
So the day after the Crippenhouse auction, over sushi on Thompson Street, I talked about Dark Eyes. "I was relieved," I said, about his vanishing at the end. "But damn if I wasn't wildly disappointed as well."
"So? There sat a man like John Paul Gibbons and I'm suddenly acting like his dark twin sister."
"Is John Paul still after you?"
"You're missing the point," I said.
She shrugged. "I don't think so. You're forty now, Amy. You're single. It's hormones and lifestyle."
"Yow," I cried.
"Did you get some wasabi up your nose?"
In fact, I was merely thinking, If you hadn't gone back for your dolls and your clothes I wouldn't be sitting here with you once a week out of familial devotion listening to your complacent hardness of heart. Though I realized, trying to be honest with myself, that my alternative todayand most dayswas
Excerpted from Fair Warning by Robert Olen Butler. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Olen Butler. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.