|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
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About the Author
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The Salinger Contract
By Adam Langer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Adam Langer
All rights reserved.
I never believed a book could save your life. It makes sense that Conner Joyce would be the one who changed my mind about that. The story of how one book saved me while another nearly killed Conner began, appropriately enough, in a bookstore—to be more precise, at Borders in Bloomington, Indiana, where I saw a poster with Conner's picture on it. By then, I had nearly forgotten Conner. I had figured I was done with books.
After my magazine, Lit, folded half a dozen years earlier and I lost my plum position as books editor, I pretty much stopped reading contemporary fiction, particularly crime novels like the ones Conner wrote. I may have spent a fair amount of time decrying the demise of America's reading culture, but it wasn't like I was helping to improve the situation. My wife had a good gig at the university, and we had two young daughters: Ramona, age six, who was just starting chapter books, and Beatrice, two and a half, who was a voracious consumer of picture books, and that's pretty much all I found time to read. As far as I was concerned, the interesting part of my life was over.
When I lived in New York and worked for the magazine, I wrote author profiles—pieces of 1,500 to 2,000 words that allowed authors to tell their stories in their own words in an environment in which they felt comfortable. I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston with Dennis Lehane; rode the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island with E. L. Doctorow; attended a Springsteen concert with Margaret Atwood; and went camping in the Pocono Mountains with Conner Joyce and his wife, Angela De La Roja. Not exactly hard-hitting journalism, but the authors usually liked the articles because I printed their quotes verbatim and cleaned up their swearwords if they asked. Plus, the pictures that accompanied the articles were extremely flattering. Hardly anyone had ever called Maurice Sendak or Stephen King handsome before they saw my profiles. And even Conner Joyce—once named one of America's Sexiest Writers by People magazine—told me he'd never seen a better photo of himself.
My Lit profiles usually conformed to one of two basic templates—either an author was exactly like the characters he wrote about in his books or (surprise!) he was nothing like them. My profile of Conner ("His Aim Is True: How Stories Saved Conner Joyce's Life") fell somewhere between the two: though I sensed he was too compassionate and earnest to commit the crimes he wrote, the humanity of his characters was clearly his own.
When I interviewed Conner in Pennsylvania, we talked a lot about books. I turned him on to my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and José Saramago; he tried to convince me of the merits of Jaroslaw Dudek and J. D. Salinger. Most of his favorite authors were recluses, he said. He admired writers whose own stories were as interesting as the ones they wrote. He loved the mystery of Salinger, holed up in his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, refusing to publish for more than forty years. He was captivated by the life of Jaroslaw Dudek, the Olympic shot-put silver medalist and Ministry of Internal Affairs functionary who won just about every international literary award with his only novel, Other Countries, Other Lives, then disappeared shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Conner had read every biography ever written about B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who concealed his identity using anagrammatic pseudonyms such as Ret Marut and Hal Croves and was rumored to be the son of Kaiser Wilhelm. He had spent hours admiring and puzzling over the last-known photographs of Thomas Pynchon taken at Cornell University. He had written a high school research paper about Roland Cephus, the unofficial poet laureate of the Black Panther movement who had gone underground after the 1971 publication of A Molotov Manifesto.
As a boy and as a teenager, Conner had written letters to the agents and publishers for Dudek, Salinger, Pynchon, and Harper Lee. He hoped his heartfelt appreciation of To Kill a Mockingbird and Atticus Finch would make Lee break her silence and tell him about her quiet little existence in Monroeville, Alabama. He never received responses, yet he fantasized about meeting those writers, and he still wondered what it would be like to be so intriguing that people would actually care if he disappeared.
The way I remembered him, Conner was one of the good guys—a big, earnest Irish-Catholic from a family of police sergeants, fire department captains, Eagle Scouts, and Navy vets. The kind of guy you wanted to captain your ball team, to help talk your way out of a bad neighborhood after dark, or to pilot your plane through rough weather. He was one of the few authors I interviewed who actually seemed more interested in hearing about me than I was in hearing about him.
In the time we spent together, even though I told him I didn't really like talking about it, somehow he got me to tell him my whole family story—what I knew of it anyway: being born to a single mom; growing up in a two-bedroom apartment on West Farragut Street on Chicago's drab north side; putting myself through college at UIC; refusing my mother's offers of money because I knew how cash-strapped she was; working as a waiter, a writer for CBS Radio, and a freelancer for various alternative newspapers such as Neon, Strong Coffee, and The Reader; meeting my future wife, Sabine, one night at the Lakeview café called Java Jive when she was on a study-abroad program and I was working behind the counter, long before anyone had heard the word "barista"; moving with Sabine to New York, where she went to grad school and I edited Lit. I told Conner about my vain attempts to track down my birth father, about my tight-lipped mother, Trudy Herstein, a longtime worker for the Tribune Company who cocooned herself in silence whenever I asked about her life before I was born. When I told Conner I was writing a novel about my search for my father, he said it sounded like a great book and he'd love to read it.
When I finished writing up the interview, I let him approve his quotes before I published the piece. He didn't ask me to change anything, and only requested that I airbrush the cigarette from his pictures. He wanted to be a dad someday, he said, and didn't want his kid to see him smoking. I got into a big fight about it with my publisher, M. J. Thacker, who had been trying to get Philip Morris to take out a full-page ad, but ultimately, I won that battle for Conner.
When I needed someone to endorse Nine Fathers—my first and, to date, only novel—I sent out about a dozen e-mails and letters to various authors I had interviewed. And though, at the time, Conner was one of the biggest names among them, he was first to respond. He didn't act busy and self-important like E. L. Doctorow, whose agent told me he didn't have the time to devote to a first-time author. And he wasn't one of those patronizing assholes like Blade Markham, who tossed off something in half a minute, misspelling my name and getting the title wrong (Nineteen Fathers) just to let me know he was doing me a favor and hadn't read a word. From what Conner wrote, you could tell he had actually read the whole book, had thought about it carefully, and apparently understood more about me from reading it than I did from writing it. "Revelatory," he wrote. "Keeps all its secrets until the very end, which is a whopper." I thought the blurb was a little over the top, but it looked good on the jacket.
The last time I had seen Conner—at the New York premiere for the movie adaptation of his debut novel, Devil Shotgun: A Cole Padgett Thriller—he told me to give him a ring whenever I passed through Pennsylvania, and he didn't seem like the type of guy who would bullshit about something like that. But then my wife got her faculty gig here at the Graduate School of Foreign Policy and we moved away. I fell out of touch with most of my old contacts, and I barely spent any time in Manhattan, let alone in Philadelphia. When Nine Fathers was published, I kept wishing vainly that my old assistant, Miriam, who now worked as one of Terry Gross's producers for Fresh Air, would book me for an interview in Philly so that I would have an excuse to call Conner up.
But that never happened. Conner had his life writing crime novels in Pennsylvania; I sat on my front porch with my laptop, or in my wife's library carrel in Indiana, surfing other people's iTunes playlists and trying to think of ideas for a follow-up to Nine Fathers that wouldn't offend my mother.
When I saw the poster at Borders advertising Conner's reading, I was with Beatrice. We were shopping to replace her copy of Knuffle Bunny Too, which I had accidentally washed along with a load of her cloth diapers. This had become my life—cooking dinner, walking the dog, squiring Ramona to school and Beatrice to day care, and taking the two of them to cafés, ballet class, gymnastics, play dates, birthday parties, and bookstores. I would write a few pages per day on drafts of stories and books I wasn't sure I would ever finish while my spouse slaved away on the syllabi, scholarly articles, and book proposals that would win her tenure so that we would never have to worry about health insurance or the price of college tuition.
Dr. Sabine Krummel, my spouse, was a graduate of both the Freie Universität of Berlin and Columbia University. She had published one book with Routledge Press (Fusion and Diffusion: A Network Analysis of How Rules Governing Nuclear Power Safety Procedures Transfer Across European Member State Borders) and had a contract for her follow-up book with Cambridge University Press (Autostimulation and Autonomy Under Import Substitution in Postcolonial Society). She was "a shoo-in for tenure, man," at least according to her dreadlocked, eternally stoned department chair, Dr. Joel Getty, who was better known by his nickname, "Spag."
Occasionally, I groused to Sabine about our life in Bloomington, and how much it paled in comparison to the life we had led in Manhattan. To keep ourselves amused, we kept a private blog under the pen name Buck Floomington. We wrote awful, nasty stuff about Sabine's colleagues that we never shared with anyone: who was sleeping with whom, who liked to go shooting at the target range behind Brad's Guns outside Indianapolis, who had threatened his family with a chainsaw, who hired only Asian women to serve as his work studies, who kept a shrine to basketball coach Bobby Knight in his rec room, who had gotten banned from the strip mall massage studio for demanding a hand job ... It was cathartic. Sometimes, in the desolate, insular heartland, you do whatever you can to keep your mind alive.
Still, what from the outside may have looked like complacency actually felt a lot like security. Bloomington was a quiet college town that may have offered little, but it also expected little in return. And though most of the faculty spouses I knew had either settled or given up, there was a certain comfort in surrender. Sure, I could have finished a second book or freelanced this or that article. I could have competed for a lecturing gig at Butler University or Ivy Tech or for an editorial job at some magazine, such as Indianapolis Monthly or Bloom. But if I wanted to spend my days literally bleaching the shit out of diapers and mastering the art of vegetarian cooking with the aid of cookbooks by the only authors I read anymore, Mark Bittman and Deborah Madison, then that was fine too.
The Bloomington Borders, located next to a FedEx Kinko's and across from a Panera Bread in the College Mall, was going out of business, and all kids' books were 50 percent off. Beatrice and I were stocking up on Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss books when I saw the color Xerox of Conner, smack dab in the center aisle. The shot looked just like the ones we had used in Lit—Conner with a full head of black curls and five o'clock shadow, his serious, pale-blue eyes staring straight at you as if he had something important to say and was hoping you'd give him the time to listen. He was wearing a sport coat, a pressed light-blue shirt, and boots. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, one thumb tucked in a belt loop. On one of his wrists was an expensive-looking watch. He looked tough and earnest, the publishing world's answer to Josh Brolin—what John Irving should have looked like but didn't. I was studying Conner's photo when I noticed Beatrice tugging on my sleeve.
"Who's that person you keep staring at?" she asked.
"Guy I used to know," I said. "His name is Conner."
"Is he your friend?"
I said I wasn't sure, but I would probably go to his reading, and maybe I would ask him to come by our house for dinner or dessert. "Maybe you'll get to meet him too," I said. "Wouldn't you like that?"
"No." Beatrice began to toddle off in the direction of the children's section. She seemed a bit scared of the guy in the picture, or perhaps scared of what she thought my friendship with him might bring. But I couldn't begin to imagine what could possibly frighten her about a good-looking, all-American guy like Conner, or about the fact that I still wanted to be his friend.CHAPTER 2
As it turned out, Conner didn't come to our house for dinner or dessert; it was a school night and the kids needed to be in bed by nine. But I did go to the reading. I had figured I would sit in the back and mill about until he was done greeting his fans. But the turnout was poor. Really poor. Authors tend to exaggerate the number of people who come to readings, or at least I do. Usually, if you divide by three, you get the true figure. When you say only seven or eight people showed up, everyone gets depressed, uncomfortable, and judgmental, particularly in a college town where no one regards writing books as an actual career.
"Right, but what do you do for money?" my wife's colleagues continually asked me when I trailed along to departmental parties or when I ran into them at Lowes or Home Depot or Best Buy. In their line of work, or whatever they did that passed for work, writing was just one of the many things you did to keep your job—you didn't expect anybody to read what you wrote, let alone pay you for it. After all, you'd gotten your job by convincing your employers you'd read hundreds of books they probably hadn't read themselves. When you told these folks honestly that you had a lousy turnout, they tended to guess twenty-five or thirty people came. But when I showed up at the Bloomington Borders for the Conner Joyce reading, only eight people were there, including the events coordinator.
On the metal folding chairs positioned in rows in front of a podium and a signing table were a pair of trampy white women in their late thirties or early forties; they were wearing tight, sequined blue jeans and were holding copies of People magazine's bachelors issue, circa 2005, for Conner to sign. There was the de rigueur weedy, sunlight-averse guy with copies of each of Conner's books stacked in a wheeled pushcart, undoubtedly hoping to move autographed first editions on eBay ("Just your signature. No inscription," he said). There was a doughy lady in her early fifties with a library copy of Ice Locker and a digital camera so she could take a photo of Conner for her blog, Authors Are My Weakness. Conner gamely agreed, but after she snapped the pic and he mentioned his wife, she didn't stick around.
A homeless dude was sprawled across three chairs in the front row; there was a white boy with baggy jeans, a turned-around vintage Montreal Expos baseball cap, dragon tattoos on his shoulders, and an iPod, reading a copy of XXL; an Asian girl with a mug of coffee was studying for the SATs and leaving coffee rings on her test-prep book. None of them seemed to know who Conner was. Maybe some had seen the straight-to-DVD movie of Devil Shotgun (pretty good performance by Mark Ruffalo in the lead role of Detective Cole Padgett if you feel like streaming it on Netflix), but they didn't seem aware the author was in the store. The other customers in Borders were either purchasing coffee, reading books and magazines they hadn't paid for and weren't intending to pay for, or buying discounted books by James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer, or Margot Hetley.
Conner, wearing his traditional getup of a good heavy sport coat, jeans, and a light-blue button-down shirt, was adjusting the microphone at his podium and studying a sheet of prepared remarks through a set of half glasses. Those glasses were the only sign he had aged at all since I had last seen him. Otherwise, he looked eager and energetic, smiling all dimples at the women in the front row seated next to the homeless guy. Conner smiled as if he didn't notice how small the crowd was, or as if he felt flattered that anyone would go out of his or her way to hear him speak. The humility I have always worked so hard to affect seemed to come naturally to Conner.
Excerpted from The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer. Copyright © 2013 Adam Langer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI: Upon Signing,
II: Upon Submission,
III: Upon Acceptance,
IV: Upon Publication,
About the Author,
New York, NY