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Turn Left At The Trojan Horse
By Brad Herzog
Citadel PressCopyright © 2010 Brad Herzog
All right reserved.
Chapter Onehigh noon
Mount Olympus has vanished, so I order another beer. Around me, the patrons in this lofty bubble stab at pan-seared mahi mahi and sip chardonnays as the restaurant rotates, revealing the wonders of Puget Sound in a slow-motion panorama. One floor up, tourists ooh and aah their way around the Space Needle's observation deck. Some five hundred feet below, the Emerald City continues with its daily bustle.
A silent procession hums along Interstate 5. Hulking vessels inch across the sound. A seaplane lands and glides to a stop on Lake Union. A cruise ship - the Sapphire Princess - sits patiently dockside in Elliott Bay. To the east is the Seattle skyline backed by distant vistas of the Cascades. To the west is the Olympic Peninsula, where Mount Olympus rises regally from its center. But the sky is brimming with low stratus clouds, like ceiling tiles, and the mountain is hidden.
So this is where it begins - with my view obscured, but with the world revolving around me, one degree of perspective at a time.
I reach into my backpack, thumbing past tattered translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey and a few back issues of Sports Illustrated until I find an envelope containing a breathless invitation: "Calling all classmates around the world to join us in Ithaca!"
This is what brought me here. I have been invited - along with three thousand or so Cornell University classmates - to a fifteenth reunion at the gleaming school on the hill in Ithaca, New York. Come enjoy the guest lecturers and the glee club concert! Hear the president's State of the
University address! Take in an alumni baseball game! It might have added: Consider the stratospheric success of your classmates, and wallow in a sense of underachievement!
When asked to revisit where you have been, you tend to assess where you are. You realize that the gradual march of days has accumulated into years and that the years are forming decades. When midlife approaches like a mugger in an alleyway, you don't merely take stock of your life; you recall your original goals - and perhaps you notice the gulf between the former and the latter.
I seem to arrive at such an existential crisis every decade or so. I assume we all do, in one way or another. My first one happened when I was thirteen and about to celebrate my bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage that was supposed to mean I was entering into some form of adulthood. I felt the weight of the world on my still-narrow shoulders, mostly because the world seemed suddenly complex and chaotic. I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of junior high school - the Darwinian game of social standing, the increasing imbalance of work and play, the shock of adolescence.
I recall the pressure of trying to memorize Hebrew text that - to my blurry and unconvinced eyes - looked like hieroglyphs and squiggles. I heard somewhere that girls preferred boys with dimples, so for my seventh-grade class photo I tried to surreptitiously suck in my cheeks while smiling. When the yearbook came out, I looked creepy and constipated. I remember silently sitting on my girlfriend's basement couch with my arm draped around her shoulder for what seemed like hours as I tried to summon the courage to make any sort of move. I thought: If I am becoming a man, this is a hell of an un impressive start.
So I confronted this crisis of confidence by traveling inward, by delving further into my imagination. I escaped the chaos by creating worlds in which I was in command. I became a writer.
A few years later, in high school, I met Amy - as a result of my writing, in fact. An English teacher had decided to read one of my papers to her class. I stopped in to chat for a moment. Amy says she liked my smile. I think she was smitten by my metaphors. We attended a couple of proms together, weathered college in Ithaca, and saved our pennies to pay for a walk-up apartment on a leafy street in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Following the thrill of our wedding day, we found ourselves falling into a routine and a future laid out before us like a straight track to the horizon. True adulthood had arrived, and responsibilities along with it. But we yearned for options. We wanted to sample life's possibilities before settling down. So this time I responded by traveling outward. We collected our meager savings, bought a thirty-four-foot RV, and hit the highway.
Through forty-eight states and nearly eleven months, we allowed our thoughts to expand and fill the open spaces, crystallizing our criteria of what we wanted out of a place to live. In the end, we opted for small-town serenity on California's central coast, a place where John Steinbeck, Doc Ricketts, and Joseph Campbell used to clink beers, stare into tide pools, and ponder the human condition. I was self-satisfied at my ability to control my destiny and certain that the sky was the limit as long as I didn't settle for anything less than the ideal. But that was when I was a young phenom, newly married, already published at age twenty-six, still clinging to the idea that I could somehow change the world, one word at a time. That was before I had kids and a minivan and an unfathomable mortgage and the notion that my achievements were not meeting my expectations.
Before I found myself humbled by the vagaries of my profession, I would joke to friends that my sole objective was to someday gain entry into the encyclopedia. I figured the folks who make it into those glossy pages had been rewarded for being universally impressive or constructive or, at the very least, memorable. They discovered chemical elements or trekked into lands unknown or churned out literary classics. They earned their immortality. So I aspired to join them. Was that too much to ask?
Be careful what you wish for.
Several years ago, at the peak of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire phenomenon, I tried out for the show. By that I mean I phoned the 1-800 number they flashed on the screen and attempted to answer three trivia questions. I did it once a day for a couple of weeks. Why not? I am self-employed. There are worse ways to take a work break. It was a diversion, a lark - until I passed the initial round and received a fortunate random phone call telling me I had moved on to the next tryout hurdle.
So in rapid succession I answered five more questions, tougher ones, on subjects ranging from Mary Lou Retton to the Teapot Dome scandal. Finally, there was this synapse-snapper: "Put the following ancient civilizations in the order in which they were established - Assyrian, Mayan, Sumerian, Classical Greek." Wise Athena must have been smiling down on me. More likely, it was Tyche, goddess of luck. Soon enough, I found myself in Manhattan, along with nine other contestants, hoping for an opportunity to sit across from diminutive Regis Philbin and his shiny teeth, each of us craving a chance to conquer trivia questions for gobs of money in front of an audience of millions.
Then I won the "fastest-finger" round - by thirteen-hundredths of a second. This meant I was headed for something called the "hot seat," which at the time was the epicenter of pop culture in America, a piece of furniture as iconic as Archie Bunker's chair. Surreal doesn't even begin to describe it, and because I tend to be rather cynical and inhibited, it was as out of character as if I had joined the cast of A Chorus Line.
For the next forty minutes, I did my best not to humiliate myself in front of twenty-five million people. I am sure I didn't impress the ten million or so folks who were screaming at the boob on the tube who wasn't quite sure about the name of Dilbert's pet dog or the logo of Hallmark cards. But, using my lifelines early and often, I clawed my way through the murk of ignorance until suddenly this little television host was showing me a fake check for $64,000.
Then came a question for $125,000: Which of these American westerns was not a remake of a Japanese film? Possible answers: The Magnificent Seven, The Outrage, High Noon, A Fistful of Dollars.
I knew that the first one was a remake of The Seven Samurai. I had no clue about the rest. If I wanted to hazard a guess, I had a one-in three chance. However, if I guessed incorrectly, I would lose half my money. I kept focusing on High Noon, mumbling it over and over, whispering my suspicion that it was the answer.
Before jetting off to New York I had considered possible scenarios with my friends, and I actually had declared that if I were in that exact situation - with an inkling of an idea at that particular level of the game - I would go for it. You only live once, I announced. The name of the show isn't Who Wants to Be Slightly Better Off.
But when the real moment arrived, I hemmed and hawed and squirmed. Then, rather suddenly, I decided to stop. I took the money and walked away.
The next question would have been for a quarter of a million dollars. I would give anything to know what the subject would have been. In my daydreams, it is a bit of trivia about baseball or U.S. geography, something very much in my cerebral wheelhouse. All I had to do was answer three more questions correctly, and I would have been an instant millionaire.
The answer, of course, was High Noon. The irony - that I didn't have the guts to choose a film about one man's gallantry in the face of long odds - is not lost on me. While I was overjoyed at my windfall, I reflect on that moment of decision and feel pangs of weakness. I know that it took a certain daring to get there in the first place. And I very much believe that we make our own breaks in life. But that decision nags at me. How many people are handed such a black-and white litmus test of their nerve? Isn't boldness the one trait shared by most every encyclopedia-worthy historical figure? Did my fears win the day?
It was my Scylla-and-Charybdis moment. In Homer's mythological epics, this is brave Odysseus's most heart-wrenching dilemma, as he pilots his ships through what may have been the Straits of Messina, off the coast of Sicily. On one side is Charybdis, an unpredictable whirlpool that may - or may not - swallow entire ships. On the other side, in a gloomy cliffside cave, dwells Scylla, a monster with "twelve flapping feet, and six necks enormously long, and at the end of each neck a horrible head with three rows of teeth set thick and close, full of black death." She is guaranteed to snatch a half-dozen crew members in her deadly jaws. So this is Odysseus's choice - if he steers clear of one, he falls prey to the other. It is the genesis of the rock-and-hard-place metaphor. Do you risk everything for success, or do you sacrifice for safety?
Like Odysseus, I chose conservatively - security over audacity. And I regret it, both fiscally and spiritually. But that isn't the end of the story.
After every commercial break, Regis would ask contestants a personal question or two, his note cards stocked with information gleaned from a producer's pre-interview. We chatted about how I met Amy and what magazines I write for. We discussed the one-in-a-billion coincidence that the person in the hot seat right before me was a good friend of mine whose husband I have known since the age of nine. We even touched on the fact that I suffer from cremnophobia, the fear of precipices (which - let's face it - is really the fear of death). Finally, after I had won the $64,000, Regis said, "So you've written a few books. What's the latest one?"
So for about thirty seconds I described a book I had written, an account of my life-altering year on the road with my wife. States of Mind had been published to little fanfare by a small press in North Carolina. It had been sporadically, if kindly, reviewed, and only a few thousand copies had been sold. Before my moment of Millionaire glory aired, I had logged on to Amazon.com and discovered that it was the online bookseller's 122,040th best-selling book. That's humbling. But there were twenty-five million people watching - and paying attention. Within twenty-four hours, States of Mind was ranked No. 7.
USA Today ran a blurb revealing the book's meteoric rise. Entertainment Weekly called, followed by a parade of newspapers and national magazines. After I flew back to New York and chatted with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show for five minutes, States of Mind rose to No. 2, behind only an unpublished Harry Potter novel.
By the time People magazine and the Oprah show contacted me, my excitement had evolved into bemused fascination. It was thrilling, of course, but I also struggled with ambivalence. My book chronicled a search for virtue in America - a literal and figurative trip through places like Inspiration (Arizona), Honor (Michigan), and Wisdom (Montana)-yet I had promoted it on a mind-numbing television show predicated on greed. It was a bit like Harper Lee using Let's Make a Deal as a platform, if you will pardon the comparison. And while the ensuing publicity was a hoot, it focused almost entirely on the book's sales, not necessarily the merits of the book itself. I feared that I had sold out and peaked at the same time. Other than quarterbacks and porn stars, who wants to max out at age thirty-one?
I am not a believer in predestination. But the ancient Greeks, the folks whose myths are driving my current excursion, were consumed by it. They believed their fortunes were at the mercy of the Morae - the three sisters known collectively as the Fates. Clotho, the youngest, spun the thread of life. Lachesis, the middle sister, measured it with a rod. Atropos, the oldest, snipped it with shears when Death arrived. It was said that even Zeus was powerless against them.
However, the mythic Morae determined not only the time and manner of one's death but also one's lifelong destiny. A thousand years after Homer's day, an Athenian sophist named Flavius Philostratus mused that the threads that the Fates spin are so unalterable that "a man who the Fates have decreed that he shall be an eminent archer will not miss the mark, even though he lost his eyesight." But I have begun to wonder if I was fated to slightly miss the mark.
"Brad Herzog. Remember the name," began a USA Today story in the midst of my fleeting media maelstrom. "He just might be the next Stephen King or John Grisham." Surely I am the only reader who recalls the words, but they now strike me as having a dewey defeats truman quality to them. Acquaintances will refer to my Millionaire moment and joke that I somehow managed to double my fifteen minutes of fame. But I didn't seek fleeting tabloid renown, and I have no desire that my obituary someday begin with a reference to a TV quiz show. In the long run, I became neither rich nor famous - just a bit more professionally established and briefly celebrated for being momentarily well-known.
Now I am pushing forty. I seem to have aches where I didn't know I had muscles, rogue hairs where I didn't realize I had follicles, and frustration where I wasn't aware I had ambition. I have reached that psychochronological tipping point at which my life is no longer entirely a forward-looking phenomenon, and sporadic regrets have begun to creep in like cockroaches. And I am being beckoned to the place where my grandiose dreams took root.
It has been nearly two decades since I first arrived in Ithaca, unpacking my bags and my potential. What kind of existence have I crafted for myself ? Can I claim to have lived a good life? Are my contributions in any way heroic? And in contemporary America, what constitutes a heroic life anyhow?
Funny thing is, I am wholly satisfied with my surroundings. How many people can say that? I lucked into an adorable and compassionate wife, two precious sons, loyal friends, and a fine house in a charming town. What I can't figure out is why, amid so much external contentment, I can harbor so much disillusionment. Lately, my angst has coalesced into a bit of a black cloud over my head, and it has begun to permeate the small world that means everything to me.
I used to write from the heart - experimentally, enthusiastically. But in recent years my grand literary dreams have softened into moderate ambitions revolving around paying the mortgage. Whereas once I was inspired by a shifting view of the big picture, now I constantly find myself sweating the small stuff, micromanaging my family like a retired guy who hangs around the house and annoys everybody - only I may never be able to afford retirement. I have bouts of irritability, periods in which I have difficulty living in the moment, times where I notice my innate cynicism evolving into a sort of nihilistic grunt.
Excerpted from Turn Left At The Trojan Horse by Brad Herzog Copyright © 2010 by Brad Herzog. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
I High Noon 1
II Family Plots 14
III Athena 28
IV Troy 41
V May the Dogs Be with You 58
VI Dragon Bones 70
VII Oblivion 89
VIII On Time 103
IX White Buffalo 112
X Deluge 127
XI Currents 134
XII Silent Siren 145
XIII Nebagamon 157
XIV Rejoice! We Conquer! 166
XV Sparta's Warriors 180
XVI Mementos 194
XVII The Allegory of the Cave 203
XVIII Pandora 214
XIX Omphalos 227
XX New Castle 239
XXI Apollo and Cassandra 255
XXII Hell and Back 268
XXIII Labyrinth 283
XXIV Ithaca 297