Zuckerman Unbound (14 page)

The song his father whistled descending their cellar stairs Nathan whistled now for Pepler. Instead of running.

Three notes was all he had to deliver. “‘I'll Be Seeing You,' 1943. Twenty-four appearances on the Hit Parade,” said Pepler, “ten in the Number One spot. Records by Frank Sinatra and by Hildegarde. The Top Fifteen, 1943—ready, Nathan?”

Oh, was he ready.
Dans le vrai,
and it's about time too. André was right to give it to him: you lock yourself away to stir up your imagination, then you lock yourself away because you've stirred up theirs. What kind of novels is that going to get you? If the high life with Caesara hadn't worked out, then what about the low? Where is your curiosity? Where is your old amused self? Against whom have you committed what punishable offense that you should go skulking around like a fugitive from justice? You are not in the virtue racket! Never were! Great mistake ever to think so! That is what you have escaped—into the stupendous
vrai!
“Shoot, Alvin.” Reckless locution, but Zuckerman didn't care. Reckless deliberately. Enough taking cover from his own eruption. Receive what has been given! Accept what you inspire! Welcome the genies released by that book! That goes for the money, that goes for the fame, and that goes for this Angel of Manic Delights!

Who was off and running anyway:

“‘Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer.' ‘I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night.' ‘I'll Be Seeing You.' ‘It's Love, Love, Love.' ‘I've Heard That Song Before.' ‘A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.' ‘Mairzy Doats.' ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'.' ‘Mornin',' by the way, not ‘Morning,' as most people think—Hewlett Lincoln being Number One. Though nobody of course called him on it. Not on that show. ‘People Will Say We're in Love.' ‘Pistol Packin' Mama.' ‘Sunday, Monday or Always.' ‘They're Either Too Young or Too Old.' ‘Tico Tico.' ‘You Keep Coming Back Like a Song.' ‘You'll Never Know.' Fifteen.” He relaxed, sagged a little, in fact, remembering what Hewlett had gotten away with on that show.

“How do you do it, Alvin?”

Pepler removed his dark glasses, and rolling his dark eyes (which no one had yet blackened), made a joke. “‘It's Magic,'” he confessed.

Zuckerman obliged. “Doris Day. Nineteen—forty-six.”

“Close,” cried Pepler gaily, “close, but forty-eight is the correct answer. Awfully sorry, Nathan. Better luck next time. Words by Sammy Cahn, music by Jule Styne. Introduced in the movie
Romance on the High Seas.
Warner Brothers. With Jack Carson, and of course the Divine Dodo, Miss Doris Day.”

He had Zuckerman laughing away now. “Alvin, you're amazing.”

To which Pepler rapidly replied, “‘You're Sensational.' ‘You're Devastating.' ‘You're My Everything.' ‘You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You.' ‘You're Breaking My Heart.' ‘You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me.' ‘You're—'”

“This, this is quite a show. Oh, this is heaven, really.” He couldn't stop laughing. Not that Pepler seemed to mind.

“‘—a Grand Old Flag.' ‘You're a Million Miles from Nowhere (When You're One Little Mile from Home).' ‘You're My Thrill.' Do I stop?” Agleam with perspiration, about as happy as any adrenalin addict could ever be, he asked, “Do I stop, kid, or do you want more?”

“No,” groaned Zuckerman, “no more,” but oh, was it lovely to be having a good time. And out-of-doors! In public! Sprung! Free! Released from his captivity by Pepler! “Take it easy on me. Please, please,” Zuckerman whispered, “there's a funeral across the street.”

“Street,” announced Pepler. “‘The Streets of New York.' Across. ‘Across the Alley from the Alamo.' Funeral. Let me think that through. Please. ‘Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone.' More. ‘The More I See You.' No. ‘No Other Love.' Now funeral. No, I stake my reputation on it. There is no song in the history of American popular songs with the word ‘funeral' in it. For obvious reasons.”

Priceless. The
vrai.
You can't beat it. Even richer in pointless detail than the great James Joyce.

“Correction,” said Pepler. “‘The More I See
of
You.' From the motion picture
Diamond Horseshoe.
Twentieth Century-Fox. 1945. Sung by Dick Haymes.”

No stopping him now. But why should anyone want to? No, you don't run away from phenomena like Alvin Pepler, not if you're a novelist with any brains you don't. Think how far Hemingway went to look for a lion. Whereas Zuckerman had just stepped out the door. Yes, sir, box up the books! Out of the study and into the streets! At one with the decade at last! Oh, what a novel this guy would make! All that flies, sticks. He's glue, mental flypaper, can't forget a thing. All the interfering static, he collects. What a
novelist
this guy would make! Already is one! Paté, Gibraltar, Perlmutter, Moshe Dayan—that is the novel of which he is the hero! From the daily papers and the dregs of memory, that is the novel that he conjures up! Can't say it lacks conviction, whatever may be missing in the way of finesse. Look at him go!

“‘You'll Never Know,' Decca, 1943. ‘Little White Lies,' Decca, 1948.” Dick Haymes's two best-selling records, according to Pepler. Whom Zuckerman saw no reason not to believe.

“Perry Como,” Zuckerman asked. “
His
best-sellers.”

“‘Temptation.' ‘A Hubba Hubba Hubba.' ‘Till the End of Time.' All RCA Victor, 1945. 1946, ‘Prisoner of Love.' 1947, ‘When You Were Sweet Sixteen.' 1949—”

Zuckerman had forgotten the kidnapper completely. For the moment he forgot everything, all his cares and woes. They were imaginary anyway, no?

*   *   *

Pepler was on to Nat “King” Cole—“‘Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,' 1955; ‘Ramblin' Rose,' 1962”—when Zuckerman discovered the microphone an inch from his mouth. Then the portable camera aimed from atop somebody's shoulder.

“Mr. Zuckerman, you're here to pay your respects this morning to Prince Seratelli—”

“I am?”

The dark-haired reporter, a handsome and powerful-looking fellow, Zuckerman now recognized from one of the local news shows. “Is it,” asked the reporter, “as a friend of the deceased or of the family?”

The comedy was too much. Oh, what a morning. “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'!”
Oklahoma!
Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even he knew that one.

Laughing, waving a hand in the air to call them off, Zuckerman said, “No, no, just passing by.” He gestured toward Pepler. “With a friend.”

All too distinctly he heard the friend clear his throat. The dark glasses were off, the chest had expanded, and he looked ready to remind the world of all it had caused him to suffer. Zuckerman saw the crowd at Campbell's turning in their direction.

A voice from across the way.
“Who?”

“Koufax! Koufax!”

“Mistake, mistake.” Zuckerman was a little on the fervent side now, but the aggressive reporter seemed at last to have realized his error himself and signaled to the cameraman to stop.

“Sorry, sir,” he said to Zuckerman.

“That ain't Koufax, idiot.”

“Who is it?”

“Nobody.”

“Awfully sorry,” said the reporter, apologetically smiling to Pepler now as the crew moved swiftly back to where the real action was getting underway. A limousine had arrived across the street. Everyone by the doorway tried to see if it was Sonny Liston inside.

“That,” said Pepler, pointing after the TV reporter, “was J. K. Cranford. The All-American from Rutgers.”

A mounted policeman had by now approached the two of them, and was leaning down from his horse to get a good look. “Hey, Mac,” he said to Zuckerman, “who are you?”

“Nobody to worry about.” Zuckerman patted the breast pocket of his corduroy jacket to show that he wasn't packing a gat.

The cop was willing to be amused; not nearly so much as Zuckerman's sidekick. “I mean, who are you famous?” he asked. “You were just on the TV, right?”

“No, no,” explained Zuckerman. “They had the wrong guy.”

“You weren't on Dinah Shore last week?”

“Not me, officer. I was home in bed.”

Pepler just couldn't let this big tough cop up on a horse make any more of a fool of himself. “You don't know who this guy is? This is Nathan Zuckerman!”

The cop looked down with bemused boredom at the man in the dark glasses and the black rain gear.

“The
writer,
” Pepler informed him.

“Oh, yeah?” said the cop. “What'd he write?”

“You serious? What did Nathan Zuckerman write?” With such triumph did Pepler announce the title of Zuckerman's fourth book that the powerful sleek horse, trained though it was for civil disorder, reared sharply back and had to be reined in.

“Never heard of it,” the cop replied and, swinging around, crossed handsomely back to Campbell's with the light.

Pepler, with disdain: “It's the horses they must mean are New York's finest.”

Together they looked across to where All-American J. K. Cranford was interviewing a little man who had just popped out of a taxi. Manuel Somebody, Pepler said. The jockey. Pepler was surprised that he had arrived without his glamorous wife, the dancer.

After the jockey, a silver-haired gentleman, staidly dressed in a dark suit and vest. To Cranford's questions, he mournfully shook his head. Wasn't talking. “Who's he?” Zuckerman asked.

A Mob lawyer, he was told, recently released from a federal penitentiary. He looked to Zuckerman, what with the deep tan, to have recently been released from the Bahamas.

For the next few minutes Pepler identified the mourners as each was accosted by Cranford and his crew.

“You are something, Alvin.”

“You think so—from
this?
You should have seen me on ‘Smart Money.' This is just a
sample.
Hewlett
needed
the fix, the fake. When Schachtman came around on Sundays to deliver the answers, half the time I had to correct him, where they had something wrong. If I see a face, that's it. I know the face of anybody in the world who has ever been in the papers, whether it's a cardinal who ran for Pope or some stewardess from Belgium who went down in a crash. With my memory, it's indelible, it's there forever. I can't forget it even if I wanted to. You should have seen me at my height, Nathan, what I was like for those three weeks. I lived from Thursday to Thursday. ‘He's terrifying, he knows everything.' That's how they would introduce me on the show. To them it was just more crapola to feed the idiot audience. The tragedy is that it happened to be true. And what I didn't know, I could learn. You only had to show it to me, you just had to push the right button and out came a flood of information. I could tell you, for example, everything in history that ever happened with the number 98 in it. I still can. Everybody knows 1066, but do they know 1098? Everybody knows 1492, but do they know 1498? Savonarola burned at the stake in Florence, first German pawnshop established at Nuremberg, Vasco da Gama discovers sea route to India. But why go on? What good did it do me in the end? 1598: Shakespeare writes
Much Ado about Nothing,
Korean Admiral Visunsin invents ironclad warships. 1698: Paper manufacturing begins in North America, Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau introduces goose-stepping and iron ramrods in the Prussian army. 1798: Casanova dies, Battle of Pyramids makes Napoleon master of Egypt. I could go on all day. All night. But what will it get me? What good is all the learning if it only goes to waste? At last people in New Jersey were beginning to have a respect for knowledge, for history, for the real facts of life instead of their own stupid, narrow, prejudiced opinions. Because of me! And now, now? You know where I should be now, by all rights? Across the street. I should be J. K. Cranford!”

So hungrily did he look to Zuckerman for confirmation that there was nothing to say in reply but “I don't see why not.”

“You
don't?

And to that impassioned plea? “Why not?” replied Zuckerman.

“Oh, Jesus, would you do me a favor, Nathan? Would you spend one minute reading something I wrote? Would you give me your candid opinion? It would mean the world to me. Not my book, something else. Something new.”

“What?”

“Well, literary criticism, actually.”

Gently. “You didn't tell me you were a literary critic too.”

Another Zuckerman one-liner, which Pepler accorded its due. Dared even to counter with one of his own. “I thought you already knew. I thought that's why last night you took it on the lam.” But then added, when Zuckerman remained sternly silent, “I'm only kidding you back, Nathan. I realized when I came out, you had business, your meeting, you had to run. So you know me: I ate your ice cream too. And paid for it all night. No, don't worry, I'm no critic. I have my likes and dislikes, I have my ulcer, but I'm no critic, not in the official sense. However, I did hear yesterday about the big shake-up at the
Times.
This is ancient history to you, but I only found out late last night.”

“What shake-up?”

“The drama critic is going to get the boot, and probably the book reviewer too. It's been a long time coming.”

“Yes?”

“You didn't know?”

“No.”

“Really?
Well, I heard from Mr. Perlmutter. He's in with Sulzberger, the owner. He knows the whole family. They belong to the same congregation.”

Perlmutter? Mythical gentlemanly father of the mythical producer Paté? Knows Sulzberger too? This novel is some novel.

“So you're going to try for the job,” said Zuckerman.

Pepler colored. “No, no, not at all. It just got me thinking. To see if I could do it. ‘I'll study and get ready, and maybe the chance will come.' Strange, even to me, that I haven't become a cynic after all I've been through, that I am still this sucker for the Land of Opportunity. But how could I feel otherwise? I know this country inside out. I served this country in two wars. It isn't just popular songs—it's everything. It's sports, it's old-time radio, it's slang, proverbs, commercials, famous ships, the Constitution, great battles, longitudes and latitudes—you name it, and if it's Americana, I know it cold. And
without
the answers in my pocket. With them in my
head.
I believe in this country. I believe in it because for one thing it is a country where a man can fight back from the most ignominious defeat, if only he perseveres. If only he doesn't lose faith in himself. Look at history. Look at Nixon. Isn't that something, that survival story? I have fifteen pages on that fake in my book. Likewise the great shit slinger, Johnson. Now, where would Lyndon Johnson have been without Lee Harvey Oswald? Peddling real estate in the Senate cloakroom.”

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