Zuckerman Unbound (15 page)

Oswald? Had Alvin Pepler just mentioned Lee Harvey Oswald? On the phone last night, hadn't his caller referred in passing to Ruby, “Jack Idiot Ruby,” as America's new patron saint? And alluded to Sirhan Sirhan?
We had a great leader in Robert Kennedy and that crazy Arab bastard shot him.
It was all in Zuckerman's notes.

Time to go.

But what danger was there? Weren't there cops everywhere? But weren't they also there in Dallas, for all the good that did the President?

Oh, and was his position in America now commensurate with the Presidency, the author of
Carnovsky?

“—my book review.”

“Yes?” He'd lost the thread. His heartbeat had quickened too.

“I only began writing at midnight last night.”

After your last phone call, thought Zuckerman. Yes, yes, the man before me is my mother's kidnapper. Who else?

“I haven't had time to get to the novel itself. These are simply first impressions. If they sound too cerebral, well, I realize that. It's just that I'm bending over backward while I'm writing not to say in print what of course is no great secret, at least to me. That in many ways that book is the story of my life no less than yours.”

So the review was of Zuckerman's book, of all books. Time to go, all right. Forget Oswald and Ruby. When the lion comes up to Hemingway with his review of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” time to leave the jungle for home.

“I don't mean Newark alone. It goes without saying how much that meant personally to me. I mean … the hang-ups. The psychological ones,” he said, flushing, “of a nice Jewish boy. I guess everybody has identified with that book in his own way. That's what has made it such a smash. What I mean is that if I ever had the talent to write a novel, well,
Carnovsky
would have been it.”

Zuckerman looked at his watch. “Alvin, I've got to be off.”

“But my review.”

“Send it, why don't you.” Out of the streets and into the study. Time to unbox the books.

“But here, it's here.” Pepler extracted the small spiral notebook from an inside breast pocket. Instantly he found the page and handed it to Zuckerman to read.

There was a mailbox at Zuckerman's back. Pepler had pinned him up against the mailbox, just as he had the evening before. The evening before!
The man is mad. And fixed on me. Who is he behind those dark glasses? Me! He thinks he's me!

Suppressing the impulse to drop the notebook into the mailbox and just walk off, a free celebrity, he looked down and he read. Been reading all his life. Really, what danger was there?

“The Marcel Proust of New Jersey” was the title of Pepler's review.

“All I have so far is my opening paragraph,” he explained. “But if in your opinion I am off on the right foot, then tonight I'll finish it up at Paté's. Friday Perlmutter can show it to Sulzberger.”

“I see.”

Pepler saw too—Zuckerman's incredulity. And rushed to reassure him. “Bigger jerks than me review books, Nathan.”

Well, on that he was not going to get an argument. Pepler's one-liner made Zuckerman laugh aloud. And Zuckerman was no enemy of laughs, as the fans would attest. So, up against the mailbox, he plunged in. One more page wouldn't kill him.

The handwriting was minute, fussy, meticulous, anything but seething. Nor was the style the man, either.

Fiction is not autobiography, yet all fiction, I am convinced, is in some sense rooted in autobiography, though the connection to actual events may be tenuous indeed, even nonexistent. We are, after all, the total of our experiences, and experience includes not only what we in fact do but what we privately imagine. An author cannot write about what he does not know and the reader must grant him his material, yet there are dangers in writing so closely on the heels of one's own immediate experience: a lack of toughness, perhaps; a tendency to indulgence; an urge to justify the author's ways to men. Distance, on the other hand, either blurs experience or heightens it. For most of us it is mercifully blurred; but for writers, if they can be restrained from spilling the beans before they are digested, it is heightened.

Before Zuckerman could even speak—not that he was in any hurry to—Pepler was explaining his methodology. “I discuss the autobiographical problem before I get to the contents of the book. That I'll do tonight. It's all worked out in my mind. What I am trying is to begin with my literary theory, to create a mini-version of my own of
What Is Art?
by Leo Tolstoy, first published in English translation in 1898. What's wrong?” he said, when Zuckerman handed the notebook back to him.

“Nothing. It's fine. Good beginning.”

“You don't believe that.” He opened the notebook and looked at his own handwriting, so neat, so readable, so determinedly everything that Teacher could least expect from the big ungainly boy at the back of the room. “What's wrong with it? You've got to tell me. I don't want Sulzberger to read it if it stinks. I want the truth. I have been fighting and suffering for the truth all my life. Please, no sweet talk and no crapola, either. What's wrong? So I can learn, so I can improve myself and recover my rightful place!”

No, he hadn't plagiarized it. Not that it made any difference, but evidently he had cooked up this porridge all by himself, one eye on
The New York Times,
the other on Leo Tolstoy. At midnight, after the last villainous haw, haw, haw.
I will do everything in my power to avoid violence, but if I feel threatened I am going to have to act like a threatened man.
That was what was down in
Zuckerman's
notebook.

“As I say, it's not bad, not at all.”

“It is! You know it is! Only tell me
why.
How will I learn if you don't tell me why!”

“Well,” said Zuckerman, relenting, “I suppose I wouldn't call the writing laconic, Alvin.”

“You wouldn't?”

He shook his head.

“Is that bad?”

Zuckerman tried to sound thoughtful. “No, of course it's not ‘bad'…”

“But it's not good. Okay. All right. What about my ideas, what I want to communicate. The writing I can polish in the next draft, when I have the time. The writing I can get Miss Diamond to fix, if you say that's what it needs. But surely the ideas, the ideas themselves…”

“The ideas,” said Zuckerman somberly, as the notebook was handed to him again. Across the street an elderly woman was being interviewed by J. K. Cranford instead of by Alvin Pepler. Gaunt, handsome, supported by a cane. Seratelli's widow? Seratelli's mother? Would that I were that old lady, thought Zuckerman. Anything but to have to discuss these “ideas.”

Fiction,
Zuckerman silently read,
is not autobiography, yet all fiction, I am convinced, is in some sense rooted in autobiography, though the connection to actual events …

“Forget the writing for now,” Pepler told him. “This time just read it through for the thoughts.”

Zuckerman looked blindly at the page. Heard the lion saying to Hemingway, “Just read it through for the thoughts.”

“I read it for both already.” He put a hand on Pepler's chest and gently pushed him back. Not the best idea, he knew, but what else could he do? This enabled him to step away from the mailbox. He handed back the notebook yet again. Pepler looked as though he'd been poleaxed.

“And?”

“And what?” said Zuckerman.

“The truth! This is my
life
we're talking about, my chance at a second chance. I must have the truth!”

“Well, the truth is”—but seeing the perspiration coursing down Pepler's face, he thought better of it, and concluded—”it's probably fine for the papers.”

“But? There's a big but in your voice, Nathan. But
what?

Zuckerman counted the cops with pistols outside Frank Campbell's. On foot, four. On horseback, two. “Well, I don't think you have to go into the desert and stand on a pillar to come up with these ‘thoughts.' In my opinion. Since you ask for it.”

“Whooff.” Feverishly he began tapping the notebook against his open palm. “You shoot from the hip all right. Whew. That book of yours doesn't come from nowhere, that's for sure. The satire, I mean. Wow.”

“Alvin, listen to me. Sulzberger could be crazy about it. I'm sure he and I have different criteria entirely. This shouldn't discourage you from letting Perlmutter try him.”

“Nah,” he said despondently. “When it comes to writing, it's you who's the authority.” As though plunging a knife into his chest, he shoved the notebook back in his pocket.

“Not everybody would agree there.”

“Nah, nah, don't pull the little-me stuff. Don't give me the humble crap. We know who's tops in his field and who isn't.” Whereupon he drew the notebook out again and began fiercely slapping at it with his free hand. “What about when I say the writer should be restrained from spilling the beans before they are digested? What about
that?

Zuckerman the satirist remained silent.

“That stinks too?” asked Pepler. “Don't condescend to me,
tell
me!”

“Of course it doesn't ‘stink.'”

“But?”

“But it's straining, isn't it, for an effect?” As serious and uncondescending a man of letters as there could ever be, Zuckerman said, “I wonder if it's worth the effort.”

“There's where you're wrong. It was no strain at all. It just came to me. In those words. It's the only line here that
isn't
erased, not one word.”

“Then maybe that's the problem.”

“I see.” Pepler nodded vigorously because of what he saw. “For me, if it comes easy it's no good, and if it comes hard it's also no good.”

“I'm only talking about this line.”

“I see-ee-ee-eee,” he said, ominously. “But that's definitely the worst, the bottom, the limit, this line about spilling the beans.”

“Sulzberger could see it differently.”

“Fuck Sulzberger! I'm not asking Sulzberger! I'm asking you! And what you have told me is the following. One, the writing stinks. Two, the thoughts stink. Three, my best line stinks worst of all. What you have told me is that ordinary mortals like me shouldn't even dare to write about your book to begin with. Isn't that what it adds up to,
on the basis of one paragraph of a first draft?

“Why, no.”

“Why, no.” Pepler was mimicking him. He had removed his dark glasses to make a prissy face to show to Zuckerman. “Why, no.”

“Don't turn nasty, Alvin. You wanted the truth, after all.”

“After all. After all.”

“Look,” said Zuckerman, “you want the
whole
truth?”

“Yes!” Eyes big, eyes bulging, eyes asizzle in a glowing red face. “Yes! But the truth
unbiased,
that's what I want! Unbiased by the fact that you only wrote that book because you could! Because of having every break in life there is! While the ones who didn't obviously couldn't! Unbiased by the fact that those hang-ups you wrote about happen to be mine, and that you knew it—that you stole it!”

“I did what? Stole what?”

“From what my Aunt Lottie told your cousin Essie that she told to your mother that she told to you. About me. About my past.”

Oh, was it time to go!

The light was red. Would it never be green again when he needed it? With no further criticism to make or instruction to give, Zuckerman turned to leave.

“Newark!” Pepler, behind him, delivered the word straight to the eardrum. “What do you know about Newark, Mama's Boy! I read that fucking book! To you it's Sunday chop suey downtown at the Chink's! To you it's being Leni-Lenape Indians at school in the play! To you it's Uncle Max in his undershirt, watering the radishes at night! And Nick Etten at first for the Bears! Nick Etten! Moron!
Moron!
Newark is a nigger with a knife! Newark is a whore with the syph! Newark is junkies shitting in your hallway and everything burned to the ground! Newark is dago vigilantes hunting jigs with tire irons! Newark is bankruptcy! Newark is ashes! Newark is rubble and filth! Own a car in Newark and then you'll find out what Newark's all about! Then you can write
ten
books about Newark! They slit your throat for your radial tires! They cut off both balls for a Bulova watch! And your dick for the fun of it, if it's white!”

The light went green. Zuckerman made for the mounted policeman. “You! Whining about Mama back in Newark and how she wouldn't wipe your ass for you three times a day! Newark is finished, idiot! Newark is barbarian hordes and the Fall of Rome! But what the hell would you know up on the hoity-toity East Side of Manhattan? You fuck up Newark and you steal my life—”

Past the prancing horse, the gaping crowd, past J. K. Cranford and his camera crew (“Hi, there, Nathan”), past the uniformed porter, and into the funeral parlor.

The large foyer looked like a Broadway theater at opening-night intermission: backers and burghers in their finest, and conversation bubbling, as though the first act had been a million laughs and the show on its way to being a hit.

He made for an empty corner, and one of the young funeral directors immediately started toward him through the crowd. Zuckerman had seen the fellow around, usually outside in the afternoon, talking through the cab window of a truck with the casket deliveryman. One evening he'd caught sight of him, dragging on a cigarette and with his tie undone, holding open the side door for the arrival of a corpse. When the lead stretcher-bearer stumbled on the doorsill, the body stirred slightly in its sack and Zuckerman had thought of his father.

For the lying-in-state of Prince Seratelli, the young funeral director wore a carnation and a morning coat. Strong jaw, athletic build, the voice a countertenor's. “Mr. Zuckerman?”

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