Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (2 page)

“Pardon me.”

Zuckerman looked up from the fraying menu at a man in a dark raincoat who was standing beside his table. The dozen or so other tables were empty. The stranger was carrying a hat in his hands in a way that restored to that expression its original metaphorical luster.

“Pardon me. I only want to say thank you.”

He was a large man, chesty, with big sloping shoulders and a heavy neck. A single strand of hair looped over his bald head, but otherwise his face was a boy's: shining smooth cheeks, emotional brown eyes, an impudent owlish little beak.

“Thank me? For what?” The first time in the six weeks that it had occurred to Zuckerman to pretend that he was another person entirely. He was learning.

His admirer took it for humility. The lively, lachrymose eyes deepened with feeling. “God! For everything. The humor. The compassion. The understanding of our deepest drives. For all you have reminded us about the human comedy.”

Compassion? Understanding? Only hours earlier the old man in the library had told him how sorry he felt for his family. They had him coming and going today.

“Well,” said Zuckerman, “that's very kind.”

The stranger pointed to the menu in Zuckerman's hand. “Please, order. I didn't mean to obtrude. I was in the washroom, and when I came out I couldn't believe my eyes. To see you in a place like this. I just had to come up and say thanks before I left.”

“Quite all right.”

“What makes it unbelievable is that I'm a Newarker myself.”

“Are you?”

“Born and bred. You got out in forty-nine, right? Well, it's a different city today. You wouldn't recognize it. You wouldn't want to.”

“So I hear.”

“Me, I'm still over there, pounding away.”

Zuckerman nodded, and signaled for the waitress.

“I don't think people can appreciate what you're doing for the old Newark unless they're from there themselves.”

Zuckerman ordered his sandwich and some tea. How does he know I left in forty-nine? I suppose from
Life.

He smiled and waited for the fellow to be on his way back across the river.

“You're our Marcel Proust, Mr. Zuckerman.”

Zuckerman laughed. It wasn't exactly how he saw it.

“I mean it. It's not a put-on. God forbid. In my estimation you are up there with Stephen Crane. You are the two great Newark writers.”

“Well, that's kind of you.”

“There's Mary Mapes Dodge, but however much you may admire
Hans Brinker,
it's still only a book for children. I would have to place her third. Then there is LeRoi Jones, but him I have no trouble placing fourth. I say this without racial prejudice, and not as a result of the tragedy that has happened to the city in recent years, but what he writes is not literature. In my estimation it is black propaganda. No, in literature we have got you and Stephen Crane, in acting we have got Rod Steiger and Vivian Blaine, in playwrighting we have got Dore Schary, in singing we have got Sarah Vaughan, and in sports we have got Gene Hermanski and Herb Krautblatt. Not that you can mention sports and what you have accomplished in the same breath. In years to come I honestly see schoolchildren visiting the city of Newark—”

“Oh,” said Zuckerman, amused again, but uncertain as to what might be feeding such effusiveness, “oh, I think it's going to take more than me to bring the schoolchildren in. Especially with the Empire shut down.” The Empire was the Washington Street burlesque house, long defunct, where many a New Jersey boy had in the half light seen his first G-string. Zuckerman was one, Gilbert Carnovsky another.

The fellow raised his arms—and his hat: gesture of helpless surrender. “Well, you have got the great sense of humor in life too. No comeback from me could equal that. But you'll see. It'll be you they turn to in the future when they want to remember what it was like in the old days. In
Carnovsky
you have pinned down for all time growing up in that town as a Jew.”

“Well, thanks again. Thank you, really, for all the kind remarks.”

The waitress appeared with his sandwich. That should end it. On a pleasant note, actually. Behind the effusiveness lay nothing but somebody who had enjoyed a book. Fine. “Thank you,” said Zuckerman—the fourth time—and ceremoniously lifted half of his sandwich.

“I went to South Side. Class of forty-three.”

South Side High, at the decaying heart of the old industrial city, had been almost half black even in Zuckerman's day, when Newark was still mostly white. His own school district, at the far edge of a newer residential Newark, had been populated in the twenties and thirties by Jews leaving the rundown immigrant enclaves in the central wards to rear children bound for college and the professions and, in time, for the Orange suburbs, where Zuckerman's own brother, Henry, now owned a big house.

“You're Weequahic forty-nine.”

“Look,” said Zuckerman apologetically, “I have to eat and run. I'm sorry.”

“Forgive me, please. I only wanted to say—well, I said it, didn't I?” He smiled regretfully at his own insistence. “Thank you, thank you again. For everything. It's been a pleasure. It's been a thrill. I didn't mean to bug you, God knows.”

Zuckerman watched him move off to the register to pay for his meal. Younger than he seemed from the dark clothes and the beefy build and the vanquished air, but more ungainly, and, with his heavy splayfooted walk, more pathetic than Zuckerman had realized.

“Excuse me. I'm sorry.”

Hat in hand again. Zuckerman was sure he had seen him go out the door with it on his head.

“Yes?”

“This is probably going to make you laugh. But I'm trying to write myself. You don't have to worry about the competition, I assure you. When you try your hand at it, then you really admire the stupendous accomplishment of somebody like yourself. The patience alone is phenomenal. Day in and day out facing that white piece of paper.”

Zuckerman had been thinking that he should have had the good grace to ask him to sit and chat, if only for a moment. He had even begun to feel a sentimental connection, remembering him standing beside the table, announcing, “I'm a Newarker myself.” He was feeling less sentimental with the Newarker standing back beside the table announcing that he was a writer too.

“I was wondering if you could recommend an editor or an agent who might be able to help someone like me.”

“No.”

“Okay. Fine. No problem. Just asking. I already have a producer, you see, who wants to make a musical out of my life. My own feeling is that it should come out first in public as a serious book. With all the facts.”

Silence.

“That sounds preposterous to you, I know, even if you're too polite to say so. But it's true. It has nothing to do with me being anybody who matters. I ain't and I don't. One look and you know that. It's what happened to me that'll make the musical.”

Silence.

“I'm Alvin Pepler.”

Well, he wasn't Houdini. For a moment that had seemed in the cards.

Alvin Pepler waited to hear what Nathan Zuckerman made of meeting Alvin Pepler. When he heard nothing, he quickly came to Zuckerman's aid. And his own. “Of course to people like you the name can't mean a thing. You have better things to do with your time than waste it on TV. But I thought, as we're
landsmen,
that maybe your family might have mentioned me to you. I didn't say this earlier, I didn't think it was in order, but your father's cousin, Essie Slifer, happened to go to Central with my mother's sister Lottie way back when. They were one year apart. I don't know if this helps, but I'm the one they called in the papers ‘Pepler the Man of the People.' I'm ‘Alvin the Jewish Marine.'”

“Why then,” said Zuckerman, relieved at last to have something to say, “you're the quiz contestant, no? You were on one of those shows.”

Oh, there was more to it than that. The syrupy brown eyes went mournful and angry, filling up not with tears, but what was worse, with
truth.
“Mr. Zuckerman, for three consecutive weeks I was the winner on the biggest of them all. Bigger than ‘Twenty-One.' In terms of dollars given away bigger than ‘The $64,000 Question.' I was the winner on ‘Smart Money.'”

Zuckerman couldn't remember ever seeing any of those quiz shows back in the late fifties, and didn't know one from another; he and his first wife, Betsy, hadn't even owned a television set. Still, he thought he could remember somebody in his family—more than likely Cousin Essie—once mentioning a Pepler family from Newark, and their oddball son, the quiz contestant and ex-Marine.

“It was Alvin Pepler they cut down to make way for the great Hewlett Lincoln. That is the subject of my book. The fraud perpetrated on the American public. The manipulation of the trust of tens of millions of innocent people. And how for admitting it I have been turned into a pariah until this day. They made me and then they destroyed me, and, Mr. Zuckerman, they haven't finished with me yet. The others involved have all gone on, onward and upward in corporate America, and nobody cares a good goddamn what thieves and liars they were. But because I wouldn't lie for those miserable crooks, I have spent ten years as a marked man. A McCarthy victim is better off than I am. The whole country rose up against that bastard, and vindicated the innocent and so on, till at least some justice was restored. But Alvin Pepler, to this day, is a dirty name throughout the American broadcasting industry.”

Zuckerman was remembering more clearly now the stir those quiz shows had made, remembering not so much Pepler but Hewlett Lincoln, the philosophical young country newspaperman and son of the Republican governor of Maine, and, while he was a contestant, the most famous television celebrity in America, admired by schoolchildren, their teachers, their parents, their grandparents—until the scandal broke, and the schoolchildren learned that the answers that came trippingly off the tongue of Hewlett Lincoln in the contestants' isolation booth had been slipped to him days earlier by the show's producers. There were front-page stories in the papers, and as Zuckerman recalled, the ludicrous finale had been a Congressional investigation.

“I wouldn't dream,” Pepler was saying, “of comparing the two of us. An educated artist like yourself and a person who happens to be born with a photographic memory are two different things entirely. But while I was on ‘Smart Money,' deservedly or not I had the respect of the entire nation. If I have to say so myself, I don't think it did the Jewish people any harm having a Marine veteran of two wars representing them on prime-time national television for three consecutive weeks. You may have contempt for quiz programs, even the honest ones. You have a right to—you more than anybody. But the average person didn't see it that way in those days. That's why when I was on top for those three great weeks, I made no bones about my religion. I said it right out. I wanted the country to know that a Jew in the Marine Corps could be as tough on the battlefield as anyone. I never claimed I was a war hero. Far from it. I shook like the next guy in a foxhole, but I never ran, even under fire. Of course there were a lot of Jews in combat, and braver men than me. But I was the one who got that point across to the great mass of the American people, and if I did it by way of a quiz show—well, that was the way that was given to me. Then, of course,
Variety
started calling me names, calling me ‘quizling' and so on, and that was the beginning of the end. Quizling, with a
z.
When I was the only one who didn't want their answers to begin with! When all I wanted was for them to give me the subject, to let me study and memorize, and then to fight it out fair and square! I could fill volumes about those people and what they did to me. That's why running into you, coming upon Newark's great writer out of the blue—well, it strikes me as practically a miracle at this point in my life. Because if I could write a publishable book, I honestly think that people would read it and that they would believe it. My name would be restored to what it was. That little bit of good I did would not be wiped away forever, as it is now. Whoever innocent I harmed and left besmirched, all the millions I let down, Jews particularly—well, they would finally understand the truth of what happened. They would forgive me.”

His own aria had not left him unmoved. The deep brown irises were cups of ore fresh from the furnace—as though a drop of Pepler's eyes could burn a hole right through you.

“Well, if that's the case,” said Zuckerman, “you should work at it.”

“I have.” Pepler smiled the best he could. “Ten years of my life. May I?” He pointed to the empty chair across the table.

“Why not?” said Zuckerman, and tried not to think of all the reasons.

“I've worked at nothing else,” said Pepler, plunging excitedly onto the seat. “I've worked at nothing else every night
for ten years.
But I don't have the gift. That's what they tell me anyway. I have sent my book to twenty-two publishers. I have rewritten it five times. I pay a young teacher from Columbia High in South Orange, which is still an A-rated school—I pay her by the hour to correct my grammar and punctuation wherever it's wrong. I wouldn't dream of submitting a single page of this book without her going over it beforehand for my errors. It's all too important for that. But if in their estimation you don't have the great gift—well, that's it. You may chalk this up to bitterness. I would too, in your shoes. But Miss Diamond, this teacher working with me, she agrees: by now all they have to see is that Alvin Pepler is the author and they throw it in the pile marked trash. I don't think they read past my name. By now I'm one big laugh, even to the lowliest editor on Publishers' Row.” The speech was fervent, yet the gaze, now that he was at the level of the table, seemed drawn to what was uneaten on Zuckerman's plate. “That's why I asked you about an agent, an editor—somebody fresh who wouldn't be prejudiced right off. Who would understand that this is
serious.

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