Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (4 page)

“I hope so.”

“Please, don't worry about me. I learned my lesson. They wiped me out worse than you can begin to imagine back when they wiped me out. I haven't been the same person since. I start back after the war, and then there's Korea. I start back again after that, fight my way to the absolute top, and whammo. This actually is the best week I have had in ten years, being here in New York City with finally,
finally,
some kind of door to the future opening up. My good name, my robust health, my Marine record, and then my lovely, loyal fiancée, who took to the hills. I never saw her again. I became a walking disgrace because of those crooked bastards, and I'm not about to lay myself open like that ever again. I understand what you're trying to warn me about in your own humorous way. Well, don't worry, the one-liners aren't wasted on me. I'm warned. I'm not the wide-eyed little yokel I was back in fifty-nine. I don't think I'm with a great man anymore just because a guy has got a hundred pair of shoes in the closet and a Jacuzzi bathtub ten feet long. They were going to make me a sportscaster on the Sunday night news, did you know that? I was supposed to be Stan Lomax by now. I was supposed to be Bill Stern.”

“But they didn't do it,” said Zuckerman.

“May I speak frankly, Nathan? I would give anything to sit down with you for one evening, any night you wanted, and tell you what was going on in this country in the reign of Ike the Great. In my opinion the beginning of the end of what's good in this country were those quiz shows and the crooks that ran them and the public that swallowed it like so many dopes. There is where it began, and where it has ended is with another war again, and one this time that makes you want to scream. And a liar like Nixon as President of the United States. Eisenhower's gift to America. That schmegeggy in his golf shoes—this is what he leaves for posterity. But this is all in my book, spelled out in detail, step by step, the decline of every decent American thing into liars and lies. You can well understand why I have my own reasons for being nervous about throwing my lot in with anybody, Marty Paté included. After all, mine is not the kind of criticism of a country that you are used to finding in a Broadway musical. Do you agree? Can such a thing even be made into a musical without watering down the condemnation I make of the system?”

“I don't know.”

“They promised me a job as a sportscaster if I didn't admit to the D.A. about how the thing was rigged from the day it started, how even that little girl they had on, age eleven and in pigtails, they gave her the answers and didn't even tell her mother. They were going to put me on TV every Sunday night with the sports results. It was all arranged. So they told me. ‘Al Pepler and the Weekend Round-up.' And from there to broadcasting the Yankee home games. What it came down to was that they couldn't afford to let a Jew be a big winner too long on ‘Smart Money.' Especially a Jew who made no bones about it. They were afraid about the ratings. They were terrified they would rub the country the wrong way. Bateman and Schachtman, the producers, would have meetings about things like this and talk about it together till all hours. They would talk about whether to have an armed guard come on the stage with the questions, or the president of a bank. They would talk about whether the isolation booth should be waiting on the stage at the beginning or whether it should be rolled out by a squad of Eagle Scouts. They would talk all night long, two grown men, about what kind of tie I should wear. This is all true, Nathan. But my point is that if you study the programs the way I have, you'll see that my theory about the Jews is borne out. There were twenty quiz shows on three networks, seven of them in action five days a week. On an average week they gave away half a million bucks. I'm talking about true quiz shows, exclusive of panel shows and stunt shows and those do-good shows, where you could only get on if you had palsy or no feet. Half a million bucks a week, and yet over the bonanza period from nineteen fifty-five to fifty-eight, you won't find a single Jew who won over a hundred thousand. That was the limit for a Jew to win, and this is on programs where the producers, nearly every single one, were Jews themselves. To break the bank you had to be a goy like Hewlett. The bigger the goy, the bigger the haul. This is on programs
run
by Jews. This is what still drives me crazy. ‘I will study and get ready, and maybe the chance will come.' You know who said that? Abraham Lincoln. The real Lincoln. That was who I quoted from on nationwide TV my first night on the show, before I got into the booth. Little did I know that because my father wasn't governor of Maine and I didn't go to Dartmouth College, my chance wasn't going to be the same as the next guy's, that three weeks later I'd be as good as dead. Because I didn't commune with nature, you see, up there in the Maine woods. Because while Hewlett was sitting on his ass studying to lie at Dartmouth College, I was serving this country in
two
wars. Two years in World War II and then I get called back for Korea! But this is all in my book. Whether it's all going to get in the musical, well, how could it? Face facts. You know this country better than anybody. There are people that, as soon as word gets out that I'm working on what I'm working on with Marty Paté, who are going to put the pressure on him to drop me like a hot potato. I wouldn't even rule out payoffs from the networks. I wouldn't rule out the F.C.C. taking him aside. I can see Nixon himself getting involved to quash it. I'm supposed to be a disturbed and unstable person, you see. That's what they'll tell Marty to scare him off. That's what they told everybody, including me, including the parents of my stupid fiancée, including finally a special subcommittee from the United States House of Representatives. That was the story when I refused to go along with being dethroned for no reason after only three weeks. Bateman was practically in tears from worrying about my mental stability. ‘If you knew the discussions we have had about your character, Alvin. If you knew the surprise it has been to us, that you have not turned out to be the trustworthy fellow we all so believed in. We're so worried about you,' he tells me, ‘we've decided to pay for a psychiatrist for you. We want you to see Dr. Eisenberg until you have gotten over your neurosis and are yourself again.' ‘Absolutely,' Schachtman says, ‘I see Dr. Eisenberg, why shouldn't Alvin see Dr. Eisenberg? This organization is not going to save a few lousy dollars at the expense of Alvin's mental stability.' This is how they were going to discredit me, by setting me up as a nut. Well, that tune changed fast. Because, one, I wasn't going in for any psychiatric treatment, and two, what I wanted was a written agreement from them, guaranteeing that first Hewlett and I fight to a draw for three consecutive weeks and
then
I leave. And one month later, by popular request, a rematch, which he would win by a hair in the last second. But not on the subject of Americana. I was not going to let a goy beat a Jew again on that, not while the entire country was watching. Let him beat me on a subject like Trees, I said, which is their specialty and doesn't mean anything to anybody anyway. But I refuse to let the Jewish people go down on prime-time TV as not knowing their Americana. Either I had all that in writing, I said, or I would go to the press with the truth, including the stuff about the little girl with the braids and how they set her up too, first with the answers and then to take a dive. You should have heard Bateman then, and how much he was worried about my mental condition. ‘Do you want to destroy my career, Alvin? Why? Why me? Why Schachtman and Bateman, after all we've done for you? Didn't we get your teeth cleaned? Sharp new suits? A dermatologist? Is this the way you plan to pay us back, by going up to people in the street and telling them Hewlett is a fake? Alvin, all these threats, all this blackmail. Alvin, we are not hardened criminals—we are in show business. You cannot ask random questions of people and have a show. We want ‘Smart Money' to be something the people of America can look forward to every week with excitement. But if you just ask random questions, you know you would have nobody knowing the answer two times in a row. You would have just failure, and failure does not make entertainment. You have to have a plot, like in
Hamlet
or anything else first-class. To the audience, Alvin, maybe you are only contestants. But to us you are far more. You are performers. You are artists. Artists making art for America, just the way Shakespeare made it in his day for England. And that is with a plot, and conflict, and suspense, and a resolution. And the resolution is that you should lose to Hewlett, and we have a new face on the show. Does Hamlet get up from the stage and say I don't want to die at the end of the play? No, his part is over and he lies there. That is the difference, in point of fact, between schlock and art. Schlock goes every which way and couldn't care less about anything but the buck, and art is
controlled,
art is
managed,
art is
always
rigged. That is how it takes hold of the human heart.' And this is where Schachtman pipes up and tells me that they are going to make a sportscaster out of me, as a reward, if I keep my mouth shut and go down for the count. So I did. But did they,
did they,
after telling me that
I
wasn't the one to be trusted?”

“No,” said Zuckerman.

“You can say that again. Three weeks, and that was it. They cleaned my teeth and they kissed my ass, and for three weeks I was their hero. The mayor had me into his office. Did I tell you that? ‘You have placed the name of the city of Newark before the whole country.' He said this to me in front of the City Council, who clapped. I went to Lindy's and signed a picture of myself for their wall. Milton Berle came up to my table and asked me some questions, as a gag. One week they're taking me for cheesecake to Lindy's and the next week they tell me I'm washed up. And call me names, into the bargain. ‘Alvin,' Schachtman says to me, ‘is this what you're going to turn out to be, you who has done so much good for Newark and your family and the Marines and the Jews? Just another exhibitionist who has no motive but greed?' I was furious. ‘What is your motive, Schachtman? What is Bateman's motive? What is the sponsor's motive? What is the network's motive?' And the truth is that greed had nothing to do with it. It was by this time my self-respect. As a man! As a war veteran! As a war veteran twice over! As a Newarker! As a Jew! What they were saying, you understand, was that all these things that made up Alvin Pepler and his pride in himself were unadulterated crap next to a Hewlett Lincoln. One hundred and seventy-three thousand dollars, that's what he wound up with, that fake. Thirty thousand fan letters. Interviewed by more than five hundred newsmen from around the world. Another face? Another
religion,
that's the ugly truth of it! This hurt me, Nathan. I am hurt still, and it isn't just egotistically either, I swear to you. This is why I'm fighting them, why I'll fight them right to the end, until my true story is before the American public. If Paté is my chance, then don't you see, I
have
to jump for it. If it has to be a musical first and
then
the book, then that's the way it has to be until my name is cleared!”

Perspiration streamed from beneath his dark rain hat, and with the handkerchief Zuckerman had given him earlier, he reached up to wipe it off—enabling Zuckerman to step away from the street-corner mailbox where Pepler had him pinned. In fifteen minutes, the two Newarkers had traveled one block.

Across the street from where they stood was a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor. The evening was cool, yet customers walked in and out as though it were already summertime. Inside the lighted store there was a small crowd waiting at the counter to be served.

Because he didn't know how to begin to reply, and probably because Pepler was perspiring so, Zuckerman heard himself ask, “What about an ice cream?” Of course, what Pepler would have preferred from Zuckerman was this:
You were robbed, ruined, brutally betrayed
—Carnovsky's
author commits his strength to the redress of Pepler's grievance.
But the best Zuckerman could do was to offer an ice-cream snack. He doubted if anyone could do better.

“Oh, forgive me,” said Pepler. “I'm sorry for this. Of course you've got to be starving, with me talking your ear off and then eating half your dinner in the bargain. Forgive me, please, if I got carried away on this subject. Meeting you has just thrown me for a loop. I don't usually go off half-cocked like this, telling everybody my troubles out on the street. I'm so quiet with people, their first impression is I'm death warmed over. Someone like Miss Gibraltar,” he said, reddening, “thinks I'm practically a deaf-mute. Hey, let
me
buy
you.”

“No, no, not necessary.”

But as they crossed the street, Pepler insisted. “After the pleasure you've given to me as a reader? After the earful I just gave you?” Refusing even to let Zuckerman enter the store with his money, Pepler cried, “Yes, yes, my treat, absolutely. For our great Newark writer who has cast his spell over the entire country! For that great magician who has pulled a living, breathing Carnovsky out of his artistic hat! Who has hypnotized the U.S.A.! Here's to the author of that wonderful best-selling book!” And then, suddenly, he was looking at Zuckerman as tenderly as a father on an outing with his darling baby boy. “Do you want jimmies on top, Nathan?”

“Sure.”

“And flavor?”

“Chocolate is fine.”

“Both dips?”

“Fine.”

Comically tapping at his skull to indicate that the order was tucked safely away in the photographic memory that was once the pride of Newark, the nation, and the Jews, Pepler hurried into the store. Zuckerman waited out on the pavement alone.

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