Read Zuckerman Unbound Online

Authors: Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (6 page)

The following week, with nothing to keep him locked behind the study door where usually he spent his days complicating life for himself on paper, he packed a suitcase and began again to complicate his life in the world. With his page proofs and his suitcase, he moved into a hotel. His feeling for Laura was dead. Writing this book had finished it off. Or maybe finishing the book had given him time to look up at last and see what had died; that was the way it usually worked with his wives. The woman's too good for you, he told himself, reading page proofs on the bed in his hotel room. She is the reputable face that you turn toward the reputable, the face you have been turning toward them all your life. It isn't even Laura's virtue that bores you to tears—it's the reputable, responsible, drearily virtuous face that's your own. It should bore you. It is a goddamn disgrace. Coldhearted betrayer of the most intimate confessions, cutthroat caricaturist of your own loving parents, graphic reporter of encounters with women to whom you have been deeply bound by trust, by sex, by love—no, the virtue racket ill becomes you. It is simply weakness—childish, shame-ridden, indefensible weakness—that condemns you to prove about yourself a point that you only subvert by everything that enlivens your writing,
so stop trying to prove it.
Hers is the cause of righteousness, yours the art of depiction. It really shouldn't take half a lifetime for someone with your brains to figure out the difference.

In March he moved into the new apartment in the East Eighties, thereby separating himself by much of Manhattan from Laura's missionary zeal and moral reputation.

*   *   *

After finishing with the answering service, and before starting on his mail, Zuckerman got out the telephone book to look up “Paté, Martin.” There was no such listing. Couldn't find a “Paté Productions” either, not in the regular directory or in the Yellow Pages.

He dialed the answering service again.

“Rochelle, I'm trying to locate the actress Gayle Gibraltar.”

“Lucky girl.”

“Do you have some kind of show-business directory there?”

“Got all a man could want here, Mr. Zuckerman. I'll take a look.” When she came back on the line, she said, “No Gayle Gibraltar, Mr. Zuckerman. Closest I've got is a Roberta Plymouth. You sure that's her professional and not her real name?”

“It doesn't sound real to me. But not much does lately. She was just in some Sardinian film.”

“One minute, Mr. Zuckerman.” But when she came back on, there was still nothing to report. “I can't find her anywhere. How did you meet her? Party?”

“I haven't met her. She's the friend of a friend.”

“I get it.”

“He tells me she was once Playmate of the Month.”

“Okay, let's try that.” But she couldn't find a Gibraltar in any of the model listings either. “Describe her to me, Mr. Zuckerman, physically.”

“No need,” he said, and hung up.

He opened the directory to “Perlmutter.” No “Martin” listed. And of sixteen other assorted Perlmutters, none residing on East Sixty-second Street.

The mail. On to the mail. You are getting stirred up over nothing. Undoubtedly listed as “Sardinian Enterprises.” Not that there is any reason to go see. No more reason than to run away. Stop running away. From what in God's name are you in flight? Stop taking every attention as an intrusion on your privacy, as an insult to your dignity—even worse, as a threat to life and limb. You are not even that big a celebrity. Let's not forget that most of the country, most of the
city,
wouldn't care if you walked around with your name and your unlisted number on a sandwich board. Even among writers, even among writers of some pretensions to seriousness, you are still no titan. I am not saying that you should be any less confounded by a change like this, I am only saying that being known, even being known for the moment as mildly notorious—mildly, for sure, by comparison with Charles Manson, or even with Mick Jagger or Jean Genet—

The mail.

He had decided that it would be better to end rather than to begin the day with his mail if he was ever going to get back to work; best to ignore the mail completely if he was ever going to get back to work. But how much more could he ignore, dismiss, or try to elude, before he became one with the stiffs at the undertaker's down the street?

The phone! Laura! He had left three messages in three days and heard nothing. But he was sure it was Laura, it had to be Laura, she was no less lonely or lost than he was. Yet, to be on the safe side, he waited for the service to pick up before quietly lifting the receiver.

Rochelle had to ask the caller several times to make himself more intelligible. Zuckerman, silently listening, couldn't understand him either. The Italian in pursuit of his interview? The Rollmops King hungry for his commercial? A man trying to speak like an animal, or an animal trying to speak like a man? Hard to tell.

“Again,
please,
” said Rochelle.

In touch with Zuckerman. Urgent. Put him on.

Rochelle asked him to leave a name and number.

Put him on.

Again she asked for a name and the connection was broken.

Zuckerman spoke up. “Hello, I'm on the line. What was that all about?”

“Oh, hello, Mr. Zuckerman.”

“What
was
that? Do you have any idea?”

“It could just be a pervert, Mr. Zuckerman. I wouldn't worry.”

She worked nights, she should know. “Don't you think it was somebody trying to disguise his voice?”

“Could be. Or on drugs. I wouldn't worry, Mr. Zuckerman.”

The mail.

Eleven letters tonight—one from André's West Coast office and ten (still pretty much the daily average) forwarded to him in a large envelope from his publisher. Of these, six were addressed to Nathan Zuckerman, three to Gilbert Carnovsky; one, sent in care of the publishing house, was addressed simply to “The Enemy of the Jews” and had been forwarded to him unopened. They were awfully smart down in that mailroom.

The only letters at all tempting were those marked “Photo Do Not Bend,” and there was none in this batch. He had received five so far, the most intriguing still the first, from a young New Jersey secretary who had enclosed a color snapshot of herself, reclining in black underwear on her back lawn in Livingston, reading a novel by John Updike. An overturned tricycle in the corner of the picture seemed to belie the single status she claimed for herself in the attached curriculum vitae. However, investigation with his Compact Oxford English Dictionary magnifying glass revealed no sign on the body that it had borne a child, or the least little care in the world. Could it be that the owner of the tricycle had just happened to be pedaling by and dismounted in haste when summoned to snap the picture? Zuckerman studied the photograph on and off for the better part of a morning, before forwarding it to Massachusetts, along with a note asking if Updike would be good enough to reroute photographs of Zuckerman readers mistakenly sent to him.

From André's office a column clipped out of
Variety,
initialed by the West Coast secretary, whose admiration for his work led her to send Zuckerman items from the show-business press that he might otherwise miss. The latest was underlined in red. “… Independent Bob ‘Sleepy' Lagoon paid close to a million for Nathan Zuckerman's unfinished sequel to the smasheroo…”

Oh, did he? What sequel? Who is Lagoon? Friend of Paté and Gibraltar? Why does she send me this stuff!

“—unfinished sequel—”

Oh, throw it away, laugh it off, you keep ducking when you should be smiling.

Dear Gilbert Carnovsky :

Forget about satisfaction. The question is not is Carnovsky happy, or even, does Carnovsky have the right to happiness? The question to ask yourself is this: Have I achieved all that could be done by me? A man must live independent of the barometer of happiness, or fail. A man must …

Dear Mr. Zuckerman:

Il faut laver son linge sale en famille!

Dear Mr. Zuckerman:

This letter is written in memory of those who suffered the horror of the Concentration Camps …

Dear Mr. Zuckerman:

It is hardly possible to write of Jews with more bile and contempt and hatred …

The phone.

He reached for it this time without thinking—the way he used to get on the bus and go out for his dinner and walk by himself through the park. “Lorelei!” he cried into the receiver. As if that would summon her forth, and all their wonderful Bank Street boredom. His life back under control. His reputable face toward the world.

“Don't hang up, Zuckerman. Don't hang up unless you're looking for bad trouble.”

The character he'd overheard with Rochelle. The hoarse, high-pitched voice, with the vaguely imbecilic intonation. Sounded like some large barking animal, yes, like some up-and-coming seal who had broken into human speech. It was the speech, supposedly, of the thickheaded.

“I have an important message for you, Zuckerman. You better listen carefully.”

“Who is this?”

“I want some of the money.”

“Which money?”

“Come off it. You're Nathan Zuckerman, Zuckerman. Your money.”

“Look, this isn't entertaining, whoever you are. You can get in trouble like this, you know, even if the imitation is meant to be humorous. What is it you're supposed to be, some punch-drunk palooka or Marlon Brando?” It was all getting much too ridiculous. Hang up. Say nothing more and hang up.

But he couldn't—not after he heard the voice saying, “Your mother lives at 1167 Silver Crescent Drive in Miami Beach. She lives in a condominium across the hall from your old cousin Essie and her husband, Mr. Metz, the bridge player. They live in 402, your mother lives in 401. A cleaning woman named Olivia comes in on Tuesdays. Friday nights your mother has dinner with Essie and her crowd at the Century Beach. Sunday mornings she goes to the Temple to help with the bazaar. Thursday afternoons there is her club. They sit by the pool and play canasta: Bea Wirth, Sylvia Adlerstein, Lily Sobol, Lily's sister-in-law Flora, and your mother. Otherwise she is visiting your old man in the nursing home. If you don't want her to disappear, you'll listen to what I have to say, and you won't waste time with cracks about my voice. This happens to be the voice that I was born with. Not everybody is perfect like you.”

“Who is this?”

“I'm a fan. I admit it, despite the insults. I'm an admirer, Zuckerman. I'm somebody who has been following your career for years now. I've been waiting for a long time for you to hit it big with the public. I knew it would happen one day. It had to. You have a real talent. You make things come alive for people. Though frankly I don't think this is your best book.”

“Oh, don't you?”

“Go ahead, put me down, but the depth isn't there. Flash, yes; depth, no. This is something you had to write to make a new beginning. So it's incomplete, it's raw, it's pyrotechnics. But I understand that. I even admire it. To try things a new way is the only way to grow. I see you growing enormously as a writer, if you don't lose your guts.”

“And you'll grow with me, is that the idea?”

The mirthless laugh of the stage villain. “Haw. Haw. Haw.”

Zuckerman hung up. Should have as soon as he heard who it was and was not. More of what he simply must become inured to. Trivial, meaningless, only to be expected—he hadn't, after all, written
Tom Swift.
Yes, Rochelle had the right idea. “Only some pervert, Mr. Zuckerman. I wouldn't worry.”

Yet he wondered if he shouldn't dial the police. What
was
worrying was all that his caller had said about his mother in Florida. But since the
Life
cover story, and the attention she subsequently got from the Miami papers, details on Nathan Zuckerman's mother were not so hard to come by, really, if you happened to be looking. She had herself successfully resisted all the determined efforts to flatter, beguile, and bully her into an “exclusive” interview; it was lonely Flora Sobol, Lily's recently widowed sister-in-law, who'd been unable to hold out against the onslaught. Though afterward Flora insisted she had spoken with the newspaperwoman for only a few minutes on the phone, a half-page article had nonetheless appeared in the weekend amusement section of the
Miami Herald,
under the title, “I Play Canasta with Carnovsky's Mother.” Accompanying the article, a picture of lonely, pretty, aging Flora and her two Pekinese.

*   *   *

Some six weeks before publication—when he could begin to see the size of the success that was coming, and had intimations that the Hallelujah Chorus might not be entirely a pleasure from beginning to end—Zuckerman had flown down to Miami to prepare his mother for the reporters. As a result of what he told her over dinner, she was unable to get to sleep that night and had to cross the hall to Essie's apartment finally and ask if she could come in for a tranquilizer and a serious talk.

I am very proud of my son and that's all I have to say. Thank you so much and goodbye.

This was the line that she might be wisest to take when the journalists began phoning her. Of course, if she didn't mind the personal publicity, if she
wanted
her name in the papers—

“Darling, it's me you're talking to, not Elizabeth Taylor.”

Whereupon, over their seafood dinner, he pretended that he was a newspaper reporter who had nothing better to do than call her up to ask about Nathan's toilet training. She in turn had to pretend that some such thing was going to be happening every day once his new novel appeared in the bookstores.

“‘But what about being Carnovsky's mother? Let's face it, Mrs. Zuckerman, this is who you are now.'”

“‘I have two fine sons I'm very proud of.'”

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