which the Reader Suffers through a Few Pages of Random Exposition
in the Style of a Nineteenth-Century Novel
Mike had tried before Drunk to write a novel but always without
success, and his repeated gaffes had made him desperate -- desperate
for the adoration of readers and for the praise of editors and the
lascivious flattery of serpent tongued agents eager to make a killing
with the latest bestseller. Well, memoirs were in that year after
the dismal Irish one with the children starving to death in Limerick.
Mike figured he could write a memoir about his own darkest days
and his losing battle against liquor and his lust for the young
women with waxed legs he saw at the beach as he hulked there with
his bare ugly orangutan feet stuck deep in hot sand.
Mike's brutal father had beat him
regularly, without compunction or a shadow of remorse, once to within
a millimeter of his shallowly mouth-breathing life. His mother moaned
prayer and insult as she expired, her last breath a foul cough full
of tar-stained phlegm. Mike had spent the last ten years trying
to get over his rank childhood by crawling inside litre bottles
of various brands of alcohol and curling up there in the fetal position.
Drunk cost him over two years
of aching fifteen hour days hunched over the laptop until his tendons
sizzled with carpal tunnel syndrome -- another Merck Manual acronym
to add to the growing collection he'd inaugurated with his diagnosis
of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
But Mike's agent, Molly Heinrich,
had raved about the book, declaring it to be the sweetest memoir
on the market. Molly Heinrich, with her frozen hair and liver spotted
wrists, in a pale pink pantsuit, expanding on and out about the
book over a steeply priced lunch at Le Cirque.
You're the next Dave Eggars,
she'd trumpeted, as one waiter served the lobster bisque and toast
points, and another deftly poured Puligny-Montrachet.
Mike knew that his depression, raging cruelly, had deprived him
over the years of the mental focus and agility that allows others
to prosper as literary figures right out of prep school. Drunk
was a crucifixion to write, and if it failed he would have had to
blow his head off with one of George's antique shotguns. But Drunk
was not only well reviewed, it struck a nerve in the public. It
was a season, as we've already pointed out, for bleak memoirs. And
Mike's association with George had instilled in him a darkly humorous
spirit of faun-fun that shone through the life-wreckage his pages
autopsied in such malignant detail.
When Drunk ratcheted, by word
of mouth and a rave review by Michiko Kakutani, to number #4 on
The New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction
-- only three numbers down from O.J. Simpson's I Did It --
Mike breathed a long, stinking sigh of relief and toasted his success
with a grand vin de Bordeaux binge so dramatic that he was
finally able to enter the hospital without fainting at the automatic
doors to pay a visit to the comatose June-- now fed by tubes and
attached by a tangle of wires to a blinking EKG monitor, her brain
drifting like a wisp of gray cloud across the stony expanse of No
Mike slumped in the plastic chair,
gripping June's limp fingers, the bouquet of rain-wet chrysanthemums
laid across her feet, and sobbed for hours at the horror and shame
of it all.
had been dining out on his love affairs for as long as he could
recall but he'd never had the audacity to pen a novel about any
of them. He kept a little notebook, soft leather-bound, with their
names. Yet he didn't glamorize his past. If you want glamour, his
mother had once told him, go to the moving picture show.
George had once made a lucrative living
as a Senior Editor at K___. He occupied two floors of a brownstone
and filled it with leather chairs, chinese jars, antiques and books.
He even had some Picasso etchings, Matisse. He invited only his
most intimate friends there, which usually meant women.
He was at once feared and appreciated
in the Upper Manhattan social circles in which he moved with such
lapidary ease, his face cracked in a knowing smile. Women loved
him, and dogs followed him. He never had a dog of his own but he
could have had them all. In fact, the women who appreciated him
most were always pressing him to get a dog or trying to pawn off
on him their own shivering pugs. But George didn't want a lap dog.
He wanted a dog suited for a manly leather-and-wood study or the
cabin of a well appointed yacht, a dog that would look noble and
pure of heart trotting along beside one across a dismal, wet field
at dawn, eager to retrieve birdshot-shot mallards sprawled face
down in the muck.
George, graced with a lean and strapping
outdoorsman's body -- at thirty five, he looked forty; but then,
oddly enough, at forty-five he looked thirty-seven -- jogged to
keep in shape, huffing along the winding paths of Central Park,
Jacko bursting joyfully ahead of him to scatter pigeons.
Then George's publishing house went into a slow decline. Everything
in the business was askew. But that was the world for you -- the
bottom line in the ledger always rules.
When he quit publishing, he decided
to buy a cottage in Montauk and enjoy his Uncle Sydney's inheritance.
He kept the sagging Connecticut farmhouse, surrounded by decaying
apple orchards and fields growing to wild grass. Sometimes he went
up there to work, or just to enjoy an edgy feeling of proximity
to Philip Roth.
Yet George had been spending more
and more time at the seaside, contemplating his errors in life,
his miraculous escapes, and the evanescence of human hopes. And
coming up with clever lines to use at parties. Daphne's were always
at the top of his list. George wasn't one to go out of his way to
impress strangers; he enjoyed, rather, delighting his friends more
deeply at each reunion.
He sometimes thought he ought to have stayed in Manhattan, weathering
the squalls in Publishing. Maybe he could have discovered a hot
young writer. There were so many of them these days -- girls fresh
from graduate writing programs at Barnard, Sarah Lawrence, and Columbia.
Yet George was shocked when Faith
Resno sent him a review copy of her novel, F*cked Up Girl-Cherry
Actually, it wasn't so much a novel
as a collection of short stories. And the short stories weren't
so much short stories as collections of punchy scenes, some no more
than a few lines in length.
But what really threw George for an
agonizing loop was that two of the stories dealt at great length
and in mordant, sarcastic detail with Faith Resno's sexual affair
with an alcoholic yet beguilingly clever aging editor -- unmistakably
Faith Resno's novel brought back the past with an unwholesome clarity.
Christ, George wondered. What happened
to those lost days of middle age? In what snows had they melted?
His mind fairly swarmed with memories; not only of his careerist
days, but of his overprivileged youth. George shooting skeet with
his Uncle Stanley, that red-faced loon, drunk off his ass by ten
in the morning. George reading Middlemarch to the hiss of
a radiator, the city encased in dull snow flurries. George breaking
wind in a lecture room at Philip's Academy, loudly and with gusto,
and the lecturer -- a Mr. Addison -- pausing at the blackboard in
sweeping mid stroke, tight lipped, chin shaking with indignation
as the boy's titters fly up like swallows in a disturbed hayloft.
Had he always been such a clown? Was
it something that came to him naturally? Or were George's clever
witticisms merely a means of postponing the vast yawn of disgusted
boredom with all of life he'd felt building inside himself since
George met and chatted up Faith Resno at a predictable Central Park
West party. His dazzling conversation moved her away from the crowd,
against a patch of stippled wall half hidden by a large tropical
tree. As George entertained her, convulsing her with laughter as
a torturer convulses his victim with pain, she ran her tongue provocatively
along the edge of her martini glass.
George felt Faith's girl-heat through
the tightly constricting blouse and shimmering blue lycra pants
she wore. The talk swirling around them at the party was all shop
and chic new writers. But George took a different approach.
He regaled Faith with Life, not letters. He described the hellish
ordeal of detox. He described the burning boredom of his defunct
marriage to a woman who now sold real estate in Miami.
George was a wolf in shark's clothing.
Faith licked her rim as she followed his eyes around the room. When
he wasn't studying her for the least sign of any flaw in her sexiness,
she appreciated his profile. Noble, somewhat haphazard, his face
showed signs of intoxication, but he kept control over himself.
He didn't jostle her, didn't spill a drop of the Oban flashing in
George feared that in later years Faith would go all frumpy. Yet
when he saw her stride into the Russian Tea Room in rain-slick L.L.
Bean boots and shining fire-engine red rainslicker, he fell in lust
all with her all over again.
Over the borscht, Faith ran down the
log of her latest conquests, and declared -- while smearing a cracker
with two pats of monogrammed butter -- that she had a voracious
appetite for sex.
George found her singularly Attractive,
but it was more than that. Although her face had delicate bones,
although her pale skin flushed at the neck, although she looked
like a child when she sat up straight, George loved Faith for the
forlorn, orphan-like lilt of her wit. She didn't rival him in cleverness,
exactly, but when they set each other off --
And why shouldn't he set her off?
And why shouldn't she him?
Never mind that George was old enough
to have sat on Papa Hemingway's knee, and to have played golf with
a tottering gramps born last mid-century; Faith's skin felt to his
fingers like the dew-moist petals of an orchid.
In those days, George kept a notebook
in which all the clever things he'd said to women appeared on the
right hand pages, and all the clever things women had said to him
on the left. Most of the left hand pages were blank. Conclusion:
By and large, as a rule, women are not that clever. Only Faith Resno
had been a shocking exception.
First rule of rules, George thinks:
don't ever muddy them with exceptions.
was mildly startled by the invitation to Faith Resno's book release
party, to be held at The New York Public Library. Yet he resolved
to be at his best, and bought a sartorial suit especially for the
occasion. Attired like a duke, he combed his hair back carefully.
He had just enough of it left to cover his gleaming skull.
Crushed in the speeding taxi on his
way to the Event, George began to suffer from a hellish head-clamor
of anxiety. It wasn't exactly a leap into the unknown -- he was
sure to be on kidding terms with most of the luminaries in attendance
-- so why did he feel like a ski jumper at the top of the chute?
He wished he'd limoed his way to the doors, or at least brought
along a heavily scented date swathed in shining furs.
Suddenly there he was, flanked by
dumb lions. He climbed the rain-glassy steps with the relaxed, bouncing
stride he'd once perfected as Literary Publishing's next boy wonder.
As he stepped across the threshold
into a vast, high-ceilinged room reverberating with monkey noise,
a waitress veered toward him with a tray of sushi. He waved her
off and made for the bar, where he ordered a double Oban and tipped
heavily to assuage the Guilt of Existing. With half the scotch still
in his glass and half aflame in his esophagus, he headed breezily
over to the knot of star-fuckers and yes-people in Prada which,
he assumed, contained Faith as its molten sexual core.
He was not wrong (George rarely was,
as the reader has seen). There she was -- the toast of the Young
and the Flip. Clad in an emerald, spine-baring sheath, twisting
and turning around the hand that held her burning cigarette (which
gave the odd impression of being the only part of her that was still),
Faith barked out a deep, implosive laughter that had the violence
of a smoker's hack. Was she on dope? She seemed to be talking to
three people at once. A tall, bald young man in a black silk suit
had his hand on Faith's elegant nape, but he might as well have
been manhandling her elbow for all she seemed to notice him. The
others, slim and cackling girls all, wore the crazed expressions
of cartoon seahorses.
When Faith turned to him, it was with
a little flicker of fear which she quickly masked with a triumphant
Georgie! She hugged him, and George felt the lighted tip
of her cigarette scorch his cheek as they pulled apart.
George couldn't help but recall a
piquant moment in Faith's story, "Long Island Unsound,"
in which, at the end of a lengthy, whining argument with her boyfriend
-- a famous aging editor -- about the relevance of Norman Mailer
to a new generation of readers, the protagonist matter-of-factly
stubs out her cigarette and flips her hair behind an ear to bend
forward and suck on his cock.
Sadness pierced him. Jacko had been
just a scrambling puppy then; Faith had gazed at him with unironic
love in her eyes over a steaming platter on which lay two perfectly
red boiled lobsters.
Perfect Weather for Meat
Mike, Henry and Iris ride along with George up the New England coast.
Fernando Joao, the Portuguese novelist and poet, has invited them
to the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
It's a hot clear day in August; perfect weather for a religious
festival, George declares.
It is now dusk. George parks his battered
BMW in a small lot next to a scrapyard, and the four friends stroll
through trash strewn streets, guiding themselves by glimpses of
a Ferris wheel between three decker houses and the smell of frying
Fernando Joao is standing by the fenced
entrance to the barbecue pits, small and dapper in a silk jacket,
his small goatee threaded with gray hairs. He embraces George, then
Mike, then, awkwardly, Henry. He kisses Iris's hand. Delighted,
he murmurs, his dark eyes shining. His breath smells of roasted
meat and anisette.
He leads the way, with a sweeping
gesture, into the press and jostle of the crowd, Henry holding onto
Iris' hourglass waist like a shipwrecked sailor holding onto a spar
as they push their way towards the barbecue stand. When George,
pointing to a sign above the window that reads, Tickets Only
-- No Cash shouts, Where do we buy the tickets? Fernando
grins and yanks from one of his trouser pockets a roll of tickets
as thick as a deck of cards. He peels off a wad of the tickets,
hands them to Mike, and gestures toward a window surrounded by pornographic
color photographs of bottles of wine.
Vinho, vinho! he cries.
Mike nods and lunges through the swelling
crowd toward the wine window. Just halfway there, he finds himself
surrounded by a group of men each holding a metal barbecue skewer,
longer than Don Quixote's lance, on which chunks of raw red, blood-dripping
meat have been skewered. The men smile politely as they step
around the flabbergasted Mike and stride towards a denser crowd
gathered under the roofed barbecue pit -- hundreds of dark haired
men jostling one another, jockeying for a better view of rows of
sizzling and smoking skewers laid across the coals. Then he pushes
his way to a window where a girl with a large, beautiful bust and
sparkling dark eyes shouts, Yes?
Mike lays down the string of paper
tickets and asks for wine.
He shakes his head, holding up two
Oh, the girl says, laughing. She
swipes up the tickets, swiftly tearing and counting out sixteen.
Mike watches saucer-eyed as the girl empties two bottles of vinho
verde -- a greenish white wine -- into big plastic cups. She caps
the cups and brings them over to the window.
Thanks, he shouts.
She tosses her hair, already pursing
her wasp-stung lips to query the next customer.
Mike, with the trickster precision
of a practiced inebriate, places one brimming cup on top of the
other and holds the tower of vinho in one big hand as, with the
other hand, he snatches a stack of smaller plastic cups from a pile
next to the window. He then strolls, lurching a little whenever
he is bumped, back toward the barbecue window where his clueless
friends are assembled. As he approaches them, Fernando turns from
the window holding a paper carton full of bloody chunks of meat.
Fernando speaks to George, who darts quickly off to one side and
then strides just as quickly back to the small group holding a skewer
aloft like The Man of La Mancha.
We salt the meat now, Fernando
Fernando has to maneuver sideways
for a place along the nearby long aluminum counter upon which stand
plastic buckets full of salt and seasonings. Mike glances into one
of the buckets, commenting:
It looks like road salt.
George holds the skewer steady as
Fernando scrapes each chunk of meat briefly in salt and impales
it on the lance. Blood drips down the skewer over George's hands.
After a few moments, Fernando pauses
to accept a cup of wine. They all raise their cups and drink.
Good? Fernando asks.
Sure! Mike says.
Fernando slaps Mike's shoulder.
Mike empties his cup and refills it.
Henry and Iris are fondling one another fondly as the strings of
colored bulbs blink on in deepening dusk. George, taller than anyone
in the sea of bodies, carries the skewer aloft like a religious
icon, and -- Fernando directing him with terse instructions -- presses
his way through the shouting, sweating knots of men and lays the
skewer across the barbecue pit in which red hot coals wink through
the gray ash. Almost at once, the meat begins to brown.
Other skewers, George sees, have large
onions, peppers and even potatoes impaled on them.
No vegetables? he asks Fernando.
Meat, Fernando cries, laughing.
Just meat! Then he turns to Henry and Iris and, pointing
to a part of the large open space covered with a grape arbor and
strings of bulb lights, politely asks them to go and save a place
at a picnic table.
Mike pours another vinho verde for
Fernando, then one for himself, As he drinks he looks around, blinking
at the beautiful young women in tight clothes. He feels himself
getting drunker. The sky is dark blue. The roasting meat gives off
waves of fragrance. George and Fernando are chattering in Portuguese.
Where in God's name, Mike wonders, did George learn to
George removes the smoking skewer of dark dripping meat and carries
it two handed to a metal table where he and Fernando, working together,
extricate the meat from the skewer by swiping it through what looks
like a tuning fork; with each swipe, chunks of meat fall into the
paper carton Fernando has placed there. Shouts float up from the
crowd, past the strings of colored bulbs, to hang in the warm night
sky. Mike, sweating from the alcohol, is bumped back and forth as
he follows George and Fernando over to the grape arbor, where Iris,
sitting on Henryís lap, waves to them from a picnic table.
rakes up her hair and twists it into a ponytail as the men begin
to eat the dripping meat with their fingers.
Mike goes for two more bottles of vinho verde the girl at the window,
smiling, seems to recognize him. She thrusts out that amazing bust
as she places the plastic cups on the sopping counter.
Pascal, Nietzsche and Mike
Midnight finds Mike, George and Fernando sprawled on Horseneck Beach
around a faintly flickering fire fed by chunks of driftwood. Henry
and Iris have already escaped down the beach into the amorous, surf-sussing
darkness. No more will be seen of them for the next half hour, at
As George and Fernando chatter like
mockingbirds in the bright syllables of Portuguese, Mike lies back
and gazes into the harrowing depths of the Milky Way. Suddenly he
remembers: as a boy in the suburbs of Chicago, he used to take a
blanket out onto the lawn and spread it over the dew-damp grass
and recline staring up at the night sky, awaiting with eager dread
the moment when, by dint of a fierce concentration, his natural
and wrongheaded sense of direction would be suddenly reversed and
he, Mike, would gaze not up but down into the seething, drifting
With his natural sense of Down and
Up reversed, Mike the boy's scientific mind would go to work, and
he would reason: Here I am, a little boy, stuck to this dew-damp,
cricket-infested lawn in Lake Forest only by the paltry force of
earth's gravitational field. But, really, this planet is only one
piece of rock, circling in ellipsoid orbit a humdrum middle aged
star at the extreme end of one of the flowing spiral arms of the
Milky Way, which is so far across that it takes light one hundred
billion years to get here from one of the other spiral arms --
His mind would go to work like this,
chewing on the facts, to offset the terror he felt when it seemed
to him that at any moment he might, without cause or warning, fall
into the glittering Abyss.
When Mike read for the first time
George's favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, that walrus-moustached
free spirit, he was mostly underimpressed by the sentiments he found
there, but he did experience a distinctly hair raising shock when
stumbled across this sentence
If you gaze too long into the Abyss,
the Abyss will gaze back into you.
Wasn't what had terrified him the most on that suburban lawn the
sensation that the universe was, in some way, staring back
at him? That the darkness between the stars was, in some strange
way, aware of the fragile little self of Mike the boy? The
thought that the Abyss actually wanted him, was summoning him unto
Mike had similar shocks of recognition
at least twice more in relation to Literature, each deepening his
appreciation of those solitary nights and mornings he spent staring
through the brighter stars of the spiral arm into the shimmeringly
liquescent dimness of the Milky Way and beyond even that sperm like
spray of gaseous light to the unbearable space looming through it.
Once, in reading Kafka's In the
Penal Colony for college credits, it occurred to him that he
had felt, at those tortured yet blissful moments, exactly like one
of the men condemned to be executed by the inscribing machine. He
had felt the Abyss writing its name in his flesh.
Again, in reading Pascal's famed
pensee: When I remember the unbearable solitude of those
infinite spaces . . .
And, once again, while reading a novel
about a man whose spine gets injured in a car wreck who is then
placed in a halo cast, attached to a table, and turned upside down,
so that he must use a complicated sequence of mirrors in order to
see the faces of his family and well-wishers when they come to visit
Yet, as much as a literary work might
remind him of some fragment of what he had felt gazing into the
night sky as a boy, the experience of it was unutterably his own,
and he hadn't the slightest notion of how he might ever communicate
it in a piece of prose. Perhaps chaos, Mike thinks, his head buzzing,
can't be enclosed in words. But then -- ?
He becomes aware of the Pleiades revolving
a glacial counterclockwise.
No, what he feels is actually the
earth rushing through space like a woman with her head on
Then Mike feels it happening again,
quite suddenly and yet with terrifying slowness: the beach sand
lumped uncomfortably beneath his spine becomes almost insubstantial
as the earth wheels on its axis and Mike, attached magically to
a random ball of spinning rock and earth, stares down into
through the glimmering depths of the Milky Way into the blackness
extending unutterably beyond.
Another Digression: Passionate Nuns, Lecherous Inquisitors, a Lost
Manuscript, and an Auto-da-Fe
He sits up. George hands him the bottle of wine that he and Fernando
have been swigging from. Mike swigs from it, his heart beating wildly.
Under, over, around them is universal darkness; infinite spaces
in which our selves will be lost. Our fragile illusions .
. . Mike shakes his head. He drinks again. The cheap wine burns
going down. He holds the bottle out stiff-armed and Fernando takes
it. Mike, stumbling over his words, his mouth wet, his brain rushing
to escape the vision of catastrophe pressing in on him with the
roar of the Milky Way -- or is that the surf crashing as the tide
comes up, pulled like taffy by the bleak lifeless moon? -- asks
So when in the fuck did you learn
Ah, Fernando says, laughing.
George explains that over twenty-five
years ago, when he was a budding young editor at K____, he read
a manuscript of a novel submitted by a young Portuguese poet. Although
English was clearly not the poet's original language -- the manuscript
was riddled with laughable errors -- George was so affected by the
content, which he found "stark, crazy, original, brutal and fascinating"
that he immediately flew to Lisbon to meet its author and to arrange
for a better translation.
A True Story of Infamous Lechery
Among Nuns of the Convent of the Sacred Wounds of the Excruciating
Passion in the Aftermath of the Great Earthquake of Lisbon, 1755
was published to blaring fanfare by K___ that autumn. A Portuguese
edition followed soon after that, followed closely by editions in
French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Turkish, Croatian, and
Uzbecki. Later, of course, it was made into an acclaimed and controversial
film by Roman Polanski.
Although published as fiction, the
novel was a detailed account of what Fernando insisted was a true
story; he had seen with his own eyes a rotting manuscript written
by a certain Sister Elizabeta d'Assumption, the last living survivor
of the secluded Convent of the Sacred Wounds of the Excruciating
Passion when it was razed by the army of the Portuguese king, and
all of its female inhabitants heaped onto a pile of oil-soaked faggots
and set aflame.
(This last scene was by far the most
effective one in Polanski's otherwise blundering film, George always
maintained. The screams of the importuning nuns as their hair caught
fire, the Knights, unable to control themselves, masturbating at
the sight of the naked young women writhing in flames, and then
a cask of gunpowder, lit by a shower of sparks, going off, blowing
the entire courtyard to smithereens; well, it was excruciating,
it was wonderful, it was an unsurpassed moment in the Cinema of
Sister d'Assumption escaped the auto-da-fe,
as she steadfastly continued to claim in later life, only because
her lithe beauty had caught the eye of the lecherous Inquisitor
General. She was transported in a Porto barrel to Spain, where the
aforementioned personage installed her in spacious apartments in
his quarters but kept the windows shuttered and the doors under
guard by Moorish slaves instructed to kill anyone who tried to leave
or pass without his express written consent.
To her mild shock, Sister d'Assumption
found that the Inquisitor had no lascivious designs on her flesh
-- no, his lechery went deeper, to the point of corrupting his entire
soul. He insisted that Sister d'Assumption pen her memoirs.
"And so she did."