Friday, June 27, 2008

A Story

OK, here's your treat/punishment for the weekend, depending on how you feel about long blog posts. This is the story I read the other night at Literary Death Match. (Details about the night -- and posts about lots of other things -- can be found by scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling past this story.) This is called "William Brunson Attempts to End His Friendship With Frank McDermott."

***

I know young writers, kids a half or even a third my age, who are disappointed in their peers. They wish they were more excitable -- more prone to fist fights at cocktail parties. They feel they missed a golden era, the way some men wish they had been born to see action at Guadalcanal. Of course, they would feel differently if their wish were granted. If they had ever witnessed a writer fight, they may have had to accompany one of the frustrated pugilists home in a cab, and there’s no avoiding the bathos then, let me tell you. If you’ve heard a writer complain about an imagined slight, just imagine a real fat lip. They’re drunk when it happens, too, which makes them more sentimental or more angry . . . more of whatever it is you don’t like about them when they’re sober. Plus, the panting. The act of throwing one good punch leaves a writer out of breath for days.

I’ve cleaned up the blood of both William Brunson and Frank McDermott, each spilled by the other, and I’m here to testify there is nothing golden about it. I was Frank’s agent in 1978, when he won the National Book Award for Birmingham Hours, a novel about a lonely northerner stuck in Alabama over a long weekend. The New Yorker compared it favorably to the work of Walker Percy. The New York Times said that McDermott -- and here I quote -- “limns the differences of regional American character with an eye as precise as his heart is forgiving.” I thought it was the worst of his three novels, but it’s proven to be the only one anyone remembers, and it still sells a thousand or so copies a year.

After my stint as an agent I worked as an editor. I became the caretaker of Brunson’s only book -- a modest collection of stories -- when his editor left the house to have a sex change and moved to Florida to train dolphins. So I’ve been a corner man for both sides, often simultaneously, with all the awkwardness that entails -- running from one side of the ring to the other, offering advice, stanching gashes, trying to keep them upright for one or two more rounds so we can all go home with some dignity intact.

They had provided better entertainment over the years when they refrained from belting each other and focused their creativity on more abstract theaters of battle. When Frank’s follow-up to Birmingham received disapproval from the Times in 1983, he and Brunson were staying at summer homes on Fire Island, less than two blocks from each other. At noon on a clear day, Brunson hired a skywriter to decorate the horizon with the two toughest words in the review: “strained . . . derivative.” And a couple of years later, when Brunson drunkenly confided in Frank that his marriage was feeling strained -- perhaps derivative, too -- Frank mailed a series of letters in a flowery hand to Brunson’s home, making his wife think that Brunson was having an affair.

You might be wondering why these two have maintained contact over the decades. I wonder that myself. Writers often make room for ego, jealousy, and out-and-out bloodlust in a way most people don’t. But even given that, the enmity between Brunson and Frank stands out.

These two are on my mind because Frank is making a rare public appearance tonight, reading from his first new novel in 22 years. I’m on my way to meet Brunson beforehand at a cafe. He has beaten me here. He’s sitting with his back to the door and I see that he’s worrying a piece of paper. When I sit down, he holds it protectively against his chest.

“Brunson,” I nod, trying to appear unthreatening. Something has him spooked.

He reminds me that a month ago he had sent Frank a new collection of stories for consideration. Frank has become an editor himself, a rather high-powered one. Brunson ominously notes that I had approved this course of action. I believe him, but I also have no idea why I would have done such a thing.

He hands me the sheet, marked with the letterhead of Frank’s imprint.
Dear Bill:

It’s so rare that a gatekeeper has a pleasant experience. As you know, it’s a dispiriting business. We spend most of our time playing assassin to sad little hopes that are barely worth a slap, much less a bullet. Some days it feels that the war has broken me and I’m not even at my post; I’m marauding into the surrounding hills, picking off villagers who don’t even know the gate exists.

But there are times when my role feels indispensable, my duty sacred. Reading your latest collection of stories is one of those times. In rejecting it for publication, I feel as Churchill must have, keeping the Germans out of London. Remember that publication pivots on the “public,” and I can’t inflict these pallid stories on them.

You may find a willing publisher elsewhere, but I doubt it. I don’t blame you for thinking you might have found a sympathetic audience on my desk. I am sympathetic. But I’m not blind. So not this time, I’m afraid. Thanks for giving me a look.

Warmest,
Frank
I swallow gravely to signal I’ve finished. His pale face fixes mine. “Can you believe it?” he asks.

I can, but I struggle to compose an expression that says I can’t.

“And I thought we were friends,” he says.

Friends. I think back to the heated exchanges, the baroque plots, the broken noses.

He drops below the table and wrestles into his bag while I marvel again at how stupid smart people can be. He’s just figuring out now that Frank might genuinely dislike him.

He reappears holding a hand grenade. I quickly scan the cafe. The customers around us continue to talk, or nap, or feed their hand-held devices. The employees chat behind the counter.

Brunson cups the grenade, gently hefts it three times to test its weight, like he just picked it out of the produce section. He smiles at me. I imagine it’s impossible for a smile to look anything but creepy, when it’s flashed by someone holding a grenade.

“I suppose I should ask what you’re doing with that,” I say, my throat suddenly dry.

“I’m on a mission,” he says. “To rescue grenade-lobbing from the land of metaphor.”

“That’s for tonight?”

“It is indeed,” he beams.

All I can picture is Frank exploding into a thousand pieces. I can’t help it. And I don’t want to laugh at the image, but it’s hard to suppress. Readings are normally so dull.

“What about the people near the podium?” I ask.

“They must be devoted fans to have gotten there early for such good seats,” he says. “They’ll deserve it.”

My friendship with these men has always exposed a weakness of mine: I’m congenitally unable to choose sides. Their other friends have all been brutally divvied up into opposing squadrons. I’m the only friend they share. As such, I find it hard to believe that I’ll be able to stand by and watch as one of them becomes a murderer -- to say nothing of watching while one of them becomes a murderee. But Brunson looks energized by the plan, so much happier and more confident than when I first walked in. I’d hate to disabuse him of his fantasy. Besides, pushing him to give up the grenade now might only strengthen his resolve. I decide to save my persuading for the store.

There must be 200 people on hand for the event. This is why writers want to live in New York. It provides the illusion that writers are popular. Three-fourths of the fans hold copies of Birmingham Hours. A few of the elderly have their mitts on the original hardcover, designed with all the grace and flair of a grocery bag -- dark brown title on a lighter brown background, Frank’s name at the bottom in dull orange. The rest have the most recent paperback edition. Scattered throughout the room are a few generous souls holding a copy of the new book.

We find seats, near the back, and Frank takes the stage. He opens the book to a page he has marked, and then the situation worsens. He looks across the room and sees Brunson sitting next to me. With a gleam in his eye he asks the crowd for patience while he finds a new passage to read. The scene he settles on features a character luckless with money, marriage, and publishing. No one else in the room recognizes the buffoon Frank describes, but the man to my right certainly does. Brunson steams and I consider the gravity of Frank’s error. He’s gone out of his way to insult someone who had already decided to show up with a grenade.

“Liar!” Brunson screams, rising to his feet. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the grenade. “Liar!”

New Yorkers are used to interruptions from crazies, but this feels different. There’s a charge in the air even before people look to his hand. I tug at his sleeve and try to divert his maniacal gaze.

“Maybe this isn’t the time,” I gently suggest. “You could lob it later. Through his apartment window, maybe.”

This is the persuasion I saved up? With his left hand he holds me at bay.

“It’s the last lie you’ll ever tell!” he shouts.

Seeing him pull the pin with his teeth, the crowd begins to flee. Several people head straight back toward the bathrooms, rushing past me in a wave. Others lunge for shelter among the shelves of the travel section. Brunson pitches the grenade toward the podium. Frank stands frozen in panic, tracing its arc with his eyes wide. The grenade lands to his left, hits the wall and rebounds back toward him, spinning to a stop.

Several seconds pass in silence. The few people left in their seats count down with me, trying to remember our childhood war movies. Is it five seconds, or just three?

It’s a new variety of silence for me, this silence of people waiting for a grenade to explode. When I turn to look at Brunson, he wears a smile that shows no disappointment. It’s clear that the grenade is not defective. It’s a fake. The spectacle was all he wanted. The wide eyes. In all their destructive math, the two of them had always held death out of the equation. I wonder why it took so long.

As some people continue on their escape routes, others now return to the scene in an undertow, confident there won’t be a blast but curious to see what there will be.

Brunson turns to me, as casually as if we were picking up our coats to leave a movie theater during the closing credits. I ask him, “Was it from a toy store?”

“Ha! A toy!”

“Did you have it custom made? It looked so real.”

As I’m posing these questions, distracted by logistics, Frank looms behind Brunson. He picks up an art survey book off a display table. It’s fifteen hundred pages if it’s a page. He slams it into Brunson’s lower back.

Brunson hits the floor and Frank leaps on him. Like hockey referees, two booksellers attempt to break up the action while the men are entangled, but from my view of the pile it appears that Brunson scratches one of them on the arm. The peacemakers back away.

Two minutes later -- time that passes awfully slowly when two grown men are cinched on the floor -- they’re half-heartedly pawing at each other. What started as a battle has devolved into a play date scheduled too close to nap time. Nearly all the grown-ups have left the scene. This might not even make the gossip pages tomorrow.

I look down to the table on my left and see an array of history books -- a tale of Arctic exploration, a biography of Hirohito, a book about the treatment of African-Americans between the Civil War and World War II. I run my hand along a few of the dust jackets, feeling the raised letters, and turn for the escalator. I descend to the northern border of Union Square and start heading west toward a favorite bar. I leave them to clean up their own blood.

2 Comments:

OpenID pigtailsflying said...

That is the best rejection letter ever. I wish I could insult with such aplomb.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous JPW said...

This was really, really good. I liked it a lot the first time I read it, but it's even better the second. Wow.

Remember: a page a day and you'll have a novel (or a collection of stories) in a year. How about a NY editor who's quit the biz and moved to 'toga, searching for who-knows-what? Peace of mind or some other unattainable something-or-other.... whaddyasay?

3:25 PM  

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