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The Thrill of the Trilogy

November 4, 2013

My introduction to the triune came early. Each morning as my classmates and I made the sign of the cross, my first-grade nun stressed that the Trinity–one God in three separate and distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost–was essential to our faith and, ergo, to our salvation. Since my six-year-old brain couldn’t make much sense of it, I was happy to be told the three-person God was a mystery beyond human understanding and had almost driven mad the theologians who’d tried to solve it.
Still, it stuck. Three in one, one in three. The holy trifecta. In the large stained glass window on the south wall of our Bronx parish church, St. Patrick held up a shamrock. One stem, three petals: They glowed a single emerald green as the sun lofted behind them. For that moment at least, the riddle of the Trinity ceased to bewilder.
Over the years, as I wandered amid the thickets of secularity, I learned that, as well as a marker of religious dogma, three brought to whatever it was associated with a special aura, whether exciting (Triple Crown), silly (Three Stooges), erotic (ménage à trois), scary (Third Reich), exceptional (triple play), or sad (strike three). Just by being three, ordinary things gained a special cachet.
When I set out to become a writer of books, I imagined one would suffice. A historian manqué, just shy of a Ph.D., I first stumbled into speech writing. I decided to try it for a year, save enough to go back to school, finish the dissertation, and turn it into a book. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,” 
as Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “gang aft agley.” I ended up scribbling for two New York governors and five chairmen of Time Inc./Time Warner across a span of three decades.
On the plus side, my job involved indoor work and required no manual labor. It paid the mortgage and tuitions, and included a defined benefit plan; on the minus, it was frequently stressful, sometimes grinding and always anonymous. Occasionally a speechwriter or two has slipped from behind the curtain and gained fame crafting words for mouths other than his/her own. But as I saw it, once you take the king’s shilling, you do the king’s bidding, and whatever praise or blame ensues is the sovereign’s alone.
As time went on, I felt a growing need to put my name on words I could publicly claim as mine. I got to my office two hours early in order to attempt a novel. Having grown used to churning out large chunks of copy in short amounts of time, I calculated I’d have a finished manuscript in a year or two. Robert Burns proved right again. Ten years later, I left the delivery room cradling my long-gestating mind child, Banished Children of Eve, a six-hundred-page saga of Civil War New York.
The first agent I submitted it to was dismissive. I hadn’t written one novel, she wrote, but “sausaged three in one.” I was stung. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized its truth. My novel was the story of Irish famine immigrants, the frightening, fecund mongrel world of mid-19th-century New York, and the impact of the Civil War. These were the three petals. Minstrel-songster Stephen Foster was stem and sausage skin. His music is the book’s leitmotiv. There are worse things to be accused of, I decided, than being a Trinitarian. I stuck with three in one, and that’s how it was published.
I drew a great deal of satisfaction from at last having my name on writing all my own, so much so that I decided one wasn’t enough. I had other stories I wanted to write. Faced by commercial constraints as well as those of my own mortality, I knew the next had to be shorter. Unfortunately, hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of the short form, which required the precision of the pointillist. I preferred the Jackson Pollack school, buckets of paint splashed across expansive canvases.
With the second novel, I decided to reverse the first: In place of three packed in one, one would be divided in three. The stem I started with was Fintan Dunne, Irish-American ex-cop and private eye, a veteran of World Wars I and II, whose formal education ended in the Catholic Protectory, an orphanage cum reformatory in the Bronx. In hardboiled style, Fin is a man who, if he ever had any illusions about human nature, had them kicked out of him so long ago he can’t remember what they were.
Fin is what the writer William Kennedy calls a “cynical humanist.” Distrustful of all authority, skeptical of most causes, uninterested in heroics, he is reluctant to get involved. Whatever the case, he knows from the outset that there are no perfect endings, no spotless souls, and that some mysteries are better left unsolved. Still, despite his understanding of the futility of good intentions and the hopeless fallibility of everyone–including himself–Fin can’t help but try to see that some modicum of justice is done.
I followed Fin as he fought with eugenicists and fifth columnists (Hour of the Cat), wrestled with the still-unsolved case of New York’s most-famous missing jurist (The Man Who Never Returned), and burrowed into the Cold War’s intricate machinations and betrayals (Dry Bones). I’ve seen the city and the world through his eyes as he experienced two world wars, the Great Depression and the gloom-and-boom of the Eisenhower era, the rollercoaster years W.H. Auden accurately labeled “The Age of Anxiety.”
I’m grateful for our three-legged journey. Fintan has been great company every step of the way. Now that we finished our last caper and said our goodbyes, I’m hopeful that I’ve told his story the way he wanted it told, and that the three tales together–separate and distinct yet parts of the same whole–capture him in a jaded emerald glow.

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A View of My Own

October 19, 2013

For the first twenty-five years of my writing life, I wrote in my office, at my desk, five days a week, in the early morning. I almost never wrote at home or on weekends. When I got to work, I’d keep my door closed and, except on dark winter mornings, leave the lights off so no one would know I was there.

I mused about someday having a nook, a corner, a cave–some space–in which I could go and just do my writing, with no time limits or distractions. But anytime I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, I recalled an account I’d read by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of his time in the Gulag.

Denied pen or paper, and facing severe punishment if he were caught writing anything–never mind a fictional account of life in the camps–he used the burnt tips of matches and toilet paper to write in whatever moments of solitude he could snatch for himself. That’s how he completed the manuscript of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Each morning, Solzhenitsyn remembered, as he and his fellow prisoners mustered in the freezing, Siberian dawn to be counted and dispatched to do heavy labor, the loudspeaker blared patriotic songs or official propaganda.

One day, however, it played a radio program form Moscow on “The Writer’s Life.” The first thing a writer should do, the announcer intoned, was to secure a comfortable place that was his alone. His desk should be uncluttered and the research and books he needed carefully catalogued and shelved. Quiet was crucial, although it was permissible to have classical music playing softly in the background.

“Now,” the announcer said, “you will be ready to begin the work of writing.”

We know what happened to Solzhenitsyn. He survived the camps. His manuscript was circulated in private and eventually published. He went on to write a series of epic novels and “The Gulag Archipelago,” an exhaustive and influential account of Stalin’s far-flung network of slave-labor camps. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But what, I wonder, happened to all those writers listening to the same broadcast he had, those who found their quiet, secure place, the uncluttered desk, classical music playing in the background?

I now write at home, in Hastings-on-Hudson, in an office I had built on the top floor. (The contractor was Kevin Groves, who’s also the main contractor for the ongoing restoration of the Tenement Museum, on Orchard Street, not far from where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived.)

It’s a dream space, with lots of bookshelves, a couch, an easy chair, a capacious desk, and mirable dictu, a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.

I delighted and grateful to have this room of my own and the view of the Hudson Valley. But my writing hasn’t improved. I don’t write any faster or any better. I’m not sure what lesson in all this is. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to find myself in Solzhenitsyn’s predicament, or back at my old desk in Time Warner.

Still, I think it’s true for anyone serious about being a writer, if you can’t write in the place you want, then write in the place you are.

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WRITERS RULE

October 13, 2013

I’ve been brooding more than usual lately because I’m sailing in that Dead Sea of having a book about to come out and facing the daunting prospect of starting another. (“Some things in life get easier,” William Kennedy once told me, “but novel writing isn’t one of them.”) The more I think about it, the more I want to take a nap.

How, I wonder, did writing ever acquire an aura of romance and adventure? It’s lonely, isolating exasperating, a commitment of several years with no sure payoff (indeed, maybe a rejection) at the end. Yet for me the only thing more painful than writing is not writing.

“The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959,” which was bestowed me through the blessed benevolence of Joe Goodrich and Honor Molloy, is helping me navigate these troubled waters.

To a teacher in New Jersey who wrote him in 1946 asking for advice to give his pupils, Chandler sent this terse reply: “The people whom God intended to be writers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who think they want to be writers.”

Chandler is the enemy of illusions. He constantly stresses the hard work involved in writing. The writer’s job, as he makes clear, is to show up: “The important thing is that there be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try … But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing …Two simple rules, a. you don’t have to write; b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”

I had just read this when I stumbled on the late Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.” Leonard was a terrific writer, and I agree with his rules (mostly). Yet if you follow them strictly, the danger is you’ll end up sounding like Leonard, and if you can’t develop a distinctive voice–a signature style–why try to be a writer in the first place?

I was once on a panel with a writing teacher who pontificated on his “10 Pillars (no mere rules for this professor) of Good Writing.” I listened with silent skepticism to the first few–“good writers write in complete sentences” (tell that to Joyce, Faulkner, et al.); “good writers know their audience” (writers can never be sure of who their audience is/will be. Á la Socrates, all they can they can know is themselves). I completely tuned out when he admonished that “good writers always start with an outline of what they want to say.”

I first ran into that rule in high school, and in 30-plus years as a speechwriter/novelist I’ve found it to be less a pillar than a brick wall. Devising and adhering to an outline is like trying to diagram a sentence before you write it. Writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is storytelling. A story grows out of itself, reveals itself in the telling, unfolds truths and nuances that are invisible until, in his or her wandering and wondering, the writer discovers, unearths, stumbles upon them. Writing is exploration–finding, losing, re-finding your way–and not mere map reading.

When it came my turn to speak, I said that I didn’t know much about pillars but as a devotee of naps, I’d suggest four pillows for writers to sleep on: 1.) Write badly. Don’t let the editor in your head take over until you first get down on paper some version of what you want to say. All good writing is re-writing. 2.) Write on schedule. Have a set time when you show up at your desk/laptop to write. 3.) Be a fanatic. Never give up. When you reach what seems a dead end, brood on it. Yes, a mixed metaphor: brooding on dead ends. Yet in my experience, if you persist the egg will hatch and the dead end prove to be a pathway. The writing will reveal what you need to keep writing. 4.) If these rules don’t work for you, invent your own.

This morning I showed up dutifully at my desk. I tried to begin the new novel. I fiddled around, stared out the window, sighed, penned a sentence or two, crossed them out, pet the dog, fretted that maybe I don’t have another novel in me or–if I do–lack the stamina and drive to get it out, then I went for a jog and took a nap.

In the end, to paraphrase a writer who broke all the strictures, to thine own rules be true. A writer must rule over his/her own material, not be ruled by someone else’s rules.

For my part, I’ve found no rules or commandments or laws worth a damn other than this: do what you can today and get up tomorrow and try all over again.

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FROM THE DEPT. OF ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

October 9, 2013

Today, I met a friend for lunch (a wonderfully generous, entirely successful friend). He invited me to the 21 Club, one of the city’s true hoity-toity watering holes and prominently featured in the 1957 classic “Sweet Smell of Success,” with Burt Lancaster as Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco, and a script by Clifford Odets. (If you haven’t seen it go to Netflix immediately.) Anyway, I’m very familiar with the area, having worked for 20 odd years (some years odder than others) at the Time & Life Building on 6th and 51st and the Time Warner Building at 75 Rock. At least I thought I was familiar until I reached 52nd and 6th and looked up at the street sign. Holy heart failure, Batman, this is what it says (and I’m not making this up): “Avenue of the Americas (a bullshit name if there ever was one!), 6th Av., WC Handy Place, WCBS Way/Proud Sponsor Of Bike New York, and Cousin Bruce Way.” On the east side of the street, there’s an additional name: “Swing Way.” My first thought was where the hell am I? My second: In a name-off gang bang like this, how did Donald Trump miss out on pasting up his name? The “Avenue of the Americas” moniker, of course, is one of the oldest tricks in the con game that defines Manhattan real estate: Tear down the El, drive out the working poor, and call 6th “Avenue of the Americas,” and 9th “Columbus,” and 4th “Park,” yada yada. But, really, come on, folks, even in New York there have to be limits, no? I mean six street signs on one lamppost? One cross section with six names: “Avenue of the Americas , 6th Av., WC Handy Place, WCBS Way/Proud Sponsor Of Bike New York, Cousin Bruce Way, and Swing Way”? (And, if you didn’t grow up in the city in the 60s, who the hell knows who Cousin Bruce is/was?) I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a tourist from Tasmania or Topeka who’s just arrived in New York and is standing on 6th Avenue (or, more accurately, The Boulevard of U.S. Intervention in Latin and Central America in the Interests of Supporting Dictatorships Friendly to American Corporations)  trying to figure out where the hell he/she is? Note to the next mayor: Let’s cut the bullshit and get back to basics. Jeez Louise, enough already, this town is confused enough as it is without sticking six names on one place.

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A New York Writer

September 18, 2013

Thanks to my brother-in-law, who works in a college down here in North Carolina, I did an interview this morning on local radio for my upcoming book. (Shameless and endless, this business of book pimping, but necessary.) The interview went okay, except for the fact the interviewer had never read a word I’ve written and kept referring to me as a “New York writer,” which he made sound as if it were an affectation or, worse, an affliction/infection. He said it so many times that I think I began to react defensively. (A bad way to respond, especially on radio. My wife says that I didn’t come across too badly, but I can’t rely on her opinion because it’s too tainted by kindness and concern for my feelings.) I said that I don’t like to be pigeonholed, that my novels have traveled far outside New York, that the principal concern of every writer is the human condition, yada yada. Now, in retrospect, I regret my reaction. I’m a New York writer in the sense that I believe it’s possible/necessary to search for the universal in the particular, that in the end we’re all parochial, all rooted in a particular time and place that shapes/shaped the geography of our brains, that we can/must find the connections to the shared core of the human experience in the place where we were/are/come to be. Yada, yada. How’s that for sounding defensive? Leave it at this: New York and its environs are the only home I’ve ever known. It is the repository of the bones of the only ancestors whose names are known to me. America is the land across the river. A promise. Ireland is the land left behind, a memory, even more for my children than for me. New York is a presence/the present, a place not of Pilgrims’ Pride but of immigrant struggle and ferocious hope. When I think of New York, I think of two lines from Seamus Heaney that a friend recently brought to my attention: “I had my existence. I was there. / Me in place and the place in me.” Which means, I guess, I’m a New York writer. Sue me.

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Hope Springs Eternal

September 17, 2013

Among the more/most perplexing aspects of publishing a book are the reviews. Until they come in, you’re never quite sure whether all the toil and trouble you’ve invested in producing the damn thing has been worth a cow’s fart. Are you an idiot who’s wasted his time and that of the critics’? Or a bright new star in the galaxy of modern literature? A bad review, it’s said, is better than no review. True enough. There’s nothing worse for a writer than being ignored. Some writers I know claim they never read the reviews. I don’t believe that. What they mean is that they don’t admit to reading the bad ones. I understand that. In the course of publishing four books over the last 20 years (and a fifth on the way), I’ve savored the praise when it’s been offered and suffered the inevitable scourgings (while silently plotting to track down the reviewer and leave his strangled corpse in the ashes of his burned-down home). And, yes, as all writers know, the laurels wilt fast while the wounds heal slowly, if at all. In a perfect world, the framers of the First Amendment, as well as protecting freedom of speech, would have enshrined the right of writers to be the sole reviewers of their books. Back in the real world, writers wait with high-octane anticipation to learn how their book will be received. (Amazon has added a whole new level, some of it bad, some good–honest, intelligent reaction by readers mixed in with boosterism, self-promotion, and angry rants by the mentally unbalanced.) Now and then, if a writer gets lucky, a reviewer not only has nice things to say but drives to the heart of the matter, fingering motives and meanings that the writer intended but had never articulated, not even to him/herself. Such is the case with this review, which was on the cover of the Barnes & Noble Newsletter the day my last novel, “The Man Who Never Returned” went into the bookstores (and co-incidentally–or not–the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of Judge Joseph Force Crater, the mystery at the center of the book). Whenever I figure novel writing is a hopeless, useless, waste of time–(that, as Yeats put it, “Better go down upon your marrow-bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather / For to articulate sweet sounds together /Is to work harder than all these, and yet / Be thought an idler by the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world.”)—I read this review. I thought about writing the reviewer to thank him. But my first editor, a wise man seasoned in the mysteries of publishing, admonished me to never complain or congratulate. Just keep writing. My next book is due out in six weeks. When the fear and anticipation starts to swell, I reread this review. (Read Matthew Battle’s review of The Man Who Never Returned from Barnes & Noble from 8/5/10  on “About” page.) Hope springs eternal.

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DO YOU WANT MY HEAD TO EXPLODE?

September 15, 2013

The other day I read in the paper that we Americans have reached a milestone. According to a 2012 analysis by economists at the University of California, Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics (who knew Paris had such a thing?) and Oxford University, income inequality has reached record levels. The richest 1 percent now possess a fifth of the national households income. “Indeed,” concluded one economist, “the top decile share in 2012 is equal to 50.4 percent, a level higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of the stock market bubble in the ‘roaring’ 20s.”

The plutocratization of the U.S., which the New Deal succeeded in damping down but by no means extinguishing, was reignited in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. It was morning in America and the sun was rising over Wall Street. Jay Gatsby had returned from the crypt and was back in fighting shape. The re-concentration continued under Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and has survived the Great Recession. The wealthiest 1 percent has more than recovered the losses suffered in the crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The net worth of the other 99 percent has either stagnated or declined.

To anyone paying attention, all of this has been apparent/transparent for some time. It led to the brief upsurge of discontent in the Occupy Wall Street movement. But the exigencies of earning their daily bread soon sent the serfs slouching back to their plows (with no increase in the minimum wage) and allowed the lords and ladies to reseat themselves at the banquet table (while Congress wrestles with how much more to cut their taxes).

I’ve read so many articles detailing/excusing/explaining/denouncing this ongoing and ever-worsening system of economic distortion that I thought I was beyond the point of shock and awe and outright rage. Look, I’m over 65. It is what it is. The government is paralyzed and can’t/won’t raise a finger, so deal with it/forget about it/whatever. Is it the cocktail hour yet?

This morning, however, I made the mistake of beginning my day with the Real Estate section of the Sunday Times. On page 1 was a story about the return from bankruptcy of One Madison, a skinny-as-a-stick apartment tower on E. 23rd Street.

Hurray and hallelujah this Sunday morning! Good news abounds for the burgeoning plutocracy: “The redeveloped One Madison, which will be completed in the first quarter of next year, has 53 apartments, ranging from $1.825 million for the building’s only studio (sic) to $50 million for a 7,000-square-foot, five bedroom triplex penthouse. There will also be a 10,000-square-foot amenity space stretched across two floors and featuring double-height ceilings. It will include a lounge and screening room, a yoga room, a 50-foot lap pool, fitness center, children’s playroom and steam room.”

Turn to page 2: the plutocratic steam room stays steamy as Marie Antoinette gets down with the Marquis de Donald Trump. A townhouse on the Upper East Side has an asking price of $17.9. If that seemed extravagant, it was put in perspective by the article directly beneath reporting the sale of a duplex apartment at 18 Gramercy Park South that went “for its full asking price of $42 million.”

It crossed my mind that since high among the only people on the planet–never mind the city–who could afford these prices are hedge fund managers, insider traders on Wall Street, Russian gangsters/ entrepreneurs, members of the Communist (ha, ha) Chinese politburo and their cronies, Mid-Eastern sheiks, international drug traffickers, et al.–Mayor Bloomberg might think about including them in his proposal that the resident of public housing be fingerprinted.

Quickly shaking myself from deluded reveries, I consulted page 3 where the focus shifted to the plutocracy’s West Pocket, San Francisco. Featured here: panoply of multi-million-dollar properties ending with a bottom-ass Noe Valley condo at almost a million. (Implied but not stated: Losers Only Need Apply.) Suddenly I felt Chris Farley’s cri de coeur surging in my throat (if you’ve never seen Chris’s last flick, “Almost Heroes,” do yourself a favor and get it on Netflix) … “DO YOU WANT MY HEAD TO EXPLODE!?”

I’ve put down the paper down, swallowed an extra high blood pressure pill and am taking the dog for a walk. Look, I’m over 65. It is what it is. The government is paralyzed and can’t/won’t raise a finger, so deal with it/forget about it/whatever. The cocktail hour is nowhere in sight. Sigh.

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America, to Arms!

December 31, 2012

                       

 

Like millions of Americans, I’m fed up with the endless debate over gun control. On one side, liberals whine about banning this or that weapon, their rhetoric growing evermore ineffectual and hysterical as the nation’s supply of guns approaches 300 million weapons–one for every person in the country.

On the other, gun-rights ideologues and million-dollar-a-year lobbyists rant about encroachments on the freedom to bear arms as state and local governments lift existing restrictions and authorize pistol packing in public spaces former off limits.

It’s time for strict restrictionists to bit the bullet and admit defeat, and for Second Amendment absolutists to turn high-powered rhetoric into meaningful action. As National Rifle Association vice president Wayne (“Call me crazy”) LaPierre so pithily put it, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The silver-bullet solution is to return the job of national and personal security to where it belongs: the people. Obviously, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot if we leave it to the government to target a few bad apples at the expense of the good. By their very nature, faceless bureaucrats will seek to disarm the American people, taking every opportunity to label rugged individualists as violence-prone psychopaths.

What America needs is compulsory gun ownership.  Along with requiring every American school-aged and over to be armed, the government should ease any financial burden this might impose by offering a tax deduction of $100 for every pistol purchased and $250 for assault rifles. (To avoid excessive use of this loophole, annual deductions could be capped at $25,000.)

The gun lobby will be instantly obsolete. Instead of funneling money to senators and congressmen or pouring funds into expensive junkets, the staff of the NRA can go out into the private sector and get real jobs.

The rigmarole of background checks and licensing will end. A universally armed citizenry means that the need for the extensive and intrusive bureaucratic infrastructure of local, state, and federal police forces–with its immensely expensive burden of salaries, benefits, and pensions–will be done away with in a single shot.

In the short term, Congress should immediately abolish the U.S. Capitol Police. Representatives should be equipped with the weapon of their choice and be trained as marksmen. When some crackpot opens fire from the House visitors’ gallery, he’ll instantly find himself the recipient of bipartisan return fire by 435 crack shots.

Long term, we must pass the No Child Left Unarmed Act (NCLU), which will make firearms training part of every public school curriculum in the nation. NCLU will set a single national standard for establishing and measuring our children’s ability to shoot with the highest possible accuracy and rapidity. Insistence on developing basic firearms skills will bring our kids up to speed with global competitors in places like Somalia and the Congo, where children are presently light years ahead in the use of assault weapons.

Once we take these basic steps, we can concentrate on realizing the expressed purpose of the Second Amendment and make the right to bear arms a tool for maintaining an effective militia. Instead of depending on a standing army to man our global military commitments–a burden now shouldered by a relatively tiny number of soldiers and their families drawn unequally from the nation’s regions and classes–we’ll have a well-armed, multi-million-person citizen army representative of the entire country.

Without the vast expense of funding a professional army, the federal budget deficit will be DOA. Rather than exporting our precious gun resources overseas, which we did last year to the tune of  $66.3 billion, we can keep them home and make America weapon independent once and for all.

When the need arises for foreign military interventions, a modern, armed-to-the-teeth, weapon-proficient, gender-neutral version of the Minute Men will spring into action. The sheer volume of citizen soldiers and firepower we can put into the field at a moment’s notice will prove a powerful deterrent to our enemies.

Universally mandated gun ownership in the United States is feasible, desirable and achievable. The Constitution implicitly permits it. Common sense demands it. The time has come to pull the trigger and get it done–now.

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Let Him Easter in Us

April 6, 2012

Far as I’m concerned religion ain’t nobody’s business but the person whose business it is. But I was at church today for the Good Friday service, and on the walk home (I can’t drive—I’ll tell you why in a minute) got to thinking about the journey that’s taken me to where I am, which I thought I’d share with anyone who cares to share, and if you don’t that’s fine. I was raised a Roman Catholic. But by the time I graduated from college, except for a secular appreciation for the artistry of literary masters like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gerard Manley Hopkins, I’d developed contempt for religious belief in general and my childhood faith in particular. Then one day thirty years ago, I had what I can only describe as a “conversion experience.” Waiting for a bus and contemplating the laughable insignificance of my life and the lives of the strangers around me–ephemeral specks adrift in an indifferent cosmos–I was possessed by a different thought. No one nearby, I’m sure, had a clue of the dramatic turn my mind was taking. But where there had been a void, there was a Person, a real Presence, a Being who knew me by name. I returned to the practice of my faith yet shared my experience with few. There didn’t seem much to share: no dramatic tumble off a horse like St. Paul or battlefield wound like St. Ignatius Loyola. (For God’s sake, all I did was wait for a bus!) I was also sure that most of my friends, agnostics at best, would think I’d either taken temporary leave of my senses or had some kind of seizure. A few years later, I did just that: had a seizure–a full-blown, grand mal “cerebral incident.” The doctor in the emergency room, equipped with the bedside manner of an SS officer, speculated that an MRI would reveal a tumor in my brain, the most common cause of seizures for people in my age group.
I turned out not to have a tumor. The wise and kindly neurologist who took my case told me my seizure was “idiopathic”: “We idiots can’t find the cause.” After a hiatus of several years, the seizures returned. A friend with whom I’d shared my conversion immediately equated the two. She cheerfully pointed out that as well as sharing religious faith and literary ambitions with Dostoyevsky, I now shared epilepsy. Alas, if epilepsy aided Dostoyevsky’s literary career, it had no such side effect for me. Since being diagnosed, I’ve published two novels and am working on a third. But in matters of style or volume of book sales, epilepsy has made no improvement. What it did do was deepen my interest in the stigma attached. In biblical times, epilepsy was equated with demonic possession. There’s an story in Mark’s Gospel in which a man brings his son to the apostles and asks that the boy be cured of “a spirit of dumbness in him” which when it takes control “throws him to the ground and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and goes rigid.” When the apostles fail to cast the spirit out, the father pleads with Jesus to try. At the same time as he takes pity on the boy, Jesus rebukes the apostles for their lack of faith. He commands the spirit to leave and never return, and the child becomes so calm, the onlookers mistakenly think him dead. Mark’s account focuses not so much on the epileptic boy as on Jesus’ frustration with the way his followers were more concerned with exercising power than practicing compassion. (“The more things change,” as the French say, “the more they stay the same.”) Medical science demolished the notion of a tie between epilepsy and demonology. Yet the ancient stigma persisted. Epilepsy remained a shameful affliction, characterized by physical and emotional loss of self-control. Congress voted in 1903 to bar entry of persons with any history of insanity or epilepsy. Connecticut was the first of several states to forbid marriage by the “epileptic, imbecilic or feeble-minded.” When the Supreme Court rendered its 1927 landmark decision in Buck v. Bell, upholding compulsory sterilization, the petitioner, Carrie Buck, was held at the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia. The eugenicists who ran the Third Reich’s “Hereditary Health Courts” also judged epileptics worthy of sterilization.Today, epilepsy is primarily the focus of medical research rather than superstition or state-sponsored persecution. Myths persist–no, we epileptics can’t swallow our tongues–but important advances in anti-seizure medications continue to be made.
For my part, I attribute no special spiritual or mystical dimensions to the seizures I still occasionally experience. Neural misfiring causes epilepsy. Neither God nor the devil deserves credit or blame. One memory persists, however, from my initial seizure 15 years ago. The day after was Monday of Holy Week. Leaving my house at dawn, dreading the diagnosis I might be given by the doctor, bruised and sore, my mind still clouded, I glanced up at the Palisades. Though I’d viewed the same scene countless mornings, the vivid splotches of budding trees dotting the cliffs’ granite grandeur stunned me. It was as if I were seeing them through a newborn’s eyes. Fragments popped in my head from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s masterpiece, “Wreck of the Deutschland,” the first poem he wrote after his conversion and now a part of my own religious journey: “Our passion-plungèd giant risen, The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides…Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east…”

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The Bard of Albany

October 7, 2011

PREFACE: I was invited by Don Faulkner of the NYS Writers Institute to introduce William Kennedy at the official Albany launch of his latest novel. The event was held at the Page Theater on October 3rd. The place was packed. Bill’s reading was electric. We retired to the Paradiso Café, where part of “Ironweed’ was filmed, and the real fun began.

While it’s a singular honor for me to introduce this city’s, this state’s, this country’s greatest living writer, let’s be honest. My role here tonight–like Donald Trump’s recent presidential campaign–falls somewhere between the superfluous and the ridiculous. Bill Kennedy needs an introduction in Albany about as much as the Pope needs an introduction in the Vatican.
Maybe the best way to understand my real function is in terms of the opening act in one of those old-style Vaudeville shows that used to be featured down at the Palace Theater. The opener was usually a dog act or a trained seal. Its primary function was to allow the audience to settle in and get ready for the big act.
Since I can’t balance a ball on my nose and since–at least most days–walking on my hind legs is no big deal, I’ll do my best to get the show underway by saying a few painfully obvious things about Bill Kennedy. If I go on a bit too long, forgive me.
There are some things I tend to bring to a climax too quickly. (Just ask my wife.)
Talking about Bill Kennedy isn’t one of them.
To begin, I think I speak for the entire community of American writers when I sum up our reaction to his latest masterpiece, Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes, in two words:
Enough already…
enough already reminding us of our inadequacies…
enough already raising the bar for literary excellence to impossible heights…
enough already intimidating writers young and old with the majesty of your prose and the profundity of your imaginative genius.
In fact, on finishing Chango’s Beads, I was reminded of Lady Bracknell’s horrified reaction in “The Importance of Being Ernest” on learning that her daughter’s suitor is an orphan. “Losing one parent,” Lady Bracknell announces, “is a tragedy…Losing two is pure carelessness.”
Well, Bill, producing one masterpiece is a triumph. Producing an octo-opus (yes, the pun is intended) is an act of wanton cruelty inflicted on every practicing and aspiring novelist I know. Yet as cowed as I am by Bill’s work, I also feel blessed to have had him as a friend for more than a quarter of a century.
I originally made his acquaintance in 1984, as part of the First Friday Club, a cabal of wanna-be writer, mostly guilt-crippled Irish and Israelites with the odd Italian spiced in, who gathered for a largely liquid lunch in a saloon on Second Avenue on the first Friday of every month. Our routine was based on a devotion popular in the pre-Vatican II era that promised those who attended Mass nine first Fridays in a row would be blessed by the presence of a priest in their final moments.
According to our secular equivalent, the putative benefaction for those attending nine consecutive lunches was to be accompanied in their final moments by a bartender. As it turned out our lunches became increasingly taken up with discussions of the work of one William Kennedy, and since I was a part-time resident of Albany–a galley slave/speechwriter on the ship of state under captains Carey and Cuomo the First–I was assigned to invite him to a First Friday Collation at a time and place of his choosing.
Bill wrote back that, yes, he would meet with us in Albany on January 6th–the feast of the Epiphany–at Lombardo’s, on Madison Avenue, which as any Kennedy fan knows is where Billy Phelan takes Francis, his father, after bailing him out of the cooler when the state police collared him for registering to vote a mere twenty-one times.
Twelve of us–an appropriately apostolic number—made the trek to Lombardo’s that day, a contingent that included the brothers McCourt, Malachy and Frank, the latter still teaching and brooding upon the literary egg that would one day hatch his masterpiece, Angela’s Ashes.
Bill later told me that he thought the First Friday Club was some sort of genteel literary group that would query him for an hour or two about religious symbolism in Ironweed. As it turned out, Bill barely got a chance to talk. He laughed mostly, as we all did, and enjoyed the drink and dueling soliloquies that prevented us from noticing the afternoon of the Epiphany slip into the pinched, pink glint of the frozen Albany twilight.
With Bill presiding, we went on strike against our serious workday selves and enlisted in the frolicsome one-upmanship of storytelling–salacious, slanderous, scatological, theological–an endless melee of poems, jokes and songs. The McCourt brothers put their not-inconsiderable stage skills on display, Ironweed style: “an antisyllable lyric they sang, like the sibilance of the wren’s softest whistle, or the tree frog’s tonsillar wheeze.”
We never ate lunch. I can’t remember if we even ordered it. To the best of my recollection, we wiped out the joint’s supply of Irish whisky. What I do recall with absolute certainty is a mix of fact and subconscious projection, a melding of the corporeal and fictional: living people mingling with the creations born out of Bill’s imagination, imbibing together, dilating and digressing, whistling and wheezing, and discovering once again how, in the hands of a great artist, the line between fact and fiction, myth and reality, can grow thin and disappear.
The word became flesh. And dwelt amongst us.
Marcus Gorman, Albany’s noted communion-breakfast intellectual and mouthpiece for Legs Diamond, sat with us and offered observations with his trademark detachment.
Martin Daugherty, son of Edward and Katrina (she of the flaming corsage) regaled us with stories of his old man, the playwright.
Roscoe Owen Conway descended from the eleventh floor of the State Bank building and handed out absentee ballots–five per customer.
“Does the fact I never really existed disqualify me,” asked Francis Phelan.
“If our Republic is to continue,” Roscoe replied, “then it must include everyone, fictional as well as real. On such principles does our great democracy endure.”
The immediacy of Bill Kennedy’s world–that powerful, irresistible cycle made real in his novels–is an experience shared by all his readers. The cast of characters he has fabled into flesh is so vividly imagined that I, for one, have always found it impossible to believe they live and die only on the page. I don’t believe I’m alone in this. I know others who come to Albany half-expecting to find themselves sitting next to a Phelan or a Quinn.
Finally, let me offer two observations.
First, there’s no single secret to the Kennedy magic. If there were, it would have been distilled and bottled years ago, placed on the shelf between the Jameson’s and Bushmill’s, and writers like myself would be drunk on it every day. Yet, in the several times that I’ve read Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, I’ve come to gain one insight into the mastery of Bill’s prose.
Billy Phelan’s greatness lies not just in the skill with which he plays, nor the intensity, but in how he plays…in his style. Style is the signature of the soul. It distinguishes great players from mere winners. Winners can only win. The great can win or lose, but always, always with style.
The central importance of style is correctly (if with a tinge of Teutonic arrogance) summarized in Legs by “a young, half-drunk playwright named Weissberg” who is introduced to the eponymous gangster during his brief visit to Weimar Germany to score drugs. Weissberg speaks of his desire to travel to America and study’s Legs’s life, dissect it, and use it as the raw material of his art.
“I want only the opportunity to write what I believe,” Weissberg tells Legs, “which is that there are similarities among the great artist, the great whore, and the great criminal…In all these professions is the willingness to withhold nothing from one’s work. All these, when they achieve greatness, have also an undeniable high style which separates them from the pedestrian mob. For how could we all tell a great criminal from a thug in the alley, or a great whore from a street slut, if it were not for style?”
Legs’s response is to draw his chair close to Weissberg’s, until their knees touch, and fire his pistol in the small space between the playwright’s feet. Weissberg wets his pants. Whether in art or in life, coming face-to-face with a great stylist can do that to you: It can intimidate as well as inspire.
As awed as I’ve been by Bill Kennedy’s style–as moved to tears and laughter and astonishment–I’m proud to say I’ve never wet my pants.
Not yet.
But as John Sayles pointed out in the rave he gave Chango’s Beads in the Times Book Review, you never know what Bill’s next novel will bring…
Here is an artist who can, quote, “play with both hands and improvise…a writer we hope to hear more from.”
Without waiting for the next installment, however, I know enough about the sweep, intensity, vitality, and originality of Bill’s novels to end with this second observation, which is perhaps best phrased as a question.
Very shortly, the Swedish Academy will announce its selection of the 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Academy makes its decision with an opacity that would be justice to the inner workings of the Albany County Democratic Committee in the days of Dan O’Connell. But–with some notable exceptions–if the past is any guide, the edge is with some Moldavian poet whose hundred-thousand-line epic verse on the history of animal husbandry in Herzegovina has earned him an audience of Balkan goat herders in the high single digits.

I ask the committee, then:
–Isn’t it time to honor an artist whose fearless eloquence, penetrating humor, and luminous insights infuse every page of his timeless novels?…
–Isn’t it time to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement by a writer whose works plumb and penetrate the particularity of people and place to reveal the truths of our common humanity…a writer whose work has been translated into a score of different languages and transcends borders of region and race?…
–Hasn’t the hour come round at last for the Pooh-Bahs of the Academy to stop their shucking and jiving and present the Nobel Prize for Literature to a writer who’s already regarded in the same category as his countrymen, Eugene O’Neill and Ernest Hemingway?…
the husband of the lovely Dana…
the Bard of Albany…
Ecce homo…
Behold the man…
Guillermo Jose–“Bill”–Kennedy.

EPILOGUE: Two days after this event, the Nobel Prize for Literature Prize was awarded to Tomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet who, according to the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, writes about “death, history, memory and nature. A lot about nature.” He has “never been a full-time writer as such” and is not a prolific poet: “You could fit all of [his work] into a not-too-large pocket book.”
Sigh.
Kennedy in 2012, sez I.