The Search for the Next Great American Novelist

It was a steamy summer three decades ago. I was working for the federal government at a scandal-plagued agency alongside a veteran bureaucrat named Fred. Fred wasn’t going any higher on the org chart, but on the other hand–because of Civil Service regulations–he was never going to be fired, no matter how assiduously he avoided work and decision-making at all costs. He had a nice life, and he knew it. As Thomas Jefferson once said of federal jobs, “Vacancies by death are few, by resignation none.”


“Z-z-z-z-z-z-z . . .”

I learned many valuable lessons from Fred. You could take a nap in the carrels in the back of the library. S-t-r-e-t-c-h every project so that you never ran out of work; if you did, they might give you some more. The Three Questions That Must be Asked Before You Ever Respond to Somebody Else’s Question: Who wants to know? What do they want to know for? When do they want an answer? Mission-critical stuff that keeps this country moving!

Most importantly, take every minute–every second–of your allotted breaks. You’re not getting paid as much as the private sector, so don’t give your time away. If we finished lunch in the basement cafeteria in a half hour, we sure as hell weren’t going back to our desks for another half hour.

It was on these occasions that Fred taught me a valuable tool of literary criticism that I use to this day. “C’mon,” he said as we headed out into the Washington humidity, “Let’s go look for the Next Great American Novelist.”


“Nope–don’t think so.”

An unlikely quest, you might say, and that was exactly my thought. Washington doesn’t produce novelists the way Russia cranks out chess champs and ballerinas, because the young and the creative don’t go to D.C. to fulfill their artistic dreams; they go to New York, or Hollywood, or Nashville–anyplace but D.C. Novels about national politics tend to have brief butterfly-length life spans; they may be the bright entertainment of the season–Advice and Consent, Primary Colors, etc.–but they don’t endure, proof of the maxim that love and other elemental human interests are more important than politics.

“Where are you going to find the Next Great American Novelist?” I asked Fred.


“You think it could be him? Nah.”

“You know, that’s the amazing thing,” he replied. “It could be anywhere–a bookstore, a coffee shop. Speaking of which, let’s try this place,” he said as he stopped outside a non-chain precursor to the espresso craze that would sweep the nation in the years to come.

We approached the counter and Fred turned to say “Watch closely.”

The barista looked up and acknowledged us, although not with enthusiasm. “That’s a good sign,” Fred said sotto voce.

“Hi,” Fred said in his friendliest manner. “What’s the coffee of the day?”

“It’s a dark-roast Sumatra blend with spicy overtones,” the woman said, and not unpleasantly.

“I guess I’ll have one of those, with room for milk, thanks,” Fred said, then turned to me and asked “You want anything?”

“A large iced coffee.”

“Very good,” the woman said, and turned to her task.

“So what do you think?” Fred asked me.

“I dunno. What does making coffee have to do with writing a novel?”

“Everything–and nothing. If you don’t consider serving a fellow human being in a commercial setting to be beneath you, you probably don’t have what it takes to be the Next Great American Novelist.”


Ellington and Hodges: “Let’s try to sneak out of this post at the next paragraph break.”

“Ah,” I said, beginning to see the light as the Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges song goes. “So you’re looking for somebody who’s condescending . . .”

“Almost haughty.”

“Indifferent . . .”

“I think ‘hostile’ is le mot juste . . .”

“. . . who basically sends the message that he or she has something better to do than wait on you.”

“Precisely–they should be writing the Next Great American Novel, but instead they’re stuck in some lousy minimum-wage retail job.”

We drank our coffee as we roamed the sweltering streets and, as we finished, found ourselves outside Hecht’s, then the top-shelf department store in D.C. “This place is a veritable breeding ground for Great American Novelists!” Fred said with enthusiasm.

We wandered the aisles for a while, exchanging nods with the floorwalker, passing through a haze of perfume sprayed by the spritzer girls in the cosmetics department, and then Fred stopped short, throwing an arm across my chest with such force he almost knocked me over.


“We’re not novelists!”

“It’s him,” he said breathlessly. “If that isn’t the Next Great American Novelist standing there right in front of us, as plain as a pig on a sofa as Flannery O’Connor might say, I don’t know my scribblers.”

I looked up and saw the tie counter, and behind it a young man, well-groomed, apparently bored to tears, with barely-suppressed rage boiling up within.


O’Connor on sofa, without pig

“You think so?” I asked, although the testimony of my senses answered my own question for me. The fellow hissed as sighs of disgust escaped from him. It was hard to fight off seasickness induced by the rolling of his eyes as he stood there, folding and arranging ties on hanging displays and under the glass counter.

“Let’s roll,” Fred said, and he approached the counter with all the modest self-restraint of a used car salesman.

“Hello there, young fellow!” he boomed out, his face a picture of amiability. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” the young man said as his eyelids just barely rose high enough to reveal his pupils. I noted he didn’t offer to help us.

“I’m looking for something in a stripe to go with a checked suit,” Fred said, scanning the haberdasher’s wares.

You could see the sales guy trembling inwardly. It shook him to his core to hear someone suggest that he would actually consider wearing a striped tie with a plaid suit, but he didn’t want to offer a suggestion to the contrary since that would have required . . . human interaction.

“We have some stripes over here,” the fellow said, as if he were offering us day-old mashed potatoes.

Fred surveyed the selection, then shook his head with distaste as if he were rejecting some long-held belief that had led him astray in life–virgin birth, warm water freezes faster than cold, always take the points on the road. “No, what I think I need,” he said thougtfully, “is a foulard. You got any foulards?”

The young man sighed loudly enough to be heard at the gloves and scarves counter. “The foulards are over here,” he said with annoyance.

Again, Fred trained his gimlet eye on the selection. “Could I see . . . this one,” he said, pointing to a vibrant pink number.

“This one?”

“No . . . that one,” Fred said.

“Why don’t I bring out both since I can’t see your fingers from behind the counter.”

“Very well,” Fred said.

When the selected ties were laid out on the counter, Fred put his finger to his chin and gave them the gimlet eye. “You know what,” he said after a few moments, “I’ve always been a big fan of Winston Churchill’s–do you have any of those little pin dot numbers he used to wear?”

I thought I heard the young man groan, but I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t as loud as Old Faithful before it erupts, but on the other hand it was . . . audible . . . and growing in volume . . . like a freight train approaching a station from a long way off.

“Do you think you will be making a purchase in the next thirty seconds?” the clerk finally snapped.

“I don’t know,” Fred said, not even looking up. “Twenty-four ninety-five for a tie is a big investment.”

With that the young man turned on his heels and spun out the little gate to the department store floor, saying “Well that’s too bad, because it’s my break time!”

Another young man appeared wordlessly behind the counter, but Fred was too engrossed in the sight of the young man who’d been waiting on him as he strode purposefully away, like an ocean liner under full steam.

“I expect great things out of that fellow some day,” he said with admiration.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Maybe not Moby Dick,” Fred said, “but The Sound and the Fury is not out of the question.”

The Pope of Rock ‘n Roll

          Pope Leo XIII endorsed a cocaine-based drink, “Vin Mariani,” and at the age of 90 sat in on a session with Alessandro Moreschi that produced a recording still available on CD, “The Last Castrato, Complete Vatican Recordings.”

                                                                            Ron Powers, Mark Twain: A Life

 

As the first rays of the morning–actually, the afternoon sun–came pouring in the windows of the Vatican, I threw my arm over my eyes to block them out.  My head was pounding–dammit, I went to bed with my mitre on again!

I took off my pointy hat–it would be a century before Gene Simmons would come up with an equally-compelling costume for a rock musician–and slowly propped myself up on one elbow to survey the scene.  The usual mess; bed full of groupies, empty quart bottles of Vin Mariani, the cocaine-based drink that makes Coca-Cola taste like Sprite, the refreshing but totally unhip lemon-lime soft drink.

pope
Mitre-riffic

 

“Alfredo!” I yelled to my valet.

“Yes your holiness!” the beadle said with a properly obsequious tone as he scurried in.

“Get these groupies outta here!” I snapped.

“Yes your holiness.  C’mon boys–time to go!”  The little ones rubbed their eyes–they were so cute last night when they rushed the stage, holding out their Pope & Castrati t-shirts for autographs!

“But . . . I thought you said I was special,” one of them said, a lump in his throat and tears welling up in his eyes.

“You learned a valuable lesson, my son,” I said to him.

“What’s that?”

“Of the big lies of our time, none is bigger than ‘Sure I’ll respect you in the morning.’  Now grab one of those autographed publicity photos and skedaddle!”

The boy reluctantly complied, and I turned to God’s work–laying down the final track of “The Last Castrato,” the album I was producing for Alessandro Moreschi.

“Whadda ya think, Alfredo,” I said.  “Something soulful?  folksy?  House?  Emo?”


Castrati-maker:  “This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me.”

 

“I think if the Vicar of Christ on Earth were to sing a duet with a guy who has no balls, a rock anthem–it would go platinum in a heartbeat.”

“Like Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong?”

“Right–you take the Joe Cocker part, he takes the Jennifer Warnes part.”

It was just crazy enough that it might produce the hit single the album needed to become a best-selling chart-topper.  “I think you’re onto something,” I said.  “Get Mr. Nutless in here–pronto!”

He rounded up Moreschi–the guy was trying to snort a bottle of Vin Mariani, fer Christ sake–and we set up shop in my state-of-the-art recording studio in the basement of St. Peters.

“Everybody’s doin’ duets,” I told Moreschi.  “Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias practically live on them.  So you and I are gonna cash in on the trend.”

“I am an artist,” Moreschi sniffed.  “I do not sing a song just to have Celine Dion on my album!”


“Go ahead–nail me to the cross!”

 

“We aren’t talking a Canadian lounge act–I’m the Keeper of the Keys to the Church.”

“I don’t need your keys–I do not want to play basketball on weekends.”

Figuratively, you fishstick.  Here’s the chart–you start off, I come in after four measures.”

We worked that sucker to death, let me tell you, but finally we nailed it.  It was as beautiful, in its own way, as Michelangelo’s Pieta, or D’Angelo’s Lady, to take just two instances of religiously-inspired art that our schmalzy song had surpassed.


D’Angelo, Michelangelo–what’s the difference?

 

The only question, of course, was who was going to get top billing.  Would it be me–his Pope-I-ness, with special guest star Alessandro Moreschi, or vice versa.  I broached the subject as delicately as I could.

“So–that was great,” I said.  “I’ll be sure you get top billing–your own gold ‘Guest Star’ sticker on the cover.”

Guest star?” he asked, incredulous.  “I’m the last of the castrati, the guys who created the music you Leos-come-lately only imitate.”

“Yes, but I am the heart and soul of the Church.”

“Heart and soul–big deal.  I gave up two body parts more valuable than that!”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Here’s to His Holiness: Fake Stories About Real Popes.”

“No Punc” Writers Find Lack of Semicolons the Way to a Woman’s Heart

NEWTON UPPER FALLS, Mass.  It’s a hot summer night in this highly-educated suburb of Boston, but Evan Dwinnel is feeling a distinct chill in the air, and not from the ancient air conditioner at the bookstore where he works, The Drowsy Dragon.

comma1
“What if we started off slowly, and I gave up exclamation points first?”

 

“Is something up with Chloe?” Dwinnel asks fellow staffer Ollie Mason, who is hauling a box of books in from the back loading dock.

“She’ll be fine once tonight’s feature attraction is gone,” Mason says grimly as he stacks copies of “Desolate West Texas Polka” on a table where the author, Colin McReedy, will be reading in a half hour.  “She’ll come back down to earth after an evening without commas.”

comma2
“A real man would never use commas he would just keep talking then maybe punch you.”

McReedy is the leading exemplar of the “no punc” school of male writers who have garnered critical acclaim, and the hearts of female readers, with their tough-guy, no-frills approach to fiction, stripping their sentences bare of quotation marks and commas.  “McReedy and others like him are hell-bent on reducing American fiction to nothing more than nouns and verbs,” says Professor Martin Hurley, an English professor at Massachusetts University who teaches a course on McReedy and other “no punc” writers such as Ty Burnham and Sam Carpenter.  “I can envision the day when one of them will do away with periods and produce a novel that’s just one big run-on sentence.”

The no punc writers first eliminated semicolons, with McReedy angrily tossing a batik pillow at an interviewer on a National Public Radio show as he shouted “Semicolons are for wusses!”  Next came quotation marks–sometimes referred to as “inverted commas” by British editors–around dialogue, and last fall commas were declared forbidden at a panel on the nascent movement at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting.  “A typical line from a no-punker would go ‘He looked at Mattie the waitress at the cantina tired from decades of serving frijoles to desperate men and said Mattie I will have the huevos rancheros that is what sounds good to me,'” according to Hurley, who is staking his hopes for tenure on a ground-breaking study of the movement.  “You’ve got fewer signposts to guide your movement down the page than a rattlesnake wriggling across the Texas panhandle, whatever that is.”

comma
James:  “For me, the comma is as essential as breathing, as inhaling, then, of course, exhaling.”

 

But all that is academic for young men like Dwinnel, a former English major biding his time at the bottom of the literary food chain while he scribbles at night who now finds his hard-earned mastery of Henry James–the writer with the highest comma-per-word ratio of all time–counts against him in the eyes of young women with artistic pretensions and dreams of the Great American Novel dancing in their heads.

“Hey Chloe,” he says as the object of his affection passes close by him between stacks of shelves holding the hopelessly over-punctuated product of past generations of writers.  “Think we’ll get a good crowd tonight?”

The young woman, a willowy brunette who has swallowed the no-punc manifesto hook, line and sinker, gives him a sideways glance dripping with contempt, then stops to check her plunging neckline in a mirror.  “Oh Evan,” she says as she strategically tugs her bodice southward, “why don’t you go stick a comma in it.”

My Cat, Unregistered Investment Advisor

               An orange tabby cat beat professionals in a stock-picking competition.  He made his selections by throwing his favorite toy mouse on a grid of numbers allocated to different companies.

                                                         The Guardian

 

It was Sunday and I was taking the second of my two scheduled naps when I woke to the sight of Rocco, our tuxedo male cat, standing with his paws on my computer keyboard.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just checking a few stocks in European markets,” he said.  He’s always been a bright cat, but I had no idea he’d opened up an on-line brokerage account.


“Sell Amalgamated Wolfram!”

 

“You’re not fooling around with my money, are you?”

“You?  Please.  Gimme a break.  Don’t they call security when you walk into Charles Schwab?”

I’m not a high-roller like some of our friends, who like to brag about how much money they make day-trading.  Nope, I’m the tortoise to their hare; diversification of risk, buy mutual funds and stay away from individual stocks, walk slowly and always wear your cartilaginous shell when you go outside.  Still, I know a little about investing.

“No they do not,” I said defensively.

“I know, that was unfair,” Rocco said as he tapped in the Euroclear symbol for General Electric.  “They ask you to go around back to the service entrance.”


“I’m overweighted in large caps.  Also in my hindquarters.”

 

“Har-de-har-har, so funny I forgot to laugh,” I said.  “Whose money are you playing with, by the way?”

“My own,” he said.

“And where did you get it?”

“If you ever read anything besides The Boston Herald, the comics in the Boston Globe . . .”

“Made famous by Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes when he said ‘What kind of newspaper puts the funnies on the front page?’”

“On the nosey.  And the New York Times Book Review, you would have noticed that I’ve been winning stock-picking contests with impressive regularity.”


“My cat’s smarter than your broker.”

 

“You mean you’re beating the self-promoting do-bees who expose themselves to public ridicule . . .”

“And the obloquy of all right-thinking men . . .”

” . . . by entering Future Brokers competitions?”

“You got it.  I’ve attracted quite a following in our sleepy little burb.”

I should have known.  Everybody wants to beat the market, and with interest rates at historic lows bragging rights for best-performing portfolio–and try saying that five times fast–are highly coveted in playgrounds of the idle rich.


“You can have the Business Section when I’m through.”

 

“So what do you look for in a stock these days?” I asked, not that I was going to switch to active management of my portfolio anytime soon.

“Well,” Rocco said, stepping away from the computer for a moment and gazing out the window to literally take the long view while he figuratively did so.  “I try to toss my mouse up high–that way it can land on a larger number of publicly-traded companies.”

I was silent for a moment, waiting to see if he was pulling my leg.  When he turned back to the screen, I knew he wasn’t kidding.  “You’re taking money from our friends and neighbors . . .”

“They’re all accredited investors . . .”

“. . . and picking stocks based on where your stupid felt mouse lands?”

“You got a better system?”

I had to admit I didn’t.  Because of my innate cheapness–“Chapman” is derived from the Middle English “cheapman,” an itinerant salesman–I try to pick stocks whose price is unfairly deflated by trivial events of passing significance, such as natural disasters, bankruptcy and massive internal fraud.  This strategy–known as “catching a falling knife”–has caused me massive bleeding in my portfolio.

“Well, no,” I said.  “Still–throwing a mouse?”

“Hey–I use the best and most recent information available.  The print edition of The Wall Street Journal.”

“Those are yesterday’s papers, you dingbat.”


“P/E ratios are totally out of whack!”

 

“You need to take the long view,” he said, turning back to check the Hang Seng Index.

“I agree, but my attention span is slightly longer than a common housecat’s.”

He whirled his head around as if he’d heard a coyote.  “Who you callin’ common?” he snapped.

“Oh please.  You don’t seriously expect me to believe that you’re beating the Dow Jones and the Russell 2000 merely by your skill at throwing a stuffed felt toy, are you?”

“Of course not,” he said blandly.  “I use performance-enhancing drugs as well.”

“Adderall?”

“No, dubo.  That mouse is full of catnip.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Pigeons Have Copied Our Brains

In a summer of my misspent youth long past I worked as an intern in Washington, D.C. and would frequently walk past the White House on my lunch hour. There I would encounter, as you may today, protestors of various persuasions, all of whom blamed a predictable cast of characters–the President, the CIA, the FBI–for the ills of the world.


Anti-pigeon demonstrators.

 

After a while, it became part of the summer atmosphere of the District, like the humidity, the hordes of other interns and the Japanese tourists. But then on one such noontime excursion, out of the blur of figures that had become as familiar as a wallpaper pattern, a lone man with a display of instant photographs caught my eye. “PIGEONS HAVE COPIED OUR BRAINS!” the legend above his pictures read, and I stopped. To say that my life changed with that chance encounter would be an overstatement, but I remember him to this day.


Pigeons: They’re smarter than you think.

 

I worked for the government, so I had plenty of time to examine his pictures and listen to his tale. It turned out that pigeons had been reproducing human brain waves for years–right under our noses–using nothing more sophisticated than ordinary office photocopiers. And nobody was doing anything about it!


. . . and you thought I was kidding!

I heard the man out, examined his photos, most of which depicted apparently addle-brained humans–the finished product, as it were–and never saw him again.


Pro se litigant.

 

I returned to Boston and a year later found myself the most junior legal beagle in the litigation department of a large law firm, spending hours stuck in the library doing research. The closest I came to a real-life lawsuit was when one of our clients was named as a defendant in a nuisance complaint by a crank. It became my job to draft papers to get our client dismissed from the case, but before doing so, it was suggested that I call the fellow up and ask him politely if he would consider dropping Acme Amalgamated Fasteners, or whomever, from the suit voluntarily so as to avoid unnecessary expense.

“I can’t,” came the reply. “The voices–they won’t stop–they won’t let me alone.”

“Who’s tormenting you?” I asked politely.

“The CIA, the FBI, the Pope, the . . . “

“Aren’t you forgetting somebody?” I asked brusquely, interrupting. Sometimes a forceful intervention can bring a madman back to reality. “Like–pigeons?”

“Pigeons?”

“Yes. I went to the White House and found out it’s actually the pigeons who are controlling our brain waves.”

“Really?” the plaintiff asked.

“Sure–you don’t buy that crap about the CIA and the Pope, do you? That’s exactly what they want you to believe!”


When pigeons attack!

 

“You know, I never have liked pigeons. You may be onto something.”

“Sure I’m onto something. I got it from the pigeons themselves!”

“Gee–I never knew . . .”

“That’s okay. Hey, at least I got to you before it was too late. Now about Acme Amalgamated Fasteners . . .”

I didn’t persuade the man to drop the suit, but the dialogue came back to me today as I walked down the alley between two buildings in Boston and–once again–heard the same tired complaint. A disheveled man, talking to himself, apparently incoherent, shaking his head, yelled out “It’s the CIA!”

Please–can we finally bury this base canard in the graveyard of lunatic ideas where it belongs? As between the CIA, the FBI, Pope Francis I and pigeons, which is more likely to control your brain? I submit the following to you:

1. If the CIA really controlled your brain, you’d be thinking about dossiers. You don’t even know what a dossier is.

2. The CIA has centralized headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Pigeons operate independently, sort of like franchisees, from a number of convenient locations across the country to better monitor your brain waves.


“Thanks–I got it on sale.”

 

3. The Pope is too busy shopping for clothes to control your brain.

4. In 1950, King George VI made FBI director J. Edgar Hoover an honorary knight in the Order of the British Empire. They don’t give those things out for trivial stuff like controlling your brain waves.


B.F. Skinner: “A pigeon flew into my head.”

 

5. Finally, and most importantly, noted behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner taught pigeons how to play ping-pong, a game that humans master without the assistance of a geeky-looking Harvard professor. If pigeons have so much free time they can play ping-pong, they have time for really important stuff like controlling your brain!

So there you have it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you see a pigeon as you walk through the park today, do yourself a favor.

Throw him some popcorn, or maybe a piece of your hot dog roll. You never know what he might do with the stuff he’s got on you.

My Favorite Opera Intermissions

As we age, our sleep needs remain the same, but we sleep more lightly and thus get less “deep sleep.”  It is for this reason that adults need frequent “cat naps,” for which I recommend–opera.

There is no better time nor place to catch a quick “40 winks” than the cheap seats high above the boards of a cavernous performance space where a buxom coloratura diva is strutting her fretful hour upon the stage, churning out high C’s like a typhoon.

opera

But at some point, as Willy Loman’s wife said, attention must be paid.  You’ve spent an ungodly amount of money for your tickets–you ought to get something for it besides peaceful slumber.  That’s why the greatest operatic composers came up with the musical innovation called “intermission.”  It is a period when the singing ceases and you are free, as they say on airplanes, to move about the concert hall.

I had a girlfriend who tried to convert me to her religion of opera worship, and as a result I am a connoisseur, an aficionado, of opera intermissions.  While I love them all, here are the ones that have meant the most to me:

Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle”: This is the grandaddy of them all, the Barry Bonds of grand opera.  Intended to be performed over three days, it is a veritable Sahara desert of opera in which each intermission is like an oasis, to be savored.  Drink of this respite from overwrought Rhinemaidens and Nibelungs until you’re full, like a sand-weary Bedouin, because you have many miles to travel until the next one.  Set your cell phone alarm to go off just before intermission to beat the line at the gift shop for souvenir Viking helmets.

Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”: This opera has everything going for it; story by Herman Melville, music by Britten, stuttering, half-price buckets of chicken wings and $1 Bud Light long necks until closing time.  I made up those last two, but you get the picture.  Still, this opera dulls the senses with the best of them, making intermission seem like you’ve died and gone to heaven.  Don’t be a piker–get an extra pack of Twizzler’s Red Licorice for your date!

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”: I studied this one in college, and I used to have the album.  There’s a subplot about the Masons which I’ve never completely understood.  I thought those were the guys who rode around on little motor scooters in parades.  Maybe I have them mixed up with al Qaeda.

Shriners

Verdi’s “Rigoletto”:   I would be remiss if I didn’t include a work by Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest of the Italians.  Based on a play by Victor Hugo titled “Le roi s’amuse” (Translation: “Restrooms for patrons ONLY”), this opera gave us “La donna e mobile” (Translation: “Donna’s gone”), the canzone of the Duke of Mantua.

If you hurry down to the refreshment stand, you should be able to get a canzone for yourself and your date before they’re all gone.