The Hunt for the Next Great American Novelist

It was a steamy Washington summer exactly four 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.”

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.

 


“You think it could be him? Nah.”

 

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

“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.”

“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 Great American 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, sans 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. Have 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.”

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Walking My Lobster Back Home

On learning that the poet Gerard de Nerval had a pet lobster he walked on a leash.

Gee but it’s great after staying out late–
Walking my lobster back home.
There’s little risk that she’ll turn into bisque,
Walking my lobster back home.

She grows quite bored of the maddening horde,
So I recite her a poem.
She slept with me once and complained that I snored,
Walking my lobster back home.

We stop for a while, she gives me a feel,
And snuggles her claws to my chest.
She’s not like a dog or a shrimp that you peel
Her green roe’s all over my vest.

When we stroll about I keep her on a leash,
Sometimes she borrows my comb.
We go out to eat and of course she has quiche,
Walking my lobster back home.

She rides on my back to a little clam shack
For a pop quiz about Teapot Dome.
She borrows my pen and she fails it again
Walking my lobster, talking my lobster
She’s sure my baby, I don’t mean maybe
Walking my lobster back home.

Scooter & Skipper and the Delayed Gratification Club

Summer’s mid-point is fast approaching, and signs of boredom are visible in the demeanor of our two boys, Scooter and Skipper.  Instead of riding their bikes to the corner store to buy baseball cards with money they cadge off their dad, they’ve taken to staying indoors in the air conditioning in a state of blissed-out electronically-induced torpor.  Time for a little parental discipline, even if the parent in question–me–is incapable of much discipline himself.


“Is this light beer?  Because I’m on a diet.”

“It’s too early in the summer for you two to be lying around like slugs in a hubcap of beer,” I say, harkening back to a favorite quasi-educational activity of my youth.  “You shouldn’t be bored out of your minds for another two weeks.”

“It’s too hot,” Scooter, the older of the two at twelve says.  I check the temperature on my phone and see that it’s 90 degrees.  If that were Celsius I could understand, but it’s only Fahrenheit.

“You kids must have inherited your mother’s upstate New York blood,” I say, referring to the woman I love, who carries a battery-powered pocket fan with her where’er she goes.  “Ninety degrees isn’t hot hot.”

“We could get cancer from the sun,” Skipper, our ten-year-old whines.

“I don’t seem to recall getting cancer when I was your age, but if you’re going to stay inside you need an activity.”


Not available in “guy” colors.

 

“Do we have to?” Scooter groans.

“I think you’re going to like what I have in mind,” I say, whetting their appetites.  By family tradition they’re entitled to a blood sugar-raising treat in the middle of the afternoon, so they don’t start beating each other up.

“What is it?” Skipper asks.

“Marshmallows!” I reply, and they both shout “Yay!” just like I used to do when I was a boy and earned a neato-keeno prize for . . . actually, I never did earn any prizes.

“We’ll turn it into a club,” I say.

“What kind of club?” Scooter asks.  Whatever kind it is, he’ll want to be President.


“Today we’re going to have fun by not having fun.”

 

“A delayed gratification club.”

“What’s ‘delayed grati-fi-ca-tion’?” Skipper asks, mincing the word out in hesitant syllables.

“Delayed gratification is when you put off something good in the present, so you can have more of it in the future,” I say.

“So . . . are we going to do this right now, or later?” Scooter asks.

“A little of both,” I say as I take a bag of marshmallows out of a hermetically-sealed metal canister my wife uses to keep them fresh.  I’m careful not to disturb the hermit at the bottom, he’ll be coming out mid-to-late August for his annual haircut.


“A little off the top, short back and sides.”

 

“Now, the way this works,” I begin, “is I put one in front of you, like this,” I say, placing one (1) plump standard-size marshmallow down on the table before them both.  “It’s up to you whether you want to eat it now or . . . hey, stop!” I’m forced to interject as Skipper has his candy in his mouth before I’ve laid out the rules of the game.

“But you said we were gonna get a marshmallow,” he says, on the verge of tears now that it’s clear I’ve gulled him.

“I didn’t say you weren’t going to get one,” I say, pouring oil on the troubled waters of his sense of injustice.  “I’m going to give you a choice.  You can have one marshmallow now, or if you wait fifteen minutes, you can have two.”

“That’s stupid,” Scooter says.

“No it’s not,” I say.  “If you can delay your gratification for that long, it shows you’ll be successful in later life according to a famous experiment.”

 

The little wheels in their brains start to turn.  Their faces take on the look of card sharks at the World Series of Poker; eyes narrowed to grim little slits, lips pursed.  “Well, I’m going to leave you two to your will power.  See you in . . . fifteen minutes,” I say as I leave the room.


“I’ve got a pair of marshmallows . . .”

It’s one of the many times I wish I had a two-way mirror so I could watch the boys undetected, but all I can do is wait.  You have no idea how slowly time can move when you’re trying to replicate a dubious psychology experiment on your sons.  Not as slow as it goes when you’re watching a Little League game go into extra innings, or when you’re waiting for your girlfriend to get her period in high school, but still–very slowly.

I check Twitter, email, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Netscape, AltaVista, aol.com, Yahoo, Pets.com and Internet Explorer to kill time.  When I’ve run out of failed internet companies, I check my watch and with thirty seconds to go, return to the laboratory.

I knock softly before entering, then push the door open to find–to my great disappointment–that there are two boys, but no marshmallows.  I mean, I’m not disappointed there are two boys, just that they ate their marshmallows.

“This isn’t good, guys,” I say, shaking my head.

“Yes they were!” Skipper exclaims.

“No, I mean it doesn’t bode well for your future.  According to the non-replicable results of the experiment, your inability to delay gratification for fifteen measly minutes means you’ll probably end up unemployed members of the underclass, abusing opioids, failing to complete twelfth grade, sleeping on heating grates, suffering from heartbreak of psoriasis and otherwise disappointing me and mom.”

“Maybe you, but not mom,” Skipper snaps.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because your experiment is dumb,” Scooter says.

“No it’s not.  Some very smart people at Leland Stanford Junior University devised it.”

“Well, then they were dumb,” Skipper says, “because mom always lets us have three marshmallows anyway, so why should we hold out for just two?”

Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts.

“Sorry guys,” I say, shaking my head, unable to keep from laughing at myself.  “I forgot about grade inflation.”

 

Injuries Few in Annual Running of the Cats

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  When this suburb of Boston decided to become a “sister city” with Pamplona, Spain a decade ago, few realized what it would mean for the many cat-owners who live here.


El gato de Somervilla

 

“We have cats the way some cities have cockroaches,” says city animal officer Hardy Michaels.  “There are more apartment dwellers here per capita than any city in Massachusetts, so we have more cats.  Also a lot of goldfish, but they don’t get out as much.”


Running of the idiots . . . er, bulls, Pamplona, Spain

 

Pamplona is the site of the annual running of the bulls made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises,” however, and when officials from the Spanish sister city visited Somerville in 1998, they asked why there was no counterpart to their annual San Fermin festival, generally regarded as the world’s leading manifestation of innate male stupidity.


Somerville, Mass.

 

“Frankly, we were caught off guard,” says Elinor Harrity, who chaired the Committee on International Relations that the City Council set up because they found the topic of sewers boring.  “We improvised to show our Spanish compadres that we meant them no disrespect, and the running of the cats was born.”


“Look out!”

 

All able-bodied males take to the streets of Somerville today while their Spanish counterparts participate in the San Fermin festival.  There are  eight scheduled runs before a pack of cats that have been fed only dry food and water for a week, whetting their appetite.  “It is a sign of your manhood to risk your life running before the jaws and claws of the hungry cats,” says Andrew Benis, a freelance photographer who recently broke up with his girlfriend of six years.  “Women admire a brave man, but what’s the point if you get trampled to death by a bull before you can score?”


On the prowl.

 

Last year, two men were admitted to Mt. Auburn Hospital with claw scratches on their calves and small puncture wounds on their hands that they suffered when they were bitten as they tried to remove attacking cats from their legs.  “You see your whole life flash before you when those cats come tearing around a street corner,” says George VandeKamp, who works in a used record store.  “Of course, if your life is mainly beer, pizza and beating off like mine, that’s not such a big deal.”

Because of its density, city officials say they would never issue a permit for a running of the bulls here, not that such an event is very likely.  “It’s pretty rare to see a bull around here,” says Assistant Chief of Police Dan Hampy, “although you hear a ton of it any time you walk into a bar.”

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

Guilt-Infused Cuisine Provides New Thrills for Jaded Palates

NEEDHAM, Massachusetts.  Josh and Ginnie Nostrum are self-confessed “foodies,” traveling twenty miles or more every Saturday night seeking the latest in culinary excitement.  “We like to be able to tell our friends we tasted a new fad before they did,” Ginnie says with a guilty laugh at the couple’s one-upsman-and-woman-ship.  “You should have seen the look on Lydia Sperkle’s face when I asked if she’d ever had deep-fried yak.”


“Try the sushi–it’s easier to hide.”

 

But with the continual search for thrills through expensive dinners comes, eventually, exhaustion.  “We were just about burned out about this time last summer,” says Josh as he pulls into a parking space outside L’Endive in this western suburb of Boston.  “Then we discovered Sister Joe, and we’re excited about eating again.”


Walking tall.

 

The woman with the unusual name isn’t a celebrity chef, of which this region has plenty, but rather a more humble restaurateur.  Sister Joseph Arimathea is a member of the Little Sisters of the Frozen Quiche, a religious order whose mission is to ensure that no food is ever wasted, and she stands guard over every morsel that goes uneaten in her establishment, just as she did for forty years in the cafeteria at Sacred Heart Grade School.


“Jesus died on the cross for you–and you can’t finish your fingerling potatoes for him?”

 

“I don’t care if she didn’t like it,” the grey-habited nun says as she looks at a half-eaten serving of noisettes du porc that she intercepted just as it was about to be scraped into the garbage.  “She’s going to finish it or burn in Purgatory until the end of time.”  With a peremptory air Sister Joe snatches the plate from the busboy and heads over to a table of four, where Mimi Desaulniers has foregone the last few bites of her entrée to “save room for dessert,” a crème brûlée that she views as her well-deserved reward after chauffeuring three children around to summer camps all week.

“Excuse me, missy,” Sister Joe says with a sarcastic tone she has honed over the years.

“Yes?” Desaulniers asks innocently, as this is her first time sampling “guilt-infused” cuisine.

“Did you honestly think you could hide this behind a parsley garnish?”

“Well,” Desaulniers begins, but the nun cuts her off.  “Bartimaeus is the blind guy in the Bible, not Joseph of Arimathea, so you’re not sneaking this past me.”  With that the nun drops the plate on the table with a bang, sending a frisson up the spines of jaded palates around the room more used to sending unsatisfactory dishes back to the kitchen than being bossed around like a rented mule by a woman who took vows of poverty and chastity.


Joseph of Arimathea:  “It’s so confusing–the soup de jour changes every day.”

“Foods infused with vodka and other liquors were very fashionable for awhile,” says Emil Nostrand, editor of Gourmand magazine.  “Sister Joe and her cordon of nefarious henchwomen are the first to infuse their dishes with Catholic guilt, which is a hot spice that is very popular in Latin countries.”

Restaurant consultants are skeptical that the business model of L’Endive can be replicated apart from the celebrity nun who devised it, but Sister Joe thinks otherwise.  “Who gives a rat’s patootie what a bunch of ‘experts’ thinks,” she says as she makes finger-quotes of scorn in the air.  “A little self-flagellation never hurt anybody.”

 

 

“Days of Starch” Festival Celebrates Benefits of Carbohydrates

KEOKUK, Iowa. This town of 10,780 in southeast Iowa proclaimed itself the “Starch Capital of America” in 1991 after a Parade Magazine survey found that residents depended on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread and pasta for more than 80% of the carbohydrates in their diet. “It’s a tradition we grow up with,” says Oliver Yoder, a farm implement dealer who eats mashed potato sandwiches for lunch three days a week.  “I’d eat ’em every day of the week but our daughter Lurleen is trying to keep her slim, girlish figure.”


Deep-fried mashed potato sandwich.

 

That sense of civic pride was amplified when the National Starch Council, the leading trade association and lobbying group for starch producers, decided to move its headquarters here from Muncie, Indiana, bringing both jobs and prestige to a town whose most significant previous claim to fame was native son Ernie Doerk, a dirt-track stock car racer of the 1950′s.


Ernie Doerk, dirt-track champion.

 

“Ernie did a lot to put Grain Valley on the map but you ask a kid who he was these days and all you get is a blank stare,” says Yoder.  “I think some of ’em may be on drugs.”


Miss Starch of 2016

So residents were flattered by the national media attention they attracted in 2013 for the first annual “Days of Starch Festival,” complete with nightly fireworks, a Miss Starch contest, and unlimited free samples of spaghetti, breads and potato products from exhibitors. “We had the Today Show do a live feed from the ‘Name That Tuber’ display,” says Melinda Forsberg, a school teacher who loves starch so much she calls her three children the “Tater Tots.” “Al Roker isn’t as fat as he looks on TV,” she adds with a knowing smile.  “He’s fatter.”


Roker: The camera adds five pounds, or about one helping of mashed potatoes.

 

Starch producers ramp up for the four weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, their peak sales period when stuffing, potatoes and bread may be consumed at a single holiday meal. “We’ve got to make hay–or at least spaghetti–when the sun shines,” says NSC Executive Director Wilbur Freeling. “When spring comes, everybody switches to rabbit food.”

Residents complained about constipation when last summer’s starch festival ended, and town officials say they will have EDTs–emergency dietary technicians–on call beginning next week with high-dosage fiber supplements. “To get the world to pay attention to starches,” says Yoder, “a little widespread intestinal pain is a small price to pay.”

Oliver Cromwell, Sunday Night Spoilsport

In his 1650 address to the Irish, with which he opened war on them,
Oliver Cromwell asserted that it was the English who taught the Irish to work.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Great, just great. Thanks for reminding me,
Cromwell—you jerk—
that it was the English
who taught the Irish to work.

Just as I was getting all mellified,
or in popular parlance, slightly fried,
with a beer, then wine, then a gin and tonic
you thwart my addiction to stuff other than phonics.

I had almost completely forgotten about my job,
then you go and spoil it, you insufferable snob.
Easy for you to say, you with your warts
while I’m trying to chill in flip-flops and shorts.

I gather you were a Roundhead, and not a Cavalier.
Those of us who’d like to kick back with just one more beer
side with your opponents in this weighty question
we’ve eaten our shrimp, it aids the digestion.

But no, I’ve got to set my alarm for five
while you rest easily, no longer alive.
I curse you, you spoilsport, scurvy knave;
I hope if you hear this you spin in your grave.