— for Walidah
In the small Nebraska town where I live, I am known as “the cook.” People I don’t know will often stare at me fuzzily for a moment before a flash of recognition lights their face: “Hey, I know you. You’re the cook.” Which is reasonable enough, I suppose, since I am the cook at the Olde Main Street Inn, the chief dinner house in town. It isn’t exactly what I’ve dreamed of being all my life, however. To be honest, being the cook is an unwanted byproduct of my efforts to be “the writer.”
But recently, out of the blue, I was invited to an Oregon literary festival called Wordstock, at which I was to be the writer — a small fry flitting through the nets after the big ones have been landed, yes, but I was flattered nonetheless. The event was going to be televised by C-Span, and thousands of people would not only attend, but pay to be there. People were going to say to me (a few of them, anyway), “Are you Poe Ballantine, the writer?” even if it would only be for six days.
Norman Mailer was slated to appear at this event, along with Russell Banks, John Irving, Alice Sebold, Jean Auel (selling her cans of cave bear, or her caved-in beer cans, or whatever they are), and many other authors I didn’t particularly admire. I bought a rust brown blazer from a thrift store for sixteen bucks (I hadn’t worn one for twenty years) and began to formulate a plot to punch a celebrated author in the nose. If you get only one chance to make a splash, I say, make it a big one.
I wanted to strike a blow for the little guy. Everyone — or, anyway, every one of us have-nots, who make up 90 percent of the population — loves a revolution. It’s like the promise of a big party, free stuff, a chance to get out of the house or get off work, the stale and corrupt falling under the wheels of progress, the illusion of change, new blood rising to the top. Let’s kick all the stuffed literary lions down the stairs and shovel these old mastodon carcasses to the side of the road. The Boston Tea Party! Martin Luther! Madame Lafarge! Down with czarist Russia! (Leave us your vodka, though.) And why shouldn’t I be the one to light the fuse?
So I reckoned that if I punched Norman Mailer in the nose at some high-profile event — just stepped up to the podium, flashbulbs popping, and laid him flat, as he had done to Gore Vidal many years ago (or so the legend goes) — maybe I could pave the way for the new publishing world order. I’d be the hero of the rejected, the jilted, the oppressed, the ignored, the got-off-to-a-late-start-can’t-land-an-agent nobodies, the missed-the-boat prodigies, the unknown geniuses. Give the unlucky another roll of the dice! Get out of the way, you old dust bags!
I understood that Mailer was eighty-two (several friends asked before I left: “Is he still alive?”), but this was all the more reason to help him along. He’d gotten to bray about his bloated opinions for fifty years. He’d recently been paid $2.5 million by the University of Texas for nine hundred boxes of crap (did I say “crap”? I meant “papers”), ranging from manuscripts to canceled checks to car-repair bills. Imagine being able to sell your car-repair bills. Think of how many struggling writers $2.5 million could support. The old fossil deserved a pop.
Granted, Mailer is a monumental intellect who writes well about murder and war, but he has the soul of a Korean alarm clock. What beauty has he wrought? How many times has he made me laugh or filled me with the wonder of being human? Even if I never achieved acclaim as a man of letters, I would no longer be known as “the cook,” but as the guy who punched the millionaire dust bag and started the revolution. “Thanks to you,” my supporters would write, “our novels no longer weigh four pounds or read like car-repair bills.
“P.S. Hope you get out of federal prison soon.”
But then, just before my flight reservations were confirmed, I learned that I would be opening for John Irving.
In the literary world, Irving is a pop star, Captain Quirk, fluffy as the whipped pink sugar at the county fair. He opens supposedly serious novels with sentences like: “In the hospital of the orphanage — the boys’ division at St. Cloud’s, Maine — two nurses were in charge of naming the new babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the obligatory circumcision.” Captain Quirk has learned the art of keeping his readers’ attention with penises and spilled semen and women fellating horses.
Destiny had stepped in to direct me. Punching an eighty-two-year-old man who had spoken out early and vehemently against the Vietnam War would get me no sympathy at all. Quirk was my man. And I was going to be onstage with him, cameras rolling, the revolution like a spark in the tight darkness of my fist. True, Irving was an accomplished wrestler and still very fit for sixty-three, but he’d never know what hit him. I’d be in jail with my name splashed across the national papers before he was out of the dentist’s chair. Who is this Poe Ballantine? people would be asking. Who is this cheesy stunt artist, this sociopathic publicity hound, this brazen, hypocritical anarchist — and what are the names of his books? Yes, we’re going to read this dazzling rogue, this bodacious Young Turk, this delectably lawless scoundrel.
Rhonda, my publisher, met me at the Portland airport. A lean, energetic brunette with fifties-looking specs, she makes her money brokering agreements between printers and publishers and then fritters it away on writers like me. She laughed when I told her my plan. She thought it was a good idea, she said, believing I was joking. All the better for it to be a surprise, I thought. Every one of the books on her list would soar up the charts. We’d be like Death Row Records, swaggering brigands with samurai tattoos and our own special hand signals, the public so frightened of us they’d have to call us geniuses.
I stayed with Rhonda in her fabulous ninth-floor corner loft overlooking downtown Portland and the Willamette River. On clear days, through her green-glass, ceiling-to-floor windows, you could see Mount Hood, the Cascades, and the fumatory Mount Saint Helens. I threw all my bags into the storage room where I would sleep, and Rhonda suggested we get something to eat. “I’m not going to drink, though,” she added. This is what she always says, but I seconded her this time. We had a busy week ahead. The big reading — “the Irving,” she had begun to call it — was tomorrow. We walked down the street for hamburgers. One beer with a hamburger is not drinking, so we each had just one. And then we went down the block for habanero martinis.
Have you tried these? Vodka infused with habanero peppers, then shaken with pineapple juice and poured fizzing into a martini glass rimmed with sugar. Not exactly a martini, but quite the little punch in the kisser. Let’s have another, we said. I don’t normally drink much, but how many days of the year did I get to be “the writer”? And how long before I’d be handcuffed and sent to a place where cocktails were prohibited? We were glowing by the time we got back to Rhonda’s loft, where we decided to drink wine and finally went to bed at about two in the morning.
I slept on a futon surrounded by boxes and boxes of unsold books, many of them mine: books by the cook, gathering dust in that dark storage room with its exposed ductwork and roaring central-air fan. It was as dark as the cave of a clan bear in there. I couldn’t see anything, not even the clock. I had to feel my way for the light switch. It was terrific. I felt like a lion in its lair.
In the morning I slept late and woke badly hung over, with tachycardia so severe I was convinced I would die before I ever got the chance to slug anyone. While waiting for my heart to stop thrashing around, I contemplated how I would punch John Irving. Left-handed? Right? Straight jab? Uppercut? Give him a slight warning? Perhaps make arrangements for him to take a dive? I didn’t want to hurt him. I only needed him to be a symbol, to help articulate the anger of the have-nots. Later I would be interviewed and labeled crazy, but I’d tell them just what I’m telling you: Literature is fusty, it’s clogged, it’s anal, it’s winded, it’s fading, it’s lost its heart, it’s rehash. It’s a cottage industry built around the creative-writing programs. It’s too many goddamn historical novels. It’s this third-generation immigrant writing “humorously” about the Holocaust, or that New Yorker prodigy blowing bagpipes about his supposedly daring life. In music you’re only as good as your last hit. In literature you can write one decent-selling book and we’ll have to listen to you until they zip the coffin shut or you sell your nine hundred boxes of crap at the door of the rest home. I’m just doing my part, trying to clear the way for the ones who deserve to be here, the ones who have something to say, the ones who have gambled and lived.
After I’d recovered my normal heartbeat, I took a shower, drank a beer, and started getting nervous. In a few hours I would be reading in a giant hall filled with people, and then I was going to make a spectacle of myself, descend into that frightening chasm of anarchy in front of gentle, left-wing, scholastic types, the same kind of people who had started the last few American revolutions.
My friend Scott Nadelson, another meager-selling writer in Rhonda’s stable and a gloomy, well-dressed man of thirty (no thrift stores for Scott), would go first among the three warm-up readers. He came over about five, and we drank some fifteen-year-old Scotch to loosen up. The reading was at seven. “What are you going to read?” I said.
“Half a story,” he said gloomily. His stories are all long. “You?”
“My dead-guy chapter.”
“Oh, that’s a good one.”
“Just a touch.”
The Scotch wasn’t enough to calm my nerves. Each sip seemed to evaporate before it got to my lips. Oh, how I suddenly dreaded this night. I couldn’t tell Scott about my plan. He didn’t like Irving either, but he had recently won an Oregon Book Award and had no need for cheap stunts. I began to feel like a bad actor. I began to feel like John Wilkes Booth.
At six o’clock a troop of us — writers, publishers, and husbands and wives of both — strolled across town through the wind, all joking nervously in our snappy duds, ready for the biggest night of our small-time literary lives. My plan had grown complicated. First of all, Irving was flying in late. He would not even hear us warm-ups read, but would stroll in at the last minute, have his hand kissed, comb his hair, read, answer a few questions, attend his fifty-dollar-admission party, and be off again through the ticker tape, back to the powdered, rosy anuses of high society. Second of all, after we warm-ups had read our fifteen minutes each, we would exit the stage area, leaving us effectively partitioned from the headliner. (He’d probably requested as much, sensing a revolution in the wings.) To get to Irving in the spotlight, I’d have to sneak around and lurk backstage, or else come leaping out of the audience. Maybe I could jump down from the balcony, as Booth had done. At least they would know who I was when they saw me: “Hey, that’s the writer who read earlier.” I thought of the headlines back in my small town: “Cook Attacks Beloved Author.”
Keller Auditorium is an opera house that seats almost three thousand. Scott and I were led backstage to the greenroom, which I imagined was named after the complexions of its occupants. There were a number of people already present: writers, sponsors, organizers, introducers, a photographer, and the emcee. I shook hands and introduced myself all around. This was my first time in a greenroom, my first time on TV, my first time meeting someone famous (though I had once seen Roger Mudd from a car window in D.C.), and the first time I had read to more than forty people. I checked my bookmarks and mentally rehearsed my introduction. I chatted with the emcee, a friendly guy from Oregon Public Broadcasting who, with his fedora and beard, reminded me of the great writer Charles Bukowski. I explained to people time and again that I’d chosen to live in Nebraska: I like Nebraska, actually. I can afford to live there, for one thing. The air is very clean. The people are all broke, like me, and except for calling me “the cook” they are congenial and often even helpful. I could’ve talked all day about Nebraska, but it was plain that no one believed me.
The clock struck seven. The hour had finally arrived. The emcee strolled out and set up the first introducer, who tested about for laughs, finally found some, began to enjoy himself, and stayed on too long. That was all right. Each extra minute he spent out there meant one less minute of suffering for me. Then someone said, “Two minutes,” and Scott, looking drained, tugged at a shirt button and was led away, as if to the firing squad. Fifteen minutes, I thought, and it will be my turn. Everyone says the same thing when their time comes: How about tomorrow, or next week instead?
I watched Scott read on the monitor in the greenroom. The stage was shot from afar, and he looked fuzzy and small, barely visible. Typical C-Span. Actually, that’s what I like about C-Span: the whole notion that production values and camera angles are secondary to what’s being said. Scott was doing well. He was used to this. He’d just wrapped up a big tour reading to large audiences across the country, complete with women throwing their room keys at him. I’d read mostly at open mikes with all the other unrecognized geniuses, after the professors and the paid performers had gone home. I was beginning to get shaky. I wondered if I would get sick. I wondered if my heart would go haywire again. I glanced at the clock and calculated: about eight minutes until my turn.
And then John Irving entered the greenroom. While everyone leapt to their feet, I sat there with my book in my lap, too busy trying to get my breathing under control to stand up. I had expected him to be somewhat arrogant. Instead he was gracious, patient, and mild. He didn’t seem at all like a man who would indiscriminately use the word penis to keep his readers’ attention. He wore a green shirt and light suit coat. Everyone buzzed and bustled around him. Out of courtesy I introduced myself. He sort of dipped his head and repeated my name, as if he were trying to remember me from that night when he threw the winning touchdown while I was sitting on the bench lacing up my cleats: “Ballantine.”
The photographer arranged us in various poses and snapped a few shots. I was grateful for the distraction from the fact that the seconds were continuing to pass. I also reminded myself that, in the long run, whether I read well tonight or not wouldn’t make much difference. The night would shimmer away under the weight of a thousand others, and one day, if I was lucky, I would be an old man in a room with a memory of one great evening among the stars.
“Two minutes,” someone said, and a few people swung their heads around at me. I smiled and scraped all my papers together and checked my bookmarks. I felt tall and dry and green, like a bamboo plant with bamboo joints. As I was led away, I heard the thunder of applause. The emcee strode out, did his shtick, and extended an arm. Keep it slow, I thought, shuffling out into the blazing lights and polite applause.
I couldn’t see a thing out there, not even the faint glimmer of jewelry. It was darker than the storage room where I’d slept the night before and where I would get sick later (too much pinot noir), because it would be so dark I wouldn’t be able to find my way to the bathroom, or even locate the damn doorknob. I drew myself up to the podium. It was perfect. You could just look out into that blackness and pretend you were seeing faces, acknowledging intellects, sympathizing with hospital workers, cooks, and struggling writers. I cut my introduction in half and leapt straight into the chapter about an eighteen-year-old acid-head surfer who works at a rest home and has to help an aide on her first day clean up a neglected corpse. I knew what tempo to use to keep it under fifteen minutes, especially with a truncated intro and a few paragraphs snipped out here and there. I looked up frequently as I read, corner to corner, front to back. I know this is important from watching people read: Be confident, be natural, be funny, look up. Why bore them? Be like a good Chinese restaurant and give them something to take home.
To my surprise they laughed. In small audiences people are sometimes unsure whether it’s appropriate to laugh, so you don’t ever really know whether your material is funny or not. You might as well be speaking in a foreign tongue. But lost in the safety of the herd, people can cut loose. And this crowd hadn’t come to be lectured to. They’d come to be entertained. They’d actually left their televisions, their bars, and their MP3 players to hear us read. The audience laughed so hard I had to stop reading at points, still shivering through every dendrite and anxious to come to the end. This is the terrible new responsibility the modern writer must face: to be a performer. Writing well, even if it’s about Ronald Reagan’s hemorrhoids, isn’t enough.
Afterward Scott and I signed a few books out in the lobby, and people approached me with a weird sparkle in their eyes to congratulate me. When we went outdoors, the stars seemed strangely bright. Scott was still signing books. Women were all over him. Finally we broke away and sneaked back into the auditorium to hear Irving. He was an excellent reader, fluid and relaxed, looking up often, holding his audience rapt, making them laugh. Suddenly he seemed like a wonderful guy. I realized he had worked hard to get where he was. It was difficult to imagine how I had ever plotted to drop him.
As I settled back into the submissive brainlessness of contentment, I longed vaguely for the return of my earlier vigor. What was I now but another minion, another hanger-on? It hadn’t taken much — just the slightest success — to rob me of my fire. Later in the week Norman Mailer’s limo pulled up to the curb where I was standing. I felt nothing as the harmless old mastodon stepped out into the rain; so what if my hours were numbered, my glittering days soon to be forgotten, the people of my small town waiting eagerly for me to return and cook their supper.