Saturday, January 11, 2014

A fifties phantasmagoria


The 1950s was really the last time this country had an überculture. Exhausted by the hardships and uncertainties of World War II, the nation relaxed into a decade of well-earned prosperity and a retreat from nagging issues of identity and destiny. From port to starboard, from stem to stern, the great yacht America was a tight ship indeed, run on a few simple rules, chief among them being: don’t rock the boat. Conformity was a kind of civic religion. The idea being, if there was only one template for a successful life (well, actually, two—the ladies needed their own), then we wouldn’t ever have to bother with those messy notions that landed Europe in so much trouble and then sucked us into the vortex, now, would we?


Never mind that an insurrection was already under way, nurtured into being by the first really distinctive teenage culture in American history, a generation that had already decided conformity wasn’t cool—a generation that had in fact invented the whole concept of cool—and that was thriving beneath the bleachers of the American pep rally, reading Beat poetry, experimenting with free love, and smoking loco weed. 


This would of course explode in the sixties, in ways we’re still striving to understand. But even with as much disagreement as there is today about how we live and why, there also seems to be a paradoxical fascination with the fifties; not so much a nostalgia for it—no one but the most ramrod Republicans wants to go back there—but a kind of stunned appreciation for the mere fact of it. Looking back at the decade for our vantage point is like watching archival footage of a circus performer who balanced a dozen spinning plates for ten whole years. 


Of course, being the subversive lot that we are, our favorite way of looking back on the fifties is to impose on it the disorder it so feared—to take the entire carefully sorted spice cabinet and dump it all into a blender, and whizz. The strangeness of this most homogeneous, yet most segregated—this most self-assured, yet most anxious—this most chaste, yet most salacious decade in our history, is only really apparent when you blur the lines it drew for itself, and see the pigments bleed into one another. 


All of which is a long prelude to my saying that this month I discovered the wonderfully witty and incisive work of the graphic artist Nadine Boughton—who melds illustrations from fifties men's and women's magazines into incongruous, yet gorgeous tableaus—as well as the jaw-dropping new kaleidoscope video by Bonobo. All of which I am moved to share. Enjoy.


(One final thought: I can speak with authority on the fifties, because…I was there. Just barely, it’s true; but long enough to know from bitter experience that this is no exaggeration.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty years



I was six years old on November 22, 1963. I’m older now than John F. Kennedy was on that day, but it remains, in many ways, the fulcrum on which my life pivots.

It’s hard for younger people to understand—awkward, out of balance, that my life should be bisected so unevenly: half a dozen years for Act I, half a century and counting for Act II. But my generation understands.

So, I imagine, would those who were children on June 28, 1914, when another public figure, riding in an open car with his wife, was shot by an assassin. For those children, the world before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was slain was one thing. The world that came after, another one entirely.

And so it is with us.

I can’t be objective about JFK, either as a man or a public figure. I’ve tried. I’ve studied his life and presidency; he seems to me to have been an ambitious, rather callow young man to whom high office added stature and gravitas. He rose to the demands of the job. But this is not an uncommon phenomenon. It is, among others, Lincoln’s story, too, and Churchill’s.

And anyway, that’s not what sears him into my DNA…what has left him indelibly etched on our culture. What he represented—especially as the first of a generation of leaders for whom the Second World War was history, not biography—was the triumph of order, of chronology…of a narrative of progress and achievement. His death—a random, senseless, meaningless act—not only ended that narrative; it rewound and erased it. What followed was cynicism, and anxiety, and uncertainty.

On November 21, 1963, I spent my last day in a different world. Since November 23, 1963, I’ve lived in this one.

But I still remember. And if I live long enough for my aged mind to fragment and fall apart, that will be the last bit to cohere.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Hommages à Alfred


My last two novels, The Sugarman Bootlegs and Baby, have been rebranded as part of "Hommages à Alfred," which I describe thusly: 

Hommages à Alfred is a series of novels inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, incorporating mystery, menace, murder, and mordant wit.

A third entry, Vamoose, will be published in 2014.

This is my tip of the hat to a towering figure in my cultural and creative development...a genius whose utterly singular aesthetic continues to exert a deliciously unhealthy influence over my own.

Both The Sugarman Bootlegs and Baby's new editions are available as trade paperbacks and as ebooks for Kindle and Nook. And the ebook versions are just $2.99.





Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Avery Overman's Adventures In Underbed

After my mom died in 2009, I—being a writer—decided to take solace in writing. I gave myself over to my pen; just got out of the way, and let whatever wanted to happen, happen.

And what happened surprised me: a very short novella directly inspired by the iconic tales from my youth—Peter Pan, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz—but shot through with the urgency of a mother's love.


An even more unexpected consequence was that it ended up being a hymn to fatherhood as well; not to mention a kind of valedictory love letter to the vast landscape of juvenile genre fiction that I was, belatedly, leaving behind me.

In short, a very strange little piece of fiction. I was advised that it was basically unsaleable. But it means a lot to me, so I've made it available as an unofficial Kindle single for just 99¢.

If you check it out, let me know what you think. I'd love to know your reactions.




Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown, Connecticut

Possibly it's time for responsible gun owners to consider that the ability to fire six bullets per second is less precious—even as a principle, even as an expression of a basic right—than the welfare of our communities. Would a ban on assault rifles (like the .223 carried by the Newtown shooter) really harm the republic more than the loss of so much human potential? How, exactly?
 
I'm a fierce defender of the Bill of Rights. But when the gun lobby invokes the Second Amendment, citing the wisdom of 18th century landowners who were writing of muskets and militias, to justify 21st century military-grade ordnance in the hands of private citizens—that, to me, is a principle that has been pushed into decadence. It's less about freedom than fetishism.
 

 
At some point, ideology has to give way to humanity.

For God's sake, let it be now.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Baby - Chapter 1

My new novel, Baby, is now for sale. You can find paperback copies at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your local bookseller. An ebook edition is coming soon. Here's the flap copy:
Robert Rodi's follow-up to The Sugarman Bootlegs once again finds him mixing lethal social satire and nail-biting suspense, in the classic Alfred Hitchcock tradition. When financial collapse hits Marcus Hyde — a fussy, high-end art dealer — he's forced to give up his spacious apartment and move in with his sister Pamela, a large, slovenly woman who still uses the orange-crate furniture she had in college. What he doesn't know is that Pamela is also pregnant; he finds her damp, ungainly, and given to appalling fleshly eruptions and eyeball-stinging emissions. But there's even worse in store for Marcus when Baby is born. He's never seen anything more horrifying than this scarlet, steaming, shrieking lump of raw greed and unchecked will, with yellow eyes and fingernails like teeth. Baby kicks and shrieks and vomits up sulfurous bile and his head lolls about as though he's drunk on sheer malevolence, and everyone but Marcus is utterly enchanted. And when things start happening — terrible things; deadly things — Marcus alone understands why. And Marcus alone realizes that for his own safety and sanity ... Baby must go. A wry, wicked tale of psychological (and biological) horror, Baby is endlessly addictive — a postmillennial mash-up of Rosemary's Baby and Psycho.
And here, for your enticement, is the first chapter, absolutely free. If you like it...you know where to find more.


His mentor, Oliver Swell — the man from whom he’d bought his first gallery, so long ago — ridiculously long ago — had told him, “Never forget that every show you do, might be someone’s first.” Meaning: avoid cynicism; avoid phoning it in; and don’t book a show you don’t believe in, just because nothing else has come along. Bare walls are better than corrupt walls. You might turn someone — that hypothetical first-time viewer, dragged in by a friend or a spouse — against art forever. You can make of your captive a convert; or you can earn his lifelong disdain.
It was advice he’d followed for fifteen years, first as a partner in the Oliver Swell Gallery, then — when Swell’s sister became too contentious and the relationship soured — as proprietor of his own space, Marcus Hyde Arts. He’d spent a decade on Huron Street, nurturing talent, launching careers, taking chances … or just turning out the lights when no one was worth the effort or the risk.
Until now. This show — the canvases currently on his walls — Davis Jane — what was there to say? He’d had a weak moment. Allowed himself to relax his guard. In place of vision, a point of view, he’d winked at a gimmick. Davis Jane trawled second-hand shops for third-rate landscapes — the kind that hang in lower-middle-class living rooms, or in airport hotels — and then altered them with his own brush and palette, populating them with artificial fauna. Here, a forest glen in which he’d placed sock monkeys and piggy-bank pigs. Here, a waterfall scene in which he’d made frolic balloon-sculpture dolphins. And so on.
Marcus had told himself it was witty, and of course it was. There was even a point of view, although it was of the tragically hip, we-live-in-a-fallen-world variety he usually shunned. (Marcus Hyde was no friend of irony.) But it was a shallow collection; a one-note affair.  The first canvas was the only one that held any surprise; the remainder were just restatements. It was a juggling act. A circus attraction. It wasn’t art.
But Marcus had been worn down by care and by worry. He’d thought, “Just this once.” He badly needed the cash, was the thing. The financial crisis had hit him hard. He didn’t understand the particulars; he didn’t have that kind of mind. All he understood was that half his savings had suddenly gone up in smoke, and he’d run through the rest keeping up the mortgage payments on his six-flat — this after two of his tenants (and hence two-fifths of his rental income) had bottomed out and simply walked away; and, alas, as sales at the gallery dwindled concurrently. In a time of fiscal tumult and uncertainty, people didn’t buy paintings, they bought food. Or firewood.
And so today Marcus stood in his gallery, taking in a sweeping scene of the Great Plains aswarm with rocking-horses, and thought, with infinite regret, “This is my legacy.” Because when Oliver Swell had told him, “Never forget that every show you do, might be someone’s first,” he could have added, “It might also be your last.” And so it was. Marcus had thought the juvenile charms of Davis Jane would loosen the purse strings of otherwise cautious buyers — in times of national distress, whimsy has a greater appeal — and he was right; but not right enough. The show hadn’t met his expectations. Which were also his needs.
And so he was closing his doors.
Fifteen years of pushing boundaries — of encouraging boldness, rewarding bravery, and fostering genius — was ending with this: the setting sun on a rocky promontory, where a grinning wind-up monkey banged on cymbals. Marcus squinted and leaned into the canvas, into that faux primate’s leering face, in search of something remotely valedictory; but all he found there was ridicule and malevolence.
Ruin, Marcus Hyde was learning, had many layers.
His friend Jeremy had invited him to lunch. Jeremy, who as a successful attorney had honed a keen insight into the human psyche, had intuited that the hardest part of this morning for Marcus wouldn’t be turning his key in the lock for the final time and walking away from the gallery forever. The hardest part would be determining what to do next … how to fill the two, three hours immediately following. Jeremy had ridden in like the cavalry with this invitation to dine. Ethiopian food, too: messy, communal, with big, bold flavors. A shock to Marcus’s well-ordered life: something to work on — to occupy and challenge him.
The trouble was, Marcus wasn’t all that hungry. And he was bone-weary of working. What he wanted was something tidy, something contained, something streamlined. A braised chicken breast, a sprinkle of paprika, a squirt of lemon; something he could slice, fit on the end of a fork, to wave about as he spoke before taking it into his mouth … as much punctuation as nutrition. Such a thing was impossible with the enormous platter before him, indiscriminately larded with heaps of steaming meats and roughly chopped vegetables, all swimming in vibrant sauces and meant to be attacked not with utensils, but with hunks of torn flatbread fetched from a wicker basket for the purpose. Marcus watched as Jeremy indulged in his lunch with abandon, forming his flatbread into a kind of finger puppet that he sent plunging into the swamp of aromatic edibles, gobbling what it could, like a pelican, then swooping up and depositing it (or most of it, anyway; accuracy was apparently not so much the point of this cuisine) into Jeremy’s yawning maw.
Marcus contented himself to dip his own bit of bread into a little of whatever sauce happened to be pooling nearest him at the moment — first the overly sweet red one, later the murky, acrid green one — and nibbling at it. In the background, an African jazz combo shrieked and wailed as though trying to frighten hyenas from a campfire.
“You’re not eating,” said Jeremy.
“No, I am,” said Marcus, displaying his shred of bread as evidence.
Jeremy’s arm lashed out over the platter and hovered there a moment, till he decided which pile of provender would next suffer his aerial attack. “This is my treat,” he said, just as he decided on some grilled lamb suffocating in curry and sent his bread-glove plummeting thereupon. “You should really take advantage. A free meal is nothing to sneeze at, these days.” He flicked the ungainly mass of bread and lamb up to his face; a little jet of yellow whizzed over his shoulder and onto the floor behind him. He appeared not to notice, but stuffed his mouth with gusto.
“I know you’re right,” said Marcus with a sigh. “I just can’t find the appetite. I feel utterly empty inside.”
“All the more reason to eat something. Emptiness is for filling.”
Marcus folded his hands in his lap, unconvinced. “I thought I’d be grieving right about now. I thought I’d cry. I thought … I don’t know what I thought. But I didn’t think it would be this. This blankness. I’ve no will left for anything.”
“You must immerse yourself in pleasures,” Jeremy said. “Stimulate and provoke your five senses. Remind yourself you’re alive.”
“Am I?” Marcus asked, his voice small.
“Don’t be melodramatic.”
Jeremy was tall and lanky, with a head of wavy, shoulder-length ginger hair and a long face with wide features. His limbs moved loosely; his gait was almost pinwheel. He favored baggy clothes that billowed when he walked, and his hair flapped behind him in the wind. Everything about him was kinetic; the parts of his body seemed to have independent life, each carrying on its own business with no mind to what the others might be up to. One arm might hold a cigarette, the other a cocktail, and with equal relish.
Marcus was shorter and more compact; he wore his hair cropped close to his skull and sported a mustache which he trimmed obsessively, checking it in a magnifying mirror several times a day. Any whisker that dared to stray from its fellows was immediately clipped off, with no attempt to weave it back in. There was no forgiveness, no redemption in Marcus’s world; when you stepped out of line, you branded yourself a troublemaker. And you had to go.
He dressed in custom-tailored clothes and cultivated a dignified demeanor; there was about him a kind of stillness — almost an absence. When he spoke, he barely moved his lips. His features were small and, being nearsighted, he wore glasses with lenses that made his eyes seem even smaller. When he walked, he didn’t swing his hands; he refused to. If he felt the urge, he forestalled it by clasping them behind his back; this also forced him to adopt the slower pace to which he always aspired. There was really no reason at all that Jeremy and Marcus should be friends; Jeremy was joyful anarchy, Marcus, mute inertia. And yet. And yet.
Jeremy had now seemingly eaten his fill. He shoved aside the basket of flatbread, sat back with an audible sigh, and sucked each of his fingers, one right after another. This was something Marcus would rather have died than do; you couldn’t have forced him to it at gunpoint.
Jeremy returned to his theme of sensual pleasures. “Go to the opera,” he said.
Marcus scowled. Jeremy should have known by now that he didn’t like the opera. It was too big, too loud, too messy. He liked chamber music; string quartets. But what he said was, “Can’t afford it.”
“Theatre in the park, then.”
The park! Seated on a blanket, waving away gnats and mosquitoes, the smell of other people’s food insinuating his nostrils. “Hay fever,” he said.
Jeremy crossed his arms. “There’s always sex,” he said. “It’s free. And you’re not that ugly.”
Marcus felt a little twinge in his abdomen, as he always did when this subject cropped up. He still felt like a novice, and not regretfully so. He didn’t much like intercourse; the sloppiness of it, the dampness, the unpleasant surprise of crevices unexpectedly revealed; the blotches and the odors and unexpected patches of hair. Pornography was so much easier to maneuver through, easier to regulate, easier to compartmentalize … and significantly easier to forget about immediately afterward. By far the most difficult thing about sex, for Marcus, was the awkward presence of someone else still being there once the red haze dissipated and your head was clear again.
Still, he was a man, and there had been times. That’s how he and Jeremy had met, in fact; both had been jilted by a tennis instructor named Wally (“So really, we should have known from the start,” Jeremy said acidly) who made surreptitious charges on their credit cards while they were asleep. Marcus had been glad when Jeremy had tracked him down to compare notes; it had been such a relief to him, to have this energetic, life-excreting man in his living room, snarling out a narrative that so exactly matched his own. If someone like this can have been taken in, Marcus had thought, I needn’t feel so humiliated. Friendship had followed.
Over the ensuing years, Jeremy had conducted an ongoing string of affairs, usually of no more than two or three weeks’ duration. He seemed incapable of resisting the siren call of variety. A man tasted, was a man whose secret no longer tantalized; time to move on. Whereas Marcus had had no lovers of any kind since Wally; the mortification of that episode had frozen him into effective celibacy. He didn’t discount the idea of having sex again; but he didn’t actively seek it, and on the occasions when it seemed likely to become an issue, he backed away.
“The last thing I need right now,” Marcus said, “is some great oaf making my life a misery.”
Jeremy daubed his lips with a napkin. “I think you’ll find great oafs have compensating qualities.”
Marcus wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Not for me.” He took a sip of his iced tea, hoping this signaled a change in topic.
But Jeremy, who’d ordered a bottle of pinot noir and nearly drained it single-handedly, was not a man to sympathize with Marcus’s avoidance of earthly joy. He himself, at forty-six, had sold his partnership in a law firm when it merged with a larger outfit, preferring to go back to being a mere associate so that he could pursue all the pleasures he’d missed out on during his years of struggle. “Well, you’ve got to do something,” he said. “You can’t just sit up in your apartment and stare out the window.”
“No, indeed,” said Marcus, his heart beginning to beat faster. “I can’t do that.” He paused for effect. “I literally can’t.”
Jeremy, picking up on the emphasis of that pause, put down his glass and said, “Now what?”
Marcus, a proud man, had been putting off having to reveal this to Jeremy — to anyone. But he’d known the moment must come. So why not now? Gather all the bad news into one black-letter day. It was tidier that way. “I have to move out,” he said.
Jeremy’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding.”
Marcus raised his palms in the air, expressing his helplessness. “I have no income, Jeremy. I have no savings. And I have a mortgage.”
“You’re going into foreclosure?”
“No, thank God. I’ve arranged it with the bank. A short-sale. They get the building back for the amount of the outstanding loan.”
“And you walk away with nothing?”
“Well, my dignity.”
“Dignity, schmignity. You love that place!”
“I do. But it’s another thing I have to let go.” He smiled beatifically. “I’m getting rather good at it.” It was much easier to be heroic for an audience, than it was when all alone, in the small hours of a sleepless night.
Jeremy put his hand over his mouth and turned aside, taking it all in. Then he turned back and said, “Where will you live?”
Ah. They’d arrived at the moment a tad faster than Marcus had anticipated. He hadn’t had a chance to lay the foundation for what he hoped would be a case of Jeremy inviting him to move temporarily into his ten-room apartment on the Gold Coast. He didn’t want to live with Jeremy, but he needed to. It was an awful situation in which to find himself. Somehow he had to prompt his friend to offer him something neither of them desired, that would be wrong for both of them — perhaps fatally wrong, for their friendship. The two of them under the same roof would be like unstable chemicals on a single shelf, with the corks insufficiently stopped.
As he looked at Jeremy now, he saw only earnest concern in his eyes as he awaited Marcus’s answer. But then there was a moment — a flash — no one could have seen it but Marcus, who had known him so long — when the idea of cohabitation flitted across his mind, and was as swiftly dismissed. He continued to regard Marcus with solicitude and expectation; but a door had been closed, before Marcus had even had a chance to nudge it open.
He would have to retreat — with reluctance, almost with shame — to his backup plan.
“I’ll move in with my sister,” he said.
“What sister?”
“Pamela.”
Jeremy put down his wine glass and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Marcus, you know what you’re like? A chest of drawers, all wedged shut. You can tug and pull on them all you like, and it’s no good. But every once in a while one of them just pops open without warning and the shock nearly kills you.”
“What do you mean? I’m certain I’ve mentioned my sister.”
“Never. No family of any kind. Not even at Christmas.”
He waved his hand — a familiar gesture of dismissal. “Christmas,” he said. “Don’t start me.”
“As if I could. As if anyone could ‘start’ you. My God, the life you’d be leading if that were possible.”
“I thought this lunch was meant to make me feel better.”
“Oh, I’ve given up on that. Since it clearly hasn’t.”
Marcus, not wanting to appear ungrateful, dipped some more flatbread in the red sauce, and even took up a little wedge of indeterminate meat. He popped it all in his mouth and chewed; it was like gnawing on an open wound. “I’m enjoying myself.”
“Yes, I can feel the waves of pleasure you radiate in all directions.”
“I’m just feeling a little … tentative. I’m newly unemployed, I’m essentially homeless, and I’m eating food that looks like it was eaten already. I could use something resembling a mooring.”
“Hence the sister?”
“If you want to look at it that way.”
“I don’t want to look at it at all. Marcus, be careful. Family can derange a man faster and more thoroughly than anything else. Torture … deprivation … forget it. You want to break someone? Make him spend a weekend with his parents.”
“I really don’t see that I have a choice,” he said, with just a hint of accusation in his voice — an edge of, You haven’t offered, so you can’t fault me.
“And she’s agreed? She’ll take you in?”
“I haven’t asked her yet.”
Jeremy gave a little exasperated sigh and sat back in his chair. “Sometimes it astonishes me that you’ve made it to age forty.”
“In view of recent events, ‘made it’ is open to debate.”
“You know what I mean. Still, maybe this is all for the best. Maybe your sister will have the common sense you clearly lack, and turn you down.”
“Oh, she won’t. Pamela is the kind of woman who lives her life with all her windows open, and just accepts what the wind blows in.”
“Well, that sounds like an ideal pairing. You being the kind of man who nails the casements shut and draws the blackout curtains.”
Jeremy’s abuse, twining with the cacophony of the jazz band, was edging Marcus closer to a fit of temper. He had to ball his fists and fight it back. Fortunately, a moment later the band abruptly stopped playing, and the sudden silence came as an inestimable relief to him; it was as though someone had removed his head from a vice.
One of the musicians now moved among the tables, distributing leaflets promoting a nearby bar where the band would next be appearing. There were also a few ads for other local businesses, which Marcus took up and read aloud in a kind of sustained gasp. “‘Lady Abbess Bathsheba,’” he said, holding the leaflet aloft as though it might bite him; “‘tarot readings and zodiac charts a specialty.’ Excuse me, ‘speciality.’ And for some reason there’s a picture of the pope; presumably he’s a client. And here’s ‘Zoltan Gluck, occult investigator par excellence.’ Oh, I’m glad he made that clear; I might’ve confused him for a run-of-the-mill occult investigator.” He flicked the leaflet back on the table. “Really, the kind of places you frequent! You don’t have to suffer this kind of thing at Alinea.”
Jeremy smiled indulgently at Marcus’s little rant. “Tell me more about her,” he said, pouring himself the dregs of the wine bottle. “I mean your sister, not Lady Abbess Whatever.”
Marcus sighed. “She’s four years older than I am. So we were never close as children — never playmates. She was always just that much more advanced than I. Out in the world long before I was; in fact it was hard to draw her back in. I thought her very grand. She’d be in her room playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and twirling around and around, and it was such bliss to watch her. I used to wonder what it would be like to be her.”
Jeremy blinked. “Forgive me. I just had this picture of you leaping about to a glam-rock record and it’s sort of stopped me cold.” He paused. “All right. Better now. Go on.”
He shrugged. “Not much more to say. She left home when she was twelve; she wanted to be in the city, so she went to live with my father. I stayed in the suburbs with my mom. I was only eight. I rarely saw her after that.”
“Even after you moved here?”
“She came to see me in my first apartment. Brought me a housewarming gift; some enormous potted plant. Hideous thing — great big pods. A week later all the pods exploded, and there were foul-smelling spores all over the house; it was like it had rained mucous. I thought I was going to have to move. In fact, I did, ultimately. Though the stench came with me, in my furniture.”
“You, with a houseplant. This is a most revelatory lunch.”
“It was my first and last.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. If you move in with this woman, you may find yourself surrounded by them.”
He hadn’t considered that. He didn’t like houseplants. They were either too febrile—too needy—or too robust and invasive. Plus, they throve in dirt. There was something about the idea of soil indoors that defied Marcus’s every attempt to accommodate it. It made as much sense as having a refrigerator in the yard.
Jeremy signaled the waitress for the bill. “Marcus, I’m sorry you’ve come upon rocky shoals. I don’t mean to be hard on you. I just don’t want you to make any more mistakes. Whatever choices you make now, are the ones from which you’ll have to rebuild your life.”
“You make it sound like I’m choosing too swiftly,” he said testily, “like I haven’t looked over the whole menu. In fact, there are only two items on it: Pamela, or the street.”
Jeremy brought out his wallet, which so brimmed with cash that the edges of the bills stuck out beyond the fold. “I doubt you’ve really tried to think in any different terms, but never mind.”
“Oh, no,” said Marcus as the waitress appeared with the check. “You don’t get to play those rhetorical games with me. You can’t say ‘I won’t make an accusation’ while you’re bloody well making it. And then give me that hurt look you’re wearing right now, when I call you on it. That may work with your little harem of himbos, but I’m just a hair smarter than they are.”
“Speaking of which,” Jeremy said, slipping his platinum AmEx onto the table without even looking at the bill, “I have company tonight. A kickboxer. Twenty-eight.”
“So we’ve established his I.Q. Now tell me how old he is.”
Jeremy’s face, which had briefly worn a smile for the waitress as she took up his card and retreated, now fell into a frown. “It’s just sad when you get like this. That brittle, cruel cleverness. You only impress yourself with it, you know.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, realizing he was insulting his best friend while that friend was in the very act of paying for his lunch. “A kickboxer.”
“Never mind,” said Jeremy. He turned to the window. “Beautiful day.”
Marcus had a look for himself, and the conversation stopped there, till Jeremy abruptly turned and said, “Pardon me for asking — but you’re current on your medications, right?”
Marcus felt his face burn; it almost felt like his skin was blistering. “Yes,” he said, so humiliated by the question he could only manage a single syllable.
“It’s just, this is your biggest upset since Wally. I don’t want to see you back in that state.”
Marcus glowered at him.
“I only mean to say, if you ever needed help paying for your prescription …”
Marcus glowered even harder, silencing Jeremy until the waitress returned with the receipt. Jeremy signed it, and they rose to leave.
Marcus waited for him to turn towards the door, then opened the plastic sleeve and examined the bill. Jeremy turned back and caught him at it. “What are you doing?”
“I just want to see how much it is.”
“I told you, it’s my treat.”
“That’s very kind, but I can’t allow it.” Marcus snatched up the pen and scribbled the amount on the back of the band’s leaflet, which he then stuffed into his pocket. “I fully intend to reimburse you when I get back on my feet.”
Jeremy looked as though he might argue; then he appeared to think better of it, and let it go. Marcus wished he knew why. Was it because he respected Marcus’s dignity and didn’t want to offend it? Or because he didn’t really believe Marcus ever would get back on his feet, so why bother?
Outside the restaurant they said their goodbyes with careful casualness. Marcus would have accepted a ride back to his house, but Jeremy didn’t offer one; so he took the train partway and walked the rest.
En route, he tried to conjure up Pamela. It had been so long since he’d seen her, he wasn’t sure he’d recognize her if she were to pass him on the sidewalk. What he remembered most about her — because it grated on him so — was the kind of haphazard way she went through life. All during their childhood, she wore clothes a certain way — as if she hadn’t quite finished pulling them on. Even when she’d visited him at his first apartment, her dress looked like it had been put on backwards and was trying to twist itself the right way around without her help. Half her hair had been knotted up in a scrunchie, while the other half fell into her face. Her fingernails were different lengths, and some of them were dirty — presumably from digging into the soil of the potted plant she’d carried over. She’d come into the apartment, braying her approval, and kept speaking as though she were addressing an auditorium of fifteen hundred. It was as though the concept of calibrating one’s volume to the size of the room was utterly alien to her.
She’d had a friend with her — some pale, wan nonentity; Marcus couldn’t remember the name, or even the gender. She always had someone like that trailing after her, when they were growing up; someone who seemed, even when you looked at them, to be viewed from the corner of your eye. It was as if her life force was so vibrant, the only room left in her vicinity was for someone with almost none of his or her own. Marcus had taken to referring to these individuals, whenever Pamela showed up with one, as “today’s lunch.”
He turned the corner onto his block; it was an old street, with a canopy of trees through which the sun dribbled lazily. He did love it here; it would hurt him very much to leave it. But it wouldn’t kill him. As he approached his six-flat, he tried to situate his mind so that he could pretend he was seeing it for the first time. He did this every now and then, and it was always a thrill when he reached the point at which the grand, blond-brick apartment building next door moved aside like a curtain, to reveal the classic lines and noble proportions of his property. Three units on each side, six balconies facing the street, each spilling over with the lives lived inside (except, of course, those that had recently been abandoned). There were Clark Lewis’s pots of herbs on One North — Marcus could just smell the basil on the breeze; there were the Zbrzieks’ flower beds on Three North, barely containing riots of multicolored pansies; and Vanna Plaice’s gently tinkling wind chimes and Buddhist paraphernalia on Two South, adding to the scene a note of both serenity and eternity. He didn’t know these people well; he thought it advisable to hold himself at arm’s length from his renters, lest they be tempted to take advantage of the access. But he felt now that he would miss them. Or rather, he would miss his responsibility for them. This hadn’t always been a joy to him — authority comes at a cost, and he had been drawn into many unnecessary disputes and disagreements — but it was far better than submitting himself to someone else’s authority; to being someone else’s responsibility.
As he made his way up the stairs, he heard a flurry of footsteps on the floor above, and turned on the landing just in time to see Vanna Plaice’s door close quietly into its frame. She’d clearly taken refuge in her apartment rather than spare him a friendly word; a reminder that, while he might miss his tenants, they wouldn’t return the sentiment. In fact, they were borderline hostile to him, ever since the remaining trio had banded together to make him an offer for the building — and a generous one, too, by current market standards. But he’d had to turn it down; it was unfortunately for less than his mortgage. He’d have lost money, had he accepted it. He tried explaining to them that he was a victim of the housing bubble, but they weren’t interested in listening. And so he’d had to leave them to the mercy of the bank, whose deal allowed him to escape scraped, but not skinned.
He entered his apartment — long, cool, and silent — and thought with satisfaction that there was an advantage to living the way he did (sparely, ascetically, almost monastically), which was that packing up would be a breeze. He’d contracted a specialist to come and handle the canvases on his walls — take them down and move them to storage; they were too many, and too large, to travel with him during this itinerant stage of his life — but beyond those, he didn’t possess much. Some mission furniture; a respectable amount of copper kitchenware; and a small wardrobe (he always wore black, which eliminated the need for much accessorizing). Technology had delivered him to the point at which he could carry his entire home entertainment center out the door under one arm. And really, what else was there? He enjoyed the feeling of being so free; he wasn’t significantly more encumbered by possessions than he was as a teenager. He could almost go where the wind would take him.
Almost.
He went to his desk, sat down, and sighed. Then he dialed Pamela’s number, which was scrawled on a Post-It note and stuck to his blotter, awaiting the inevitability of this day.
The phone rang twice; then the line connected, and he could hear her voice — but not speaking to him; she’d picked up the phone while talking to someone else, something he now remembered was her habit. “… know you can’t help being curious, but it gets very tiring of me to always have to be on your case about it, hello?” This last word, with greater volume, into the phone.
“Uh, yes, hello — Pamela?”
“Speaking. Who’s this?”
“It’s Marcus,” he said, adding, “your brother,” in case it needed clarification.
He expected an exclamation, some kind of abashed observance of how very long it had been, but he’d forgotten how unflappable she was. Nothing fazed her, ever. They might last have spoken yesterday. “Hey there, Marco Polo,” she said. It had been her nickname for him since childhood. “How’s it in your world?”
“Fine, fine. Is this a good time?”
“It’s a super time.”
“I’m not interrupting you?”
“No, I’m fine, just hanging out by my lonesome.”
He blinked. “I’m sorry. Weren’t you just talking to someone?”
“Only the dog. Incorrigible. Where are you?”
“At home.”
“Do you still have the gallery?”
He blinked again. It disconcerted him that the life-realigning trauma he’d just been through was to her something that might’ve happened any old time. “No, as a matter of fact, I just lost it.”
“Ah. Bummer. What are you doing instead?”
“Well … less.” He laughed nervously.
Agreeably, she laughed as well. Then, “Do you need money?”
He blinked yet again; twice. This wasn’t how the conversation was supposed to go. He’d spent several sleepless nights rehearsing exactly how best to turn the subject to his needs, but she was beating him to it by tossing off the major points as if they were discussing the weather. “I don’t need … what I mean is, I do but … but what I really find myself in want of right now is a place to live. For a while. Temporarily.”
“Absolutely not!” she said, with such unarguable finality that he felt an urge to hang up the phone and go and cower in a corner. Then she chirped, “Sorry, dog again … Here? Were you thinking here?”
He waited a moment for his heart to carom back into his chest, then said, “I’d be very … that is, if you wouldn’t mind, and if the invasion of your privacy isn’t too hugely terrible.”
“You can have the guest room,” she said, as casually as though she were offering him the loan of a ladder, or a rake. “When’s good for you?”
“Well … the sooner the better, actually. As of yesterday I no longer own this place. I’m paying the bank a daily rent on it, which unfortunately I can ill afford. I have a moving contractor all lined up, I just have to give him the word.”
“All righty, then. Let me know.”
“Well … really, at the earliest possible time when it won’t hugely inconvenience you.”
“This afternoon?”
He actually took the phone away from his head and looked into the receiver, then put it back to his ear. “I think they’ll need a little more notice than that.”
“Tomorrow, then. Or whenever you want. I’m always here.” It was true. She had managed to sustain a career as a freelance copyeditor for almost two decades; the waxing and waning of the economy never seemed to affect her quiet progress through manuscript after manuscript. “Just show up.”
Something about her indifference to his timetable — to the point of being ready to welcome him this very day — bothered him, and he was finally able to put his finger on why: she was obviously not allowing for time to clean the guest room for his arrival. Which presented a difficulty; he couldn’t actually ask her to do so, on top of the enormous favor she was already granting him. He decided to try to shame her into it. “I’ll give you plenty of notice,” he said, “and I’ll even come by and clean the room myself, so you don’t have to.”
“Oh, the room’s plenty clean,” she said airily, evading his trap.
Marcus remembered that, growing up, her idea of “plenty clean” was when a majority of the floor was visible beneath the debris; say, a sixty-forty ratio. And the nature of the debris didn’t enter into the equation. A pile of wolverine carcasses would have counted as much as dirty sweatshirts. “No, really, I don’t mind,” he said. “I can come by tomorrow. I’ll bring my own cleaning supplies.”
“You were always such a funny kid,” she said with a lilt in her voice. “Always on your hands and knees, scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. I remember you even used to scrub the bathtub.”
“Of course I scrubbed the bathtub! What a thing to say.”
She laughed, as if he’d just said something wildly funny. “Oh, honey, you’re just precious! Scrubbing something with soap and water that gets filled every day with soap and water.”
Oh my God, he thought, she’s never cleaned her tub.
“It’s, like, scrubbing a sink, or something.”
Oh my God, she’s never cleaned her sink.
He had a desperate, momentary thought that maybe living on the streets wouldn’t be so bad.
But no, he required a fixed address in order to rebuild his credit and look for a job. For better or worse, he needed the shelter of Pamela’s roof. And since she was actually offering it without conditions, he’d better accept it graciously and proceed accordingly. No looking back.
It was only after they’d hung up that another thing wriggled its way to the forefront of his mind:
Pamela has a dog.
Well, how bad could that be? It appeared to have a few obedience issues, but it was a dumb animal. He could certainly maneuver around any inconveniences it might present. No, a dog was fine; not ideal — far from ideal — but survivable.
Just as long as there was nothing else.

Friday, October 26, 2012

History, Fiction, and Historical Fiction (Part 2)

For me, the preeminent historical subject—and history’s greatest story—is Rome. It’s a 2,000-year arc, which begins with a pagan, Latin-speaking republic on the banks of the Tiber, and ends with a Christian, Greek-speaking monarchy on the banks of the Bosphorus; and yet it’s a single narrative, about a single entity that over millennia of tumult and transcendence becomes something entirely different. There are almost no points of intersection between that first Rome and the final one, which has caused us, in the modern period, to give a new name to the latter—Byzantium, we call it, and the people who live in it Byzantines. But those are terms they themselves never used, and that wouldn’t have made sense to them. Never mind that their empire no longer included the city of Rome—or any of Italy—they considered themselves Romans, and their empire Rome.

This is a great, endlessly fascinating paradox, and it has kept me a happy reader for most of my life.

Occasionally you see this type of story played over the course of a single life. Right now I’m reading the latest book by the biographer Robert K. Massie, which begins as the story of Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a petty German princess living on the edge of poverty in the small Prussian town of Stettin, and ends as the story of Catherine II, empress and autocrat of all the Russias. The girl at the beginning and the woman at the end comprise a single lifespan, but thematically there are no commonalities; they’re one physical entity, but two separate characters.

I crush hard on this kind of thing. And in Rome, it’s not the six or seven decades of a single life we’re talking about, it’s two hundred decades of social, political, cultural, and spiritual ferment. Or even longer. After all, there’s no real consensus on when Rome ended. Some authorities say it was with the collapse of the western empire in AD 476; others (myself included) point to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Others maintain it continued in the west until 1806, having been revived by Charlemagne and called the Holy Roman Empire. And still others say, stop fooling yourselves, we’re still living in Rome, and probably always will be.

It’s certainly true of me; I spend a fair amount of my intellectual life in Rome, reading histories, biographies—and historical fiction. Rome has been much, much luckier in that regard than England, or Egypt, or any of the other nations and empires which seem to inspire overwrought, romanticized dreck. Maybe it’s Rome’s essentially masculine, martial character that tamps down the dizzy romanticists.

Probably no one will be astonished to hear that my favorite Roman period is the five hundred years comprising the final centuries of the republic and the first of the empire. This is probably everyone’s choice; it is, after all, central to the story of western civilization, and therefore a direct antecedent of our own history. And within those five hundred years, my special affection is reserved for—again, no surprise—the eight or nine decades bookended by the rise of Julius Caesar and the death of his adopted son, the emperor Augustus. The sheer number of indelibly famous personages crammed into this period can almost choke you: Pompey the Great, Cicero, Cato the Younger, Cleopatra, Mark Antony. I myself would probably be happy to read nothing but biographies of Julius Caesar for the rest of my life. In so many ways, he was the first modern man: forward-looking, ruthlessly ambitious, urbane and sophisticated, the inventor of the cult of personality. And yet in other ways he’s incomprehensible to moderns; we look at his Gallic campaign today, for instance, and what we see is flat-out genocide. But that’s the appeal for me—the paradox of it; the uncertainty. Just when you think you know where you are in Rome, someone pulls the rug out for under you, and all your limbs go cattywampus.

One of the advantages this period enjoys is a spate of excellent ancient sources: Livy, Suetonius, Plutarch, even Cicero himself. Possibly if later dynasties had talent of this caliber documenting their preeminent personalities and events, they’d be equally well known to us; but by that time, of course, being a chronicler was a vastly more dangerous job. Emperors, unlike consuls, could have you killed on a whim. And they were always having whims.

We’ve got some excellent Roman authorities writing today as well, including Anthony Everitt (Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian), Adrian Goldsworthy (Caesar), Tom Holland (Rubicon), and Stacy Schiff, who just delivered a knockout biography of Cleopatra. But I have to say, I’m almost more drawn to the novels. The Romans were so like us in so many ways, that they lend themselves to historical fiction in a way feudal and medieval figures don’t. My favorite Rome-inspired novels are a series by Allan Massie that includes Caesar (just fantastic), Augustus, and Tiberius. Another novelist, John Williams, had a crack at Augustus that’s on par with Massie’s, while being entirely different. (This is the advantage to taking Augustus as your subject; unlike Caesar, who was so unremittingly public in everything he said, did, or thought, Augustus was much more tacit, even secretive; the workings of his mind are still largely hidden from us. This makes him a pain in the ass for biographers, but a dream for novelists.)


 I also love Karen Essex’s two-volume take on the most famous queen of Egypt, Kleopatra and Pharaoh. And of course there’s Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which also serve as a kind of acid comment on British imperialism, but are thumping good reads on Roman terms alone. Hell…on any terms. (Graves also wrote a terrific novel set in the Byzantine era, Count Belisarius.)

And I can’t leave you without confessing my love for Steven Saylor’s series of ancient world whodunits, known collectively as Roma sub Rosa (meaning “under the rose,” or “that which is done in secret”) and featuring the charismatic, unabashedly romantic detective, Gordianus the Finder. Saylor’s prose is a tad workmanlike, but he’s a born storyteller, and  when I read histories of the late republican period, and Sulla and Marius and Cicero appear on the page, I clothe them in Saylor’s tics and mannerisms. I can’t help it; that’s who they are to me.

It occurs to me that I took up this theme in my last post as a means of providing context for Hillary Mantel’s remarkable dual-Booker Prize win for her two recent historical novels; but I’ve sort of degenerated into fanboy babbling. Well, that’s blogging for you. Anyway, I hope I’ve given some of you a signpost or two to avenues down which you’ll gladly travel; feel free to return the favor, in the comments section. Let this be your safe space; we won’t sneer at you for professing your love for a historical novel, any more than we would for a graphic novel. (Hm. There’s an idea for another post…)