The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.
As a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.
After I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.
I couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.
As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.
I remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.
I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.
I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.
Image Credit: Flickr/kooikkari.
I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.
I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy
A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.
The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan
Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”
John Adams by David McCullough
A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course
Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:
Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.
Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)
The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.
A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford
Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell
The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.
For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.
During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.
The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee
A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.
The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück
There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.
After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter is barely a week old, and little North “Nori” West is already a household name. Yet despite endless commentary about the unconventional moniker, the literary origins of North West have yet to be revealed.
The obvious association is Hitchcock’s beloved film, North By Northwest, but this title is actually derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” Hamlet muses to Guildenstern. In modern English, the troubled Prince of Denmark thinks he’s one fry short of a Happy Meal when the breeze blows north or north-west.
Is Kimye aware of the literary connotation of their baby name? Probably not, or they wouldn’t have associated their daughter with mommy issues and madness as fickle as the wind. The unique name, and its surprising Shakespearean association, bring up a fascinating question about the cultural legacy a baby inherits solely based on its name.
Certain names are forever tainted by their literary heritage. Jezebel couldn’t shake its association with the shameless wife of Ahab — until, perhaps, the feminist blog came along and reappropriated the name. Both Romeo and Lothario are inextricably linked to passionate seducers, one sincere, the other unscrupulous. Names derived from strong women in Shakespeare’s plays like Miranda and Portia are fairly common, but Ophelias are rare (Unless they’ve all gotten themselves to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.) Then there’s Lolita, a name practically synonymous with a sexually advanced, nymph-like young woman (So why don’t we call pathetic old guys infatuated with younger women Humbert Humberts? Just wondering.)
If some names are tainted, then others are forever blessed by their bookish
background. Is it any surprise that literary names like Phineas (A Separate Peace) and Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) have taken off in recent years? Who doesn’t want to bestow upon their child a Pavlovian response from strangers who automatically find their child attractive, wise, honest or dignified because of a book they read in ninth grade? And would an ironic little hipster like Ebenezer be the equivalent of naming a child Miser or Greed? (There actually are 70 people named Greed, according to the Census). I won’t even ask about Quasimotos. Somewhere in Brooklyn, there may be one being born right now.
Interestingly, for girls the names of precocious and whimsical yet feminine characters like Matilda, Madeline, and Alice have become perennial favorites — but not their feistier and more assertive literary sisters, Pippi and Eloise. I guess most parents don’t want daughters sliding down banisters and rejecting basic social norms. It’s no wonder the names of strong women in literature — Tolstoy’s Natasha, Morrison’s Sula, Larsson’s Lisbeth — carry a certain lyricism, fierceness, and sensuality that make them both intriguing and dangerous. Often these characters come to be known more closely than the hefty volumes they inhabit.
Then there are names whose connotations are transformed along with the popularity of a particular book. My generation knows Hermione from Harry Potter, but those prior knew her from The Winter’s Tale (J.K. Rowling probably knew what she was doing, naming a precocious young sorcerer after a Shakespearean character magically “resurrected” after being dead for 16 years.)
Which brings up another trait of literary naming: the cannonical tip of the hat. Claire Messud’s dollhouse-crafting Nora in The Woman Upstairs is clearly piggybacking on Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In doing so, Messud invokes the magic of her literary ancestors and creates depth of character before the book even begins. On that note, could any writer name a character Holden or Nathan without readers thinking the author was referencing Caulfield or Zuckerman?
Perhaps names in the titles of books — especially those from childhood — have the most lasting influence over how these names are perceived. Harriets must always wear glasses and are probably undercover agents; Annes are plucky and face difficult obstacles in faraway places like Green Gables and Amsterdam. Sheilas, well, they’re just great.
There’s the rare situation where the overwhelming popularity of a name can all but erase its literary connotations. The influx of Emmas (it was the second most popular baby name in U.S. for girls in 2012) has totally diminished its relevance to Ms. Bovary and Ms. Woodhouse in my mind. The first time I read The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter Jessica threw me for a loop. I thought her name simply didn’t have enough gravitas for Shakespeare, since it is one I associate with popular blonds and B-list actresses.
Some names are just plain obvious in their symbolism. Name a character Adam if you want him to be an everyman. Marys and Maggies are innocent and likely to get devoured in sci-fi or deflowered in literary fiction. Katherines, and now Katniss, are heroine types. Just as certain names in literature connote good and others evil, the concept is fairly often seen off the page too. The suggestion that Tamerlan, a common name in the Caucuses, be retired after the Boston Bombings was a culturally tone-deaf suggestion, but it spoke to the type of personal biases that many of us have with names. I admit to initially feeling slightly prejudged against guys with the same name as certain ex-boyfriends, and when I first started dating my current boyfriend, Lenny, the only other Lenny I knew was the protagonist in Super Sad True Love Story. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was setting myself up for heartbreak (We’re doing just fine, thanks.).
North West is what’s being called a concept name. Will it spawn a generation of Word Smiths and Harry Pitts? Putting Green? Old MacDonald? Cupcake Baker anyone? Names might carry the baggage of their literary predecessors, but what about a phrase? Little North’s legacy will likely be shaped by so many other factors, and to suggest a child’s destiny is exclusively shaped by his or her name is bunk. My prediction is that North West will be a force of nature. After all, wasn’t it the Bard who said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
I’ve been thinking lately about adulthood. When it begins, what expectations we might reasonably have of those just entering through its gates, and how we represent it in our fiction. I realized recently that virtually all of the coming-of-age stories one encounters — okay, most of the ones I’ve encountered — involve growing up too quickly. There is the traumatic incident after which childhood is over and life will never the same (John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and about a million other books, few of which are as good as Knowles’), the creepy secret that heralds the end of innocence (Allison Espach’s The Adults), the sleazy secret that gets you institutionalized (a recent book I’d mention if naming it in this context wouldn’t give away the plot), etc. It’s an interesting feature of Leigh Stein’s debut novel, The Fallback Plan, that she takes precisely the opposite approach.
The Fallback Plan concerns a girl — difficult to think of her as a women, because she’s an adult only in years — who’s growing up too slowly, who doesn’t want to grow up at all, and who, more to the point, is so coddled that she doesn’t really need to. Stein’s narrator, Esther Kohler, is a recent graduate of the theatre program at Northwestern. Esther’s feeling is that in the absence of either a job or a trust fund, her options are between moving back in with her parents or “suffering the rancid fate of a nomadic couchsurfer.”
She chooses the former, camping out in her childhood bedroom while she figures out what to do next. This wasn’t anyone’s original plan, but she’s secretly relieved to be back at home. The adult world proved to be a bit much, actually. It would be nice, she thinks, to never have to be a part of it, to never have to suffer the hassle of work, to be taken care of forever. She smokes pot with her friends, takes recreational Vicodin, and spends a great deal of time hoping to develop “a chronic illness that would entitle me to monthly checks from the government, tender sympathy from my loved ones, and a good deal of time in bed with the collected works of Frances Hodgson Burnett.”
It’s a tricky proposition, the Peter Pan novel. A subset of readers will smile — or wince — in recognition of an adolescence that extends far into one’s 20s, a hazy longing for the comforts of one’s childhood home, a desire to return to one’s parents after college and hold on to ease a little longer.
But there’s another subset of readers to whom that first subset seems, well, frankly a little soft. My tribe didn’t have any particular prospects either, but we worked our multiple low-paying jobs, we balanced shifts at coffee shops with days at school while we sank into student loan debt, we swept floors and made lattes and washed dishes, we put up with bad roommates and cockroaches. We took buses and trains to our lousy apartment shares in dangerous neighborhoods, we lived on noodles and did our laundry in the bathroom sink during those last few days every month before rent was due. Because we had to, and because our understanding of adulthood was that you’re supposed to make your own way in the world, and that it isn’t supposed to be easy.
I’m not romanticizing this. It isn’t unreasonable to want to skip most of these experiences, especially the cockroaches and the unstable roommates. I’m trying to explain why it’s easy for someone like me to dismiss a narrator like Esther Kohler, whose idea of a job search involves dropping off résumés at exactly two places and then printing up some dog-walking flyers that she doesn’t distribute.
But then, I do have tremendous respect for authors who are willing to present unlikable narrators, and what Stein is laying out, in prose so lucid and simple that she makes it seem effortless, is a variation on American young adulthood so common that it does, I believe, deserve a place in our literature. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 85 percent of that year’s college graduates planned on moving back in with their parents. It would be heartless to imagine that at least some of those graduates weren’t exactly thrilled with this prospect.
Moreover, the world has changed, and unemployment statistics suggest that the always-complicated business of trying to become an adult is probably harder now than it was when I was Esther Kohler’s age. This is what I tell myself, anyway, because I don’t want to believe that 85 percent of 2010 college graduates — or any percentage, actually, when I think about it — moved home because being an adult is kind of hard and they just don’t really feel up to it quite yet.
What to reveal, when: it’s one of the trickier parts of plotting a novel, and it’s an area where I believe The Fallback Plan falters slightly. Fictional characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting, and there is nothing overwhelmingly captivating about a lethargic young person who just doesn’t particularly feel like growing up and who kind of wishes she had some kind of a permanent disability that would excuse her from work for the rest of her life, who feels entitled to a room in her parents’ house and food from her parents’ refrigerator.
But the picture changes somewhat when, some distance into the book, the circumstances of Esther’s last year of college become clear. This isn’t just a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up. She’s a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up and who has mental health issues of sufficient severity that she was briefly committed the previous spring. A character who I’d struggled to care about was cast in a suddenly altered light. She does want to avoid the adult world, but also she’s suffered tremendously there.
Esther’s parents are somewhat less interested in Esther remaining a teenager forever than Esther is. When they decide to start charging her rent, Esther takes a job as a babysitter to a neighborhood family, the Browns, who have recently suffered an unspeakable loss. Esther had met Nate and Amy Brown the previous winter, at a holiday party thrown by her parents.
They had a baby and a toddler at home with a sitter, but that was the last night when Nate and Amy Brown had two children on Earth. They returned home to find that the baby had died in her sleep. Now Nate works long hours and Amy stays home with their surviving daughter, four-year-old May. At first glance, the family is surprisingly functional, but the more time Esther spends with them, the more obvious the fault lines become.
Amy and Nate are disconnected from one another, still reeling, and both begin to treat Esther as a confidante. Nate stays late at the office. Amy spends hours locked in the attic, working on a mysterious project. Esther finds herself falling in love with little May. Stein’s sensitive treatment of the Browns’ grief and disconnection is the strongest part of the book. Esther’s gradual realization that she has to face the complications of the adult world is carefully rendered and a pleasure to read.
Forty years ago today, on March 21, 1971, Hunter S. Thompson and a Chicano activist attorney named Oscar Zeta Acosta drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to talk over an article Thompson was writing about the barrios of East L.A. When the account of their journey appeared in Rolling Stone in November of that year, Thompson and Acosta had morphed into Raoul Duke and his 300-pound Samoan attorney and the trunk of their car, the Great Red Shark, had become a rolling drug dispensary:
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
I can still remember sitting in the basement of my parents’ house in Northern California, practically whizzing myself with delight at that dizzying list of pharmaceuticals. I was fourteen and I’d read Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and all the other books about and for nice, well-heeled boys whose lives have gone a little off the rails, but Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was different. It wasn’t just the mind-blowing drug use or the lusty middle finger Thompson seemed to be giving straight America; no, what was so startling, so riveting to my fourteen-year-old’s mind was how sincere the whole thing seemed. Raoul Duke is a foul-mouthed, gun-toting drug addict with a mean streak, and yet, as he explains to a terrified hitchhiker in the opening scene, he and his 300-pound Samoan attorney are driving to Las Vegas in search of the American Dream. “This is important, goddamnit!” Duke snarls at the poor hitchhiker. “This is a true story!” And sitting all alone in my parents’ basement, still high from the bong hits I’d blown out the window, I believed him.
That was then. In the forty years since Thompson took that fateful trip into gonzo history, he has gone from arguably the most dangerous man in American journalism, to a cartoon character in Doonesbury, to a drug-fuddled has-been, to a suicide, and yet the work remains. Four decades on, does the Fear and Loathing still hold up?
Hunter Stockton Thompson, future Doctor of Gonzo Journalism, was born in 1937 in Louisville, Kentucky, the first son of an insurance salesman and homemaker. Young Hunter was a handful pretty much from birth, according to William McKeen’s excellent, though slightly fawning, 2008 biography, Outlaw Journalist. After his father died, Thompson graduated from pranks to petty crime and was locked up for two months for threatening to rape a girl during a small-time robbery. Choosing the Air Force over a life of crime, he started writing sports stories for a base newspaper and fell in love with journalism. For a decade, he knocked around the lower rungs of the news trade, filing increasingly wild and unverifiable feature pieces from Puerto Rico and South America until the mid-1960s, when he stumbled onto his first great subject, the Hells Angels.
Flush with the success of Hells Angels, his book about the year he spent hanging out with – and, famously, getting stomped by – the outlaw biker gang, Thompson signed a contract to write a book on the ponderous subject of The Death of the American Dream. It was a dumb idea for a book and he never wrote it, but the theme festered in the back of his mind for years while he was getting beaten up by Mayor Daley’s cops in Chicago in 1968 and watching one after another of his liberal political heroes get gunned down, until that March day in 1971 when he set out across the Mojave Desert with Acosta.
Fear and Loathing compresses two separate trips Thompson took to Las Vegas that spring – the first to cover a motorcycle race called the Mint 400, the second to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Drug Abuse – into a single hellish week of drug consumption and debauchery. To these real-life assignments Thompson adds a third, deeper quest: his much-delayed search for the American Dream. Whether Fear and Loathing is a work of journalism or fiction is a topic of fierce contention among die-hard HST heads, but in truth the book is neither. It is myth. Two seekers, a great white Hunter and his brown guide, cross the desert into the American heart of darkness in search of what killed the spirit of hope and innocence that animated the decade just ended.
The first thing that strikes you when you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 2011, beyond the rotary phones and the 29-cent burgers, is what a sad story it is. Don’t get me wrong; parts of it are still very funny. It is a tribute to Thompson’s comic genius that all these years later Raoul Duke’s acid-fueled description of entering a Vegas hotel bar can make a grown man like me, whose druggie years are decades in the past, laugh so hard he snorts ginger ale out of his nose:
Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman’s neck, the carpet was a blood-soaked sponge – impossible to walk on it, no footing at all. “Order some golf shoes,” I whispered. “Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this place alive. You notice these reptiles don’t have any trouble moving around in this muck – that’s because they have claws on their feet.
But for long stretches the book reads like an all-too-accurate description of a weeklong binge, with all the shapelessness and pointlessness that implies. Minor characters appear and disappear with barely a ripple, plans are meticulously devised and abandoned, weapons are drawn in murderous rage and then moments later forgotten, and when all is said and done it adds up to not very much. Duke doesn’t get either of the stories he is sent to Las Vegas to get, he never finds the American Dream, and by the end, when his plane out of Vegas lands in Colorado, he is so addled he literally doesn’t know where he is.
The sadness is never more clear than in the well-known “wave passage” that appears midway through the book. Thompson is said to have considered this aria to the death of innocence to be one of the finest things he ever wrote, and it is indeed a lovely piece of writing. In it, he describes a series of late-night motorcycle rides around San Francisco, in an effort to convey what it was like to be alive in that city in the mid-1960s “when the energy of a whole generation” struck “in a long fine flash”:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
It goes by so fast that if you’re not paying attention you could miss it: “Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting.” What drugs were these people on? They wanted to change the world, turn back the largest military machine in the history of the world, and they saw no point in fighting?
Of course, many in the anti-war movement did fight. Some were beaten up by police, others went to jail or left the country, and a few even died. Unlike the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, however, who were under no illusion about what they were up against, the leaders of the Peace Generation were by and large children of privilege who believed that if they spoke truth to those in power – who were, after all, their parents – they would be heard. But once the Flower Children had finished sitting in and singing mean songs about the president, when their parents, Nixon’s Silent Majority, went ahead and fought the war anyway, most cut their hair and found jobs.
But not Raoul Duke, our latter-day Don Quixote who drives into Vegas with his 300-pound Sancho Panza and a head full of acid to figure out what went wrong. Duke is a horror show – violent, misogynistic, full of a manic male rage that is fueling his appetite for drugs – but in a world of hustlers, pimps and bullshit artists, he is an honest man. He lies constantly, but never to himself, or to his readers. He understands how destructive he is, and he describes, with almost compulsive honesty, what it must feel like to totally lose faith in one’s self and one’s country. In the end, he is demoralized, smashed against the rocks of history, and though he never comes out and says so, one suspects that one of the reasons he’s so heartbroken is that he knows he has no one to blame but himself.
This may explain why Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made such a stir when it first came out: it not only sounded the death knell of the 1960s, but also helped make sense of its ignominious end. Raoul Duke is no Flower Child, but he is the freakiest of the Freaks and he believes, with his own freakish fervency, in the nobility of what his generation was trying to achieve. What he sees from that hilltop in Vegas, despite the fistfuls of drugs he takes to obscure his vision, is that his side has lost, not because the cause wasn’t just or because the enemy wasn’t evil, but because he and his compatriots were too self-involved, too drunk on their rightness, to fully appreciate the power of their opponent.
Like his alter ego, Hunter S. Thompson was nearing the end of his tether by the time Fear and Loathing appeared in 1971. He published another couple decent books and one perfectly awful one, The Curse of Lono, about Hawaii, and then he more or less gave up. For the last 20 years of his life until his 2005 suicide, except for some rather disjointed newspaper columns, he wrote little new material and instead filled book after book with pages from his vast archives of old letters, articles, unpublished novels, and screeds.
I got to know Thompson a little midway into this long, sad decline when I worked as a reporter in Aspen, Colorado, in the early 1990s. Whatever else you could say about the man, he was a terrific interview. He mumbled so badly that you missed three-quarters of what he said, but what slipped through the rocks in his mouth cohered into hilarious little sonnets of invective directed at the greedheads and pigfuckers and scurvy rats gnawing at your bones. But my principal memory of him is a silent one. At some point along the line, he had been given a replica of the Great Red Shark, and many nights walking home after deadline, I saw him driving it aimlessly down the back alleys of downtown Aspen. One night – it must have been summer because he had the top down – he passed by me very slowly, and for three or four long seconds, our eyes met. He was middle-aged by then, his face wrinkled and doughy, the bags under his eyes dark as oil slicks, but he stared at me in that intense Hunter way of his, and I remember thinking: That is the saddest, loneliest-looking man I have ever seen.
And then he drove on, my childhood outlaw hero, all alone in a fire-red Chevy convertible, cruising the back alleys of Aspen, heading nowhere in particular.
My magnificent agent died last week. The barest facts of her life are in a New York Times obituary this morning. Her name was Emilie Jacobson, but her colleagues called her Emmy. She found me in a slush pile.
Emilie is the reason why I get a little impatient with people who insist that you need to know someone, or have some sort of inside connection, in order to get your book published. Some years ago, when I thought I had a good draft of my first novel, I started querying agents. Emilie was the thirteenth or fourteenth agent I contacted; she pulled my letter and sample chapters out of the slush pile, requested the full manuscript, and then, well, sent me a rejection letter. But her rejection was long, regretful, and filled with thoughtful editorial comments, all of which seemed sound to me. There was no guarantee of future representation if I took her suggestions, but I thought that in the worst-case scenario I’d at least have a better book, so I spent six months revising my novel and sent it back to her. She very graciously agreed to read it again, and this time she took me on.
I came down to the Curtis Brown offices on Astor Place to meet her. It was a heady occasion—the initial “I can’t believe I actually have an agent!” shock hadn’t worn off yet. I was early, so I loitered for a while in a bookstore near the office, running my hand over the spines of books, trying to imagine what it would be like to see my name on the shelf. I went up to the offices to meet her, and was struck by her warmth.
Emilie took me to lunch at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, a few blocks away. She’d hurt her back a few months earlier, and the recovery was proving difficult; she was stooped over and moved slowly. She was too vain, she said, to consider using a cane.
I doubt the décor of Knickerbocker has changed significantly since it opened in 1977. (I was surprised, in fact, to discover that it opened that late—it looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1940s.) It’s all dark wood paneling and leather and round banquettes, a dizzying assortment of bottles atop the grand piano. I’d never been there before and it was like slipping back into a lost world, a time when publishing deals were made in a cloud of cigar smoke over multiple martinis. I half expected to see Norman Mailer dining out with his agent at the next table.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked, when we sat down. She was of an era when a business lunch typically involved cocktails. I declined and ordered my usual mint tea. I wanted to ask how long she’d been agenting, but given her obviously advanced age it seemed somehow vaguely impolite, as if I were indirectly asking how old she was. I asked her, instead, how she became an agent.
“Well,” she said, “it was back in the early days of television, and…”
Curtis Brown was her first job out of college, and she stayed there for the next sixty-two years. From our first meeting, I decided that Emilie is what I aspire to: when I’m in my eighties I want to be that passionate, that interested, that warm, with a mind as sharp as hers.
Some weeks ago Emilie called to tell me that at long last she’d decided to retire. The good news, she said, was that a colleague of hers was interested in representing me. I told her that of course I’d known this day would come, but that I would miss working with her terribly.
“I think it was email that finally pushed me over the edge,” she said. She used email gamely enough, but she disliked the informality of the medium; emails from strangers that began with “Hello Emilie” bothered her immensely. She was deeply annoyed when she sent people emails and they didn’t write back.
I came back to the offices on Astor Place a few weeks ago to meet my new agent. I arrived early to visit with Emilie, and for a quiet half-hour we sat in her office together. Her office was a wonderful place, large and filled with books. I’ll confess that seeing my first novel displayed prominently next to David Lodge’s work always gave me a thrill. Her computer seemed an unwelcome imposition on a second desk, behind her real desk, which was massive and piled eight inches high with correspondence and manuscripts.
Emilie was so much a part of Curtis Brown that it was almost impossible to conceive of her being outside it, no longer coming into this office every day. I asked what she planned to do after retirement. She said she thought it would take her about a year to clean the stacks of manuscripts out of the closets in her apartment, and then she was going to read for pleasure. She thought she might like to do some writing. We talked about books for a while—she’d just read and loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. We spoke about her career.
“You were my first champion,” I told her. I told her how much I appreciated everything she’d done for me, the faith she’d always had in my work.
She smiled and began reminiscing about other firsts: a piece of Joyce Maynard’s that she placed in The New York Times when Maynard was eighteen (“An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”), a John Knowles story that eventually became the climactic scene in A Separate Peace. She asked if I was working on a new novel and I told her that I was.
“Oh, this is why I’ve delayed retirement for so long,” she said. “I always want to see what everyone’s going to do next.”
I told her that I’d send her the manuscript as soon as it was done. She seemed happy at this prospect. “Okay,” she said, but she was gone five weeks later.
All sudden deaths are a little shocking. It seems impossible that I’ll never see her again. In the last letter she ever sent me—she never sent an email when a letter would do—she expressed her regret that she wouldn’t be in Martha’s Vineyard when I read at a bookstore there in June. But she would be there later in the summer, she said, and she suggested that if my husband and I were to return to the Vineyard, perhaps we might like to visit with her and her husband. It’s startling to think that she won’t be there. It’s startling to think that the next time I see the orange Curtis Brown letterhead on an envelope in my mailbox, it won’t be from her. The last email I received from her was only two weeks ago.
There’s great comfort, of course, in knowing that she spent almost the entirety of her long life doing work that she was truly passionate about. I know this is the best we can hope for: a long life engaged in a pursuit that brings us joy and fulfillment, a quick death at the end. There’s a school of thought that a peaceful death at the end of a long and fulfilling life isn’t a tragedy, and I put some stock in this.
But she really was magnificent, and I don’t use that word lightly. I always thought of her as an emissary from a bygone world, among the last of her kind. I feel as if a light’s gone out, and there won’t be another like her.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group”To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club