Based on a True Story

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Deadlines, Word Counts, and Magnificent Lies: On Hesh Kestin


This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Just as an artist needs to identify his light source before beginning a painting, a writer looks for a narrative power source — what sets the story in motion, or what obstructs it.  Perhaps no writer is as concerned with the minutiae of power and motivation, its shifts and upheavals, as a journalist — someone who has covered politics, wars, and uprisings here and abroad. Not to mention a journalist who was successful in his field for years, who always met his deadlines and word counts, and who ultimately decided to leave the profession entirely in order write his own truths.

Thus it’s tempting, but not entirely correct, to ascribe Hesh Kestin’s literary sensibilities to habits he picked up during his 20 years as a correspondent for Newsday, The International Herald Tribune, and Forbes. In fact, even as a youngster he was the kind of kid who paid close attention: to his neighborhood dynamics, people on the street, the books he read. It no doubt behooved a boy growing up across the street from the headquarters of Murder, Inc. — the Brooklyn Mafia’s Jewish enforcement arm — to keep his eyes open.

Kestin’s father, a devoted reader in half a dozen languages (though not English) would take Hesh along on weekly sojourns to the Brooklyn Public Library and its large collection of Yiddish books. This wasn’t purely paternal on his father’s part; adults were allowed six books a week, but with the boy’s card he could check out four more. Nevertheless, Hesh became a book lover himself before long. He reclaimed his library card and immersed himself in worlds far from his own mean streets: the Midwest of Homer Price, wisecracking Freddy the Pig in his barnyard, the romance of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion novels, and Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books, set in Italy. His father would quiz him on what he was reading — characters, plots, what the authors were trying to say — and as he told Three Guys One Book:
By the time I was nine we were deep into literary criticism, a cross-generational, cross-cultural approach that can best be understood by my father’s throwaway remark that “In literature a horse is never merely a horse.” By then I had managed to convince the librarians that I “needed” more than four books a week, and so back and forth we marched, every Saturday, in sun, rain and snow, each of us carrying our six-book limit, both of us arguing structure, character and nuance as though the noisy urban streets around us were not only silent but hardly seemed to exist.
Kestin gave college a try, but it didn’t take. Instead he bounced around from coast to coast, taking work in newspapers when he could get it — he was writing obituaries for The New York Herald Tribune at 20 — and hanging loose in Mexico in between. In 1967, at the age of 23, he was the youngest reporter on staff at Newsday. He was tapped to cover the civil rights movement as it morphed into Black Power, thanks at least in part to his growing up in East New York — “all the other reporters were actually physically afraid of ‘Negroes’; me, I was afraid of the suburbs”:
This was the period of the Harlem riots, on the second day of which my editors presented me with a white motorcycle helmet, just the thing to wear to a civil insurrection. I told them they should have painted a bull’s-eye on it…On another occasion when I had set up a meeting with the leadership of the local Black Panthers my bosses insisted I take along a bodyguard, a young Irishman who weighed in at 280.  When we got to the address, a rundown house on a dark street in a dark neighborhood, he wouldn’t get out of the car.
Kestin was itching to escape Newsday, and that May, realizing that the Middle East was on the brink of war, he decided he ought to be reporting from Israel when it broke out. He applied for a passport immediately, but when the Six-Day War ignited on June 5, he was still waiting. Adding insult to injury, Newsday sent him into local neighborhoods to report on the Jewish reaction: “A color story…All I could think as these people voiced their pride was: What the fuck are you so proud of? You’re ready to fight to the last Israeli. People are dying.”

He visited Israel the following year. “People ate in the streets, had bad table manners, and as a matter of course spoke loudly and repeatedly — and [I] felt: these are my people.” By 1970 he was married, and he and his wife moved to Israel, to a small village a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. Kestin joined the Israel Defense Forces, tended the orange grove on his property, raised five children, and wrote novels.

He had finished his first, Small Change, when he was 23, and it was bought and slated for publication until he balked at changing the title to Season of Lust. The book was never published, nor were the next three. Eventually, as he puts it, “the noise of the hungry bellies of my kids used to keep me up at night.” So he got a real job, this time as a war correspondent — for, as it turned out, Newsday.

He went on to hone his journalist’s craft at Forbes. While his three published books — two novels and a collection of novellas — are vastly different in style, plot, and setting, reviewers consistently praise Kestin’s economy of language, and it’s easy to see where the habit came from:
Forbes never heard about long-form journalism: A typical story might be 500 words, a single magazine page with room for headline and illustration. A writer might approach the incomparable Sheldon Zalaznick, then managing editor, with an absolutely factual exclusive proving the world would end next Thursday, and after selling him the story (over a couple of martinis), Shelley might say, “OK, give me 750.” Shelley’s mantra was as brief and pure as its meaning: “Just gimme the cream.”
Kestin trotted the globe as a foreign correspondent for another 20 years. When the opportunity presented itself, he started his own daily paper, The Nation (no relation to the American journal), which was eventually sold out from under him and merged with its competitor, The Jerusalem Post. Rather than return to work as a foreign correspondent — he suspected that his foray into publishing had rendered him persona non grata in Jerusalem — he went to Paris, as a consultant for The International Herald Tribune. But consulting work moved too slowly for his tastes, and he ended up back in New York, publishing a weekly English language paper, The American, for expats abroad. When that folded, he was offered a plum job at the helm of a new daily.

And then, 10 years ago, he walked away from the business entirely. As he puts it, “Hell, I was approaching 60. Wasn’t it time to do some real work?”

Kestin’s first work of fiction, Based on a True Story, is a collection of three novellas that take place in vastly different locations — Mombasa, Polynesia, and Hollywood — through the eyes of very different characters: a young female codebreaker from London’s Bletchley Park, an itinerant Russian Marxist, and a gay black screenwriter. Their tales couldn’t be more divergent either. What they have in common, however, is that they all take place in the early months of World War II. Kestin follows his own advice here: “Write from what you know, but not about what you know…when I write I am acutely aware of the tactile memory of places I have been: permeated by the recollection of sounds and scents peculiar to one spot or another, and knowledge of its light and weather, it all comes back.” So when he offers up the observations of Sgt. Joan Ferrin of the Royal Canadian Airforce on her accommodations in Mombasa, set in a year when he hadn’t yet been born, I believe them wholeheartedly:
Our duty room was full of flying creatures, from gnats and mosquitoes to a dependency of bats that lived in the rafters and preyed on a madrassa of praying mantises, each as long as a hand. For variety, the occasional snake slithered in to escape the heat, and a troupe of spider monkeys infested the grounds outside. Boredom was endemic.
And likewise, when the very British Lord Braithwaite asks Ferrin, “What do your people do?” her confusion as to whether he means her father’s profession or her dietary habits as a Jew needs no exposition: “Was he talking of my people or my people? Never mind. I was to answer.”

Kestin’s dialogue is consistently spot-on, and he doesn’t pad the action. In the title piece, Based on a True Story, when the B-movie Hollywood mogul EZ Shelupsky tells his scriptwriter, “Either tell me what’s on the boat or get the fuck personally out of my office,” the man’s speech tells us pretty much all we need to know about him. And the transgressions of Grisha Zabrodny, who has been hurriedly exiled to Tahiti in The Man Who Kissed Stalin’s Wife, need not be called out explicitly; the title takes care of that.

What the three stories do share is their concern with power and how it’s instituted and wielded, all against the backdrop of the darkening global situation. History does a lot of the heavy lifting here, but Kestin does the rest, and together they tell a larger story: that while we can now look back on the Second World War and the events leading up to it, in 1939 the big picture was still made up of fragments. Everyone was a blind man with only his or her portion of the elephant to navigate by.

Based on a True Story was published by Dzanc Books in 2008, and the following year, Dzanc brought out Kestin’s novel The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats — a terrifically genre-bending noir coming-of-age tale of Jewish gangsters in 1963 New York, all set against John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Its narrator, 20-year-old Russell Newhouse, has clearly borrowed a few pages from the life of young Hesh Kestin — the photo on the cover is in fact Kestin at 20 — but it diverges into a wonderfully complicated series of plots and subplots involving the eponymous Shoeshine, whose given name is actually Shushan, and a host of supporting characters.

Cats is one of the great protagonists of contemporary fiction: A thug off the Brooklyn streets who is also an autodidact, quoting de la Rochefoucauld to a couple of hapless policemen and attributing lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s to his late mother. In one exchange, Shushan explains to Russell,
“[P]ulling a trigger, that’s a whole different dimension. That’s why I vote for Wystan Hugh Auden as head of the joint chiefs. Ginsberg, he’d make a great leader of the Corps. These are guys they don’t back down in the face of bad news. Although, let me tell you, Wystan is not the kind of guy who’ll let on what he thinks. Should be in the Mafia.”
“You can tell that from reading him? How do you know what he thinks other than what’s in his–” I stopped. “Wystan?”
“You want to meet him? Miserable son of a bitch, but like I say, he’d make a fine general…A general and a poet are exactly the same in one thing. What they do they have to do with critical efficiency. Not a word or action wasted. And the action has to be more important than the man who creates it. You know Yeats?”
“You knew Yeats too?”
“Of course not. Yeats died fucking I don’t know forty years ago. I know Auden because he plays poker.”
The dialogue ranges from hard-boiled to whimsical, but through it all run Kestin’s musings on strength and influence: who has it, who gains it, who gets to keep it. As enjoyable as the novel is, it’s also dead serious. Kestin grew up around Jewish gangsters who, in the wake of long-term, institutionalized discrimination and the machinations in Europe, took back their power where they could.

Kestin’s most recent novel, The Lie (2014), veers in an entirely new direction. It’s a fast-moving, tense thriller, set in contemporary Israel. Kestin kept busy—and presumably employed—as a freelancer writing screenplay treatments between novels, and he uses that to his advantage here. But calling the book cinematic takes nothing away from its literary muscle. For a man who says he prefers to let his characters surprise him, he’s written a tightly plotted story, a political game of nerve with some seriously charismatic special ops for good measure.

The Lie is really a series of lies, ranging in scope from national to small and deeply personal. His protagonist, Dahlia Barr, is an Israeli Jewish human rights attorney who has made it her business to represent Palestinians. When she is persuaded to work for the Israeli Police force arbitrating the use of “extraordinary means,” she finds herself caught between extreme political factions and family tensions. Kestin brings the action alive through details both mundane and exotic; we learn, for example, that Israelis refer to the Arabs disparagingly as “cousins,” in reference to their common ancestors, and that cockroaches aren’t kosher. He also paints a vivid picture of life in an everyday war zone:
In the commercial street below, the chaotic stream of Beirut traffic plunges ahead like a river flowing down from the Litani mountains, now a rapids, now obstructed, now a broad pool…Shop owners stand still as monuments outside open-fronted stores that will soon be sealed with roll-down steel grates from two to four p.m. and then for the night after seven — none of the shops is fronted with glass. Glass has not worked all that well in central Beirut.
As in all thrillers, there is a payoff; to say more would be unfair to future readers. But Kestin is clearly having fun here.

In fact, he’s enjoying himself with all his books. His decision to walk away from a stable career in order to write fiction may not have been a simple one, but it’s obviously been rewarding for Kestin and his audience alike. And all those years of writing copy — when he needed to size up a situation at a glance, to communicate a complex hierarchy without spelling it out, and to let the reader in on his source of light in 500 words — were surely well spent.
Yeah, sometimes I miss being able to pick up a phone and get some prime minister or other miscreant on the other end of the line, sometimes I miss walking out of chaos with a compelling story, and sometimes I hate sitting in a little room compelled to make stuff up, even with the hope other people might one day read what I write with joy, sadness or just plain excitement.
But nothing beats writing magnificent lies, one after the next, about people who up to that moment do not exist.  At its best, journalism is craft.  But fiction is art.
Or should be.
In Kestin’s case, it is.

A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin

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Based on a True Story, Hesh Kestin’s collection of fiction set in Africa, Polynesia and Hollywood on the eve of WWII, was recently chosen one of the ten best books of 2008 by the Kansas City Star. Writing in Perigee, Duff Brenna called it “opulent,” “heartbreaking” and “masterful,” and Cheri Parker in The Lit Life termed the novellas “hip in a manly, intellectual way.” According to Linda Rodriguez in the KC Star, “These three superb novellas by a former foreign correspondent are some of the best short fiction this reviewer has seen in years.” Kestin was European bureau chief of Forbes, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and a war reporter for Newsday, the Middle East Times and the Jerusalem Post. Based on a True Story, Kestin’s first book of fiction, is published by Dzanc.For years I’ve had the extreme displeasure of throwing new fiction across the room and seeing it fall apart. Launched just right, the spine splits and signatures or – if they’re paperbacks – pages shake out like, well, like bad fiction: unconnected, insubstantial, rank. Most new writing suffers from what can only be called peanuts envy, a wish to emulate the classic New Yorker story about uninteresting people with irritating little problems doing little or nothing about them but bumping into similarly boring people doing, if possible, less – and all of it slowly.Awed by such smalliloquence, the MFA mills early on began turning out robotic imitators themselves turning out a pasteurized cross between the New Yorker story and what Hollywood calls “meeting cute” – any boffo first paragraph will do. With few exceptions it’s downhill from there. Not that there’s any there there. It’s unlikely there can be. Why?Most people writing fiction today have never done anything but write fiction. Sure, it worked for Scott Fitzgerald, but he was an empathic genius who was able to create great characters effortlessly carrying upon their backs great themes. Great writers need great themes, the normal genesis of which is in the writer’s own experience. Alas, thanks to universal college education, contemporary novelists have no experience other than being students and then – surprise! – teachers. Swathed in the classroom, they rarely know even what they don’t know.Which is why this year I found myself privileged to read once again (for the fourth time since age sixteen) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, he of Arabia. Yep, a really good movie, but – as with the Bible – you really should read the book.Ostensibly a history of the British-directed Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, in it Lawrence layers upon a lucid history and disturbing memoir enough fiction to bury the Iowa Writers Program in Sinai sand. It is without question a masterpiece, crossing categories and blurring characterization with a perfect pitch not heard in English since Shakespeare or Twain or Auden. A natural-born liar – many of his facts aren’t – Lawrence claims to have written the book thrice, having lost earlier drafts, once in a railway station. If so, this may be the best proof ever that it pays to rewrite from scratch.Certainly it is proof that to make a great story you must have a great theme. Try this one for size: One man steps out alone into a hostile environment, befriends aliens, becomes one of them – “There seemed a certainty in degradation” is one of the book’s many great lines – before being defeated by the same night he had hoped to light. If this sounds like Heart of Darkness, you’re right. Arguably it is also the theme of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Hamlet.And the writing!Seven Pillars (the title is taken, with no irony, from that of an earlier book, abandoned) makes of English a language of pure romance, full of such subtle sound and glottal fury that reading it aloud is like playing the cello really well. Yet not all the high-flying fluency in the world would have helped Lawrence if his book had been about adultery in the English department, or filial disappointment, or immigrant confusion. Pay attention: The man set out alone to conquer Arabia – note to Washington: including Iraq – and did it. Of course if the people who got us in the Iraqmire had read Seven Pillars they wouldn’t have been so much as tempted, but unfortunately our universities turn out writers, not readers. What Isaac Babel liked to say about being a writer goes as well for a president: “You must know everything.”Writers must first live, must know people who do more than sit next to them in a fiction workshop, and they must come to terms with the sanctity of creation. Yeah, it’s nice to create a phrase – but it’s magnificent to create a world. Lawrence created a universe.Of course I’m partial to Lawrence for another reason. One sentence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom got me through twenty years in the Middle East – most of them dealing [as a journalist principally] with Arabs. As Lawrence put it: “In the East they swore that by three sides is the decent way across a square.”How right he was, and is.History, memoir, fantasy all in one, Seven Pillars is in its sum greater than all three, and reason enough to limit my reading of contemporary fiction to those books that actually endeavor to be great. Lawrence failed to unite the Arabs, but his attempt was at greatness. In the end I’ll pick up more new fiction. Perhaps I’ll read some through to the end. Possibly I’ll find the gem, tomorrow’s classic. Greatness is not limited to the past. One must have hope. And a decent throwing arm.More from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading 2008

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The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005

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