The man who ran the magic-trick concession at Polk’s Hobby Shop, now just a distant memory on 31st and Fifth, always wore a white shirt, cuffs rolled (“Nothing up my sleeves”), narrow tie loosened at the throat, and above it all a five o’clock shadow that seemed to tell its own story of late nights and long hangovers. His midfield gaze and melancholic smile spoke of a lifetime of disappointment and the kind of dashed dreams that push you to the back row of life: canceled gigs, second-billings and threadbare audiences in the Poconos or the Catskills. His job at Polk’s was to perform trick after trick, encourage you to buy one, and then afterwards take you behind his counter where he kept his brown-bag lunch and his Daily Mirror and where he quietly and discreetly showed you how it was done. His breath was a cocktail of bourbon and Sen-Sen. By that time money had changed hands, and the horrible realization that nothing magic had actually happened—that the whole damned thing was just another cheap trick crudely devised with bits of wire and lengths of fishing line—also meant that refunds were not available. Magic, like life, he seemed to be saying, is just another five-buck trick.
“Never reveal your secrets,” he’d always tell me as he placed my purchase in a paper bag. “A good magician keeps it inside, right, kid?”
When night falls and gravity has its way with him, he goes uptown to an apartment you can see from the number 4 train to Woodlawn as you head north out of Manhattan. He drinks Seagrams and watches the fights and falls asleep in front of “Sergeant Bilko” or “The $64,000 Question.” He does the occasional charity show, or performs at kids’ parties, tossing down a shot before setting out for an afternoon of mystification. When once a month he gets together with his fellow practitioners of the black arts he’s a real kibitzer, lurking by the bar, slapping backs and telling jokes. He’s had a wife, who ran away with another performer, and the two of them live in Vegas. Eventually her husband will retire, she’ll trade in the Caddy for an Accord, and now and again she’ll think of the man she left who worked at Polk’s, and of how, when they were both young and in love, he could pull a Queen of Hearts from the air and make her feel like the luckiest woman in the whole wide world.
He was just a guy I used to see on the Saturdays my mother took me to Polk’s, but he’s stuck with me over the years, living in that apartment in the back of my memory, palming coins and fanning cards behind that glass counter. That newspaper; the rolled sleeves; the five o’clock shadow. Out of those few remembered details comes an entire life. It may not be exactly his, but I’ll find a place for him somewhere.
Some years ago, at an eighth grade graduation (not my own, eighth grade for me being nothing but a dim memory on the Hudson midway between Sing-Sing Prison and the Rockefeller estate), the guest speaker had brought what she called the Backpack for Life. In it contained everything that the graduates would need for setting out on their great journey in life. There was a mirror, a comb, a pen, a notebook, and five or six other objects, all of them giving way to meditations on why these would be important. What dawned on me was that she left out one big thing: all the baggage that the average eighth-grader has picked up along the way and stuffed into the other backpack. That bag would be mighty heavy. You ain’t going to ninth grade with that, my young friend.
Or, rather, you are. By the time you reach college it’ll be even heavier. And just wait until you’re forty, when you really start feeling the weight of it. Or fifty—? At that stage an 18-wheeler might just do the trick.
Lately I’ve been meditating on the nature of writing fiction out of one’s own life. I know what they tell you in writing school (even though I never took a writing course in my life): write what you know. Which means what the average young author knows: childhood, parent issues, girlfriend or boyfriend angst, bad skin, the odd broken limb, summer jobs, applying to college, then college and, if you need a few extra years to kill, graduate school. There’s a lot of emotional material there, all the growing issues and coping issues, the triumphs and disappointments, and these are important, because childhood and adolescence are the great gateway experiences to adulthood, middle-age, the so-called golden years, and then decrepitude when you get to forget all the stuff you agonized over for so long. All that, waiting to be unpacked. By that time it’s too big for a backpack. We’re talking about a whole civilization you’ve buried in your backyard.
No one had ever told me to write what I know, so my first five or six attempts at fiction were about writing what I wanted to know—books set in countries where I hadn’t (yet) lived, about characters utterly unlike myself, until I was ready to write what became my first published novel, which was set mostly in France of the 1930s and 40s and in London of the 1970s and 80s, where I was then living. The characters bore no relation to anyone I knew, but for the fact that they were Russian, and I’m Russian by ancestry. Nothing in the book is drawn from my life, save for the narrator’s need to create a story out of his past. Is it true, or is it just another con game, like the ones his parents played in the South of France all those years ago? The narrator is creating a fiction both to give his life some sense and to cover up what really happened in Nice in 1938 and in Paris during the German Occupation. What I had was a circumstance and a handful of characters, and I just wanted to know who these people were and what they were up to; answering these questions was my goal.
While screenwriting is the art of disclosing a story determined in advance, writing fiction is all about excavation, luck and discovery. As a novelist you start your dig (John Fowles famously woke from a dream about a woman standing at the end of the Cobb in Lyme Regis and out of that single image came The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Your shovel turns over clots of soil, worms, shards of pottery, bits of glass. Maybe an ancient coin or two. And if you’re very lucky, you hit something immovable in that deep earth and uncover the city of gold that’s been buried for so long. It might be your own past, or even just the tomb of someone you’d forgotten and who, awakened from the deep slumber of oblivion, comes to life and steps onto the page and, like a magician, plucks out of the air something amazing for you to write about. But attempt this too early and you’ll turn up only familiar things, fresh memories not yet ripened by time. Experience really demands a degree of strangeness before one can write about it. We need to outgrow the person we were way back then in order to see him whole.
Seven or eight years ago my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I’m not sure what sparked the memory, but I turned to my wife and said with complete clarity and certainty, “We never dug it up.” That was the origin of a recently-completed novel. My memory had snapped into focus, shot me back some thirty years, and I had the beginnings of my story. Time, memory and objectivity, the ability to gaze back and dispassionately see a period of one’s life as a finished thing, observable and definable: this is what a writer needs before taking it on as material for a book.
It began as a script. On one level it was a buddy story (these do well: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, even Sideways); on another, a crime story, a caper film. What I discovered after writing it as a screenplay is that no one in Hollywood is much interested in a movie starring a couple of old guys in their 50s. Can you make them, oh, twenty-three or something like that? I could almost hear that voice in my ear. And can you add some shoot-outs and crashes?
No, I could not. This was the story I was going to tell. It was about something I’d buried and forgotten for all these many years. It began with a different me from the one that’s here now. And, oh, before I forget, along the way I was going to reveal more about myself and my own experiences than I’d ever done before. I own up to crimes and lapses both real and moral: things I’d thought I’d forgotten; things I’d done that I’d allowed to sink into the mud of oblivion. Until now. My backpack is all the lighter for it. My conscience is clear. And my backyard is a damned mess. I’m still digging up bodies.
Image credit: Flickr/froderik.