8824 NE Russell St.
Portland OR 97220

Black Lamb

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Author intervention, author invention

March 1st, 2012

BY LANE BROWNING

“Wasn’t there supposed to be beer?” he asked, way too loudly, addressing no one at all. “I was told there’d be beer.”

He was dissolute. He was disheveled. He was obstreperous.

He was not godlike.

This was after his tepid reading before the assembled three dozen of us, after he’d rambled his way through a novel in progress, a novel that to my mind had only one decent line in it. He was a lousy reader, rarely looked up, didn’t emote, sniffed and gargled a lot, wasn’t riveting. He wasn’t even the focal reader at the event, and kept toadying up to the woman who was.

Earlier that day, when I’d learned that the author of one of my top-five-most-admired-pieces-of-short-fiction would be speaking a half-hour from my house, I was awash with excitement. I’d seen another much admired writer, and his talk was buttery and buoying and witty and articulate and transporting. So this chance I would not miss. David Long. David Long, whose collection Blue Spruce holds an honored spot on my bookshelf. With one particular chunk exalted.

And here he was, this ghoul of a pretender. I know about the disconnect between icons and authenticity. I know that the celebrity is not necessarily his/her public persona. But this? This was about the creative arts, not about facial symmetry or beautiful singing. This was about the words and the brain, and his banal presentation and shitty attitude were disorienting.

I don’t approach “famous people”; I generally flee them. But this particular evening, as people were milling around after the readings, Long was signing an autograph for a woman, and I heard him ask her, perfunctorily, as if by rote, which was her favorite of his stories. The one she named was, well, not the one. NOT. So I said to her, not to him, “No, it’s ‘Cooperstown,’ no question, it’s ‘Cooperstown.’ That’s the story.” She looked alarmed, as if I had threatened her with immolation, and she moved quickly away, head down, book clutched to her fringy mousy shawl thing. She clearly had no meaningful frame of reference. But he turned to me and said, “Is that the baseball one?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You like that one?” he asked. “I don’t even remember it.”

“What?” I said. “Like it? It’s a masterpiece.”

I opened my copy of his book. “Look,” I said, “look!” and there were the stripes — yellow highlighter gashes hemorrhaging across the text, phrases I quoted and noted over and over again. Phrases that gouged me with writer’s envy and awe.

“It’s such a great story, I said, so many layers and themes and metaphorical…”

From his scowl I might as well have said, “Oh, I really love eating squirrel poop and yanking the wings off endangered exotic birds.”

“I don’t remember anything about it,” he said, almost bragging. I had the immediate impulse to say, “Well, then obviously you’re an idiot.”

Instead I asked: “Was it based on the Tony Conigliaro thing?” He sat down, not breathing too well, and I sat beside him. I think he moved to create a little more space between us.

“Well, maybe that might have been in my mind.”

I saw him shift into pontificating “I’m an important author and this is one of my fawning acolytes” mode. He looked toward the main counter, where there was no beer. He didn’t need beer; he needed Febreze. We exchanged one or two painful comments about the Conigliaro brothers, “Yeah, didn’t he like turn into a vegetable or something?” His every look at me was bloated with annoyance, and he so clearly wanted to be anywhere else.

But I pointed into the book. “Just look, look at this. What Isham says near the end: ‘Goddamn every wonder that ceases.’”

He looked disgusted. “I don’t even know what that means,” he said.

“Neither do I, but it doesn’t matter, it’s exquisite!” But the truth was, I do know what it means, and it’s brilliant. I could cry just thinking about it, and how often I have quoted it to others, in context.

“And this” — I barreled forward — “glum and soft as old fruit… the adhesive between them aged to gritty powder… and when Hewitt says I don’t think about you. Devastating. And the ending, the irony that the victim is more content than the violator who supposedly prospered. And the damaged one has found not just love, acceptance, serenity — but indifference, even amnesia. Those are the grails! He doesn’t even want the apology, doesn’t even validate the guilt. And Isham, after all his soul searching, is just irrelevant, and the symbolism of the boat, the water, the city beneath the lake, the cemetery, and the way baseball is itself a metaphor for so many things, how it….”

OK, I didn’t actually say any of those things. I was too disoriented. I just showed him a couple of phrases and he said, looking down on me as if I were mold on the hem of a shower curtain — he said, in this totally non-lyrical non-poetic non-writerly non-quotable sodden voice, “I really don’t know what you see in that story,” and then turned to talk to someone else.

It was like a concert violinist rejecting someone selling gangsta rap. His own story, his work, not worthy of discussion. Maybe it was more like the way Leonardo diCaprio feels about Titanic. I don’t know; but believe me, “Cooperstown” is heads above Titanic.

Seeing his receding sweat-soaked back — “Just a minute,” I wanted to say. “I write short fiction, I edit short fiction, I teach short fiction, I’ve read all the masters, this is my milieu! I’m not some tweep groupie who doesn’t know things: I’m published! I’ve judged contests. I’ve debated the merits and deficits of this genre ad infinitum with my literate friends. I have cred! You’re an ignoramus if you don’t realize this story hits home runs in every category: execution, concept, theme, concision, arc, authenticity, impact, universality, simplicity… and I don’t even like baseball!”

But he was gone.

As someone who once had a fairly high profile in my city, I know about fans and their prisms. More than once I received gushing praise for something I knew was crap, something I had churned out without even engaging my brain, something facile and lazy. I also know, as an author, that the works I feel most proud of are often the ones editors find easy to reject. I have yet to sell some of my “best” stuff, and I can’t explain it.

Nor can I explain the popularity of so-called vocalist Rod Stewart, but let’s not go there.

As for the disheveled and dismissive Mr. Long, I had no trouble divorcing author from story. That schlebby rude inarticulate self-elevating boorish Cro-Magnon wasn’t fit even to smudge the font on the title page of that masterful work! I always told my writing students, “When you write something and put it out there, you give it away. It’s not yours any more; it belongs to the reader.” So “Cooperstown” is my story.

And I’m glad there was no beer. •

Posted by: The Editors
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