Professional writers of fiction, at least as exemplified by my friend of ancient days, do not so much transform as deform everyday reality. Confronted with the real world, they deface, traduce it, blithely. To all intents and purposes, these people shove reality into the dirt and pummel it to within an inch of its life. If his over-privileged fellows are anything like my friend Peter, they simply cannot be trusted with the truth. Mendacity, fabulation, prevarication, whatever you want to call it, and we might as well call it by its rightful name, lying, in fact lying of a sort to bring a blush to the cheeks of a confidence man, are second nature to them. If even the mildest, sweetest fiction-writer on the face of the earth should plant his right paw on the family Bible, elevate his left, and swear by all he holds dear that the sun is shining and the weather delightful, listen to me, button yourself into an overcoat and grab the umbrella before you leave the house. Fiction-writers, I have learned, turn truth inside out, compulsively, driven by reflexes beyond their control. I am not being harsh or judgmental here. As my old buddy is wont to say after he has finished tearing some acquaintance to verbal shreds, “It isn’t a criticism, you understand, it’s only a description.”
The above remarks are occasioned by Peter Straub’s MR. X, for which my fond, foolish hopes were of course shattered upon the adamantine, also reckless, selfishness so much a part, whether he knows it or not (and it is safe to say he doesn’t, not at all, believe me) of my friend’s character. I should have known better. Yet the origins and initial circumstances of the book now called MR. X offered, I innocently imagined, a means by which my old pal might rediscover the first principles of his modest art and cleanse himself of those excrescences that have disfigured his work since the disastrously over-praised GHOST STORY. For unlike his previous “novels,” the project began with another text altogether, one written by someone else, a person my friend had never met and whose only work of extended prose, a touching although rather awkwardly written memoir, I surrendered into his all-too eager hands. We began in amity and ended in typically Straubian catastrophe.
I must sketch in the necessary background.
The year was 1995. Blissfully unaware of the currents destructively at work beneath the surface of my peaceful, productive, one might say all but idyllic existence as Chairman and only member of the Department of Popular Culture at Popham College in my cherished refuge over my past two decades and then some, little Popham, Ohio, I had visited the charming Provencal village of Sangue-sur-Rhone, site of the 19th Conference of the International Popular Culture Society. Despite the frustration of having been cheated of a tenth “Atwood” Award by one Rupert Dunst, a smirking, red-lipped androgyne equipped with a freshly-minted Ph.D., an expedient English accent, and a facile line in post-post-Structuralist vapor about, I forget what, something like Lesbian Colonialist Matrices in the “Nancy” Comics of Ernie Bushmiller, despite the humiliation of getting gypped out of an “Atwood” by this blatant fraud, I nonetheless knew the much greater satisfaction of having been honored with the Life Achievement Award of our governing body, the International Popular Culture Society. The IPCS’s Life Achievement Award is no bauble, I assure you. The handsome object is made of a lead-titanium alloy cast into the shape of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It’s at least twice the size and weight of an “Atwood.” Without fear of exaggeration, I may claim that our LAA is to the field of Popular Culture what a Super Bowl ring is to the NFL, except that only one person gets it, not an entire team.
According to long-established custom, on my return from Provence I telephoned the Straubs from John F. Kennedy airport. A soft-spoken female with what may have been an Iranian accent described herself as their “housekeeper” and informed me that my old friend and his life’s partner had ensconced themselves for a month, presumably at ruinous expense, in the village of Sag Harbor, located in the region of Long Island known as “the Hamptons.” I suppressed a groan of dismay and immediately dialled the number given me by the dulcet-toned Iranian. Susan Straub answered, politely attended to my account of triumph in Sangue-sur-Rhone, and for reasons of her own refused my offer to spend three or four helpful days at the Sag Harbor redoubt. Peter was fine, she said. Yes, really, apart from the ill effects brought on by an unusually hot and humid summer, factors I supposed beyond even Madame Straub’s formidable control. No, I could not speak to her husband, Peter was at work in a studio located behind the house and unreachable by telephone. Good luck, congratulations, good bye.
With a heavy heart, I purchased a ticket on a connecting flight to dear old Ohio and the comforts of my ranch-style abode. I installed the cherished honor upon the mantel of my living-room fireplace and, some weeks later, beside it mounted an explanatory plaque provided from my own modest funds. With September came the Business Meeting of the IPCS, for which I was required to fly back to New York in fulfillment of my obligations as Trustee and Past President of that organization. New York is an extortionate city, prepared at every moment to extract whatever it can get from the visitor’s wallet, and to my relief Peter and Susan responded to my tale of legal woes and a harrowing shortage of cash with an invitation to occupy either their “guest room,” the cluttered, comfortless aerie on the fifth floor, or the fourth-floor bedroom of their son Benjamin, then beginning his Freshman year at the University of Southern California. “I’ll take the lad’s room, thank you very much,” I responded, certain that Ben’s doting parents had provided him with a bed vastly more agreeable than the creaking torture-device installed one flight up.
My legal difficulties, the product of a completely unjustified allegation of improper conduct levelled against me by a student in my senior Honors Seminar, “Implications of Recent Trends in Scholarship Related to Popular Culture Issues,” had distracted me from what would otherwise have been my concern for Peter’s state of mind. That Susan had forbidden me contact with him augured ill, I knew. And his sojourn in the Hamptons, a hotbed of ostentation and snobbery, had been a troubling prospect on two different grounds, namely, (1) Peter’s tendency to solve the unease aroused within him by any context in which he supposes he might sniff the possibility of rejection by throwing wads of money in all directions, and (2) the conjunction of the most merciless summer in decades, if not the entire century, with my friend’s inability to do little more than whine like an infant and sweat like a plow horse when the temperature rises above 90 and the humidity keeps pace. The legal problems and consequent mental stress inspired by an unbalanced young Texan whose name I am forbidden to state by the terms of our settlement, so let us content ourselves with her initials and call her Ms. Neiman-Marcus Pedernales Blast, the hyphenate N-M consisting of two commonplace feminine handles, one of which rhymes with “fancy” and the other with “barely,” P representing the squawk of a parrot in need of a cracker, and B a breed of short-legged, long-bodied hound, as I was saying, the turmoil inspired by Ms. Fancy-Barely Squawk Coondog kept me from the attention I would otherwise have given to my friend’s plight, attention he sorely needed. (The fiendish N-MPB was not acting alone, either, I’m sure of that, evil forces within our English faculty have long yearned to undermine my authority, erase my entire department and get me reassigned to the humiliating drudgery of Freshman Composition, and will stop at nothing to attain their goals.)
In the end, personal integrity won a slender victory over calumny and hysterical falsehoods, and even that cost an unbelievable sum of money. My application for reimbursement from the College’s General Funds was rejected by the Trustees, for which I in no way fault our President, Mr. “Bill” Liddy. President Liddy has been on my side since November 12, 1979, when at a heated gathering of the Dean’s Extraordinary Affairs and Sensitivity Issues Committee I saved him from unwelcome Federal intervention by casting the deciding vote permitting female undergraduates, particularly those with singing voices located in the alto register, to join the famed Popham College Combined Men’s Glee Club and Boy’s Choir. (It pains me to note that very few of our young women have taken advantage of this opportunity, no doubt due to the formation on December 1, 1979, of the United in One Voice Willa Cather Empowered Women Singers, under the fatally sexist leadership of our Director of Women’s Studies, Wilhemina “Call Me Willy” Frost.)
Be that as it may.
So it was at the end of a troubled September I took advantage of our annual Business Meeting to spend most of four days and nights in the Straub’s vertiginous residence, a habitation in the form of a giant staircase from which little rooms sprout, at intervals, like mushrooms. (The Business Meeting generally takes up an hour at the most.) Susan Straub greeted my arrival with only a touch of weariness and held the door as I transported my many bags up the long, treacherous flight of steps from the curb where the usual surly driver had ejected them from the usual reeking taxi. Her husband, of course, was “working,” but I could feel free to join him after I had deposited my luggage in their son’s bedroom. Up I went, a monstrous bag in each hand, up and up to the fourth, or “children’s,” floor, through young Benjamin’s doorway and into a chamber where the charm of gracious dimensions and a rank of windows upon the handsome facades across West 85th Street had been sabotaged by the savage graffiti sprayed on every surface, presumably by young Benjamin. At Popham, we respond to such vandalism with a stern hand, in the worst cases with expulsion and a hefty fine, but the Straubs must have encouraged their offspring’s criminal tendencies, very likely under the delusion that he had been demonstrating an “artistic” bent. (I suppose the boy had been acting on the same artistic impulses back in 1980, when he responded to my first visit to their Westport mansion by delivering a brutal kick to my ankle, thereby giving me a nasty, dark discoloration I shall bear to my dying day – his first, most enduring graffito!) The sides and shelves of the bookcases, the sides and top of the little scholar’s desk, the base of the chair, all these bore the repetitive, domineering slash-and-burn of the young urban hoodlum. I trudged down the endless stairs for the remaining bags in a state akin to shock, fearful that the symbolic violence rampant within the bed-chamber would destroy any chance of slumber. (I also felt a nostalgic twinge from the wounded ankle, my left.) When finally I had carried the last of my things upstairs, hung my suits, jackets, and trousers within the woefully inadequate closet-space, applied a cold compress to my forehead and stretched out on the young criminal’s (admittedly quite comfortable) bed, I mounted the final flight of stairs, turned toward the customary uproar produced by saxophones, trumpets and drums screaming, wailing, and banging all at once, knocked forcefully on my friend’s office door, and was granted admittance. Peter pushed himself upright off his couch and grunted hello. Then he mumbled something about going out for a drink.
Over the course of four, maybe five, gasohol-and-lime juice libations, Peter admitted having run aground in Sag Harbor. Instead of putting in the foundation-work so essential to a person of his modest but workmanlike talents, he had tried to jump into a novel-length fiction without benefit of preparation. He’d written the same ten pages over and over again, despairingly. He had no idea where he was going, and he spent most of the day asleep. “Don’t worry about me, Put,” he said, “I’ve been through this before. It’s part of the process. That’s what you academic boyos never really understand – the sheer, wretched misery of process.” Well, I riposted, if you want to talk about misery, here’s what happened to me since the last time we got together! Too self-absorbed to take in the crisis brought on by Ms. N-MPb, Peter signalled for another gasohol-and-lime. Soon I assisted him homeward, where Susan Straub served an evening meal of the hasty and functional variety. She paid scant attention to the color Polaroids of my LAA I had thoughtfully retrieved from my carry-on bag. Peter spent most of dinner frowning at his plate, though he did rouse himself long enough to announce, “Hey, Susie, listen, this Texas babe who was in Put’s Senior Honors Seminar filed a sexual harassment complaint against him because he invited her back to his house to look at videotapes of the Dallas cheerleaders, and all it took to buy her off was a couple of thousand dollars.” “I’ve heard enough,” Susan said. All parties retired early.
Early the next morning, the mystery of the Iranian woman was solved, though less than pleasantly. I had made my weary way downstairs to the sunny kitchen, where a red-haired young female personage with extremely fair skin was engaged in unloading the contents of the dishwasher. My hostess was nowhere in sight. My host, it goes without saying, was not going to lever himself out of bed for another five hours, and even then would be incapable of uttering anything but groans for a lengthy period. Deducing from her task that the girl was a domestic servant, I democratically introduced myself. In the soft voice and curious accent I remembered, she confirmed my deduction by declaring herself the Straubs’ housekeeper and gave her name as “Linda Sign,” an obvious alias devised to conceal her status as an illegal alien. I do not know if any Iranian females are named Linda, but I am sure that none are named Sign. Nor is anyone else. She had died her hair, and she was the lightest-skinned Iranian I had ever seen, but she could not pull the wool over my eyes. With a gallant wag of my finger, I said, “A likely story indeed, Miss, um, ‘Sign,’ but I assure you that your secret is safe with me. Let me congratulate you on your escape from the terrors of your Middle-Eastern homeland and request of you the favor of a nourishing breakfast, such as two eggs scrambled without the yolks, a slice of dry whole-wheat toast, two rashers of low-fat turkey bacon, freshly squeezed orange juice and a cup of good hot coffee, preferably French Roast.” Astonishingly, the little minx laughed aloud, right in my face. She was employed as the housekeeper, she told me, not as the cook, and this was not a bed-and-breakfast. If it was scrambled egg whites I desired, I could jolly well scramble them myself, but the larder was bereft of low-fat turkey bacon and French Roast coffee. As an abstainer from coffee, Miss “Sign” hadn’t a clue how the stuff was made, though she believed one of the shelves above the cats’ litter tray contained a bag of black, oily-looking beans from Kenya, or it might have been Costa Rica, if I cared to grind them up. On the other hand, she was willing to prepare on a one-time-only basis the same breakfast for me that she was having herself. And what, may I ask, I asked, would that be? The Arabic baggage commanded me to sit down at the table and read the morning paper while she whipped up an Ultra SlimFast. My strenuous objections met with a second and firmer order to sit down. I sat. There came an ungodly clatter from what must have been a blender, located, like the coffee beans, above the cat litter. The minx thrust before me a tall glass filled with a brown, frothy liquid that looked for all the world like a milk shake. Much to my surprise, this concoction proved very tasty.
Ever since, I have enjoyed a daily morning beaker of Ultra SlimFast as an accompaniment or to speak more accurately a prelude to my customary breakfast of egg whites, dry toast and turkey bacon. Health-giving Ultra SlimFast does taste a good deal like a milk shake, but if you eat nothing else, starvation sets in well before noon. And over the past couple of years, I’ve been reducing my intake of fat during the cocktail hour by adding several jiggers of vodka to the blender, mixing a smooth, potent blend of alcohol, skim milk, and chocolate-flavored USF, thereby cutting out the need for salted nuts.
My old chum emerged from the bed-chamber a few minutes past noon. I had been ensconced before the graffiti-spattered desk on the floor immediately above, applying grace notes and lambencies to a ground-breaking article on the displacements of contextual framing devices in the Archie comics, vols. I – IV, as echoed in the narratology of early Alan Moore, early Neil Gaiman, early Clive Barker, and the “Spenser” novels of Robert B. Parker, passim. Don’t you think these people read Archie comics when they were children? Do you imagine for a second that they did not absorb, with the only barely-conscious jouissance of the childish artist-to-be, the false parallelisms established within the picture plane, subverted, punned upon, abruptly discarded only to re-appear, as they did, concealed in the details tucked beside the frame’s abrupt right-hand closure? Why do you think Robert B. Parker ends so many chapters with one-sentence paragraphs? We are back in Pop’s diner, that’s why, and just beyond the caesura of the intervening white space, brilliantined Reggie Mantle is hurtling up in his overweening sports car to kidnap the narrative. There are times – please excuse this brief, in no way immodest outburst – when the sheer power of the insights delivered to this humble scholar all but drop him to his knees.
I heard, as I was saying, the thud of the bedroom door and the slightly uncertain tread of the Great Man making his way, muttering to himself as he went, downstairs to the scullery. Peter’s day had begun. Having had nothing to eat since the Iranian’s potion four hours earlier, I set down my faithful propelling pencil, cast an admiring glance at my latest emendation (it was, I recall, the replacement of a weak, passive was moving with the far more pungent thrust itself) and charged off in pursuit of my needy friend, not to mention a hearty luncheon.
Downstairs, Peter granted me a surly hello and polished off a glass of milk. Sound-effects emanating from Ms. “Sign’s” quarters indicated that her limited experience of American culture had addicted the Iranian to one or more daytime dramas. Peter opened the massive refrigerator, contemplated its laden shelves, moaned piteously, lamented that there was never anything to eat around here, and said, “Let’s go somewhere where they have actual grub.” I seconded the motion. Out on the street, Peter rejected every dining establishment we passed within a four-block radius, retraced his steps and rejected them all over again, and at last chose a dim, Tibetan shoebox he called “Shogo Mo Fogo,” not its name. We ordered soup with spinach and dumplings, dumplings with spinach, and buttered tea. Shogo Mo Fogo’s few other patrons nattered away in language so deeply encoded by the mores of the Upper West Side of Manhattan as to be incomprehensible to the outsider. Peter bolted his buttered tea, demanded another, and devoured the soup course. Then, at last, he got down to the nitty-gritty.
“Hell, Put,” he said, “all I wanted to do was write a nice little thriller about murders in Central Park. Because we were out in Sag Harbor, I decided to have the narrator be a Sag Harbor boy. His father was a war hero turned local kingpin who disappeared when the guy was just a kid. Turned out the father took off with a lot of municipal funds. All of a sudden, I’m dealing with World War II and stolen money. It’s a mess, Put, that’s all I can call it, a big, fat mess.”
That day, and for the remainder of my visit, I did my best to remind my wayward friend that he had best work up an agreeable little plot that stuck to the point. “This is your chance to save yourself,” I told him, repeatedly, in the restaurants we gloomily occupied after having found them (after Peter’s having found them) unsuitable two or three times over, in questionable bars, in Peter’s office, late at night, with the drums and saxophones. “Forget what you think you know and stick to what you can do. Begin at the beginning, end at the end, and don’t go off the rails in between.”
“Oh, God,” he said, staring at the dumpling-spinach entree, which in fact was called something very like Shogo Mo Fogo, “do you have any idea how boring that would be?”
What I wanted to say was, You call it boredom, but the rest of it the world calls it discipline. Instead, silently, time and again, I acknowledged defeat. I returned to Popham with a heavy heart and a sense of having failed friendship’s sternest obligations. A year went by. Peter, I gathered, alternated between the doomed attempt to yoke a breezy murder plot to hugger-mugger about the Italian Front and inventing jokes on e-mail, most of them composed very late at night. I had troubles of my own, which thank goodness had nothing to do with the accusations of sex-starved young ladies, although I am obliged to point out that our culture has gone sadly astray when a distinguished academic gentleman in his middle years may not seek to alleviate the loneliness of an attractive female student by inviting her into the safety of his ranch-style residence for a glass of Ohio chardonnay, a modest dinner, and an evening spent watching videotapes of her native city’s football cheerleaders without risking personal disgrace, professional ruin, and financial injury. Ah, well. Let it pass.
My troubles concerned the publication of the ground-breaking Archie paper, which, maddeningly, was being rejected, thrown back, trashed, by precisely those journals that should most have applauded it. One after another, editors and their panels of judges, many of them colleagues I hitherto had thought of as old friends, either failed to grasp my argument or disputed my conclusions. It is bitter to find oneself threatened by knaves, worse to face the witless criticism of idiots once seen as valued peers. That, that is heartbreak beyond mere bitterness. After months of useless remonstration – the hard copies of which now fill three stout cartons and await eventual publication – I placed the article in a journal found on the Internet, Eat This!: Comix & Other Garbage, issued on a catch-as-catch-can basis from New Righteousness, Idaho, and which accompanied its remarkable letter of acceptance with several incendiary leaflets.
Not long after I had endured the annual crucifixion at the hands of the IRS, an utterly unexpected honor was given me. In its wake appeared my old buddy Peter. He was desperate. He was at the end of his tether. He was virtually begging for assistance. In my hand, which is to say, my locked left-hand bottom desk drawer, I held a bone in the form of a manuscript contained within a butter-soft leather satchel. What, given our long friendship, could I do but retract the treasure from its hidey-hole and offer it into his trembling hands, his slavering maw?
The above-mentioned honor consisted of an appointment to a one-year Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome. Yes, I was pleased by this recognition, which some might have considered long overdue, yet my gratification was shadowed by serious reservations. Acceptance of the Fellowship necessarily would involve the cancellation of my entire course schedule for an entire year, including my Senior Honors Seminar. In practical terms, the Department of Popular Culture at Popham College would have to close its doors for two semesters. Students who had clamored for entry into the Honors Seminar would be denied this valuable opportunity forever. Also, I would be unable to honor my obligations to the Committees on which I serve and the student organizations for which I am the Faculty Advisor.
Other reservations had to with the American Academy itself. It was, I understood, and I was not in error, a melange of young, essentially unproven artists and older academics of a deeply conservative stripe. Previously, the Academy had demonstrated a monolithic indifference to the field of Popular Culture and the radical innovations of its leading theorists. If I were to accept the appointment, would I be obliged to temper my firebrand ways?
Upon seeking private consultation with Our President, Mr. “Bill” Liddy, I was invited for a “spell of sittin’ and spittin’,” as he put it, within the sanctity of Fortress House, our Administration building. An hour later, still deep in dialogue, we repaired to an off-campus establishment known as Mr. Buckeye’s House of Fine Cocktails Bar & Grille. “Bill” Liddy put my worries to rest. Yes, it was a pity that some fine young men and women should be deprived of participation in my Senior Honors Seminars, but “Bill” guaranteed them placement in the Honors Seminars of the History of Sports Management, Philosophy of Waste Disposal, and Science of Athletic Footwear Design departments, where their minds would not go to waste. I was assured that the relevant faculty Committees and student organizations would survive until my return.
“Putney,” he said, “Putney, Putney, Putney. Good old Put. Put, my man. My man, Put. I want to say this. When you go to Rome, all of Popham goes with you. Please let me say this. Your distinction is our distinction. Having said that, please let me add this. Don’t for a minute underestimate the impact of your magnificent prize upon our Development Program, Athletic Outreach Program, and Five-Year Greater Alumni Involvement Plan! Listen to me, Putney, and when I say listen, I mean listen. In terms of prestige, in terms of recognition, you have a chance to hit a grand-slam home run. Not only for yourself, but on behalf of the home team here at Popham!. I want you take that opportunity, Put. Okay? Get your carcass over to Rome and shake up those stick-in-the-mud fuddy-duddies the same way you shook us up here at Popham. Hell, bring along a batch of those Atwood Awards, stick ‘em in plain sight, and tell the Academy what’s what! I know you’ll do us proud, old buddy.”
Here, I said to myself, is inspirational leadership, here is vision.
The following day I wrote back in acceptance of my Fellowship.
By mid-August I found myself installed within a bleak apartment and a ramshackle edifice atop an awkward hill and directly across the street from the grim Academy. There, a barren, third-floor office had been designated as my “work space.” The narrow window of my lodgings provided a view of a back garden where the feral children of my frivolous, alcohol-addicted colleagues rioted day and night; the larger, more numerous windows of my office in the Academy looked across the Tiber to the filthy, crowded roofscape of central Rome, a spectacle I tended to ignore. The situation was unspeakable.
Let’s not get into Rome. Rome is a nightmare. The streets are too narrow, the sidewalks are packed, and Italian hoodlums constantly buzz past on motorbikes, they’re like monstrous mosquitos. You think you will partake of spectacular meals, but as soon as you arrive, everyone tells you, “Of course, it’s impossible to find decent food in Rome,” and they’re right, the food is dull, stodgy, and ridiculously overpriced. The only way to avoid the undercooked pasta is to subsist on sandwiches and the hearty fare available at the city’s few German restaurants. To get to one of the legendary fountains, you trudge through one cramped alley after another. When at last you emerge from the final alley, dodge an aggressive taxi, bolt into the cobblestone plaza and thrust your way through a mob of Japanese tourists, the fountain is the size of a wading pool. The surrounding statuary is mostly broken. In the foreground, a Scandinavian adolescent dazedly plucks at a guitar, and from the rear approaches a gypsy-child with felonious designs on your wallet.
Ever-adaptable, I accommodated myself to the noisy, dirty, crumbling city and my dingy quarters. After all, I was not a tourist but a Fellow of the American Academy, and I had work to do, primarily a cutting-edge monograph on the Lacanian structures of language-systems in magazines targeted at the young female audience, such as Jane and Marie-Claire. (Fortunately, I had taken the precaution of shipping ahead a dozen cartons of these publications, because neither the public news stands nor the staid Academy library stocked them, not a one.) My relationships with my fellow-scholars soon proved amiable, even, I might say, warm, except for those who seemed incapable of remembering my name no matter how many times I introduced myself, and the young artists-in-residence quickly learned to value the helpful insights and criticisms I could offer about their as yet unformed but often quite promising “work.” As my monograph progressed, word of its content spread through the Academy like wildfire, with the result that by the arrival of the unpleasant Roman spring, I had acquired amongst my peers a certain minor celebrity I found amusing but in no way inappropriate or uncomfortable. It was this unexpected development which led to my encounter with the young man henceforth known as “Ned Dunstan,” therefore indirectly to Peter’s egregious folly, Mr. X.
Temporarily resident in Rome in the course of a more extensive journey, Dunstan had accidentally or not run across several of my fellow-Academicians whose respect for my accomplishments, mentioned in passing during the enjoyment of espressos served beneath the umbrellas of sidewalk cafes, decided him to seek my assistance in a matter of considerable personal importance, of great delicacy also. He asked one of his new acquaintances if he might be introduced to this fellow of whom he had heard so much, and the acquaintance referred the request to me, but not before discussing the matter with a number of our mutual colleagues. There was a sense of disquiet, a sense of alarm – these people speculated, and I have to say it was sweet of them, that I might have acquired a “stalker,” and one of my colleagues went so far as to suggest that I invoke the protection of the police.
Be reasonable, I advised, calm your anxieties and remember the propensity of “stalkers” to pursue the famous, a category not known to include Professors of Popular Culture from small colleges in the Midwest. Dear Putney, these friends responded, do not permit your instinctive modesty to underestimate the impact made upon the civilized world of your fearless and innovative work, not to mention all those “Atwoods” and your Life Achievement Award! You, dear Putney, they went on to say, are much more famous than you think, and here comes this unknown young man who lurks near the Spanish Steps and other points of interest, arranges random-seeming meetings with your fellow-Fellows for the purpose of spinning an improbable tale of a manuscript in need of professional assistance, asks questions about you, gives every impression of being desperate to meet you, why, he’s got “stalker” written all over him, if you will not go to the police at least hire a bodyguard, please, Putney, please, if not for your sake then for ours.
I paid no attention to these distress-signals, for I sensed from the first that the young man in question, “Ned Dunstan,” far from representing any threat to my well-being would instead exert a positive influence on my life. Mysteriously, I already knew that not only was there nothing to fear, I should experience what I can only call spiritual refreshment, a largess of spiritual nutrition, from my dealing with the unknown figure. (This certainty, I discovered, was of a decidedly Dunstan-ish nature. To the Dunstans, mystery, precognition, telepathic messages, all of that and more, was meat and drink.) At the simplest, most superficial level, this fellow had recently completed a sort of book-length memoir and wished to entrust it to someone capable of polishing his prose and arranging publication by a reputable firm. What he had heard of me indicated that I might be the answer to his needs, or at least that I would guide the manuscript into the proper hands. I was, I would: for reasons of propriety, I arranged for a trepedatious colleague to bring Dunstan to my office in the Academy late the following afternoon. At the appointed hour, the colleague rapped on my door, led within a young man distinguished by a remarkable physical beauty and carrying a soft, toffee-colored leather satchel, performed the introductions, and departed, not all that willingly. What then took place was undoubtedly the most extraordinary hour and by far the most extraordinary conversation of my life.
Ned Dunstan took the chair before my desk and clutched the satchel to his chest like a life-preserver. I can see him now, twitchy, haunted, unutterably sublime. He had no small talk; his attitude was that of a delicate, wary forest-creature pausing for a much-needed drink of water while in flight from an advancing fire. Beneath the hum of his anxiety lay a fine-spun network of nerves, a regal resolve, a steely assurance, a vast, speaking sorrow. He was, as I have said before, easily the most impressive man I had ever met. Yes, he said, he had completed a book, a memoir composed during his travels, and he had hoped that I might know someone, a professional writer, who would be willing to eliminate the rough spots and make all the necessary adjustments – for he knew himself no writer – after which I might be willing, of course at the customary fee, to attempt to place the manuscript with a publishing house. He would leave the addresses and whatnot at which he could be reached, but he could do no more with his book and wished to entrust it into my care.
I shall treat it as though it were my own, I assured him, I have the honor of personal acquaintance with several highly-regarded writers and many contacts in the world of publishing. May I ask for some description of your memoir’s contents or subject matter?
Dunstan trembled. I feared that he would run from my office and escape for good. Instead, he slumped into the chair, displayed a smile of the purest, most heartbreaking sadness I have ever seen on the face of a fellow human being, and began to speak. The things he said startled me, electrified me, moved me nearly to tears, humbled me. He spoke simply, without affectation, opening detail by detail a world deeply Other and unfamiliar, yet deeply my own. All right, I know how that sounds. I know that, all right? I don’t care how it sounds. This is what happened. Ned Dunstan smiled, opened his mouth, and, speaking in a steady, resonant, rational voice, expanded my vision of the possible. Foundations crumbled, walls collapsed, an old world fell in ruins and a new one rose in its place. Something like that. The earth shook. Something like that.
He surrendered the buttery satchel and left. The moment of his leaving, our handshake, the meeting of our eyes, his swift, quiet closing of my door, all of this was poignant. After composing myself, I took the elevator downstairs and copied the typescript. I brought both copies back to my wretched apartment and spent the rest of the evening and half the night reading Dunstan’s book, which by a wide margin failed to match the effect of the version I had heard him tell in my office. It was awkward and self-conscious; it needed the touch of a professional.
For weeks, I sought to interest good writers, reputable writers, in the project. Most of them lacked the imagination to see the magnitude of the opportunity before them. My first choice, Tim Underhill, Peter Straub’s sometime collaborator, would gladly have taken on the rewriting but could not spare the time. I despaired. Just at the point when I thought I would have to admit failure, my friend Peter left a message for me at the Academy. He and Susan were in Rome visiting Dennis and Lily Montresor, whose relationship with the Academy went back many years. Dennis had mentioned a mysterious young man and a manuscript entrusted to my safe-keeping. Could we get together?
My compatriot of the sandbox and the swingset appeared in my office that very evening. He took, far less gracefully than Ned Dunstan, the chair before my desk, and he whined, whined, whined. The tale of murder in Central Park was a dead duck, asphyxiated by narrative complications. His career was no less dead, kaput, extinct. He owed his publisher another book, but the well was dry. Desperation and self-pity roughened his voice and exaggerated his gestures. I believe he smoked an entire pack of cigarettes. Perspiration streamed from his shiny pate. Oh, the bills, the sheer, staggering fortune squandered on groceries, the private school tuition, the incomprehensible mortgage, the depredations of the IRS and the demands of the accountant who battled them, oh, the rising costs of cigarettes, triple-distilled vodka and other compensatory luxuries, oh, the price of Testoni shoes (his), Brioni shirts (his) and Armani suits (take a guess), oh, oh, sometimes it cost him five bucks in handouts just to walk around the block, shit, man, only frequent flyer miles had rescued him from the humiliating torment of a seat in Steerage on the trip to Rome, hell, man to man, friend to friend and just between a pair of lifelong pals, if in fact there was anything to this story of Dennis Montresor’s of a, a what, an unfinished manuscript, if that was true, you know, the part about looking for a writer, well, look no further, was all he could say. As a stopgap. To tide him over. In a professional sense.
I succumbed. I unlocked the desk drawer and passed across the desk the exquisite satchel containing the precious manuscript, as I did so admonishing my old friend that he content himself with merely brightening up the prose and smoothing the narrative flow. I told him, I told him specifically, not to turn this assignment into one of his laborious, wild-eyed fictions. “Just fix what needs fixing,” I said, “and do nothing more.”
“Putney,” he said, “my dear old friend, the bulwark of my youth, you may depend, I guarantee you, on me. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
Then Peter exited my office and disappeared for two years, over the course of which he violated every aspect of our agreement. By “disappeared” I do not mean “vanished from view,” for he did not literally disappear. He disappeared in the sense of refusing to communicate anything of substance while single-mindedly gutting the precious memoir and rewriting it from start to finish. Narrative back-hoes and earth-movers, narrative chain-saws, narrative wood-chippers, nail guns and chisels came into play. Painted backdrops and artificial scenery came into play. So did pointless flashbacks, whimsical sub-plots, and the intrusions of colorfully instructive dreams, a sure sign of desperation on the part of a hard-pressed novelizer. He waded into that lovely memoir like an invading army and devasted it, utterly. When he had finished, air-castles of his own devise hovered unconvincingly over the smoking ruins. And when confronted with the fact of his treachery, he called upon that impervious mechanism, denial, which can be counted upon faithfully to reject the claims of rationality.
He said: No, I didn’t. I’m telling you. I didn’t.
He said: For God’s sake, Putney, I just brightened up the language here and there.
He said: Putney, you are flipping out, old buddy, please take your medication. (I have never been under medication of any sort. Well, almost never.)
He said: You’re kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding.
This is the voice of industrial-strength denial. Blind to the outrage he had committed, my friend Peter blithely treated my own outrage as an inexplicable delusion. Get a grip, Putney, stop yelling, Putney, calm down, I did what you told me to do and no more.
It was at this point that I recognized the absolute and involuntary mendacity of fiction-writers, and my fury began its slow devolution into wondering pity. You might as well berate a dog for hoisting its leg at bushes and nosing the excrement-cigars left behind by its helpless fellow-creatures.
At my insistence, Peter agreed to preface his crime with an Introduction written by myself and stating the facts of the case; in turn, I agreed that he might preface my Introduction with some self-serving Notes of his own. Very well, I thought, let him babble – the astute reader shall get it instantly, and every reader shall have the option of whom to believe. We wrote our introductory pieces, Peter with his usual verbose élan, I succinctly, and there the matter should have stood: his garrulous “Note,” my truth-telling “Preface,” then the hideous perversion Peter had entitled MR. X.
The finished typescript went to my friend’s editor. A month, two months, three, went by, much to impatient Peter’s distress. Whine, whine, whine. My old playmate’s anxieties at last induced somatic disorder in the form of excruciating back pain, for which he sought relief from chiropractic practioners, acupuncturists, hypnotherapists, Oriental herbalists, masseuses, and specialists in aroma/aura balance maintenance. The editor promised to respond the moment she had dealt with the next season’s list, and Peter responded to this sensible remark by deciding to undergo spinal surgery. A simple operation lasting no more than an hour, maybe two, put him out of commission for a season and a half. Whine, whine, whine, at epic length. In a fit of what I must call savage depression, he attacked his manuscript yet again and excised another two hundred, three hundred pages, I no longer remember, really, who cares how many pages it was…
… except that in the process, sneakily, without telling me, he also deleted our introductory matter, his Note and my explanatory Preface. I blame the Vicodin tablets my old pal was shoving down his gullet, along with whatever else he used to medicate himself, but I blame him, too. He knew what he was doing, all right, despite the Vicodin. By excising all references to the history behind the text, Peter had completed its mutation into yet another of his “novels.”
My objections were countered by a move of surprising subtlety. Peter had convinced a small press specializing in the horror genre to bring out our deleted introductions in the form of a chapbook. The press in question was called Underwater Books, Submerged Books, Buried Books, something of that sort. Yes, my account of meeting Ned Dunstan, his extraordinary tale, and the motives for my surrendering his memoir to Peter Straub were to find publication – in a subterranean edition from the Buried Underwater Press. When so impeccably literalized, irony is irony no longer, it is merely description.
As for the “novel” called MR. X, whatever virtues it contains rightfully belong to Ned Dunstan. Peter did his best, but he could not entirely destroy this moving tale.
Putney Tyson Ridge