Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Back in New York there was a message on my answering machine that in another time would have been very bad news indeed but that now seemed irrelevant in the wake of my unsatisfying time in the Bahamas, and then a time far worse than unsatisfactory in New Hampshire for the English Party. The call had been from the agent Hal Dart, who said the island series would not work. The editor who wanted it had discovered that the field had suddenly been taken. An existing slick travel book series, an American venture based in Singapore where quality printing was still cheap, was to go whole hog into what we’d thought would be my territory. Most of what this American publishing firm in Singapore had done involved Southeast Asia, but they had been feeling out other places, and in my territory already have a book out on Jamaica.

I had looked at the Jamaica book. It was full of feathery color pictures, surrounded by sloppily written text, as I knew those books to be. And it had an introduction that shamelessly heaped praise on a controversial right-wing Prime Minister of Jamaica who had been installed in office, it was widely believed and quite well documented, with heavy and heavy-handed CIA help. So here was the CIA again, that awful espionage outfit that currently employed my twin brother and had been haunting me since I first ran afoul of violent and corrupt contract agents in Bangkok and Laos in the 1960s.

My peripatetic past in my present, as if it were not enough that I had just been hit hard by revisiting my early days in the White Mountains.

I had last been in Singapore in the 1970s, shortly before I got married in Manila. In Singapore that time I had gotten to know a conservative appearing yet romantic man named Richard who had stayed on in Southeast Asia after the Peace Corps and had wound up working as the text editor of these same slick guides. We became friends out there. He was little ponderous intellectually – given to using words like “vortex” – but I admired his style. He helped me with a Publishers Weekly piece I was doing for money about American publishers taking book production to Singapore. Also, Richard gave me contacts in Bali, from which he had eloped to Singapore with a gorgeous young dancer whom he married.

After Singapore Richard took the Balinese dancer home to Forest Hills in Queens, and he was there when I returned to America with my new wife from the Philippines. She and I became friends with Richard and the talented dancer.

Now Richard was still in hyper middle class Forest Hills but divorced, as I was now too. He was well into a career in traditional publishing. And he was the very editor who had said they would make an offer once they had a sample chapter or two for Twins in the American Century.

Macmillan was a bird in hand, though hardly ideal for me. While still in my marriage I had done a free-lance job on a good grey encyclopedia yearbook owned by Macmillan, an experience that confirmed what I had heard for years about what a dull place this once cutting edge publishing house had become. It now had its own bleak new Third Avenue skyscraper building, whose lack of inside décor made its offices seem more like government offices than anything in any dashing literary world.

My past in my present in more ways than one. I was dealing with the sort of knowing or unknowing contract CIA person who had become familiar in my years in Asia. And even stranger, the place where he worked now had, in a more interesting past time, published the books that my grandfather Gaga had written in his studies in White Wings and White Pines. And now it looked like Macmillan would publish this projected book about Gaga and my twin brother and me. If I could just write it.

Starting in 1916 and going into the start of my lifetime, Macmillan had issued about 20 of Gaga’s books, mostly novels, in uniform black-bound editions that were still in libraries and second hand bookstores everywhere, as well as in many White Mountains summer houses.

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