Saturday, September 5, 2009
#5 – TWINS IN THE AMERICAN CENTURY
Even in this dark time I still went up to Walter Karp’s place on Sunday afternoons – as I had been doing for years when I was in the country, including nearly every Sunday during the last years of my failing marriage when my travels were practically at an end and I was living with my first wife, her son and eventually her mother too in that cramped place with an 81st Street address but a view of an air well. It was two blocks over from Walter’s solid old West 79th Street apartment where he and his sparkling second wife Regina and their clever young son and daughter lived.
Walter, dark and intense, seemed sure and confident in his words and his movements. He was of medium height but he carried himself the way a self-confident short man would. And although tightly wound, he smiled easily. Though with his dark eyes boring into you, he talked so fast there was often little chance to get a word in. This was how it had been in the 20 years I had known him. He talked and talked. It might be about something light, such as the arrival of some slightly famous politician’s famous lover at the upstairs bar at Sardi’s, where Walter did his drinking when he was not drinking at home. But from some light matter he would switch to a fast-paced verbal version of what he planned to say, perhaps about the Spanish-American War, perhaps about the compulsive lier Ronald Reagan, in a chapter for the latest of the political books for which he was becoming known.
Sometimes it was just Walter, Regina, me and Walter’s younger brother Richard, who was becoming a writer too. Sometimes on these Sunday afternoons we would be joined by old friends from his days at Columbia, such as a psychotherapist who had known my brother while an undergraduate and wanted to tell me what a fine person he was. Or it might be Walter’s best friend, who was going blind and suffered manic depression but made a living now conducting walking tours of New York’s more historic neighborhoods.
No one could forget that Walter had been valedictorian of his Columbia class. And his friends repeated over and over the story of how he had upset his professors and his peers by refusing to go to graduate school and instead taking a position writing picture captions for Pageant Magazine.
Now he wrote only deadly serious articles and books. On some Sundays there would be some well-known magazine editor present, maybe from American Heritage or maybe from New York magazine or The Village Voice. Often at these times I would feel more like an observer than a participant, which was not unfamiliar.
I was surprised when one Sunday afternoon as he got to work on a six-pack Walter brought up my childhood. My childhood was something I rarely talked about, and tried not to think about. This was shortly after my book on the Philippines had come out and Walter had put a copy on display in his living room. He had this great idea, he said, for my next book, which he said should be a light autobiographical work about me and my foreign adventures, and my grandfather whom Walter knew of as a novelist and internationalist, and my twin brother Peter, whom I occasionally referred to as someone who worked for the CIA and sometimes the military. Walter had heard me speak about my brother having been the good little boy who got top grades and was the family pet, while I was always the bad, dumb, trouble-making twin. The book, Walter said, should be called Twins in the American Century. It should go from childhood right into the present – this amusing, but also significant, family story, he said. A story that, he said, would bring America in the current era into focus. And it had to go back into childhood.
And so at Walter’s I was actually in a conversation about where I came from and about the need, for the sake of my writing career, to revisit it. I did not say how unpleasant this felt, and I also I did not say just how furious I was that my brother should be in the CIA, and I also I did not say how I had thought it might seem to my brother that I became involved with people, from Manila to Managua, that in his world were considered America's enemies.
I knew, but shoved aside for the moment, how in the most potentially deadly ways the childhood battles, good twin versus bad, were being played out. But I did not keep the present antagonisms at such a distance as I did the parts that began in childhood.
And I certainly did not say how anger rose fast when it seemed to me that my foreign experience and my brother’s were considered of equal worth. I controlled myself, for Walter did not seem to me to see much beyond his impression that it was an interesting family.
I actually did make a stab at that book Walter suggested. My agent also liked the idea. I had doubts, but even before I found my bright apartment I was at work on an intricate proposal, which stirred some interest. An editor at Macmillan said he was almost certain they could make offer if they could see a sample chapter.
Of course I knew these sample chapters were required only for internal purposes, so that the sales people could be led by the editorial people to believe that if an advance were given there really would be a book. And I could not write even such a pro forma sample of Twins in the American Century. I was suddenly furious, and not just about being trapped into dealing with childhood. For I was being asked to be light about things that I knew on some unexplored level were as serious as death. And might have to be explored, much in the manner of entering a jungle whose overgrowth could stifle and choke.
And it made me furious that anyone – though I knew no one doing it yet – should push me to enter that jungle.
And something else had come up about family that seemed to me (though I would not say it out loud) connected to the Twins in the American Century idea. On a Sunday afternoon before the dark time, Walter had been speaking and laughing about a time when he was in college and was invited to be a Scarsdale girl’s date for a country club dance. After the dance started he was asked to leave that stuffy suburban town because the grown-ups had discovered he was Jewish. I shook my head and remained silent even though I knew Walter would have been amused by my experience with the same event.
One night I had fled Princeton, hitch-hiking on Route 1 as I often did, for the pleasures of the city – which could mean the second hand book stores on Fourth Avenue and a young call girl named Alma who had a hopeful smile and powdered breasts and worked the rail at the Tango Place just north of Times Square. Holding on to what money I had, I took my paternal grandmother up on dinner at her New York apartment, where she held court in a tiny replica of their big houses in the White Mountains that had been so much a part of my early years. That night at the dinner table – as formal as in the mountains, right down to the finger bowls and the careful servers – she talked about what she said was an awful thing that had happened in Scarsdale to her son Nick and his wife Peggy. What had happened was that some girl in Scarsdale had brought a boy to their country club dance and it turned out the boy was Jewish, so of course he was asked to leave. But the worst part came afterwards, she said, for at Scarsdale’s Episcopal church – the smug, faux gothic one with the British flag – the minister had railed against the country club no-Jews rule. And so the leaders of the congregation had asked the minister to resign, to leave Scarsdale, just like Walter. The point seemed to be how awful for Peggy that not just the girl but the minister too had behaved so badly.