Tuesday, September 8, 2009
#6 – UNSUSTAINABLE
I had been floating all these other ideas too, for I knew it was easiest to get a new book contract if you had, as I did, a substantial book in print and in at least some of the stores. So I had proposed the Caribbean and Bahamas hack books, and one about great rivers of the world, an idea I got one night from Alex Bespaloff when I was wondering what to do next and he suggested to me that a book could be written about anything. So I did a proposal centering on the Ganges, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Congo, and the Mekong. It would mean a lot of traveling, returning to so many places where I had been in what were coming to seem like better times. It should, I told myself, mean happy traveling.
My agent was also circulating a plan I wrote up for a book about California – proposing that I go from California place to California place, from the Yuppie singles complex Marina del Rey, to some group sex thing at perhaps Esalen, to some guru things, to some right-wing political things, some health nut things, some showbiz things, some lingering love and peace and drug things – a book making fun of all these things I had not experienced so much as I would have liked. Another good excuse for new adventures on what could be a clean slate. My life. Adventures. It felt a little like those many times I had come to a standstill, and then, with a one-way ticket, flown off far away from friends and lovers.
So from practically the moment I moved into Chelsea I was loading up on reading matter to put myself in position for life and writing. I plunged into old aricles on rivers in library issues of National Geographic. I waded through a dense West Indies history by the detail-oriented, Oxford-educated Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. And I found all sorts of California books, such as Ben Stein’s surprisingly vivid and sexy account of what happened when he, so conservative, started making big television money and driving a Mercedes.
It was as if I were ready to write about anything so long as none of it entered into my early personal past. I would only go back so far – as in my Bangkok novel, which took place on the fringe of the Vietnam War in a part of the world that, though I lived hard there, I had never seen until a couple of years before I started the book.
But something that nagged at me was my memory of times when I thought my background – my pedigree, as a Brit in Hong Kong once unkindly put it – could give me safety. I was to be the top editor of an underfinanced, locally printed, fly-by-night magazine owned by people I did not trust. Its subject was Chinese food, about which I knew nothing beyond that I liked to eat. In my bio in the first issue I went wildly out of context and mentioned my grandfather and his honored books, and also my father and his prominence in publishing.
I had just been married in the Philippines and everything seemed wrong. I got us a dog, a silky haired member of a local street breed called Japanese terrier. The dog and I loved each other, but she acted up when my wife was present, in the early stages pissing indoors and later, when housebroken, ripping up things as big as a double-bed mattress. Sometimes my wife would hit my dog. We were in a place my wife found that had a small patio looking down and over a part of the city and out across the bay and to the British-owned part of the China mainland. Once the dog disappeared for nearly a week and we knew that eating dog meat was something acceptable to many people here. In the Philippines my wife has actually come upon the carved up carcass of her pet mutt. When my dog somehow found her way back, thin and dirty and exhausted, it was like being saved, though my wife did not seem so excited.
And fear of failure was in the air. My writing career had become some sort of parody. I had real book contracts from a real publisher in New York, but my work on those projects had petered out. I lived off local things including regional airline magazines, and a guide to Macao financed by the gaming syndicate, and the Chinese edition of the Reader’s Digest, and, worst of all, doing a newsletter and producing documentaries for National Iranian Radio and TV, a job that included writing peon’s to the dread Shah.
When I added forebears to my magazine bio I felt like a little coward scurrying into something small and safe, and in reality I did not expect to feel comfort from the pedigree. I thought of the telephone room in White Pines, the biggest and most formal of the big White Mountains houses, where when I was talking into the old wall phone to my girlfriend I was head to head with a genealogy chart. It showed I was related to another girl I had called from the telephone room, one who did not think it strange that there should be such a thing as a telephone room. And I thought of how at times I had been given family histories written by great aunts. I had found I could not read them. And it was not just because one of these family histories had come to bigoted halt at the point an old aunt discovered a Jew in the lineage.
Back in college when I was something called editorial chairman of the Daily Princetonian and arguing vociferously for the paper to support things that were not seen as right in the gray Eisenhower era – like the U.S. recognizing Red China, or the college getting rid of its nasty, exclusionary eating club system and its related racial quotas and near banning of blacks. On the paper I was with guys who now were famous. Dick Kluger later produced book after book, including a widely honored one on the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision. Bob Caro wrote best sellers about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, neither of whom he liked. Johnny Apple was a key political writer for the New York Times and was often on Sunday morning TV talk shows.
When I made my case in our student editorial meetings, these guys used to joke about how I was ridiculously serious. One recurring line was that it was clear "Fred never had a childhood" – though of course I knew that they found me different when I drank.
But that was then, and change was threatening now. I could not get New Hampshire out of my mind. And Margaret was dead. And the main real life character in my last book was killed a with close-up shot to the back of the head when he stepped out of a plane in Manila with my collaborator Max Vanzi close bywhile I was in San Francisco working on the final draft. And just before the assassination my father had died, deserted by my brother Peter, his wife my mother, his late brother’s widow my Aunt Peggy, his sister my Aunt Betsy, who I had thought of as my favorite aunt – all the people most important to him in the family world he had tried so hard to hold together, even though as an adult he rarely visited the family base in the White Mountains. They would not believe what I and my then wife saw in the hospital. They swore he had to be in a deep coma and would recognize no one. They swore it, but they would not come to see for themselves. And I knew they were wrong, about the actual state of my father and about their entire lives.
And my marriage, about which I had had such hope, had ended less than a year later. And I was trying hard but with no success yet to get off sleeping pills and tobacco. And I did start therapy – when a marriage counselor, brought in long after the separation, asked how I felt about my father’s death and I started sobbing, which was not something I ever did. This young therapist also seemed amazed when I had no place to live after the breakup I had, for a solid steamy summer month when my mother was in Europe, used the ugly little barren Florida condominium where my father had spent most of his last days.
In addition to therapy, I had started reading Alice Miller – beginning with The
Drama of the Gifted Child, whose original title was Prisoners of Childhood. I liked it better than Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, which like the Alice Miller book had been recommended by Linda Butler, who was key to my life in Lebanon and now visited me while on a trip up from Washington where she had finally settled.
I thought of all those many places where I had lived. And here I was, as trapped as I had been in overrated cities like Beirut and Hong Kong, here in New York feeling like I was trying to punch my way out of a huge, wet paper bag. I had to pull myself together. I had to do something. I had to exorcize what had just taken place up in the White Mountains.
I had an idea. I would betray the harsh White Mountains. I would look into a place that felt like it should be my place. I would go to the anti-New Hampshire – Vermont!