Thursday, September 16, 2010


As the past kept changing, in my head there were constant revisions not just of what I saw in my life up till this year but even in how it had been at the start of this new time. Just before everything began to change, I had had high hopes for a light, with some earnest overtones, non-fiction, personal experience book to be called Twins in the American Century. Which was someone else’s idea but seemed to interest my agent and a guy at one of the big houses who said they would be sure to take it after I went through the charade of writing a sample chapter that would convince their sales people that if they gave me money there really would be a book. So I had worked late into the night in my bright new apartment in Chelsea, trying to get started. It should have been easy. I had been through this before, these proposals to get advance money. Also, this was not the first time that I was making use of someone I knew. I had met the editor a few years before this in Singapore where he was a partner in a slick illustrated guide-book operation called APA that had volumes out on many Asia places. The editor was a conscious intellectual. He kept telling me then that Singapore was at a vortex. But there was another side to the man. He had this wife who was a lithe and lovely Balinese dancer with whom he had eloped, spiriting her out of her village in Bali.

Now the editor was in New York at the same time as me in this time just after my marriage when everything was changing. He had gotten a mortgage and taken the lovely dancer to live in Forest Hills, the ultimate haut bourgeois place. My wife, also young and from Asia, and I had been there for dinner before the dancer left.

The editor was still there. And I knew that even his publishing side in Singapore could not have been as unimaginative as it seemed. For I knew from a number of years in Southeast Asia that APA Publications may have held out but it would have been a struggle to not become a CIA front. Travel writing and photography were such good ways to move people around in foreign places. In Southeast Asia nothing was quite what it seemed, and it was hard to find a foreigner out there not working on the side in something devious for some foreign interest – the CIA being the foreign interest with the most money. Even backpackers were put on per diem by this octopus agency.

I had reason before this year of change to look at APA’s most recent volume, which was part of its recent move beyond Asia. This one was on Jamaica. The introduction was devoted to thanking and praising the recently installed prime minister, a right-winger named Manley who was as charming and evil as Ronald Reagan. On top of everything else Manley looked like a white man. Practically no one who wrote about Jamaica seemed unsure CIA money had brought him to power.

This was when I was searching around for things to do. The reason I looked at the Jamaica book was that my agent was hot in negotiations with Simon & Schuster for a series of little books on the West Indies that would be geared to cruise passengers who had only a few hours to look around. The idea was based on a lie that the West Indies had a brilliant and beautiful colonial history when in fact it had a grim slave worked plantation history. The little books would play up the remains of slave owners’ big houses, and an occasional dumpy fort, as being romantic vestiges of a grand and romantic past. Just the sort of travel writers’ lie I had sworn I would never propagate again. But I needed work, and besides there was this very stylish American photographer I would take along to these island places. She was willing to fly in from Rome to join me.

And nothing in my life was what it seemed.

And I had not quite realized that fakery in travel writing was the least of what I was about to leave, though it was a blow when the travel book project fell through. My agent called and said we had to drop it because this outfit APA was going into the same territory in a comprehensive way in a new joint venture with a New York publisher.

My FBI file from civil rights days? My CIA file from Southeast Asia days?

And meanwhile the editor was waiting for a sample chapter in this book about me and my adventures and my brother and his CIA work, this light book that would also honor our internationalist grandfather and would be called Twins in the American Century, this in 1986 which was about the last point when the American century conception was around, something the CIA did not seem to realize. And maybe the last time it was possible for me to go with my family’s white-washed history.

The editor’s office was in the Macmillan building which was the most characterless building I had ever seen. A far cry from the days when Macmillan was a musty literary place that published my grandfather. As you got out at a floor in the Macmillan building you were face to face with a receptionist. Every floor looked just alike, the walls always bare. The place had no more personality than the sad State Department building down in Washington. One day I got out of an elevator in the Macmillan building and a very serious receptionist was saying with pride to an apparent delivery person that “this building has many PhD’s in it.”

The CIA. Travel writing. The dullness of publishing. Twins in the American Century.

As my life changed I began to believe it was to my credit that I was completely blocked when it came to writing that sample chapter that could do so much for my career.

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