Friday, May 31, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt seven)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

She stumbles into her skirt and puts her blouse over her arms and turns away from him meekly and asks, “Button my back.” Buttoning the pink cloth down her quiet spine makes him cry; the hotness in his eyes works up to a sting and he sees the little babyish buttons through a cluster of discs of watery light like petals of apple blossoms. Water hesitates on his lids and then runs down his cheeks; the wetness is delicious. He wishes he could cry for hours, for just this tiny spill relieves him. But a man’s tears are grudging and his stop before they are out of the apartment. As he closes the door he feels he has spent his whole life opening and closing this door.

Nelson takes the rubber panda along and every time he makes it squeak Rabbit’s stomach aches. The town now is bleached by a sun nearing the height of noon.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt six)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

Springer doesn’t answer; Harry goes out through the sunporch, so he won’t have to glimpse Mrs. Springer’s face again, and around the house and walks home in the soupy summer dark, which tinkles with the sounds of dishes being washed. He climbs Wilbur Street and goes in his old door and up the stairs. There is still that faint smell of something like cabbage cooking. He lets himself into the apartment with his key and turns on all the lights as rapidly as he can. He goes into the bathroom and the water is still in the tub. Some of it has seeped away so the top of the water is an inch below a faint gray line on the porcelain but the tub is still more than half full. A heavy, calm volume, odorless, tasteless, colorless, the water shocks him like the presence of a silent person in the bathroom. Stillness makes a dead skin on its unstirred surface. There’s even a kind of dust on it. He rolls back his sleeve and reaches down and pulls the plug; the water swings and the drain gasps. He watches the line of the water slide slowly and evenly down the wall of the tub, and then with a crazed vertical cry the last of it is sucked away. He thinks how easy it was, yet in all His strength God did nothing. Just that little rubber stopper to lift.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt five)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

With a sob of protest she grapples for the child but the water pushes at her hands, her bathrobe tends to float, and the slippery thing squirms in the sudden opacity. She has a hold, feels a heartbeat on her thumb, and then loses it, and the skin of the water leaps with pale refracted oblongs that she can’t seize the solid of; it is only a moment, but a moment dragged out in a thicker time. Then she has Becky squeezed in her hands and it is all right.

She lifts the living thing into air and hugs it against her sopping chest. Water pours off them onto the bathroom tiles. The little weightless body flops against her neck and a quick look of relief at the baby’s face gives a fantastic clotted impression. A contorted memory of how they give artificial respiration pumps Janice’s cold wet arms in frantic rhythmic hugs; under her clenched lids great scarlet prayers arise, wordless, monotonous, and she seems to be clasping the knees of a vast third person whose name, Father, Father, beats against her head like physical blows. Though her wild heart bathes the universe in red, no spark kindles in the space between her arms; for all of her pouring prayers she doesn’t feel the faintest tremor of an answer in the darkness against her. Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knocks sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt four)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

Nelson’s face turns up toward the porch and he tries to explain, “Pilly have – Pilly — ” But just trying to describe the injustice gives it unbearable force, and as if struck from behind he totters forward and slaps the thief’s chest and receives a mild shove that makes him sit on the ground. He rolls on his stomach and spins in the grass, resolved by his own incoherent kicking. Eccles’ heart seems to twist with the child’s body; he knows so well the propulsive power of a wrong, the way the mind batters against it and each futile blow sucks the air emptier until it seems the whole frame of blood and bone must burst in a universe that can be such a vacuum.

“The boy’s taken his truck,” he tells Mrs. Springer.

“Well let him get it himself,” she says. “He must learn. I can’t be getting up on these legs and running outside every minutes; they’ve been at it like that all afternoon.”

“Billy.” The boy looks up in surprise toward Eccles’ male voice. “Give it back.” Billy considers this new evidence and hesitates indeterminately. “Now, please.” Convinced, Billy walks over and pedantically drops the toy on his sobbing playmate’s head.

Monday, May 27, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt three)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

Throughout the early morning, those little hours that are so black, the music keeps coming and the signs keep pointing. His brain feels like a frail but alert invalid with messengers bringing down long corridors all this music and geographical news. At the same time he feels abnormally sensitive on the surface, as if his skin is thinking. The steering wheel is thin as a whip in his hands. As he turns it lightly he can feel the shaft stiffly pivot, and the differential gears part, and the bearings rotate in their sealed tunnels of grease. The phosphorescent winkers at the side of the road beguile him into thinking of young du Pont women: strings of them winding through huge glassy parties, potentially naked in their sequined sheath gowns. Are rich girls frigid? He’ll never know.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt two)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

He accelerates. The growing complexity of lights threatens him. He is being drawn into Philadelphia. He hates Philadelphia. Dirtiest city in the world, they live on poisoned water, you can taste the chemicals. He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women. It seems simple enough, drive all night through the dawn through the morning through the noon park on a beach take off your shoes and fall asleep by the Gulf of Mexico. Wake up with the stars above perfectly spaced in perfect health. But he is going eat, the worst direction, into unhealthy, soot, and stink, a smothering hole where you can’t move without killing somebody. Yet the highway sucks him on, and a sign says POTTSTOWN 2. He almost brakes. But then he thinks.

If he is heading east, south is on his right. And then, as if the world were just standing around waiting to serve his thoughts, a broad road to the right is advertised, ROUTE 100 WEST CHESTER WILMINGTON. Route 100 has a fine ultimate sound. He doesn’t want to go to Wilmington but it’s the right direction. He’s never been to Wilmington. The du Ponts own it. He wonders what it’s like to make it to a du Pont.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

the last book I ever read (Rabbit, Run by John Updike, excerpt one)

from John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he’s twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

His standing there makes the real boys feel strange. Eyeballs slide. They’re doing this for themselves, not as a show for some adult walking around town in a double-breasted cocoa suit. It seems funny to them, an adult walking up the alley at all. Where’s his car? The cigarette makes it more sinister still. Is this one of those going to offer them cigarettes or money to go out in back of the ice plant with him? They’ve heard of such things but are not too frightened; there are six of them and one of him.

The ball, rocketing off the crotch of the rim, leaps over the heads of the six and lands at the feet of the one. He catches it on the short bounce with a quickness that startles them. As they stare hushed he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky, setting his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest, one widespread white hand on top of the ball and the other underneath, jiggling it patiently to get some adjustment in air itself. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big. Then the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder as his knees dip down, and it appears the ball will miss because though he shot from an angle the ball is not going toward the backboard. It was not aimed there. It drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. “Hey!” he shouts in pride.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The 49ers at McSweeney's, episode 14 with writer Kathryn Harrison

"I remind myself that the thing that I love about writing is writing. And my experience of being a writer is actually one that, like for all writers, I think, is fraught with frustration and anxiety. But when I’m really writing it is the one moment when I am both released from the burden of myself and most myself, if that paradox makes sense, and that is a really good feeling."

from the 14th installment of The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50 for McSweeney's, this with writer Kathryn Harrison.

Ms. Harrison's latest novel, Enchantments: A Novel of Rasputin's Daughter and the Romanovs, was published in paperback earlier this year.

the last book I ever read (Tenth of December by George Saunders, excerpt six)

from Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders:

She came in flustered and apologetic, a touch of anger in her face. He’d embarrassed her. He saw that. He’d embarrassed her by doing something that showed she hadn’t sufficiently noticed him needing her. She’d been too busy nursing him to notice how scared he was. She was angry at him for pulling this stunt and ashamed of herself for feeling angry at him in his hour of need, and was trying to put the shame and anger behind her now so she could do what might be needed.

All of this was in her face. He knew her so well.

Also concern.

Overriding everything else in that lovely face was concern.

She came to him now, stumbling a bit on a swell in the floor of this stranger’s house.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

the last book I ever read (Tenth of December by George Saunders, excerpt five)

from Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders:

Kid was swimming.

Swimming was not allowed. That was clearly posted. NO SWIMMING.

Kid was a bad swimmer. Real thrashfest down there. Kid was creating with his thrashing a rapidly expanding black pool. With each thrash the kid incrementally expanded the boundary of the black--

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

the last book I ever read (Tenth of December by George Saunders, excerpt four)

from Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders:

Security, being then Summoned by Don Murray, didst arrive and, making much of the Opportunity, had Good Sport of me, delivering many harsh Blows to my Head & Body. And Wrested me from that Place, and Shoved me into the Street, kicking much Dirt upon my Person, and rip’d my Time card to Bits before mine Eyes, and sent it fluttering Aloft, amidst much cruel Laughter at my Expense, especially viz. my Feathered Hat, one Feather of which they had Sore Bent.

I sat, bleeding and bruised, until, summoning what Dignity remained, I made for Home and such Comforts as might be Afforded me there. I had not even Fare to make the Bus (my Backpack having been left behind in that Foul Place), so continued Afoot for well unto an Hour, the Sun by then low in its Arc, all that time Reflecting sadly that, withal, I had Failed in Discrimination, thereby delivering my Family into a most dire Position, whereupon our Poverty, already a Hindrance to our Grace, wouldst be many times Multiplied.

There would be no Back Brace for Father, no Tilting Bed for Mother, and, indeed, the Method by which we would, in future, make Compense for their various Necessary Medicines was now a Mystery, & a Vexation.

Anon I found Myself in proximity of the Wendy’s on Center Boulevard, by the closed-down Outback, coming down and coming down hard, aware that, soon, the effect of the Elixir having subsided, I would find myself standing before our iffy Television, struggling to explain, in my own lowly Language, that, tho’ Winter’s Snows would soon be upon us (entering even unto our Dwelling, as I have earlier Vouchsafed), no Appeal wouldst be Brook’d: I was Fired; Fired & sore Disgraced!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

the last book I ever read (Tenth of December by George Saunders, excerpt three)

from Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders:

That part of town was full of castles. Inside one was a couple embracing. Inside another a woman had like nine million little Christmas houses out on a table, like she was taking inventory. Across the river the castles got smaller. By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts. Inside one peasant hut were five kids standing perfectly still on the back of a couch. Then they all leapt off at once and their dogs went crazy.

Monday, May 20, 2013

the last book I ever read (Tenth of December by George Saunders, excerpt two)

from Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders:

Well, that was sad. The sickness of a kid was—children were the future. He’d do anything to help that kid. If one of the boys had a bent foot, he’d move heaven and earth to get it fixed. He’d rob a bank. And if the boy was a girl, even worse. Who’d ask a clubfoot or bentfoot or whatever to dance? There your daughter sat, with her crutch, all dressed up, not dancing.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

the last book I ever read (Tenth of December by George Saunders, excerpt one)

from Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders:

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he laid the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt twelve)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

“I guess toward the end of his life he could be a real pain in the neck,” I said to Ed Morse one day in New York. Morse now runs the Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, a newsletter for the oil business. He seems to retain a lot of affection for Denny, even though their last contact amounted to Morse’s showing up for a dinner date at a Georgetown apartment Denny was then living in only to be told by the doorman that Denny had left for New York. Morse said that Denny had indeed made no secret of his belief that SAIS was a corrupt academic environment. “He thought the people who ran it were cynical,” Morse said. “And he thought that the professors were interested in their little fiefdoms rather than teaching, not interested in collegial relationships, not interested in spending time with students, toward whom they had an incredibly patronizing and condescending attitude.” With these views, Denny probably did seem rigid and arrogant and moralistic, Morse said, but “on the other hand, he was right.”

Friday, May 17, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt eleven)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

Denny was close to the Semples in the early sixties, and he remained close until Bob, who had moved from The National Observer to The New York Times, was transferred to New York. For several years, Denny and Carol Austin would go to the Semples’ for Christmas dinner. He was the old charming Denny at dinner. Carol Austin says that after what was often a grumpy ride over to the Semples’ house in Cleveland Park, she could see him rev up his group personality as they stood outside the front door. But at some point, Semple told me, “He had these conversations with Susan and me: ‘Jesus, I’m twenty-five years old and I’m a Senate aide.’ We’d have these long discussions. Essentially, he was asking two friends: What should I be doing? Then, all of a sudden, something didn’t work out somewhere and he said he was going to Cleveland to work in television. That was, I think, the moment. I think we both thought, Uh-oh. The guy’s at sea. He had lost his bearings in this quest for a career that by all rights should have come out of Yale and the Rhodes scholarship. I thought, The guy’s lost it, and it’s too early to lose it.”

Of course, it’s common for people in their twenties to have crises of confidence. It’s common for people in their twenties to worry about whether they’re in the right field after all. Someone familiar with attendance patterns at Yale class reunions once told me that attendance drops appreciably from the tenth reunion, which normally draws a large crowd, to the fifteenth. There are, of course, a number of theories to explain that—including the theory that physical deterioration, particularly among males, seems to accelerate in one’s early and middle thirties. The theory favored by my informant, though, was that by the time the fifteenth reunion comes around—the graduates are now, say, thirty-six or thirty-seven—someone is pretty set in the sort of career he’s going to have. He’s in his slot, and it may be apparent how far he has or hasn’t moved in it. It is too late to show up as a promising young man who has not quite found himself. It is too late to say casually over a drink that you might decide to go to law school after all.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt ten)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

I must have seen Denny occasionally in New York during that period—I found a letter to my parents mentioning that I had met his boat when he returned from England—but I have a strong memory of only one meeting, at Princeton. I drove over from Fort Dix, New Jersey, where I was on temporary duty for a day or two as the driver for a major from our office on Governors Island—the public information office for First U.S. Army headquarters—who though he ought to be on hand to make certain that the mustering out of Elvis Presley went off without a hitch. Although Elvis was the symbol of rebellion, the entertainer who many thought could not appear on the Ed Sullivan Show because of his lewd gyrations, his manager had decided that it would be a good career move for him to report cheerfully for the draft and serve two years in an Army line unit with ordinary draftees—a reflection of how far rebellion went in the late fifties. The Elvis mustering out was not my only brush with the celebrated during my Army career. When General Douglas MacArthur, long retired from active duty, had a prostate operation at Lenox Hill Hospital, I was part of a group assigned to work out of a room down the hall writing releases on how many pats of butter and soft-boiled eggs he had consumed each day during his recuperation—a military operation we referred to as the “wee-wee patrol.” When Nikita Khrushchev, on his first trip to the United States, arrived in New York by train from Washington and turned to wave out the window to the waiting throngs, he found only me—a solitary figure on an adjoining platform, dressed in the uniform of an Army private, holding the bull mike I had just used to inform the press traveling on another train which stairway to take. I waved back.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rodan: Fifteen Quiet Years

"I mean, that's the way I would like to think about it because, you know, otherwise it's just too heartbreaking, to be perfectly honest."

I'm happy to have interviewed Tara Jane O'Neil and Jeff Mueller of Rodan prior to the release of their Fifteen Quiet Years collection for the Village Voice.


the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt nine)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

For those who had gathered the evening of the memorial service in Tersh Boasberg’s living room—even those who agreed with Rocky Suddarth that Denny had been in trouble from the start—analyzing Denny’s life seemed to be partly a matter of trying to isolate the moment when, as a couple of people had put it, he began to lose his direction. Most of the people in the room had themselves been highly directed since grade school. They were not just Denny people, they were fifties people—fifties high achievers, mainly, who had grown up thinking that the life of a fifties golden boy had the smooth trajectory of an airliner rising from the ground. If things didn’t work out that way, it’s natural for them to look for the moment when the motor started sputtering.

Somebody at Tersh’s had said that the problem facing people who breeze through high school and college the way Denny did is that they get no training in losing, so the first defeat can be devastating. Denny did have some training—for instance, he had apparently been deeply disappointed that his performance as a swimmer at Yale did not match the record-breaking swimming he had done for the Sequoia Cherokees—but he also had the awful insecurity that had been present even when he seemed to be a person who could lose at nothing. George E. Vaillant’s longitudinal study of members of a Harvard class twenty years ahead of us begins with the proposition that mental health is measured in how well someone adapts to the setbacks that are bound to occur; the book is called Adaptation to Life. There are those who believe that at some point Denny was unable to adapt because, as one of them put it, “something happened and he decided his life was worthless.” The stories of failed golden boys all of us heard just after Denny died tended to have such moments—the career path mistake, the panic that cost the golden boy his confidence. For some of the people who interpret Denny’s life that way, Oxford was the moment.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt eight)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

In the fifties, I think, it was common for a young man like Denny or like me—someone whose grandparents had been immigrants and whose family hadn’t been to college—to be sent away to places like Yale by parents who realized that they were putting a distance between themselves and their son forever, whether he eventually returned to live in his hometown or not. I know that my father was aware of that from the start, because after he died, my mother told me so, not without a touch of resentment. Still, it’s hard for me to think of anyone I’ve known who became completely cut off from the people who raised him—what the social scientists would call his family of origin. I can think of some people whose contact was almost entirely irritating or even painful, but there was contact. In fact, when I reached a certain age, around my late thirties or early forties, it even occurred to me that one elemental fact of life separating the people I knew into groups had to do with their relationships with their family of origin: those who, in one way or another, took care of their parents and those whose parents still more or less took care of them. I don’t think it occurred to me at the time that I knew anyone whose contact with the people who had raised him was so slight that he would belong in neither category. Some of the pictures at Denny’s house showed him back home on family visits in the years after he moved to Washington, but his brother, Jerry, summed up what must have been the view from California in one sentence, without sounding at all put out: “He went off to college by himself and no one ever saw him again.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt seven)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

Yes, there was that. Until the day Denny died, it had never occurred to me that he might be gay. If the long relationship with Carol Austin was meant to fool people, it had succeeded in my case. On the other hand, I was remarkably easy to fool. For me, Denny was in a compartment in my mind that had to do with Yale in the fifties, and there simply weren’t any gay people in the compartment. That must have been true for most of the people in the room, judging from the remarks that came just after the story of Bob had been told:

“It was inconceivable for us in the fifties. I came out of Yale, and I swore I did not know a homosexual.”

“Of course,” Carol Austin said, with some irony. “None of us did.”

Sunday, May 12, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt six)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

I suspect he had said what a lot of Denny’s contemporaries were thinking—that Denny had been brought down by failure to satisfy what one of our professors always called (quoting William James) “the bitch goddess Success.” At Yale in the fifties, there were not only winners and losers but also strong indications that such categories would be an important part of our lives forever. In his speech to the matriculation assembly of our class, in 1953, Richard B. Sewall, an English professor best known at Yale for his popular course on tragedy, referred without enthusiasm to a view of Yale as “a stepping-stone to what we Americans fondly call ‘success’—success in general terms, what Time magazine had in mind a few months ago when it said, ‘As every Yale man knows, Yale is more than a great university; it is also a school for success.’” The greater the success at Yale, of course, the greater the success anticipated in life—which meant that Denny had to lug around a knapsack full of promise heavier than anyone’s. A lot of people in the room, I think, would have agreed with Pudge’s assumption that Denny avoided him because he reminded Denny of the glorious days at Yale that had not turned out to be an indication of the future.

A couple of other people spoke about losing contact with Denny by means that were remarkably similar—the postponed dinner the agreement to get together that was never quite taken up, the invitation that drew no response. Carol Austin spoke up to say that we shouldn’t take it personally. She said that he had such high standards for himself that he couldn’t really be with people unless he could work himself up into “being this sort of superstar,” and sometimes, given his moods or his physical ailments, he just wasn’t up to it. She talked about a sort of early-warning system on the telephone he had worked out even in the early seventies, with people assigned different codes, presumably according to how urgent Denny thought it was to talk to them: one or two or three rings, then hang up, then dial again. I could actually remember an incident as far back as 1964, when I was in Washington to write speeches for the person I always described afterward as the last successful Democratic peace candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson. I had arranged to have dinner with Denny, and he simply didn’t appear. The next day, I finally tracked him down on the telephone, and I said, “You are the only absolutely square person I know who is also unreliable. Most square people at least can be counted on to show up.” He did have a pretty good excuse. He had been in a job he hated, something at the NBA bureau in Washington, and on the evening we were supposed to have dinner together he had either been fired or walked out—I was never clear which. I do remember what he told me later about how he came to get the job. Denny said the reason he had been hired was that his boss had read in some business self-improvement book that an executive was someone who had at least four people reporting to him, and this man had only three. So he hired Denny.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt five)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

In my experience with funerals and memorial services, there has often been some grumbling in the car afterward. It must be natural for people feeling a loss to fasten on some factual error in a eulogy or some way that the setting or the order of service was inappropriate. Of the fifteen people in our Yale senior society, Denny was the third to die. I remember the grumbling on the ride back to New York from New Haven after the funeral of Mike Dodge—Marshall J. Dodge III—who was killed in 1982 by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle. Mike had been living in Maine, where he was well known as a Down East humorist who appeared on a series of recordings about “Bert and I” and showed up, dressed in a yellow slicker, at college auditoriums to tell stories of lobstermen and farmers in a Maine accent so broad that it was hard to believe he had developed it before he ever entered the state. Mike was unlike anyone I ever knew. The High Episcopalian service in New Haven didn’t leave much room to go into why that was true. There were a couple of terrific talkers sitting on the platform, listed on the program as ministers—among them was A. Bartlett Giamatti, then the president of Yale, a spinner of perfect paragraphs in the air—and I wasn’t interested in hearing them read passages from the King James version. I wanted to hear what they had to say about Mike. The priest who ran the service, Robert Bryan, had been the other half of the “Bert and I” team, and in delivering the presiding cleric’s eulogy he managed to stretch the form enough to give a flavor of Mike. Otherwise, I remember someone’s saying in the car on the way home, “the departed could have been a stockbrocker.” Even as we grumbled, though, I acknowledged that Mike, who was an eccentric but not a rebel, had a traditionalist side that would have been horrified at anything other than a proper Episcopalian funeral and would have been particularly pleased that the closing hymn of the service could be described in the program as “the traditional last night hymn of St. Paul’s School, Concord, New Hampshire.” I suppose it was simply more convenient to be angry at the service than at the hit-and-run driver, who had eluded the police and would always elude us.

One of the people in the car on the way to Tersh’s was Mary Fine, whose husband, Peter, had been the first in the group to die. He was a pediatrician who began suffering in his late twenties from something called neurofibromatosis—nerve-ending tumors in the head. Eventually, the tumors took his hearing. He learned sign language. He wrote a book for parents of deaf children. He moved from lower Westchester County, where he had been working, to become the medical director of the student health service at Gallaudet College, in Washington, the only American college specifically for the hearing-impaired. He was the first doctor there who was himself deaf, and the sort of doctor he was is indicated by the fact that the infirmary is now named for him. A memorial service for Peter that I went to was carried on with a communications arrangement the opposite of what is normally seen at political conventions: some of the speakers presented their thoughts in sign, and someone at the side of the stage spoke the words. The words were about how much Peter had meant to hearing-impaired people—about his determination, his fierce advocacy of sign language, his dedication to his patients and their cause even when he knew that he himself was doomed. I don’t remember grumbling on the way home from that one.

Friday, May 10, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt four)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

At the reception, some of the Denny people seemed intent on demonstrating that there really had been a Denny Hansen, someone nothing at all like the man whose picture was on the stage. Peter Krough had a Sequoia High School yearbook he was showing around. There was one picture in it that he particularly wanted everyone to see. It had apparently been taken during rehearsals for some student production in Denny’s senior year. The to-die-for Marilyn Montgomery is sitting on top of an upright piano. Her legs are crossed and one hand is touching the back of her hair, in the pose sometimes associated with starlets of the forties. Denny is standing in front of the piano, with his hands in his pockets, smiling. Looking at the picture almost forty years after it was taken, I found it breathtaking. Of course, I was seeing it within a special context. It was a picture of Denny looking the way I remembered him, after all, and remembering Denny was the reason we were gathered. But I think just about anyone would have been struck by the health and the freshness and the exuberance and the optimism reflected in that picture. And the promise. In the fifties, such teenagers would have assumed that the world about to be faced was essentially without serious barriers. A high-school student like Denny Hansen seemed to have about him an aura of promise unlimited. Before the reception ended, I happened to fall into conversation with an SAIS doctoral student named Nancy Mitchell, who was there partly because she was a friend of Jim Robinson, Denny’s research assistant. She had been saddened by the talk of Roger Hansen’s early glories as Denny. “The way I see promise is that you have a knapsack, and all the time you’re growing up they keep stuffing promise into the knapsack,” she said. “Pretty soon, it’s just too heavy to carry. You have to unpack.”

Thursday, May 9, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt three)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

In the days that followed the item in the Times, there was a lot of phone calling. It soon became apparent that it had been years since any of Denny’s Yale friends had spent an evening with him or sat down at a meal with him. Some of the discussion on the phone, of course, was about what had gone wrong. Joe Clayton, one of Denny’s Yale roommates, said to me that he sometimes though that Denny had been pushed too far at Yale—by those who saw his promise, and by himself (“This has to do with honors, expectations, and nonfulfillment.”) Several people I spoke to reported mentioning Denny’s death to friends or acquaintances and listening in return to a story of some other collegiate superhero who eventually dropped out of sight or ended up filling a sinecure in the company of a sympathetic classmate or is at this moment quietly drinking himself to death in a New Jersey suburb—versions of the football hero in Irwin Shaw’s “The Eighty Yard Run” who could never live up to that bright and shining moment.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt two)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

“In memorializing the life of a colleague and a friend, we cannot ignore the fact that the circumstances in which Roger Hansen died are particularly solemn,” Tucker began. “If death is always an event we find shocking, the act of taking one’s life conveys an added measure of dread.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

the last book I ever read (Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, excerpt one)

from Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin:

“A disquieting tension between past and future began to emerge,” Pudge went on. “Denny was not quite sure why so many wonderful things happened to him. Maybe too much happened to Denny too quickly, too many accolades at too young an age. We create enormous expectations for talented people. Do we ask too much of our most able young people? Denny talked often of becoming the governor of California, but that wasn’t enough. The memory of Denny is dominated for many of us by the assumption that he would one day be President. It sounds silly and presumptuous, I know, but such was the mark of this young man. What an enormous burden for a young person who may not have had the emotional or social strength to absorb such a claim and not entangle his soul. A fear of failure and disappointing others can be paralyzing, and we can suffocate our young by creating unrealistic expectations. His disappointment over the rejection of his application for the Foreign Service, because of his bad back, after the Woodrow Wilson School, at Princeton, was a failed dream. He seemed to have difficulty picking up his direction after that. The lesson of Denny’s young life wrestles in our gut. It came to Denny so naturally, so effortlessly, I wonder if he was prepared for the inevitable reverses. It is difficult enough to fulfill one’s own expectations, let alone those of an entire community.”

I wanted to say that the part about Denny’s becoming President was sort of a joke, but I had to admit that it was a joke we never forgot. At our twenty-fifth Yale reunion, in 1982, Denny didn’t appear. “Naturally Hansen can’t show his face,” I said to some of the people who had been close to him. “He’s not the President. Even worse, he’s not on track for being President. You don’t go from being a professor of international relations to being President.” A year or two after the reunion, Pudge Henkel, who had gone to Yale Law School with Gary Hart, became the manager of the Hart campaign. I called a classmate. “Can’t you see what’s happening?” I said. “Hart becomes the President. He needs a national-security adviser. Whose counsel does he seek in finding someone? Pudge’s, of course—his loyal campaign manager. Pudge says, ‘I know a smart guy at Johns Hopkins—Roger D. Hansen.’ Hansen does very well. Hart self-destructs. Next time around, the Democrats nominate somebody else for President, but they need someone from the ‘Hart wing of the party’ on the ticket. Who else? Roger D. Hansen. He’s elected Vice President. The President dies. Hansen succeeds him. He shows up at the thirty-fifth reunion up to his ass in Secret Service men. He’s got that knowing smile on his face all weekend: we were just impatient. Why couldn’t we see it at the twenty-fifth?”

Monday, May 6, 2013

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt twelve)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

The morbid condition proceeded, I have come to believe, from my beginning years—from my father, who battled the gorgon for much of his lifetime, and had been hospitalized in my boyhood after a despondent spiraling downward that in retrospect I saw greatly resembled mine. The genetic roots of depression seem now to be beyond controversy. But I’m persuaded that an even more significant factor was the death of my mother when I was thirteen; this disorder and early sorrow—the death or disappearance of a parent, especially a mother, before or during puberty—appears repeatedly in the literature on depression as a trauma sometimes likely to create nearly irreparable emotional havoc. The danger is especially apparent if the young person is affected by what has been termed “incomplete mourning”—has, in effect, been unable to achieve the catharsis of grief, and so carries within himself through later years an insufferable burden of which rage and guilt, and not only dammed-up sorrow, are a part, and become the potential seeds of self-destruction.

The 49ers at McSweeney's, episode 13: Ilan Stavans

"There is one moment in my life, really, that transformed me forever, and that is the moment when I said I am giving everything up, everything that I have at the age of 25, no tender age really, and I will go on my own as an immigrant to the United States without anything. I don’t have anyone there to protect me, to offer me a job. I will just take the risk because if I don’t take the risk right now I will never take it."

from the 13th installment of The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50 for McSweeney's, this with professor, editor and author Ilan Stavans.


the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt eleven)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

A phenomenon that a number of people have noted while in deep depression is the sense of being accompanied by a second self—a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it. There is a theatrical quality about all this, and during the next several days, as I went about stolidly preparing for extinction, I couldn’t shake off a sense of melodrama—a melodrama in which I, the victim-to-be of self-murder, was both the solitary actor and lone member of the audience. I had not as yet chosen the mode of my departure, but I knew that that step would come next, and soon, as inescapable as nightfall.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt ten)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

For years I had kept a notebook—not strictly a diary, its entries were erratic and haphazardly written—whose contents I would not have particularly liked to be scrutinized by eyes other than my own. I had hidden it well out of sight in my house. I imply no scandalousness; the observations were far less raunchy, or wicked, or self-revealing, than my desire to keep the notebook private might indicate. Nonetheless, the small volume was one that I fully intended to make use of professionally and then destroy before the distant day when the specter of the nursing home came too near. So as my illness worsened I rather queasily realized that if I once decided to get rid of the notebook that moment would necessarily coincide with my decision to put an end to myself. And one evening during early December this moment came.

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt nine)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

I had now reached that phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity; my brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering. The mornings themselves were becoming bad now as I wandered about lethargic, following my synthetic sleep, but afternoons were still the worst, beginning at about three o’clock, when I’d feel the horror, like some poisonous fogbank, roll in upon my mind, forcing me into bed. There I would lie for as long as six hours, stuporous and virtually paralyzed, gazing at the ceiling and waiting for that moment of evening when, mysteriously, the crucifixion would ease up just enough to allow me to force down some food and then, like an automaton, seek an hour or two of sleep again. Why wasn’t I in a hospital?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt eight)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

One of the more memorable moments in Madame Bovary is the scene where the heroine seeks help from the village priest. Guilt-ridden, distraught, miserably depressed, the adulterous Emma—heading toward eventual suicide—stumblingly tries to prod the abbé into helping her find a way out of her misery. But the priest, a simple soul and none too bright, can only pluck at his stained cassock, distractedly shout at his acolytes, and offer Christian platitudes. Emma goes on her quietly frantic way, beyond comfort of God or man.

I felt a bit like Emma Bovary in my relationship with the psychiatrist I shall call Dr. Gold, whom I began to visit immediately after my return from Paris, when the despair had commenced its merciless daily drumming. I had never before consulted a mental therapist for anything, and I felt awkward, also a bit defensive; my pain had become so intense that I considered it quite improbable that conversation with another mortal, even one with professional expertise in mood disorders, could alleviate the distress. Madame Bovary went to the priest with the same hesitant doubt. Yet our society is so structured that Dr. Gold, or someone like him, is the authority to whom one is forced to turn in crisis, and it is not entirely a bad idea, since Dr. Gold—Yale-trained, highly qualified—at least provides a focal point toward which one can direct one’s dying energies, offers consolation if not much hope, and becomes the receptacle for an outpouring of woes during fifty minutes that also provides relief for the victim’s wife. Still, while I would never question the potential efficacy of psychotherapy in the beginning manifestations or milder forms of the illness—or possibly even in the aftermath of a serious onslaught—its usefulness at the advanced stage I was in has to be virtually nil. My more specific purpose in consulting Dr. Gold was to obtain help through pharmacology—though this too was, alas, a chimera for a bottomed-out victim such as I had become.

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt seven)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

The storm which swept me into a hospital in December began as a cloud no bigger than a wine goblet the previous June. And the cloud—the manifest crisis—involved alcohol, a substance I had been abusing for forty years. Like a great many American writers, whose sometimes lethal addiction to alcohol has become so legendary as to provide in itself a stream of studies and books, I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing; although I never set down a line while under its influence, I did use it—often in conjunction with music—as a means to let my mind conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to. Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.

Friday, May 3, 2013

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt six)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

Depression affects millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims. It has been estimated that as many as one in ten Americans will suffer from the illness. As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds and classes, though women are at considerably higher risk than men. The occupational list (dressmakers, barge captains, sushi chefs, cabinet members) of its patients is too long and tedious to give here; it is enough to say that very few people escape being a potential victim of the disease, at least in its milder form. Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of twenty percent of its victims by way of suicide. Just a few of these fallen artists, all modern, make up a sad but scintillant roll call: Hart Crane, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romain Gary, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Henry de Montherlant, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky—the list goes on. (The Russian poet Mayakovsky was harshly critical of his great contemporary Esenin’s suicide a few years before, which should stand as a caveat for all who are judgemental about self-destruction.) When one thinks of these doomed and splendidly creative men and women, one is drawn to contemplate their childhoods, where, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the seeds of the illness take strong root; could any of them have had a hint, then, of the psyche’s perishability, its exquisite fragility? And why were they destroyed, while others—similarly stricken—struggled through?

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt five)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

To many of us who knew Abbie Hoffman even slightly, as I did, his death in the spring of 1989 was a sorrowful happening. Just past the age of fifty, he had been too young and apparently too vital for such an ending; a feeling of chagrin and dreadfulness attends the news of nearly anyone’s suicide, and Abbie’s death seemed to me especially cruel. I had first met him during the wild days and nights of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where I had gone to write a piece for The New York Review of Books, and I later was one of those who testified in behalf of him and his fellow defendants at the trial, also in Chicago, in 1970. Amid the pious follies and morbid perversions of American life, his antic style was exhilarating, and it was not hard to admire the hell-raising and the brio, the anarchic individualism. I wish I had seen more of him in recent years; his sudden death left me with a particular emptiness, as suicides usually do to everyone. But the event was given a further dimension of poignancy by what one must begin to regard as a predictable reaction from many: the denial, the refusal to accept the fact of the suicide itself, as if the voluntary act—as opposed to an accident, or death from natural causes—were tinged with a delinquency that somehow lessened the man and his character.

Abbie’s brother appeared on television, grief-ravage and distraught; one could not help feeling compassion as he sought to deflect the idea of suicide, insisting that Abbie, after all, had always been careless with pills and would never have left his family bereft. However, the coroner confirmed that Hoffman had taken the equivalent of 150 phenobarbitals. It’s quite natural that the people closest to suicide victims so frequently and feverishly hasten to disclaim the truth; the sense of implication, of personal guilt—the idea that one might have prevented the act if one had taken certain precautions, had somehow behaved differently—is perhaps inevitable. Even so, the sufferer—whether he has actually killed himself of attempted to do so, or merely expressed threats—is often, through denial on the part of others, unjustly made to appear a wrongdoer.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt four)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

The memory of Jean Seberg gripped me with sadness. A little over a year after our encounter in Connecticut she took an overdose of pills and was found dead in a car parked in a cul-de-sac off a Paris avenue, where her body had lain for many days. The following year I sat with Romain at the Brasserie Lipp during a long lunch while he told me that, despite their difficulties, his loss of Jean had so deepened his depression that from time to time he had been rendered nearly helpless. But even then I was unable to comprehend the nature of his anguish. I remembered that his hands trembled and, though he could hardly be called superannuated—he was in his mid-sixties—his voice had the wheezy sound of very old age that I now realized was, or could be, the voice of depression; in the vortex of my severest pain I had begun to develop that ancient voice myself. I never saw Romain again. Claude Gallimard, Françoise’s father, had recollected to me how, in 1980, only a few hours after another lunch where the talk between the two old friends had been composed and casual, even lighthearted, certainly anything but somber, Romain Gary—twice winner of the Prix Goncourt (one of these awards pseudonymous, the result of his having gleefully tricked the critics), hero of the Republic, valorous recipient of the Croix de Guerre, diplomat, bon vivant, womanizer par excellence—went home to his apartment on the rue du Bac and put a bullet through his brain.

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt three)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

Camus, Romain told me, occasionally hinted at his own deep despondency and had spoken of suicide. Sometimes he spoke in jest, but the jest had the quality of sour wine, upsetting Romain. Yet apparently he made no attempts and so perhaps it was not coincidental that, despite its abiding tone of melancholy, a sense of the triumph of life over death is at the core of The Myth of Sisyphus with its austere message: in the absence of hope we must still struggle to survive, and so we do—by the skin of our teeth. It was only after the passing of some years that it seemed credible to me that Camus’s statement about suicide, and his general preoccupation with the subject, might have sprung at least as strongly from some persistent disturbance of mood as from his concerns with ethics and epistemology. Gary again discussed at length his assumptions about Camus’s depression during August of 1978, when I had lent him my guest cottage in Connecticut, and I came down from my summer home on Martha’s Vineyard to pay him a weekend visit. As we talked I felt that some of Romain’s suppositions about the seriousness of Camus’s recurring despair gained weight from the fact that he, too, had begun to suffer from depression, and he freely admitted as much. It was not incapacitating, he insisted, and he had it under control, but he felt it from time to time, the leaden and poisonous mood the color of verdigris, so incongruous in the midst of the lush New England summer. A Russian Jew born in Lithuania, Romain had always seemed possessed of an Eastern European melancholy, so it was hard to tell the difference. Nonetheless, he was hurting. He said that he was able to perceive a flicker of the desperate state of mind which had been described to him by Camus.

Gary’s situation was hardly lightened by the presence of Jean Seberg, his Iowa-born actress wife, from whom he had been divorced and, I thought, long estranged. I learned that she was there because their son, Diego, was at a nearby tennis camp. Their presumed estrangement made me surprised to see her living with Romain, surprised too—no, shocked and saddened—by her appearance: all her once fragile and luminous blond beauty had disappeared into a puffy mask. She moved like a sleepwalker, said little, and had the blank gaze of someone tranquilized (or drugged, or both) nearly to the point of catalepsy. I understood how devoted they still were, and was touched by his solicitude, both tender and paternal. Romain told me that Jean was being treated for the disorder that afflicted him, and mentioned something about antidepressant medications, but none of this registered very strongly, and almost meant little. This memory of my relative indifference is important because such indifference demonstrates powerfully the outsider’s inability to grasp the essence of the illness. Camus’s depression and now Romain Gary’s—and certainly Jean’s—were abstract ailments to me, in spite of my sympathy, and I hadn’t an inkling of its true contours or the nature of the pain so many victims experience as the mind continues in its insidious meltdown.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt two)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

And zombielike, halfway through the dinner, I lost the del Duca prize check for $25,000. Having tucked the check in the inside breast pocket of my jacket, I let my hand stray idly to that place and realized that it was gone. Did I “intend” to lose the money? Recently I had been deeply bothered that I was not deserving of the prize. I believe in the reality of the accidents we subconsciously perpetuate on ourselves, and so how easy it was for this loss to be not loss but a form of repudiation, offshoot of that self-loathing (depression’s premier badge) by which I was persuaded that I could not be worthy of the prize, that I was in fact not worthy of any of the recognition that had come my way in the past few years. Whatever the reason for its disappearance, the check was gone, and its loss dovetailed well with the other failures of the dinner: my failure to have an appetite for the grand plateau de fruits de mer placed before me, failure of even forced laughter and, at last, virtually total failure of speech. At this point the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond a hoarse murmur; I sensed myself turning wall-eyed, monosyllabic, and also I sensed my French friends becoming uneasily aware of my predicament. It was a scene from a bad operetta by now: all of us near the floor, searching for the vanished money. Just as I signaled that it was time to go, Françoise’s son discovered the check, which had somehow slipped out of my pocket and fluttered under an adjoining table, and we went forth into the rainy night. Then, while I was riding in the car, I thought of Albert Camus and Romain Gary.

the last book I ever read (William Styron's Darkness Visible, excerpt one)

from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron:

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, “the blues” which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle of everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form. But at the time of which I write I had descended far past those familiar, manageable doldrums. In Paris, I am able to see now, I was at a critical stage in the development of the disease, situated at an ominous way station between its unfocused stirrings earlier that summer and the near-violent denouement of December, which sent me into the hospital. I will later attempt to describe the evolution of this malady, from its earliest origins to my eventual hospitalization and recovery, but the Paris trip has retained a notable meaning for me.