Thursday, October 18, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 4 - Beyond fiction

One thing that helped me bury my deeper stories for many years was respect for “fiction.” I was from a literary family. My grandfather, Ernest Poole, had won the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction with a novel, His Family, that was partly taken from his own life. Vital parts of what might be life to other people – especially sex that might be appealing – were ruled out. All of his couples slept in separate bedrooms whether married or not (which was the tendency in his own family, and in the families of his children and even with all but a few of us in the generation that came next ). In one scene in my grandfather’s best known novel, The Harbor, a boy in Brooklyn sees a naked prostitute in a window, as had my grandfather himself when young in Chicago, and the result is terror mixed with prudishness, without an apparent touch of admitted lust. The boy runs home to take comfort from his mother. I respected this because it was in a published book, because it was literature and because the author was my grandfather. But it did not seem quite right, and not because I could not picture the naked girl.

My father was a book person too. He was editor-in-chief of a publishing house where for a long time he had great success not with “fiction” but with light, personal experience “nonfiction,” stories of happy, again apparently sexless, families of regular people – Chicken Every Sunday, Cheaper by the Dozen, Excuse my Dust – families that were not from the same planet as the very formal family from which he came and where he had been a lonely boy with a pony cart, often left alone with a governess in one of his parents’ big formal house in the otherwise scruffy White Mountains of New Hampshire while his parents traveled abroad. There was no seeming connection between his own life and the lives of the regular people in the books he published. Here, it later seemed to me, was real respect for fiction, even though it was not labeled as such. These happy first person family-story books were taken by book clubs, made the best seller lists, sometimes became movies – and then it all came to an end with the rise of television. At that point all the happy, funny, too-good-to-be-true family stories, stories in which sex never reared its ugly head in any way that seemed real, were taken over by fifties television sitcoms that depicted the world as fearful people hoped it would be in the bland and repressive Eisenhower years. Soon my father was out of work.

What I first wanted to write had to do with things I read when I was alone at Holderness, my boarding school – gentle Georgian buildings, political and literary discovery and adolescent cruelty down in New Hampshire’s lake country. At the beginning, shunned by the world, it seemed, I was reading everything from adventure stories to Shakespeare, everything except books assigned in classes. Each night I had to go to evening study hall because I was one of the slow, dull students. I sat in a musty old assembly room in a building we called the Schoolhouse, which had once been an old-time one-room schoolhouse and now had individual classrooms added around the periphery of this central room. Here each of we 68 boys had a very old desk – initials from the deep past carved in the slanting, rutted, varnished top, which was on a hinge so that the top could be pulled up, leaving a box containing school books, and just above the hinge an indentation where a pencil or nub pen could rest without sliding down into your lap, and to the right of the indentation a cut-out circle where there was an old ink well, every inkwell checked for refilling every day.

I sat on a seat attached to the desk behind me. It was a little ghostly, since the vast marjority of the boys were on room study.

I read only from the first year English anthology. I was not doing homework, and I only opened my other school books so that it would look like I ws studying. But I was way beyond homework, for I was discovering, on my own, first Kipling and then Shakespeare and then Wordsworth, and then Conrad, taking in their words while trying to look like I was involved with Algebra , which was taught by the football coach, and geography and world history, where our teacher was the basketball coach and the books seemed like the baby talk books of elementary school, and Latin and French, which made no sense at all to me.

I had these books, and in time I was sent another book from home, my grandfather’s last book, The Nancy Flier, just published posthumously by my father many years after the book where the naked girl in the window made a cameo appearance. By the time it arrived I was still reading from the English anthology but I was also up to my ears in modern novels, which in study hall I hid inside the text books, which, designed for 14 year olds, were slim but tall and wide.

The Nancy Flier was an historical novel about a boy who worked on stage coaches in the White Mountains. It was set in a stage coach inn between Lisbon and Littleton which still stood, though long abandoned, and had been pointed out to me every summer of my life. In this novel there was a brief appearance by a young man from over in Portsmouth who was a cabin boy on a clipper ship. I decided I would take this minor character and make up a book-length story about him – a clipper ship companion piece to my grandfather’s stage coach book.

Except that I did not believe either boy had ever existed – not like the title character in Studs Lonnigan who lusts after his sister, or the narrator in Wolfe, who wants to experience everything in the world and pretty much does it with women, including one who is older and seems to envelope him in flesh, or Hemingway, who combines war and sex, or Fitzgerald, who writes of basically unattainable but sex-driven girls high on the social scale in societies that can seem as outwardly staid as that from which I came.

It would briefly occur to me that I might be writing about my own life, and the though was quickly dismissed. I couldn’t do anything like that in those boarding school years – write stories from life! Things were changing rapidly for me in this little school, now that I was living away from my family. Suddenly so much was opening up for me that I was doing as well as, and usually better than, my twin in this school. And I was bringing debating trophies to the school. And outside the school my life also now has girls in it.

But who in the world would be interested in real stories by such a shy person as me whose grip on the story he wanted to live was still so tenuous?

When J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye came out two years later it seemed to many of us – like me at Holderness and our friend from the summer Lou Cornell at Taft – that this changed everything – a matter about which my brother and I, so often rivals now, completely agreed. A book confirming the real place in the real world of a prep school boy. Something, it seemed, no one had noticed till now. Boys at many boarding schools were suddenly writing each other letters that were really letters of congratulations. At last our side was winning. The dumb and cruel but popular athletes had no idea what we were talking about. And the book critics were dismissing it all as vulgarity.

In my three years now at this little school I had been feigning disinterest in the bullies to the point where I almost, but not quite, believed they would not win in the end – and now maybe The Catcher in the Rye would be their death knell. Holden Caulfield was reporting on much of what had been my experience – family and school worlds where he was not understood, bullying and snobbery in a small prep school, a longing for actual sex with actual girls – surrounded by boys who operated from snobbery and physical cruelty. Holden and I were not exactly alike – he wasn’t a competitive debater. I had never gotten so close to sex as he did when a sad young prostitute came to his room at a sad Times Square Hotel. Moreover, I was not nearly so successful as him at putting my life into my own words, not words it was supposed to be in. But we were close enough. We loved girls. We hated phoniness. What a wonderful word, phoniness. It covered so much. We were real outsiders and by now I, like Holden, was no longer ashamed of it.

Still, there was something that disturbed me about the Salinger book.

In my last year in boarding school, when I was no longer seriously unpopular, a group of us met in New York on Easter vacation – got noisily drunk on gin – gin and tonic and something called a pink lady – moving around among the many places that would serve people under 18, which was then the legal age – the very formal dark wood and leather men’s bar at the Biltmore, the very informal Village place called Julius’s, which had sawdust on the floor, the Dixieland places Jimmy Ryan’s and Eddie Condon's, and the bar at One Fifth Avenue. Too drunk to go to any home, we decided to get a hotel room. We decided on an excitingly grubby place, the mildewed old Carter Hotel in a lost land between the movie theaters and across form Hubert’s Flea Circus on 42nd Street. This, we were sure, was the hotel where Holden Caulfield had met that appealing and heartrending young prostitute.

She did seem appealing to me, unlike to Salinger. And this low-life hotel seemed to me a place of infinite possible adventures. Holden had turned the girl down, which seemed to me not unlike my grandfather running home to his mother when he saw a naked woman in a window. It just made no sense, and I suspected it meant that even in Salinger there was a deep underlying prissiness that falsified life as life would actually be. That night when we were all drunk there were no girls for us in the hotel, though there may have been for older, more solid citizens. Still, I believed from whorehouse scenes in my reading that there was a glamour to prostitution, and I was determined that when the right girl appeared I was not going to run, and I was certainly not going to send her away.

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