Tuesday, January 8, 2008
WRITTEN WORD 53 – Me and Not Me
Time-Life took me on because I gave them text blocks for a picture essay that turned out to be a test given to many applicants – a competition that, to my discredit, I won – a spread about the life of the awful Eisenhower, in which I made him appear almost heroic, at least crazy like a fox, in his bland deviousness, as if I were really unconscious of how detached and unscrupulous, and how blinded by ambition and how reactionary he was. This horrified me, that I could write in such a way that made Eisenhower (whom I knew Time-Life would still like) appear to be someone admirable.
The prize was a job as an in-house free-lancer that would lead to a full staff position. The wanted me to stay, which had played into why I was in Bangkok ahead of schedule. The mere mention of my staying was enough to make me run, as if fleeing for my life.
In this time, turning 30, after newspaper work and after writing unpublished novels in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Slovenia and Greece, I’d been fired from a job said to have a future at a quite prissy New York City place called American Heritage, which produced books and a magazines that said nice things about grim American people and places of the past, including nice things about the violent American Old West and just about every American president and every American. war.
The day I was fired at Heritage I walked up a few blocks and was taken on by Time-Life Books, which paid much more than anyone else, and had constant catered parties – caviar and roasts carved and served by polite uniformed waiters while other uniformed servants mixed drinks and poured wine – a different universe from the one in which office parties meant Lay’s potato chips and warm drinks served in water cooler cups.
And moreover it seemed that writers, who here had offices with views from Rockefeller Center all the way into other boroughs or New Jersey, were tacitly expected to sleep with researchers, who had their desks and book cases in corridor areas that were at least more specious than the cubicles forced upon people in lesser companies. The writers were almost all men, the researchers almost all women, who tended to be sharper than the writers and seemed to have been hired on looks as well as ability.
And my life was complicated enough already. In the East Village I got the crabs from a least likely source, who I had loved but left, and there was a girl living near my ground floor Waverly Place apartment whom I had just missed when I left Greece two years back a month before she arrived there but now was back and living on Greenwich Avenue - and we began to make up for the missed connections. Not to mention girls picked up in a range of low-life places. And not to mention the sexiest women in the world, who was from the South – a friend’s wife when I met her, an affair that now spanned everything else that had happened. I was in bed one morning on Waverly Place with the girl I had almost known in Greece when the sexiest woman in the world came in a window with a wild, determined if ironic, look.
Everything was false in those six months of often erotic drifting and drinking that seemed like six years. Everything I wrote in the two or three hours a day I put in – arriving late, and then off early to a long boozy luncheon with other Time-Life people – everything I wrote was about people and places and I had never seen – not just Eisenhower but also Outer Mongolia and Venezuela – wrote from material provided me by researchers who were so unimportant that they were sent out to see what should be seen and conduct any interviews that were needed. So unimportant that they had to deal with actual experience.
This is not me. I don’t want to be what I seem to be. I am not really here in this place.
So here I was in Bangkok – having gone off into a snow storm to Idlewild one January day. A graceful, green-eyed Time-Life co-worker, to whom I might have been loyal for life if life were less bizarre, had vanished while I was closing my suitcase, leaving a note that said she could not take another goodbye. And I wanted to go to Bangkok, and when I got there I wanted to stay – those bright green rice fields on the outskirts and then the canals and the river and the graceful and big temples with their sloping roofs and bright red and green tiles and gold leaf – and the grandiose night clubs and bars and massage parlors – and the river, the Chao Phrya, where I had a house that could be reached only by water.
Time-Life had refused to let me resign. The main editor (a gracious man who also wrote his own books) had said that they were giving me an indefinite leave of absence, it apparently being inconceivable that anyone would leave Time-Life in that lush time in its history. Eventually I told them by mail that I was never coming back, and they sent me what, since I was operating in Bangkok with over-valued dollars, was quite a large check which they said was because they had decided to grant me profit-sharing retroactively, even though I had been an in-house free-lancer who did not qualify for benefits.
Before then I knew I wanted to stay in Bangkok, which was nothing like how it was described in either the very few non-academic books out on Thailand (most of them written by CIA people or by embassy wives) – neither those books nor anything in the special research packets that I had ordered up from the Time-Life research department.
I wanted to stay in Bangkok but I did not know about the Time-Life check that would come. In a great hurry I had sent letters to everyone I knew in New York looking for something that would keep me afloat. The result was a steady stream of contracts in the years I was in Southeast Asia, for quite genteel books aimed at school libraries, books giving more or less straight accounts of countries of the region – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. And at the same time, this being just before there was hard core porn available in America, books for a big paperback house, Macfadden-Bartell, that were soft core but with hard core hints – Bangkok After Dark, Manila After Dark, Taipei After Dark – and paid more than hard core ever would.
This did not seem like real writing yet but I was getting closer. It was a far cry from Time-Life, for I did my own research, even in the middle of the night. Often now I was telling myself this is me, this time, this is really me here in this rich and wild tropical place. This is me now, even though my books were never quite accurate in the crucial sense of filling in context.
And it was a far cry from the writing to which I aspired. And also it was a time I would look back on with longing – in every area of a man’s life except spiritual. I would look back a couple of years later, after I had done that Bankok novel I thought would change everything, and it has been published by a major house, and then I found myself in the claustrophobic, anti-Semitic Middle East, where I kept telling myself, this is not me, this has nothing to do with me.