Wednesday, January 9, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 54 – Another Try at Fiction

In this desperate time, I went to the old version of Abercrombie & Fitch – which was in its last days costuming members of the camp and cottage world for things that would look like adventure. It was close to Ivy League-inspired Brooks Brother’s on Madison, near Grand Central and the Biltmore, where the last young men preparing for these declining worlds still met their dates under the clock. I went to Abercrombie's to get ominous tinted glasses, which seemed to be something that would give me cachet in the old movie scenes I planned to stage on the Eastern Mediterranean – the wily Levant.

I was going in and out of the city from a small cottage on the water in Northport, Long Island, where I had retreated without a phone and without a car, for good reason, in this time I had been getting to the parties with the famous people but making desperate phone calls all over the world late at night.

"Hi," said a man in the private elevator, holding his hand out -- "I'm Dave Rockefeller."

And with Bill Moyers, who was on the spring list with me at Harper's Magazine Press, I picked up on a conversation about Singapore that we'd begun a week before over beer with our mutual editor, and then with another Texan I heard how Johnson had kept spies in the war room because he thought so many of the generals and admirals were dangerous crazies.

At Abercrombie & Fitch I bought a tan bush suit and canvas shoes. Then I went to the new editor of Harper's Magazine – an unassuming man who had been brought in recently when the owners fired the untameable Willie Morris, whose patronage had taken me to front tables at Elaine's. I sold the new editor on the idea of a story about Beirut as the romantic new center of the Levant, scene for devious complications involving picaresque people from all corners of the world – the equivalent, I said, of the pre-Nasser Alexandria of the Lawrence Durrell novels that I liked so much.

I got a tiny advance from my book editor at Harper's to get working on another novel of my own. Then through a dubious agent who had handled my previous pseudonymous Bangkok After Dark, Taipei After Dark and Manila After Dark, I signed a contract to write Beirut After Dark – this in the declining days of not just Abercrombie's, Brooks and the Biltmore but also soft core porn.

(I signed even though I knew better, for I had once been in Beirut and had had trouble getting a hotel room because my girlfriend and I were not married. I had found Beirut crowded and small minded, and Alexandria I knew as a gone-to-seed backwater, but that was not what I told the editor - or myself.)

Sometimes I would stay over in the city at the Statler Hilton, partly because the idea of Hiltons offended the good-taste people, and partly because it was an efficient place from which to buy tickets, send cables, put things in storage.

From a pay phone in Northport I contacted Marian, recently divorced from my friend John: she was playing the ingénue to Jane Russell's lead in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. I went in, slept through the show (I'd been drinking on the train) but picked her up backstage in my bush suit and tinted glasses, and was pretty certain people were staring at me, not just at Marian, as we walked over to Sardi’s.

Marian. A contract to start another novel. A foreign correspondent assignment. Tinted glasses. A soft core paperback deal in overvalued U.S. dollars. A bush jacket. I headed to the airport on the day I was supposed to be addressing the Breadloaf Writer's Conference. I had hoped Breadloaf would be full of lithe literary groupies, but recently I had been told otherwise. Now, I decided, I would regain my fortunes in Beirut. At this time I still believed in fiction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fred, each one of these latter stories is extraordinary in its unique adventure -- outward and inward. The whole feels organic -- a cornucopia of experience. I'm reminded of the narrator as little boy in Florida -- exploring the swamps, shops and bars; as the adult, that same sense of curiosity appears to beckon him forward, propelling him again and again into the juicy aspects of life with a questioning (questing) exploration. DeAnn