Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 56 – HOUSES AGAIN

We were in a barn behind a Waspily tasteful house, looking at two black Bentleys, way out on the Easton Road in deep, maturing second growth North Country woods. It was August and there was a chill to the air.

The barn seemed strangely dead. I could not imagine live cows or farm workers in it. We were standing around these two old but perfectly maintained black Bentleys. And I heard myself asking the tweed-capped old gentleman who owned them if they were for sale – and he said they were in the sort of careful British-like, American upper-class accent so common to the summer people. It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask him, since I was quite drunk – drunker probably, than my old friend from childhood and her new husband, who had brought me here.

It was the summer of 1970 – and there was talk about the chance I would soon have money. I did not realize there was always such talk when you had a certain kind of novel coming out. My editor was saying that mine – which was set in Vietnam-era Bangkok, and had plenty of war and sex in it – would somehow be the successor to Taipan, Love Is A Many Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong. He said this though the advance had been $5000 (which seemed high to me).

I was on the final reworking, actually meeting my deadline. In the six months since signing the contract I had been sometimes working furiously, and sometimes furiously not working – moving first to London, then to Las Palmas in the Canaries, then back to London, and then to an obscure part of the obscure island/country Malta, and back to London again, then Zermatt, then Frankfort, and once more London. An old childhood friend who had become an investment banker lived there, and many war-loving journalists I had known in Southeast Asia were passing through.

I had not much liked London this time around and was wondering if I had ever liked London or had just been told by the family that it was my favorite place. For it was their place, not mine, the place where my sexy Aunty Betsy had a child and lingered after her husband was killed, and also adopted two more children. More important, it was the home of my grandparents’ close friends Sir Arthur and Lady Ethel Salter – names that were actually shouted out by a footman at the sort of parties these friends went to.

All of this being the sort of thing I hated most except when it was parodied for comedy's sake.

But then I was reluctantly coming also to hate the family’s home base, the White Mountains, notwithstanding that I had come into life there, including love and sex and literature. Despite sex and love I could never totally deny what the White Mountains stood for – which included silly, bigoted Wasps (who had recently voted for Nixon),

That there was a long-odds chance that my book would make big money did not explain why, as the book came to an end, I had been drawn here. Drawn not so much like the moth to the flame as like the fly to the flypaper.

Why did I come? Why, when drunk, did I, clearly a radical left-winger when out in the world, say I wanted to own a Bentley? I knew I would never spend another summer here – I know it on some level – but a few days before the Bentley evening, when drunk again, I had talked seriously with my friends here about using book money to buy back White Pines, the biggest of the old family places. Bringing White Pines back to glory, the way it was before it had been sold to avoid taxes and fallen into the hands of uncouth people. Gatsby-like I would buy it.

The people of the past could make of this what they would. I would put them in their place, though it might seem I as out to honor them. For just a moment this house purchase idea, like the Bentley idea, had the feel of clear thinking – for just a brief gin-soaked moment.

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