A great writer once said that in order for your life to be worth anything, you had to sooner or later face the prospect of a “terrible, searing regret”. You read these lines when you’re young and you suppose they ring with the truth of the ages. You underline them and perhaps dog-ear the page for later recall. But you don’t really believe it; it’s just literary posturing, you tell yourself. It’s not until you are older and have tracked enough mud and shit through the hallways of your own home, and perhaps even tried to burn it down a few times, that all of these hard-won lines come back like the words to a song you have almost, but not quite, forgotten.
The writer in question is still alive, producing a thick and nearly word-perfect novel every seven years or so. He has already won every major award including the Pulitzer, so I suppose there is little for him to do now except keep his mind and his fingers moving. I met him once, coincidentally, at a publishing fair in France that is since defunct. The event was called Livre, and it drew all the literary lights of the day. It wasn’t as big as the Frankfurt show, but it was bigger than London. This was back when books and writers and ideas not only mattered, they were revered. I was there by accident, subbing for our senior acquisitions editor who had chosen that particular week in October of 1992 to enter into the final phase of a complete mental breakdown.
Artie McManus, who was my boss and a good man with a good heart, had helped build House of Simcoe into the country’s most successful and arguably utmost venerated literary publisher (so I could several years later throw a match on the whole woodpile – but more on that later). It is a human weakness, I have discovered, this capacity of ours to allow unpleasant recent history to almost completely obscure a nearly note-perfect past. Artie McManus had built brick by brick the careers of some of the nation’s most celebrated authors, household names of men and women who, though they pulled their pants on one leg at a time like the mere mortals around them, developed amnesia when it came time to recall from whence they had come. They forgot about those early days when they submitted their manuscripts and waited for agonizing months like everybody else, running to the mailbox every afternoon, jumping at every phone call, turning themselves inside out with the expectation of defeat overshadowing the tiny glimmer of hope. They forgot it was Artie’s hand that reached into the waist-deep slush pile, pulled them out and spanked them to life as a doctor to a newborn baby’s ass.
Artie didn’t have a drinking problem so much as he employed booze and a variety of pills in his quest to somehow find equilibrium in the world. He was only fifty-one and at the height of his powers when he hired me straight out of university, and fifty-six when the final meltdown occurred the week ahead of Livre. In many ways, I have Artie to thank for not only giving me my start, but also for deciding to let go of that last strand of rope binding him to this material world at that particular time and place. The owner of The House, as we were known within the industry, had no choice but to send me on my first flight to Europe, a briefcase full of opening chapters and outlines and talking points. I had been shadowing Artie for so long it was like we shared a memory bank when it came to understanding the thrust of a particular story we had within our grasp. Similar to a married couple, we had fallen into a routine of gestures, body language, the monosyllabic communication of the familiar.
Of course I was both excited and absolutely terrified at the prospect of stepping into a swirling foreign exhibition centre without Artie shouldering his way through the crowds ahead of me, thrusting his big hand out and beaming his thousand-watt smile. Even on the darkest of days, those mornings when I had only to look into his eyes to glimpse the gloomy clench of pain and suffering twisting within the man, Artie could always shake it off with a perfectly witty comment, something self-deprecating and inherently true, perhaps spouting from memory a long line from Proust or Steinbeck. Until, that is, the morning that he flicked the switch and the motor wouldn’t start, and he sat there on the side of his bed, his brain a cold dead engine. His daughter, Sophia, called me at the office where I was busy collating paperwork for Artie’s looming trip to France.
“Oh Morley,” she said. I could tell she was crying. “Daddy’s sick.”
And so began the end of one man’s career and the beginning of another, this unexpected and undeserved fumbled passing of the torch. I went to the place where Artie had been living since his heart-breaking but amicable divorce, a two-bedroom apartment above a twenty-four hour food market on Front Street East. Sophia let me in and we hugged before even uttering a word. I had imagined this moment perhaps a hundred times, but the context was all wrong. Her little body clung to mine and I felt the reverberations of her crying, and when she lifted her head she left wet marks on the lapel of my tweed sports coat.
“He won’t come out of bed. He’s just sitting there staring into space.”
I knew Artie wrestled with demons. We had spent a few nights on the road, travelling to New York several times to visit with sister publishing companies and once even to L.A. where we sold a book to a mentally ill film producer who lived in a glass garden shed on the side of a cliff. It is away from the office and recognizable environs that we catch a glimpse of our true nature. It’s a truism that if you want to find out what someone is really like, you should take a trip with them. I had peered into Artie’s heart of darkness, in other words. I had pulled him away from hotel bars at closing time, I had listened to his intelligent but disconnected arguments about the filth he could never wash from his skin on account of the all of compromises he had made in the name of commerce over art. And I loved the man. I would have hardly given it a thought if Artie had called my room at 2:25 am and asked me to fetch a tarp, a shovel, carpet cleaner, and a vehicle with a big trunk.
“I’ll go and talk to him,” I assured Sophia.
Her eyes were swollen from crying. Like most men, I have never been confident in the proximity of a crying woman. I feel like the captain of a ship who has lost his compass just as he is entering rough seas and all the sailors are asking where we’re headed and what should they do. That we are supposed to do something about the crying is obvious; why else would God have allowed for this Pavlovian response that is as innate as squinting in the sun?
There are certain things we witness in a life that all the wishing or therapy in the world will never erase. Much like a boy who accidentally stumbles behind the curtain after a magic show and catches the magician smoking a cigarette and dismantling his tricks, I stepped into Artie’s room and was forever changed.
“Hey Artie,” I said, opening the door and letting light cut across the darkness.
The room smelled of sweat and desperation and probably the sour staleness of his exhaled breath and flatulence. The window had been closed all night despite the fact it was spring. He was a dark figure with his back to the door, the comforter bunched around his waist. He didn’t so much as flinch.
“I’m going to turn the light on, okay?”
“Don’t do it,” he said without turning.
“I can hardly see in here,” I said.
“Everything has already been revealed. I don’t need to see anymore. I’ve seen enough for two lifetimes. Maybe three.”
I closed the door most of the way so we could have our privacy. I knew Sophia was just down the hall trying to hear what was going on. Though I would much later be proven disastrously wrong on this count, I trusted my intuition back then as fully as only the young are capable. I sensed that Artie had reached a strange new place in his arduous journey. The sound of his voice was both distressing and intoxicating. I had always listened to what he told me, for I knew I was learning from one of the best. But his voice that day took on the dangerous tenor of a man who has been to the top of the hill and returned with a vision of absolute truth. He sounded like I imagined Jack Kerouac might have sounded in the 1950s.
“What can I do for you, Artie?” I asked. I felt as helpless as the moment Sophia had clung to me, her body vibrating, as though the mere fact of my existence might provide some sort of solution.
“Fuck everyone and their lying dirty hearts,” he said.
I had left the door open a crack and it bled just enough light for me to toe my way to him like a mostly blind man shuffling tentatively down the sidewalk. I sat on the edge of the bed. He didn’t seem to mind or even notice. He nodded a few times and then he said, in a low and unfaltering voice like a cynical poet who could care less if anyone hears his words: “Fuck the writers and fuck the publishers who print their blasphemy, and double fuck all the lambs who gobble their fertilized slop. There is no truth to what we do, we are whores at worst, merchants of escapism at best.”
Now I told you I had been silent witness to Artie’s late night diatribes, his philosophical views on the federal government, the lousy system behind the distribution of arts grants, award panels that could be bribed with a salad and a handjob, the ever-present force of U.S. culture looming like a debt collector at the door, the intolerable authors he wanted to murder and the small-hearted book critics he wanted to torture, and somewhere in there I even heard about his once-bountiful marriage and his sacred only daughter and his own early attempts at writing something of lasting beauty. But I had never heard him speak with such dark allusion. There was an undertow of malevolence. That a switch had been thrown was beyond question. Artie was hurtling at full speed down a whole new set of tracks.
“We’re salon attendants in a great big masturbation machine,” he continued, though his point had already been made. “Our job is to lather, rinse, and repeat. I make ten, maybe fifteen percent, turning vomit into chardonnay. I haven’t enjoyed reading a book in I-don’t-know-how-long. And that’s the problem. I don’t even remember what used to inspire me. You know? I always wanted a life with words, to hold and touch them, and yes, maybe once a while even reach out and find a new one … ”
It is easy with hindsight to come up with a million inspiring things I could have told Artie, philosophical or spiritual reassurances meant to provide context against his dark night of the soul. It is always this way. I sometimes think what we call ‘hindsight’ is God’s version of those alternate takes you sometimes get on the special feature section of a DVD. We walk away from the argument and our head buzzes with perfect one-liners, zingers that would have rendered our opponent speechless and in awe of our superior intellect. For example, I could have quoted Seneca who asked, “where is the need to compose something to last for ages?” Or Sartre’s take on literature and existentialism, wherein he posited on the philosophical intent of the writer as insurance against eventual and guaranteed obscurity. Or perhaps a line or two from Artie’s beloved Jean Rhys, the dark princess of prose: “If I could choose, I would rather be happy than write.” But that morning I came up empty. I was younger than I am now, less experienced, lacking in confidence, and nearly destroyed at the pitiable sight of my mentor wilting before me.
“I have all your paperwork ready for Paris,” I said.
Artie bowed his chin to his chest. And then he raised himself and he turned and looked at me, his face a shadow except for a thin ray of light across one eye that stared at me like a diamond in the dark.
“You’ll have to go, kid,” he said as though he were reading a weather report.
“But I … ”
“You know this stuff. You know the books. Brace yourself. And don’t let anybody give you a handjob under the table. Nothing comes without a price. And watch out for the pickpockets over there. Tell Sophia to lock the door when she leaves. I’m tired. I’m so damned tired.”
Artie crawled back into bed and pulled the covers up over his head. I heard the familiar sound of his snoring within seconds. A sound that had tormented me on road trips to the point of genuine resentment was now a sound that almost brought tears to my eyes. I looked down at the lumpy form beneath the covers and couldn’t stop myself from imaging a grave that had been freshly topped with soil. I stepped back out of the room and quietly closed the door. I remember standing there with my nose pressed to the door for the longest time, thinking and not thinking, and then remembering for some reason a line from Camus about the absurdity of life. My hearing had turned off the way it sometimes does, replaced with the buzz of white noise. I didn’t hear Sophia walk up behind me. I jumped when she put her hand on my shoulder. I turned and looked into her red and swollen eyes, and knew with the conviction of a diehard zealot that we would build a life together.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to draw you into this.”
I shrugged. “It’s Artie,” I said, as though it explained everything.
“He adores you,” Sophia said. And she sniffed and smiled the way girls sometimes do even while they’re crying, this magical ability they alone possess, proof yet again of their evolutionary advancement. “It’s not cliché, you know. He really does think of you as the son he never had.”
I could have told the truth, which is that I loved the man more than I had ever loved my own father, and it tore me up to see him relinquishing his grip without so much as a struggle. I could have said that I would do anything for Artie, even carry his books to Paris and step into the fray of elbows and cigarettes and martinis and condescension practiced as an art form, if it meant that he might use the time to recover and get back in the game. I could even have told her that I was more than willing to formalize our pseudo father-son relationship by proposing to her on the spot. But I was twenty-five years old, the bewildered product of a narcissist and her echo. I was, as they say, ill equipped for the mission.
“I need to use the washroom,” I said, which was the truth. I had been holding my pee since my arrival at the apartment. I count a small bladder among my character defects.
“You know where it is,” she said, and smiled again through her sorrow.
But there was something else there, too, and it took me a few moments to decipher the cryptic message. I was standing over the toilet with my head back when it came to me: empathy. In the midst of her father’s breakdown and what it meant to her own life and whatever the future might hold, Sophia McManus was concerned for me. I was more accustomed to fending off the potential, at any moment, for one of the wolves to attempt to eat its own in the musky little den we had called a home. Exposing vulnerability was like signing your death warrant, or at the very least guaranteeing unbridled mockery and derision, a card to be pulled and thrown in your face at a later date. Perhaps my home wasn’t so much a wolves’ den as a maximum-security penitentiary for the criminally insane. It was Darwinism stripped to the bone.
I washed my hands and splashed some cold water on my face and toweled off. There was a shrinking puck of hotel soap in the dish by the sink. I remember I held it in my palm for a long moment, picturing Artie shoving the little bottles of free shampoo and conditioner into his shaving bag before we checked out of the Holiday Inn outside of New Jersey. And then, as I have always done when the opportunity allows, I opened the medicine chest above the sink to see if the contents matched my expectations and understanding of the occupant. A shaving brush crusted with white cream, a safety razor, a frayed toothbrush in a holder, a coiled tube of Preparation H, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a few small pill containers with the familiar white label and typed instructions. I looked at them all but the only name I recognized was ‘diazepam’, having accompanied my mother from time to time on her monthly visit to the pharmacist to fetch her seemingly infinite prescription of the stuff. I didn’t know much about it, except that the ‘after’ was always much more agreeable than the ‘before’ where she and it were concerned.
I shook a tiny tablet into my palm and tossed it down my throat and swallowed some water from the tap. I put the pill bottle in my jacket pocket. I wasn’t sure what I intended to do with the pills exactly, except to say that once again my intuition whispered to me. Like pocketing a pack of matches before taking a long walk in the woods, I had an inkling the pills might come in handy as I dove headlong into the chaos of Livre.
(Originally published on Open Book Toronto)
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