|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.16(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.55(d)|
About the Author
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In Which I Renew an Old Acquaintance
I'd been successfully putting off my goal of becoming the greatest living American novelist for nearly ten years, when I ran into my old classmate Max
Peterson on the Malomar Pier one afternoon, looking out to sea. He had a cigar that must have been a foot long stuffed between his jaws, smoke billowing from its end like the stack on a freighter, and the ocean beneath him was cresting up in blue wedges, as though the sky had fallen at his feet and was all bent out of shape.
The way he stood there, tall and broad, legs like an A-frame against the railing, it looked as though he'd brought the sky down on purpose, by sheer will, and now loomed over it, head and shoulders above the ragged procession of fishermen and tourists on the pier, as though he were master of the world. As he turned away from the rail I recognized the permanent, slightly superior half-smile on his blocky features that had made him so unpopular at college. But his illusion of invincibility was broken by the weight he'd gained since our last meeting and the new deep lines drawn in his face. For a moment I saw him as pure geometry, a walking Picasso: squared-off head and chest over that round, almost spherical paunch, a circular bald spot at the apex of his scalp topping it off.
I'd heard that Max was in Los Angeles, but I'd hoped, if truth be known, to avoid seeing him during my stay. In our graduate writing program at Boscoe, Max had earned the reputation for being a bit of a jerk: supercilious, contentious, uniformly scathing in his response to work he considered inferior--in other words, anything produced by anyone but himself. Meanwhile, everyone I knew considered his writing to be nothing more than a heap of pretentious scribblings. But he'd had a certain confidence, even then, that made him somehow charismatic, so you couldn't help liking him, or at least being fascinated in the midst of your dislike. Maybe it was his big, sad eyes, like those of a dog or a pony, that made it seem as though he'd suffered, as though he'd somehow earned the right to his misplaced arrogance.
I remember he once told a group of us at school, during a discussion on favorite books and authors: "I only read my own work."
But legends had adhered to Max that hinted there was more to him than we could see. It was said he'd spent a summer traveling across Canada in a car with no engine--a near-miracle achieved by repeatedly flagging down passing motorists and asking them to tow him to the next town. Once, it was reported, he was accused of shoplifting in a department store, and he'd stripped himself naked on the spot to demonstrate his innocence. And his sexual achievements, if one believed the rumors, were nothing short of remarkable.
A few years back he'd received considerable acclaim for a best-selling novel titled--and I wince to repeat this--City of Breasts. I'd never owned a copy, but I picked it up from a friend's bookshelf while house-sitting and, with a kind of repulsed fascination, read it through to the end. The opening went like this:
The building's dome thrust up through the haze of the city like an enormous bosom. Smog clung in gauzy strips, like nylon stockings, to the hills. The sun sent shafts of light shimmering between the clefts of the skyscrapers. The curves of the Hollywood Freeway below me were enormous, mammarian. Blond starlets cruised by in low-cut sports cars.
Ah, I thought to myself, looking down upon it all. Los
Angeles: City of Breasts.
The story, such as it was, detailed the obsession of a man much like Max for a woman he believed to be the most beautiful in the world. The heroine was a thinly disguised version of another of our classmates, Magee.
I'll never forget the first time I saw her. It was during a party at the home of one of my more progressive professors, shortly after I'd arrived at Boscoe. I heard music coming from upstairs and, feeling out of place, as I generally did at such gatherings, made my way up to investigate. There was a knot of onlookers, mostly men, gathered around a doorway at the top, from which emanated music of such passion and intensity that the very air seemed to vibrate with emotion. I shouldered my way in and there she was: sitting before our professor's baby grand, auburn hair tumbled across her face, fingers cascading across the keys, entirely lost in sound. There was no sheet music visible, and she played with her eyes closed; a scotch wobbled in its glass and a cigarette burned in an ashtray. I later discovered the music was Chopin: but the performance was all Magee.
She finished and, paying no attention to her onlookers, tossed back her hair and reached for her drink. She stubbed out her spent cigarette, shook a fresh one from a crumpled pack of Chesterfields and lit it, exhaling a cumulus of smoke into the room. Self-pollution, I thought with the attitude that was my customary stance at the time; I was a near-teetotaler in those years and had never smoked a cigarette in my life. But her music had no trace of impurity. And Magee herself seemed to exude an extraordinary vitality--a light nothing could dim.
Magee soon transferred to the writing program, where I, along with the rest of my male classmates, spent the next years dreaming of becoming her lover. But whenever the crowd went one way, I went the other. I made it my business to avoid her and her ever-present horde of hangers-on. This, to her credit, provoked in her a certain fondness for my company; and so we became friends after all.
But friendship with Magee, I soon discovered, was a subtle and exquisite form of torture--not because she encouraged my feelings for her, but because she did nothing of the sort. Magee was a passive goddess: if men sacrificed themselves to her, they did it of their own volition. And so after graduation I'd drifted out of contact. Still, in all the years since, I'd never managed to overcome my dreams of one day becoming worthy enough to win her.
Max, meanwhile, sold his next three books, as yet unwritten, for six figures each.
All of them were optioned by Hollywood.
He married Magee.
I should have refused to have a drink with him that afternoon, purely on principle. But as I was about to slip away from the pier unseen, he spotted me. "Frankie, my boy," he called. "Frank!" The fact that he'd always called me "Frankie, my boy" or even "Frankie, my lad" was one of the reasons I'd never liked him. That, and his habit of standing too close during conversations--as he proceeded to do a moment later, tilting over me and puffing cigar smoke like a human volcano. As we spoke I noticed he'd missed some spots shaving; stiff bristles teetered in the canyons of his face. His breath smelled of cigars and Jack Daniel's. He summarized his recent successes, tut-tutted me over my unfinished novel, clapped me on the back a dozen times too many.
Now, I like to tell the truth whenever I can; an out-and-out liar always offends me. And the only thing I hate more than a liar is a sneak. Max had always struck me as both. He was a braggart, arrogant, brash--too full of himself, too full of everything, like a balloon about to burst. I don't know why I went with him that afternoon. If I'd stayed behind and watched the old men fish, as I'd planned, everything would have turned out differently.
In Which I Am Led into Adventure
Against My Will
I get these feelings. Call them intuition, call them whatever you like; but I know when something good is going to happen, and when something bad is going to happen. And when Max took me by the arm that afternoon and marched me down to his car to join him for a drink, I knew right away this was going to be bad.
So what does it matter if I don't like him? I reasoned. What's the harm in just having a drink with the guy? After all, it was possible that he'd changed. It had been ten years.
But I think I knew even then that the reason I was going along with it was that I wanted to see Magee again, no matter the price.
"How about we head down to San Melonica?" Max suggested. "The Frantic Pelican. My favorite dive." Max released my arm and clicked a button on his key ring; a blue Ocelot Z-6000 in the lot before us let out a toot of a horn and flapped the lids on its headlights coquettishly. I slid into the leather passenger seat like a hand slipping into a glove. Max shut his door and exhaled a last cloud of acrid smoke into the interior. He mashed out his cigar in the ashtray and lit a cigarette, then switched on the air-conditioning and pulled out onto the Coast Highway. I found the button and rolled down the window on my side an inch or so to let some air in, but Max caught on and rolled it up again.
"These twelve-cylinder models can't handle open windows with the AC on." He puffed a billow of smoke in my direction. "They just overheat." He put the pedal down and sped off into the traffic. I could feel the engine throbbing up through the floorboards like some great trapped beast.
The highway was jammed up at Sunrise as usual and we must've sat for ten minutes before we could get through the light. Max shrugged. "Saturday afternoon. What can you do?" He lit another cigarette. The car in front of us had a couple of bright yellow surfboards strapped to the roof. The vehicle on the left had a board sticking out the back window, fin poking up like the back of a shark. On the right was an old Mustang convertible filled with happy-looking young people wearing no shirts, and yet another surfboard nosing skyward from the backseat. Near as I could tell, we were the only vehicle without one. Being fresh from the East Coast, and not fully acquainted with local customs, I wondered whether this might be grounds for a driving citation.
We pulled away and I glimpsed, through the belching exhausts and the smoke haze inside the car, the distant outline of Catatonia Island across the blue expanse of the Pacific. For Southern California, this qualified as a clear day.
As we ascended the incline to San Melonica I could see rising before us a pair of odd cantaloupe-shaped concrete balls topping the pillars that marked the entrance to the town.
"See?" winked Max. "City of Breasts. What'd I tell you?"
We had one Jack Daniel's, and then another; then I nursed a beer while Max had several more. The Frantic Pelican featured a nautical motif, with crossed sets of oars over the bar and an entire lifeboat hanging from the ceiling. Netting and buoys drooped low overhead. Between the bluish light and the currents of smoke coasting about, it was a lot like being underwater. Max and I talked over the old days at Boscoe, then moved on to writing in general and the purpose of art: things writers discuss when they don't have anything else to talk about. Or at least writers who have MFA degrees do--which Max, Magee, and I all had. Major Fucking Achievement, Max always said it stood for.
Max looked every bit the successful author, wearing a black turtleneck beneath his obligatory writer's corduroy jacket--although he'd acquired a new affectation since I'd last seen him: a white silk scarf, with tasseled ends, draped casually about his neck. A Hollywood thing, I supposed.
Finally I couldn't avoid asking how his sequel to City of Breasts was going. It had been two years since the first novel had been published, and all that had come out in the meantime was a volume of short stories, most of which I remembered from college.
"I'm just about finished, my boy. It's coming out this fall."
"What are you going to call it?"
He paused for effect. "The Telltale Breast."
"'Telltale Breast?'" I repeated. "Oh Max, you can't do that, can you?"
"Can and will." Max leaned back in his seat, grinning, and clipped the end off one of his enormous stogies. They were so big I wondered if he'd had them specially made. "Want one?" He gestured toward me with a leather cigar case. It looked like it was made of snakeskin or lizard--some hapless reptile that didn't deserve to have died for the cause. I shook my head.
"Don't smoke? I'd forgotten." He lifted an eyebrow and looked at me with his sad gaze as though this was some kind of personal disappointment. Then he shrugged and lit up, using an old-style silver lighter. "Well, far be it from me to lead you astray." He puffed away with vigor, the end of his cigar glowing like a warning beacon through the hazy air.
You might suppose, given Max's writing style, that the critics weren't likely to be on his side. But to my amazement, some of the younger ones had recently picked up on his work. They praised him for his passion, for what one called his "accidental originality." One pointed to his symbolic use of recurring breast motifs; another praised his use of menstrual blood as foreshadowing. No less an authority than August Snipe, of the LA Times, had hailed Max's work as the creation of a new wave in fiction, for which he'd coined the phrase "Punk Schlock."
In an admiring review of Max's story collection, Beverly's Hills, Snipe had written: "These tales are so dark you can scarcely see the words upon the page."
As far as these pundits were concerned, the more pulpish and mercenary Max's books were, the more they succeeded in being the perfect reflection of America.
Other observers were not so appreciative. schlock tactics read the headline in the Scranton Review. cliche away said the Newark Times.
"It just kills me," Max was saying. "To think of it, my books selling like hotcakes all across the country. And as good as they are, you gotta know some critic's gonna pick them up who just hates them. These people drive me crazy!"
I had to admire him, if only for his pure, thickheaded cluelessness. The point was, he didn't know he was writing trash. He thought he was the greatest thing since Shakespeare.
Max leaned in again, too close. "Listen, you're my old school buddy. I think I can let you in on the secret of my success, can't I?" He looked at me with one eyebrow raised and one lowered, in what I supposed was intended to be a significant glance.
"Sure, Max," I shrugged.
He stage-whispered, "It's the research."
"Research?" I couldn't figure out where he was going with this. After all, City of Breasts could hardly be called a scholarly piece of work.