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About the Author
MICHAEL GLENNY (1927-1990) was one of the world's leading translators of Russian literature, translating the works of Gogol and Dostoevsky. But he was also famous for bringing the works of then-lesser-known dissident writers to the fore, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Georgi Vladimov. He was the first person to translate Mikhail Bulgakov into English.
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I went back to my room and lolled around naked. I took a shower and examined my insect bites and my gritty bloodshot eyes. Was it all worth it? No. The soul of a clerk bent deeply over his arithmetic. Eve proffers the clerk an apple which turns out to be hollow and contains a howling succubus. I considered smoking a little dope but rejected the idea — after a nap I wanted to play pool and dope always took the edge off what-ever competitive spirit I had left in the world. Stretched out on the cot my thoughts alternated between pool and fishing in an attempt to rid my brain of the girl. She would be in a perfect snit by now. Perhaps it had happened a hundred times. The clerk again. Maybe only seventy-seven. A rack of pool balls lay gleaming against green felt. The one-ball is yellow but then the color of the two-ball escaped me. The water was calm and very clear and shallow and some maniacs could see tarpon coming a quarter of a mile away. They would deliver their casts with graceful fluid motions while I would chop the air in panic. In Ecuador the Indian mate was too poor to buy Polaroid glasses but he saw the caudal fins of marlin long before my perfect eyes noticed anything. Benny played pool as if the cue stick emerged from his body. Not my own alcohol and geometry. She was an asshole and I couldn't have loved her at gun point.
The late afternoon sun flowing in a sheet through the window. Why didn't I draw the blinds. Sweating with the air apparently the same temperature as my blood's. I dressed quickly in a light khaki shirt and suntans and tennis shoes. Anonymity. I took a beer from my boat cooler but the ice cubes had melted and the beer was lukewarm. I drank it looking out at the white hotness of Duval Street. The world looked askew and foreign. The girl might be just getting up from an air-conditioned nap, stretching her admittedly attractive limbs and deciding to be more careful about whom she left bars with.
In Sloppy Joe's I drank three or four glasses of beer waiting for a used-car salesman from Denton, Texas, to show up. We played pool nearly every afternoon when I got through fishing and he finished hustling sailors into car deals they couldn't afford. I was pleased with the way beer made me feel like an ordinary sot. Maybe I was really a veteran or a pipefitter or carpenter. Seventh Airborne or something like that. After a case of Budweiser I might have voted for Goldwater. A retired chief petty officer, a passing acquaintance, sat down next to me and began rattling off complaints about the weather, his car, his wife's drinking, and then politics. When drunk he was not above trying to run over a hippie. I had once teased him about the Navy's combat readiness at Pearl Harbor and that after that debacle they were lucky to get their hands on a rowboat. He was on the verge of hitting me but I apologized and bought him several drinks.
The car salesman finally came in and we played a nearly wordless hour of eightball during which I lost twelve dollars. I won five of it back playing nine-ball but then he left saying that the "little woman" would have dinner ready. I had a disturbing image of a female midget before a stove stirring food with teeny-weeny hands. I went back to a stool at the bar and ordered a double bourbon straight up. I was tired of going to the bathroom every fifteen minutes to get rid of the beer. I glanced out through the large open doors to see if anyone interesting was wandering around but it was the dinner hour lull and dusk still came rather early in April. Then I noticed that there was a strange-looking guy sitting directly across the circular bar staring at me. He was large with fairly long hair, tanned and extremely muscular with a small eagle tattooed on his left forearm. But the right side of his face was distorted with a bleached twist of scar tissue and it drew his eye a few degrees off center. I instantly averted my glance. Perhaps a shrimper and they're always cutting each other up.
"What are you staring at?"
"Nothing. I was looking over your head at the street." Shot of adrenaline. A single drop of sweat moved down the inside of my leg.
He turned around and looked out the open door behind him and I drew in my breath. Then he swiveled quickly on his stool and stood up. "How about a game?"
He flipped me a quarter for the rack and walked over to the jukebox. By the time he chose his cue Jim Ed Brown had started singing "Morning," a song I rather liked about country style adultery. Who screws who in Mingo County. It seemed to me that you had to be out in the country, traveling, or rather drunk to listen to such music.
"Eightball for a buck?"
"Fine with me."
He broke very hard and got two stripes and a solid but I quickly saw on the next shot that he was a slammer, a hard stroker who didn't play for shape. This sort of player can be very accurate but he plays with his balls, his manhood, and never leaves himself well for the next shot except by accident: a pointless arrogance, a kind of dumbbell "macho." His speech was Southern, either Alabama or Georgia, without the sing-song effect you hear in Mississippi. While he shot I thought of a record a teacher had played for us in college with Faulkner talking about fox hunting. The record was studiously fatuous with the great man's voice high pitched and lacking the timbre one would imagine in his heroes, say Bayard Sartoris.
I won a half dozen games in a row but he was only mildly irritated. He drew the money out out of a bulky clip. There were twenties and fifties in quantity and I wondered idly why anyone would take the chance. But then I thought that it was unlikely that anyone would attack him.
"My muster pay." He had read my thoughts.
"A year and a half's worth."
Now two sailors were watching us play, obviously sizing up our game for a challenge. One of them was small and wiry and was giggling while the other who was large and beefy merely stared. Then the big one put a quarter on the edge of the table which meant he was challenging the winner. I had just missed an easy shot and was irritable. It was bad etiquette to put a quarter up while someone was shooting. My partner took the quarter and deftly flipped it out into the street where it rolled rather electrically in a small circle. I held my breath.
"What are you, a smartass?" the big sailor said. My partner continued his shooting but then the sailor picked up the eight-ball and dropped it in a pocket. "That ends your game, smart-ass."
I felt a touch of vertigo and moved instinctively toward the door but curiosity stopped me. I couldn't see any sign in my partner's face of what he was going to do except that he chewed his gum more rapidly. He looked down at his left hand which held the cue stick and then at his right which was empty. Then with startling speed he clouted the sailor in the ear with the heel of his hand. The arc of the swing was wide but fast and the sailor collapsed on his butt with a yelp. There was a quick boot to his chest and then the cue stick pressed across his throat until he began to gag. I saw the other sailor looking at me but he only shrugged. Several barflies had gathered around us.
"We're playing pool now. When we're done you can play." He was letting his full weight rest on his knee on the sailor's chest. Then he stood abruptly and the sailor stumbled to the door.
"Those fucking creeps think they own this town." Now he was smiling and we sat back down at the table but the bartender was standing next to us.
"You guys are cut off."
"You don't know what those guys said." I found myself talking. "They said we were queers and we weren't allowed in the bar. Do we look like queers to you? What if someone called you a queer?"
The bartender paused, trying to figure out if I was bull-shitting him, but then the chief petty officer who was now terribly drunk said he had heard the whole thing. We were allowed to stay and I gave the chief the victory sign and ordered him a drink. We played another game of pool but lost interest.
"What if that guy had known karate?"
"Nobody knows karate if you get a good one in first." He laughed and put another quarter in the jukebox.
We began drinking steadily and talked about everything excluding the war: baseball (Boog Powell who played for the Orioles was from Key West), music, fishing, the girls that now walked by the door with splendid regularity. Many of the girls were tourists or college girls down for Easter week but some were local conchs and Cubans. He liked the Cubans but I preferred the tourists as I considered Latin girls to be somewhat frightening and unreliable. For an instant I thought of the girl I had met the evening before — all that I had drunk made her seem interesting again. He said that his name was Tim and that he was from Valdosta, Georgia, and was staying a few weeks on Stock Island with his sister who was married to a Navy man he described as a "real jackoff." We were getting fairly drunk and I wanted something to eat before I lost control. We quarreled mildly about whether a pump or a double-barreled shotgun was better for bird shooting. I really wanted to ask him about the war but felt afraid to bring it up.
"I never ate in a French restaurant." He was looking over my shoulder at the only one in town. "Are we dressed up enough?"
"I've been in there. It costs a lot."
"I'll buy. I won a lot of this at poker in the hospital."
"How long were you there?"
This was the first reference to his face. It was sort of a mess at close range and I wondered why the Army hadn't done plastic surgery.
"I'm not going back to the hospital," he said, anticipating my question.
He asked me what I was doing in town and I said that I came every year for a month or two to fish. I rambled on about the fishing and admitted that it seemed that every year I became less capable at it to the point that I dreaded going out with those who fished well. I said that it had always struck me that unless you were able to become single minded about fishing and hunting you would fail. You were either obsessive and totally in control or you were nothing. He didn't appear interested in these subtleties. I suddenly thought that it would be fun to kick the shit out of someone in a few seconds, which was obviously one of his talents. I reflected on all the multifoliate ways you parry when you first meet someone.
When we got up to leave I noticed for the first time that the eagle on his tattoo had a beak that was drawn up into a maniacal smile and asked him about it.
"Just a joke to piss people off."
"They're going to dam up the Grand Canyon," I said halfway across Duval Street. Tim stopped and looked at me, puzzled. A car beeped.
"You're shitting me."
We entered the resturant and the hostess with a quick knowing glance seated us in a corner as far from other customers as possible.
"Where'd you hear about that?" he said looking at the menu.
"I read about it. It's true." For a moment I had been lost. It had only been an errant comment.
"Word of honor," I said raising my two fingers in a mock cub scout sign.
"Jesus Christ, it will fill up with water." He was clearly troubled and I wanted to drop the subject.
I ordered drinks from the waiter who was obviously a homosexual. He raised his eyebrows at me as if I had scored and I was terribly embarrassed. But then I supposed that we didn't look like we quite fit together. Some homosexuals have an uncanny ability to figure people out by their immediate appearances.
"I don't understand this shit. You order for us."
I asked for two orders of steak au poivre and some endive, which seemed inoffensive. Then the waiter asked us if we wanted wine.
"Yeah, I want some fucking champagne," Tim said a bit loudly but the waiter was charmed.
We got out of the place with difficulty. The food was excellent, especially the endive which reminded me of New York, but the waiter tried to clip us when he returned the change. We had had a half dozen cups of Cuban coffee which had a nerve-jangling effect mixed with all the pepper and alcohol. The owner placated us at the door with assurances that it wasn't intentional on the waiter's part but I felt very melancholy pondering all the little cheats people pull on one another. Up on Big Pine Key a wealthy angler from Vermont had tried to cheat on a fishing record by filling the gullet of a bonefish with sinkers. He had bribed his guide to go along with the little project. A gesture at a corner of immortality and not at all concomitant with what you thought of the stern Yankees. Meanwhile the waiter was standing sullen in the background.
"You ought to fire that cocksucker," Tim said loudly.
"Let's go." I pulled on his arm. His word had had a magical effect on the restaurant. We were being looked at in mute wonderment. I waved and grinned at some people I knew. I wanted to leave before the owner called the police. The local police were very authoritative. A few nights before I had seen one dragging a shrimper from a bar by the hair and the shrimper's eyes were buggy with pain. I was somehow sure that Tim wouldn't react gracefully to such treatment.CHAPTER 2
We walked around the corner and into Captain Tony's, which was dark and crowded. Behind the dancing area a jug band was playing and a guy with a pigtail was singing loudly and not very well. We moved down the length of the bar and sat near the pool table and jukebox.
"I wish I had one."
"One what?" It was hard to hear over the music. I tried to signal the barmaid.
"You're putting me on." This was a surprise — my ordinary conception of a Georgia cracker involved shooting treed blacks or messing around with old cars, though as time passed it seemed much easier for a black to get himself shot in Detroit than anyplace else. "You could grow one."
"How long would it take?"
"Don't know. Never grew one."
He was becoming plaintive and morose about the prospect of waiting for a pigtail. The barmaid came and I ordered two beers. She looked bored but took an unusual interest in Tim which made me slightly jealous as I had never been able to gather her attention. Tony always hires the most beautiful barmaids in Key West and the Navy pilots come in numbers, fall in love and are rejected. The barmaids, it seems, are in love with musicians and other worthless types who wear pigtails and are always broke. The barmaids are not interested in sleek pilots with thin mustaches and wallets full of flight pay. When the blond one whose name was Judy bent over the cooler to get our beer we were cleanly mooned. Polka-dot panties. But I knew she was hopeless because she lived with a rather affable freak who sold tacos from a pushcart.
I realized we had become less drunk and would have to start over again, a practice that is known as a double-header. I had clearly peaked out and was on my way down. I could scarcely swallow the beer, my head ached and I wanted a nap, full dress and under the covers. By myself. All the pepper on the steak had given me heartburn and I needed some Gelusil.
"That's really true?" Tim was staring into my eyes.
"About the Grand Canyon?"
"It's at least in the planning stage." Now I truly regretted saying anything.
"I've never seen the Grand Canyon."
I was on the verge of saying it was very large then giggled at the idea. I had seen Glen Canyon years ago before it was literally drowned and liked it better but any comparison was absurd with such splendors. And besides I was a Chicken Little and tended to believe in nonsense. I had once read in a New York underground newspaper that an asteroid was going to hit Long Island Sound and the resultant tidal wave would kill everyone. I sat in our little apartment in Port Jefferson and brooded about the logic and scientific probabilities involved. I convinced my wife and she had nightmares of burning railroad cars and bloated sheep. When the appointed day went by without a single asteroid I was embarrassed.
"We probably ought to blow up the goddamn thing." Tim nodded in assent then spoke but I couldn't hear him over the band. I suddenly felt very bored and claustrophobic. "I got to go."
"Why? We're just getting started."
"I'm tired and I have to be up at six tomorrow to fish."
"I'll fix you up." He began searching his pockets then stood and looked blankly at me. "Ride with me to my sister's. I got some uppers."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Good Day to Die"
Copyright © 1973 Jim Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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What People are Saying About This
“As high-spirited as it is pointed. Unlike so much satire, it has a splendid sense of fun.” —Eileen Battersby, Irish Times
“Bulgakov here assaults the dour utilitarian lives of Soviet citizens with a defiant,
boisterous display of nonsense.” —The Times
“One of the greatest of modern Russian writers, perhaps the greatest.” —Nigel Jones, Independent