The Great American Novelist

It wasn’t a joke to Grossie. He had been after it his whole life. It was easy to admit it as he came to understand it, and it was no joke. It would be what it had to be: the wedding of all metaphor and simile; plot and epiphany. When he felt them all, knew them all, he’d be able to distill them into the thing. And he would write it or die trying.

Alex Grossman was born in New Hampshire in 1971. When he was a boy he knew he would write. At summer camp he was the one who held the counselors aside for hours retelling the Greek myths. These adults were stymied by him and the ease that he told stories with; made them interesting, kept them moving, at ten years old. Any of them would have predicted he’d be a famous novelist.

He took nothing for granted. If asked what a story consisted of, he would reply, “Words.” At thirteen he had his first revelation about the greatest novel, whenever or whoever would write it. He discovered two things that he knew no one before him had realized, or had ignored the knowledge as pointless. It wasn’t pointless. He knew the greatest book of all time would begin with a capital letter and end with a period, full stop; a dash at the very outside of possibility. An excited part of his gut told him that the most excellent writer might even be able to write it parenthetically or use an ellipsis, or two.

He began collecting characters in junior high school. He boosted one of his old man’s dictaphones and would lurk into conversations. He transcribed the tapes by hand. He learned what was being said, as it was said. Sometimes the words looked completely incredible on paper. But they were real words and he was onto the formula. Alex’s hunger for the real only grew the more he fed it. He was writing stunning character sketches at thirteen.

In his penultimate year of high school he was being prepped for the ivy league. His Honors English teacher told him many things. Reading Huckleberry Finn was like déjà vu. Dialect was old hat for Alex but he admired it all the same. He saw he had been on the right track already. They read The Great Gatsby but the concept of nouveau riche was also old news for Alex. He was nouveau riche and he understood it better than Fitzgerald had. Dr. Hoffmann talked of the great American novel. That’s when he got Alex’s attention. That’s when everything came into a tight hot focus. That’s when everything lined up like nine pins.

They thought it was a joke. Alex knew, at fifteen he knew, that it was the end-all-be-all. The thing that would kill Hemingway and Melville and Fitzgerald and Twain and all of them. Whoever wrote it would bury the others in the debris of their shortcomings and poor vision. Whoever wrote it ruined all, won all; no joke in it.

Everyone liked Alex. He was the one who would stay late to clean up at parties. He was always willing to share the cash he had. If any of the girls in the high school needed a shoulder to cry on, they went to him because he was the safe one.

He wrote sketches and parodies. He never wrote short stories intentionally. For him this would have been like Mozart writing ad jingles. He had no interest, it was beside the point. The novel format eluded him over and over. He outlined and abandoned no less than one hundred novels before he was twenty. It was at that time that he understood. He couldn’t do it because he was faulty.

He stopped being nice all the time. He was still nice, but he wasn’t averse to not being nice. He wanted to know what it felt like. He stopped calling himself Alex and everyone followed his example.

When he was nineteen he was getting together the arguments to convince his father he should be allowed to let his higher education lapse. He had a Literature professor teaching the Moderns who said, “It’s not possible to write well about a thing unless you know that thing. It has to ring true or it won’t work.” This made sense to Grossie.

He did not have the experience. He could not write until he had lived things that could be important on paper. That was why he couldn’t even fully rough a novel. He set about getting experience.

Grossie stayed in school for another two years. It seemed he learned there sometimes so he gave it time. While he was waiting for the highly paid academicians to come through he taught himself many things. They didn’t come through. He dropped out; explaining it exactly enough to his father to keep a finger in his deep pocket.

Boston was first, because it was there. He’d smoked marijuana. It was no real turn-on. He found a friend from school in Boston who knew a guy who was pretty sure of his heroin supplier. Grossie started doing heroin. This lasted for six months. He walked around downtown where he found addicts and homeless people. He talked with them, even when it was dangerous. His perfect ear recorded mannerisms and topics. One line he heard in the alley there he knew he’d never forget. He knew it was a line in the novel. There was a bar manager, Grossie couldn’t help picturing Sam Malone, it made it funnier. He was throwing a black man off of his portico. The black man was protesting, calling for brotherhood, but the manager wasn’t listening. The black man said, “I know how you got your face white. You bought it from the devil.”

Grossie quit heroin when he saw it wasn’t helping him write. He left Boston. He’d learned enough there. He bought a Greyhound ticket to Alaska and drank coffee like a fountain drain for the horrifying three weeks it took to get there. He paid a great deal of attention to everything on the way.

He rented his first whore, in Juneau on a three dog night in February. It was interesting and strange. He was sober and screwed her for forty-five minutes and never came. She was acting like she enjoyed it but at such a distance that he had an insight into the nature of whores so powerful he nearly lost his balance. The stunning lack of will, of personage, was like smelling salts. He spent the rest of the dark winter in Alaska but only stayed in his apartment reading cookbooks and watching old movies.

He spoke French so he headed for Russia to steer down, get the Orient Express and coast on into Paris. He learned to count in Chinese, he learned various Russian phrases, and the conductor was kind enough to teach him all about the running of trains. On that trip he sketched out several plots for serious novels. He knew he was close to being able to begin at the moment when action is inevitable.

In Paris he sharpened his French at clubs and cafés. It was when winter was coming again that he began to be puzzled. He still wasn’t writing it. Nothing sustained, in fact, less than ever. He was so close, he’d learned so much already. If he could just find the missing piece. Walking along the Seine with a girl named Narylin he had a revelation. A big missing piece: murder. It would be easy to kill her and get out of the country. He did no such thing. He did leave Paris.

Grossie found work as a tutor for a wealthy family in Greece. There were three boys and one girl. He’d never wanted a girl as badly as he wanted her. She was eleven years old. He worked for the family for an entire year. He thought the oldest boy, Darius, was gay and he contemplated having sex with him. He even approached one evening like that would be the conclusion but he couldn’t bring himself to do more than hug the boy for too long. Darius kissed him. He shrugged out of it wordlessly and went to bed. When Alessandria turned twelve he took her virginity, gave notice, and went down to Africa via Casa Blanca.

Africa was hot, dirty, and flatly brutal. Grossie loved it. He got along well with anyone he met. He was charming and alluring. He knew something about everything and he always knew a good story. He picked up some Arabic and finalized his Russian in a hotel restaurant playing cribbage with a Muscovite expatriate every day.

He made his way through the Portuguese Coast. He saw people do a lot of shitty things to each other there. He decided he would never have to murder. It was easy enough to feel it all from being at arm’s length from it all the time. He lingered there for too long. He wrote the longest story he ever had. Surrounded by killing and Nigerian dialects he was very free. He wrote a piece, a love story, that would amount to thirty typed pages. It was an exquisite experiment but that’s all and he knew it.

Grossie went around Africa the long way but wasn’t writing so he hurried the trip. When he got to Egypt and realized for how long he hadn’t written anything he decided what he needed. He needed to feel his mortality a little harder. Africa was safe for him in many ways just because he was white. Even in Monrovia he wasn’t really in too much danger. Even when he’d been hauled out of his taxi at gunpoint he wasn’t scared. He needed to be scared.

He went to Thailand and screwed a whore the first night there. There was about a fifty-fifty chance he’d just exposed himself to HIV; though he knew how hard it was to contract in normal intercourse, so he was fairly safe. Doing it was the first time he’d been excited since Alessandria. He hit the whore with an open hand. She was only about sixteen. Grossie didn’t know where the anger came from but he was glad for it. He’d never felt it before. She kept moving her legs from where he was putting them and he hit her in the face. He wasn’t mad then, it felt good. He had nice dreams about it for the rest of his life.

Bangkok bored him but he decided to ride it out there. He was kind of afraid now. He was thinking about the virus that might or might not be in his blood. How many years it might take to kill him. What diseases he would contract in the interim. If he would want to kill the whore. If he would live long enough for there to be a cure. He imagined in vivid detail his relief of the announcement of a cure when he was going down for the third time in a private hospital back with daddy and mum-mie in Nashua. He savored the six months of not knowing. The tests were worthless until six months after exposure. He was going to wait and then find out. He knew that there was a novel coming in that time. He closed his eyes in the afternoon, wide awake for hours, thinking about it. The skeleton was falling correctly and he had a character; an honest to God hero.

Being conscious of his mortality had pushed him into nearly finishing a novel. It took two painful months but he was getting close to finishing his first full length work. A treatise on the perils of growing up rich and bored. He was calling it Mrs. Danish’s New Carpet. He was trying not to have an opinion about it.

He went looking for English speaking company to balance himself. He had no particular desire to surpass the pidgin Thai he was picking up incidentally.

Grossie walked, laughing, in a place called Happy American. It was a typical EuroAmerican bar; bar and tables, cowboy stuff on the walls, Coca-Cola paraphernalia, street signs, a pinball machine, calendar girls of three races, and a dart board. It’s where he met Landrowitz one night under the bug lamps by the carp pool in back.

Landrowitz was a writer. He’d published a few things that Grossie was aware of; solid fiction but nothing spectacular. Landrowitz was entering old age on the low side of sixty. He’d written and published his books when he was a young man. He hadn’t published anything but editorials since.

Grossie was on the make for conversation so he pulled up a chair, with a glance that said, May I? Landrowitz nodded.

“Hi, I’m Grossie.”

“Pleased. I’m AC.”

“There was a writer I liked when I was a kid named AC.”

“What’d he write?”

“A bunch of stuff. I read Chorus and On Losing the War.

“Then that would be me, he confided dryly.”

“No really? You’re AC Landrowitz?” asked Grossie.

“Sure, why?”

“My lucky day. I did like your books.”

“I’m surprised you ever saw them. They’ve been out of print for twenty years.”

“My old man has a hell of a library. On Losing the War was particularly good. But it would’ve been a better book if you’d let Renate have a bigger piece of the story. You got her so involved and then she was out.”

“I thought the same thing myself right after I turned over the manuscript but by then it’s too late. Editors in City have a low tolerance for writers who like to rewrite after everything’s been set to type.”

“Wow, you’ll have to tell me about it.”

“What brings you to Bangkok?”

“Besides the great chess I guess I’d have to say I’m a textbook case disassociated generation ex-er. I’m looking for myself, have you seen me?”

Landrowitz laughed.

Grossie said, “What brings you here? You seem to have gone pretty native.”

“Shit, I’ve been here for ten years. I needed the isolation to work on a book. I suppose at this rate, my last book.”

“Ten years for one book?”

“Twenty, he admitted, coughing into his hand, with marked embarrassment. I started it in Washington back then and never got anywhere with it. Geedee syndicates always calling for crap. Phone rings every hour on the hour. I needed some isolation to finish it. I was tired of writing crap. I wanted to write something serious.”

“Yeah. Tell me about it.”

“What, the book?” asked Landrowitz.

“Yeah.”

“If you want, you can read it.”

“Actually I’d like that a lot.”

“Why don’t you come by my place day after tomorrow night. I’ve got a few pages to retype. I’m just doing my final, we call them that in jest, draft.”

“Great. …great.”

“You’re a writer too, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” said Grossie.

“You’re after it, aren’t you?”

“What’s that?”

“The great American novel,” Landrowitz said and laughed, “Two writers in a Bangkok suburb both looking for something we lost ten thousand miles away. We’re all a bunch of effing corn hounds.”

Grossie went home later, just a little frightened. He didn’t like to hear the words taken in vain. He was worried that seeing the other man’s work in progress, even if it was the end of the progress, might influence him. He didn’t want that. The old man was just another character study for him. But Grossie had read his stuff and it just wasn’t good enough to be sincerely intimidating, especially if the old man was so tired he was dragging it out twenty years.

He took the alley route back to his apartment because he liked to look at the hookers. He was just coming to the stairwell when he felt a painful pinch in the side of his foot. He’d kicked a used syringe and it went right through the leather and pricked him.

He pulled it out of his shoe. Every pore on his body felt the pin prick in sympathy as he broke out in a sweat. In this uncontrolled experiment, he knew the odds were anywhere up to one hundred percent that he’d not just been exposed but had a batch of HIV put directly into his blood. In two heart beats he knew that if it was in the needle, it was everywhere in him already.

Grossie went upstairs and just sat still at his desk for a long time. He was visualizing his blood pulsing through the fairways and side streets of his circulatory system. He saw mindless white blood cells attack the possible strings of HIV and be quickly fooled into thinking there was nothing wrong at all; be quickly convinced to go about their business no matter what foreign visitors came a calling at the gates of his immune system.

He got up and threw Mrs. Danish’s New Carpet in the trash. It was grim and pointless. It wasn’t what he wanted to do at all. He drank a lot of water.

He sat down at his old Sperry-Rand manual and began it. His serious novel. It was writing itself. He finally knew what it was all for. The world was empty and he was the sole pedestrian in the Garden. He lost himself entirely in the joy of the act. The only thing he was aware of was how fast it was going. He would have slowed it down but nothing more. He did not go out and he did not eat. He wrote. The two days were merely a progression through his paper supply.

It was a romantic novel; in the literal sense. It was better than good. But he was trying not to have an opinion about it.

He was uncomfortable about going to see Landrowitz again. His manuscript was so close. He even thought he had a perfect title: The Christmas Gardens. He didn’t want to see Landrowitz’s manuscript before his was done. He didn’t want anything outside to influence him. He went at the writing hard, insanely, intending to finish before the last evening. He actually got close. He was writing nearly three thousand words an hour, typing as fast as he could think. There were three hundred and ninety pages scattered around his chair on the floor when it was eight o’clock. He was only another forty from finishing.

He stopped at eight sharp. He looked at his watch and debated what to do. He stacked the pages together, in no particular order, and set them beside the typewriter. He went out.

Landrowitz let him in and they sat down by the glass door to the balcony.

“You know all about me and I don’t know anything about you. Where are you from anyway?” asked Landrowitz.

“All over. New England mostly.”

“Yeah, you been to Washington state?”

“Sure, I’ve been to each of the fifty. But the travelogue isn’t very exciting. I want to talk about writing.”

“You’ll have to twist my arm.”

“Why have you forsaken the world to write fiction? I know you were an important essayist and I suspect you were making quite a living at it.”

“What’s money? There is nothing as important as fiction. And no person as important as the novelist.”

This was something Grossie had known but had never heard another man admit. He experienced an emotion he’d missed all his life. It was sincere and warm. He believed it was brotherhood.

Landrowitz continued, “Have you ever noticed that fiction is the only type of writing that even has a name? Everything else is defined in relation to it. It doesn’t even have a name, it is simply non-fiction. All of it. I always wanted to call my work contra-fiction but it would come off glib I guess.”

“No. I like it. But you’re right. No one would get it,” said Grossie.

They had some drinks and shot the breeze, moving out on the balcony when the heat got worse than the possible bugs.

Landrowitz was expounding in a friendly drunk. He had lacked the native conversation for a long time, like Grossie, and was reveling in it. Talking the same happy dialogue Grossie was hearing inside about his newly finished novel. They were both the only inhabitants of a better world.

“All my writing life I’ve been trying to capture the intensity of personal experience. You have to make something seem big, bigger than real, for it to matter to someone because that’s what their life is. Their life is big and grand to them. So to move them you have to be just a little bigger than reality. That’s when you can slip into convincing them of something as important as themselves. If it’s hyper-personal, you win. Exaggeration isn’t a lie in fiction, it’s the God’s truth. Because exaggeration is the only way we feel anything about ourselves.

“What’s the point of your existence is the point of your writing. It is so satisfying, you know. When you can take a stand for your life in print and make it stick. When you love the means so much that your end is not only justified but purified.”

Grossie hadn’t mentioned it but eventually Landrowitz spoke of it. Grossie glanced at the manuscript and Landrowitz got up and collected the chaotic pages.

“I know I promised you the manuscript tonight but it’s not ready. I found some problems with the first two chapters and I’ve got to retype them for everything to read right. A couple more days, okay?”

“No, that’s great. No hurry at all.”

Landrowitz put the working pages away in a buffet drawer. Grossie couldn’t help seeing the gun in there. It was illegal but wasn’t unusual, he supposed. Living alone for so long in a city as strange as Bangkok. He was only surprised that it had never occurred to him to try to get a gun for himself while he was here.

Grossie went back to writing The Christmas Gardens the moment he got home. He relaxed into it. His prose was sharper than razors and cleaner than the mirrors at Mt. Palomar. He was so deep in it, so alive that he felt, when he remembered he could feel anything, that the world was a mad world and he was the only sane creature alive.

There came a moment he knew he should sleep but he couldn’t think of it seriously. It had been days, really, since he had. It made no sense to him that it was ever necessary.

He finished The Christmas Gardens in one more day. It would not need a rewrite. That’s how sharp it was. All his life had been preparing him for it. He felt that it was merely a tall piece in the dam. Now that it was out of the way there would be more novels. It was hard to believe they would ever be as good, so maybe he wouldn’t write them. He wished he’d written more before it. It was entirely possible there was no coming back after it. It was just too damn good a book.

Grossie went to Landrowitz’s, higher than a lithium kite. Still, he was so grounded in the accomplishment that even the smallest chores seemed normal and wholesome.

They had drinks and talked. It was like they were war buddies. When Grossie was leaving, Landrowitz said, “Well, Grossie, here you go.” Landrowitz passed the manuscript box to him. It was five inches tall. “Now take care of it. That’s my only real copy. I don’t ever want to type that much again.”

“No problem. It’s double spaced?”

“One and a half. It’s a little under two hundred thousand words.”

“I’ll have it back to you tomorrow night. Then we can talk about it. All the awards you’re gonna win and shit.”

Landrowitz laughed and said, “Damn, I do like you, kid. I wish you’d been around for the last ten years. Wouldn’a taken me so long to finish that thing. I write better when I’m laughing.”

Grossie took the manuscript for Paradise Commons straight home and read all but the end. Then he started it again. He wanted to prolong the enjoyment of it. It was so good, and unlike writing his manuscript he could slow this one down.

The title was his first creeping sense of being watched. It was too much like his own manuscript. In the sense each book intended they were identical. And reading it only intensified the strange feeling that was both rape and fellowship.

The resemblance between the two manuscripts went past eerie; it became pure zeitgeist. If pages of the thing were not clearly years old Grossie would have been certain this was stolen from the manuscript he had completed the day before. Even the differences and mutual exclusions expressed identical concerns. They were each romantic novels, with peppering of the hard modern realist school. They were each stories of lack and of happiness. And they were each fully figured stories that spoke as visually as they did philosophically.

He allowed himself to finish reading Paradise Commons just as the sun was coming up. He discovered the only real difference between his novel and Landrowitz’s. The endings were diametrically opposed. Not in event so much as in moral conclusion.

The comparison allowed Grossie to see his novel for what it was then: a swinish Disney-esque sham. His ending was so pat. It was as clever as anything ever put to paper, it would fool the world; it had fooled him. But now he saw what it was, pure genius kitsch. When it did fool the world it would do so for exactly one generation and then be reviled, as he was reviling it now. He knew it was only a matter of rewriting two paragraphs to repair the damage. To make The Christmas Gardens as good, if not better than Paradise Commons. They would be the same book but Grossie’s explication was stronger, his details more convincing. He had, after all, spent a lifetime after them.

Grossie’s hair suddenly bothered him. He wondered why he hadn’t had a haircut in so long. He went to take a shower. He stayed in it for two hours; one with the water running, one with the water off. He didn’t sleep. He got dressed and waited to go see Landrowitz.

Grossie went in Landrowitz’s building with the manuscript in hand and rang his doorphone. Landrowitz buzzed him in, he went upstairs.

Landrowitz left him in the doorway saying, “I’ve got to square some postal business with the doorman. Make yourself a drink. I’ll be back up in two shakes. Pour some martinis if you feel like.”

Grossie went in and set the manuscript box down on the buffet with the alcohol. He flipped a shot glass over and had a short scotch. Then he took the crystal pitcher down and filled it with Martini. He went to the ice box and got some malformed ice cubes and dropped them in the pitcher. He stirred it with a glass rod. He opened the top drawer and brought out Landrowitz’s black thirty-eight revolver.

Grossie flipped the cylinder out. He was expert with most types of small arms. It was loaded with lead hollowpoints. No tarnish on the brass jackets. He smelled the gun. It hadn’t been fired for a long time but it had been taken good care of. It would fire flawlessly, maybe spit a little out the back but powder burns didn’t hurt that much and scrubbed right off. He flipped the cylinder shut gently.

Landrowitz walked back in the door. Grossie said, “Here you go,” and poured him a martini.

“Oh, that’s great. What a day,” said Landrowitz. He took it and sat down.

Grossie poured himself one. Though still unsure how to proceed he said, “There was something I wanted to ask you about your manuscript.”

“Anything, he chimed. I’d love to hear what you think,” Landrowitz said.

Grossie sipped his martini with his left hand and brought the gun out of his waistband by its barrel with his right.

“How dare you?”

“What?” asked Landrowitz turning behind him to look at Grossie.

Grossie swung the pistol with full force right into Landrowitz’s eyes. Landrowitz threw his drink, bringing his hands up too late. Grossie kept hitting him with the pistol, managing not to spill much of his own martini all the while.

Landrowitz went down on his knees immediately. Grossie kept hitting him in the head. Landrowitz moaned but never said a word. Grossie beat him until he was unconscious there on the floor. Then he put a foot on his neck and put all his weight on it. He sipped the end of his martini. After about two minutes he relaxed the pressure.

He kicked Landrowitz’s body once and said, “How dare you tell me anything about it?”

The escape would be easy but he had to be thorough about a couple things first. He had less than a day to get out. No problem really. No one there knew his real name; a nickname would be hard to find him by. The cops in Bangkok were bush league, especially in forensics. What would they care about some old American? Landrowitz wasn’t a financial or an investor. They’d do a single hand investigation and let it ride on the books.

He grabbed Paradise Commons and started out the door. He stopped there for a moment. Then he stepped back in slowly and closed the door and locked it. He threw the box on the floor where it popped open. Pages went up in a little cloud.

“Who’s kidding whom?” Grossie said to himself. It wasn’t an easy or total decision. Knowing the value of a good distraction he went back to the pitcher of martinis and poured himself another. While he was tipping the glass in his mouth he nestled the gun barrel gently in his ear. After the first swallow he relaxed enough to pull the trigger.


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