|Excerpts > Summer 2001|
Okay, how's this for luck? When Leo Lipkin arrived to teach at the University of Arizona, no degree, not a Ph.D., not an MFA, no University sheepskin of any kind, and after falling into a hole with his last three books--blame that on his prolonged warlike divorce from Babette and the troubles with his kids, blame it on the lousy publishing world of the nineties--what falls right into his lap but the Pulitzer Prize.
And not even for a novel; for a book of short stories Gloomy Sundays which, until that enchanted moment, had languished in the shallow glow of a good Publisher's Weekly review--good but not great--and a swift assortment of shorties from the likes of The East Lansing Press and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. With the Pulitzer, of course, the University transformed him, instantly, from a foundling to a King--or at the least a Prince.
Lipkin had been looking for a teaching job since the first letter from his wife's lawyers. As far as income went, his novels had long since played second fiddle to Babette's research job at J. Walter Thompson. And given the state of post-war negotiations he could not count on any more bread from that particular stone. Even with Lipkin's history as a Wunderkind, publishing his first novel at twenty-two to some acclaim, Book of the Month Club, appreciations by heavy literary hitters like Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe; even with that history he found himself writing application letters from the deep well of silence into which his last three failed novels had plunged him. History was history; now was now.
It was the cool but attractive Saskia Fitzgerald, always a buddy, never a girl-friend, who'd pointed out that maybe he was striking the wrong note, acknowledging how hard it was for him, Leo Lipkin, profoundly New York to his bones, to consider moving to Upstate New York, or Virginia, to Montana, to Wisconsin.
"It must seem like receiving a letter from Julius Caesar--well, a scroll, maybe," she laughed, "offering, reluctantly, to take a job outside of Rome. You don't know academic life like I do. Wrong tone. Very thin-skinned these English departments. You're asking for a favor not granting one."
"Sorry," Lipkin had said, "this is all terra incognita to me."
"And don't use Latin terms. They'll think you know more than you do."
Saskia was on the search committee for her English department at the University of Arizona, Tempe branch and she engineered Lipkin's hire. Only a three year contract but it was a foot in the door, the camel's nose, under the tent, a rung on the ladder--all the metaphors simply underlined his need.
But Knopf brought out Gloomy Sundays in September--the first week of classes--and by chance the Pulitzer hit on the first Tuesday after publication. The Sunday before had brought a review in the New York Times Book Review which placed Lipkin somewhere between Joyce and Saul Bellow. The usually scorching August Tempe had been breathing deeply, happily in a rare cool spell, scudding clouds in seventy-two degree breezes, the sun overhead a benign enriching coin. The weather appeared to conspire, to literally breathe with the new universe of cultural climate, of rewards for years of making sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, pages into books which offered life to characters, seated ideas in action, all of the above infused with a wise comic vision. Or so said the New York Times and who was to argue?
Certainly not his department who turned the weekly luncheon meeting into a celebration of Lipkin's literary success. It was most welcome as Lipkin was a bit dazed from the strangeness of settling into a new city (town, he called it--if New York was a city what was this melange of adobe short-line homes and highway strips, gas stations, and the occasional exquisite Mission from the border-haunted Mexican past?).
It was the President of the University, himself, who brought the Pulitzer news. He'd heard it on the car radio driving to the faculty club for his own lunch appointment. Suave and cheerful, the very model of a modern University President, he tapped Lipkin on the shoulder, a King anointing a new knight. "Great timing, Lipkin," he said. "Every writer should start his teaching career with a Pulitzer."
His colleagues were not the usual cup of faculty tea. Each was achieved: Robin Fox had published six collections of poems; Jerry Hewlett's last had been a Book-of-the-Month and Jean-Paul Singher was a hot number in Paris--only in France could you call an essayist who parodied Mallarme and Rimbaud a hot number. Lipkin's prize was seen as an addition to their collective pride not a subtraction, a booster not a threat. Saskia was roundly congratulated for her prescience in searching out Lipkin for membership in the department.
So Lipkin's launch on the new seas of the academy was a smooth one. He was even given a Teaching Assistant, a charged but oddly languorous young man named Donald Stark: round, tall, something of a hulk who smoked cigarette after cigarette. Smoking had been one of the angry thunderheads clouding Lipkin's marriage. He'd quit but Babette had refused, filling their apartment and their thinning life with smoke. Typically Lipkin had been furious at this and at the same time half-nostalgic at the remembered sweet-sour smell of the Benson & Hedges he'd smoked himself. He had a similar reaction to Stark's chain smoking.
"I'm not sure I need a TA," he told the young man, hoping to ease him off. "My classes are seminars. I read all the papers myself."
Stark flashed him a charmer's smile, a southern smile. "I can keep things organized for you, take some student heat off." Lipkin relaxed a bit under the reassurances. "Besides you'd be a big help to me. I need the job. I'm broke most of the time. Except when I win."
Stark was a poker player, apparently compulsive; he was cool, and seductive at the same time and Lipkin was on the fence about taking him on. Until Stark gave him a batch of stories to read.
Bold, witty, condensed--everything Lipkin was not. How could he not admire the man's work even though Stark the man was a piece of unfinished business--thirty-four and already giving promise of being a life-long graduate student, hanger-on, gambler/writer. As Stark said much later, when they knew each other all too well, "I appreciate your kind words. But the old farts who hand out the Pulitzer Prize don't give it for bold, witty and condensed." A piece of sharpness that should have put Lipkin off the younger man immediately. But by that time he was too deeply immersed in the folie-a-deux that would become their strange connection.
Oddly enough, Stark was a great help. His languorous exterior concealed a raw energy. He not only collected the papers at the end of class and put them in some rough order for Lipkin, he fielded the anxious phone calls at midnight--or later--. He had an assurance beyond his years; surprising since his CV recorded few genuine jobs. Stark had just drifted and written putting together a life knitted together mainly by gambling.
But it was Stark's stories, his talent, that bound Lipkin to him. One story in particular seemed to Lipkin to have the seed of a strong novel. He urged him to take it on. Stark waved him off, mock southern humility. "I could't do a novel. I'm a poker player. Enough attention span for one hand at a time."
But he did give it a shot, began a novel while continuing with stories in an extraordinary stream of productivity that rivaled Lipkin's own energetic output. While his colleagues complained of the demands of classes, papers, meetings which aborted their own writing Lipkin's long, complicated stories, much like the ones in Gloomy Sundays which had done so well for him, kept appearing in The New Yorker, in The Atlantic, in Harper's. Everyone he knew, Lipkin included, complained about how few major magazines were left which published serious stuff in fiction--but Lipkin was the darling of the few. Stark would take him out for celebratory lunches or dinners with the particular publication in hand.
"Damn it Professor Lipkin you're on a roll,"--the younger man refused to call him Leo, cherishing in some perverse way, the unequal relationship. Something in Lipkin did not appreciate the analogy to gambling, to luck. Though he was intensely aware of how thin the arbitrary line was between yes and no, between acceptance and rejection, between the usual dropping of a book into the silence all around like a pebble down a well, and a Pulitzer Prize.
They would have long kaffe-klatches, talking about the experiences which had fed their writing. These session, perhaps more than those with his self-absorbed, overworked colleagues, did a lot to replace whatever New York literary camaraderie Lipkin missed here in the desert. Occasionally, however, Stark vanished for a few days of poker holiday, once not even warning Lipkin.
Saskia was quick to note the oddness of Lipkin's holding onto Stark as a TA even after the second and third time he disappeared on these unexpected poker-binges leaving Lipkin to find revised class lists, missing student papers.
"How can you stick with him when he's clearly not responsible."
"I like him," Lipkin said. "When he's here he takes a lot off my shoulders.
"Responsible was never a word I would have used for this guy," Lipkin said. "Smart, gifted, okay. I guess he feeds my ego and he's going to write a better novel than any of my regular creative writing students. If he stays with it longer than a round of poker."
"I think you're just lonely. Post-divorce." Saskia had known Babette and Lipkin's two kids, Joanie and Alexandra. "Your friend-choosing mechanism is off kilter."
"It's not just divorce. It's the bad feeling. The girls don't trust me. Babette kept telling them I care more about my writing than about them--or any other human being."
Saskia shrugged. "True or not true?"
"Please. No romantic silliness." Lipkin scowled. "I tried to be as good a father as I could given what I had to do. I'm a father and I'm a writer."
"So you're not lonely?"
Anybody but Lipkin, hearing those words from that bold lipstick-swatch of a mouth, from the perfume-clouded Saskia, might have made a move. But she was in the category of a friend and Lipkin thought in categories. Besides, his writing was going well and when that was the case it was hard for him to focus on anything else. When his agent called and told him The New Yorker had turned down a new story it was a category-shift which got Lipkin's attention. In the months that followed, as if by some reverse magic the major magazines all turned away from him. Nothing much had changed yet everything had. His classes went well; he took pleasure in the talents of several students, and his own writing, it seemed to him was more adventurous than ever yet still shaped, still available. But Atlantic Monthly turned a cold eye on the new pieces, Harper's did not answer his agent's queries about a story for over six months, then confessed that they could not find the manuscript. The New Yorker was in turmoil with a new editor who valued brevity and fashion; Lipkin was good at neither.
While planning his next book of stories he shifted his professional energies to his students. Over a drink at The Private Eye, a campus hangout, Karen Kessler, a young MFA candidate with blonde hair almost down to her knees and a beautiful face still unmarked by experience, was doing one of those "it must have been so amazing to win the Pulitzer Prize" numbers on Lipkin, when suddenly he couldn't bear focusing on the past for one more minute. He moved dangerously, on impulse, into the present, the future. "Listen," he said, "I'm going to send your story to The New Yorker."
She was breathless. "You'd do that? You think I'd have a chance?"
Karen Kessler wrote fragmentary, first-person, present-tense short bursts of oblique sensibility, undeveloped, as much prose poem as story. She said, "Don Stark likes what I do."
"Does he?" Lipkin wondered what she did beside write that Stark liked. Not good thoughts to have. Saskia was right. He was getting lonely. "Why do you mention Don Stark?"
Karen Kessler giggled. "He says he's your right hand man; that you rely on his judgment."
Lipkin swallowed this sourly. "Listen," he said. "Don't have too high hopes. I don't seem to be so in touch with the Zeitgeist of publication these days."
He took a deep breath and skipped it. "I'm sorry too," he said. "But let's give it a shot." Don Stark, he thought, would have to be put on a shorter leash.
"Right hand man my ass," Lipkin said at their next scheduled meeting. "Where do you get off with that stuff?"
Stark seemed suddenly shy. "Karen's a real beauty."
"Big surprise. Well I'll thank you not to use me as part of your seduction strategy."
Stark smiled; it was a curve of the full mouth that spoke of some mysterious complicity between them. "Don't thank me. It's all in the game. We all use everything we can to win. You of all people know that. As long as you're straight in your writing none of the rest matters."
Lipkin observed the younger man puffing contentedly on the third cigarette since the conversation had begun. What was the source, he wondered, of that content. A soggy word; smugness was closer to it. Lipkin didn't like it or the sophomoric neo-Darwinism it relied on.
"Why me of all people."
The smile grew more insinuating. "That story of yours. 'The Rage for the Lost Penny.' It's all in there."
"Hey, you're the Professor, not me. Read it again."
"I don't read my own work after it's published. You're the student, remember? Just let me read some of your stuff. You're supposed to be turning that story into a novel. Are you ever going to do it?"
Stark's smile became a seditious grin. He pulled a folder out of his scruffy field jacket. "You know what we say when you pull your cards in draw poker?" He handed the folder to Lipkin. "Read 'em and weep." Then he lit still another cigarette from the stub of the last and took off, tossing behind him, "Besides, it's really that Saskia I'm after. But I think she wants you first."
Later, Lipkin paused in his reading of the absolutely powerful chapters to wonder at "wants you first"? But as he read on he found that Stark's language, his feeling for dramatic situations, had all the subtlety of relations, all the nuance of sexual negotiations that he seemed to have difficulty with in every day life. The work was damned good and something would have to be done about it.
But not just yet. Because the writer/gambler vanished to nearby Santa Fe for a poker marathon which he hoped would give him enough of a stake so that he could quit graduate school and just write. He'd never made any bones about the writing program--it was a means to an end. Speaking of means and ends, Stark was still away when the news hit that Karen Kessler's story was taken by The New Yorker.
Just before leaving for the celebrating party--the students used any excuse for a celebration even if envy lurked around the edges--Lipkin opened a letter from Babette. It was the usual: her job was demanding, Joanie was not doing well at school, Alexandra was. She needed more alimony, call it child support, call it anything you wanted, they relied on him even though he was out of their lives. He tore up the contribution he was about to make to Amnesty International and wrote an extra check for Babette and the girls.
The students made it clear that they relied on him, too. Jerry Hewlett who had been teaching at Tempe forever, greeted him with champagne and the V for victory sign. "Jesus, Lipkin," he said, "our brochure says we'll do everything we can to further our students careers--translation get them an agent or even better get them published. But you actually do it."
"Well," Lipkin said stretching a wan smile, "They've been turning me down. I'm glad they'll listen to me about these kids. Maybe the Pulitzer is good for something."
Karen Kessler smelling from lavender and champagne kissed him on the mouth.
"Thank you," she murmured.
Across the room he saw Saskia observing them with a kind of prurient look; the way a woman would gaze at a pornographic film: detached but interested in the inevitable outcome, and he remembered Stark's words: "It's really that Saskia I'm after. But I think she wants you first." That first was quintessential Stark. The man had a perverse kind of magic. For the first time, with Karen Kessler's lavender kiss still wet on his mouth, Lipkin began to think differently about Saskia.
Thus began a time when Lipkin began to move backwards and his students forward. Charles Forst, a second year transfer student from Iowa whom Lipkin had been nurturing, won a Whiting award: fifty thousand bucks. The news came the same day another letter came from Babette, this one threatening legal action unless Lipkin increased the alimony by the following month. The irony was not lost on Lipkin. He had been in the running for a Whiting several times and the money would have helped considerably now with the squeeze on; but the Gods had spoken and Forst was the elect. Jeanette Carson who was Half Cherokee and wrote a tough prose had two stories taken by The Atlantic and won a Guggenheim for which Lipkin had written one of the recommendations.
Mixed magic, all this was, because at the same time Lipkin began to receive letters from TriQuarterly and the Iowa Review soliciting material, as they called it. It was as if the word was suddenly out that Lipkin had taken a dive from the exalted horizontal realms of The New Yorker and the Pulitzer Prize to the vertical, geographical universe of the literary quarterlies, which paid in copies and prestige. The fall was dizzying.
There was, these days, no one to whom he could confide the experience. Saskia, perhaps, but somehow he did not wish to continue the "buddy" style of discourse with her. He had other plans for Saskia. So when Stark reappeared from Louisiana, where he'd been on a poker-binge, damned if he didn't seek him out for drinks, dinner and confessional.
Stark was full of beans having won handsomely in some riverboat poker marathon. He'd insisted on the most elegant restaurant in Tempe--continental for a change instead of Tex-Mex--his treat. Lipkin sat on the edge of his chair, twirling his Martini glass in circles while Stark leaned back and drained a draught beer.
"Sorry I missed Karen Kessler's celebration bash, but it was worth it. About eight hundred dollars worth." He looked at Lipkin conspiratorially. "She must kiss the ground you walk on. Or any other parts that are available."
Lipkin tried not to sound, or actually to feel, prissy about parts being kissed in gratitude. "She's pretty happy," he said. "Not so bad being in The New Yorker at twenty-four. Like the two Johns."
For once Stark seemed nonplused. It was pleasant to watch. Lipkin took his time and then said, as if furnishing the answers to a quiz the younger man should have known. "Updike," he said, "and Cheever."
Having taken the high ground for a moment Lipkin began to unburden himself . He told the younger writer what it was like to feel your work to be naturally central, an art easy in its skin because it sang in a voice it sensed was being listened to, though the song he sang was not what could be called popular and those who listened were certainly one of a few elites in a country that stared at TV more than it read. It was never a question of not being marginal; it was a question of where the margins were drawn, of how far from any center you were; how far in his new shift to that outer area where colleges and universities picked up a torch dropped generations ago by the "little" magazines, whose readers were so often other writers. It was a gentle lament, one Lipkin felt certain that Stark would empathize with.
"In every field," he said with that peculiar cool worldliness that made him seem years older than his age, "there's a first rank, a second and third and so on." And before Lipkin could object, added, "don't get me wrong, I mean perceived ranking. It doesn't necessarily mean better or worse, intrinsically. But I'm sure even among geologists there's a big-time place and a small-fry place to publish research. Your time came and went and now it's time for the likes of Charley Forst, Karen and me." The student's brutality was wonderfully casual, its truth and justice assumed.
Lipkin stared at the slouched figure before him, stared in a kind of amazement. "Jesus," he said, "you don't have any brakes, do you?" Lipkin was breathless in some kind of inverse admiration. Stark shook the last cigarette out of a Kent pack. He gazed at Lipkin as if the older man were a child in need of instruction in the obvious. "Brakes aren't what a car is about," he said. "Moving forward, getting where you're going is." Lipkin became aware that however many cigarettes the man smoked, his breath was innocent of tobacco odor, fresh.
"Which brings me, Stark added, "to my novel. What'd you think?"
Lipkin hesitated, even though he had long since decided that Stark's novel was the real thing, had decided, in fact, that he would call his old editor, Maureen Steinberg, at Random House and ask her to take a look at it. But there was that in him that didn't want to yield too quickly, that felt the rise of this particular student was in some way connected to the decline of his own publishing career. And this particular student, tonight, had let Lipkin have it "full in the face" with that talk about whose time had come and gone and whose time it was now.
"The novel, well I think you're onto something," Lipkin said.
"Something? That's pretty cryptic."
"Which is more than I can say for you."
"I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."
"Don't flatter yourself. Anyway, what's interesting about the novel is the mixture of fantasy and the real--especially in the gambling stuff. But--".
Stark was quick on the draw where his own writing was concerned.
"But--" he said. His eyes narrowed and he seemed to hold his breath.
"I don't what to hurt your feelings--" Lipkin enjoyed the moment. "But I'm concerned about your gambling. How will you be able to work consistently. . . . If somebody gave you a leg up would you deliver, would you finish?" He could hear the priggish tone in his voice and he hated it. Instantly he compensated by making his grand gesture. "I was thinking of sending it to my editor at Random House, Maureen Steinberg."
Lipkin paused to gauge the effect. Nothing. A few puffs. "Okay," Stark said.
"Okay? I don't expect you to fall over with joy, but Okay? Do you know how tough the marketplace is these days?"
"You've been telling me."
"Don't you want to get published?"
"Of course I do. I figured you wouldn't offer unless you thought the stuff was good."
"But would I deliver, finish the book. That's what you're asking. . . ."
Lipkin was silent, out of it. He'd said more than he'd expected. But Stark stood, as if he were the teacher signaling the end of a tutorial. He leaned over Lipkin, breathing at last a foul tobacco breath. This time it was empty of nostalgia.
"Professor Lipkin, you know what Freud said about why writers write." Lipkin smile at the pupil playing teacher. How much ground had he lost here?
"Everyone knows that, Stark," he said. "Fame, money and the love of beautiful women."
Stark had that mysterious look he got now and then; a look that said, to quote one of the authors of Lipkin's youth, "Do not understand me too quickly."
"There's a fourth one the old man of Vienna didn't know about," Stark said.
But that "oh" was a cue Stark was not ready to pick up on. This was to be, for the moment, his secret. A weapon, no doubt, in the ambiguous war he waged with the world in general and with his teacher in particular. In lieu of the answer he reached into his case--the case in which, he had once told Lipkin, held a spare toothbrush, a change of underwear, several decks of cards, condoms, usually a sandwich and his current writing--a total, portable life-support system. He pulled out a manila envelope and tossed it at Lipkin. "Here," he said, "more ammunition pro and con."
Over a drink at the campus watering hole he told Saskia of the extraordinary encounter, distracted by the not-so-subtle emanation of perfume when she shrugged her shoulders. He had never noticed how pungent her perfume was, insistent. "I've seen it a lot," she said. "Some students take you for a guru, some compete. It's part of the game."
"He seems to have some ideas about you as well."
"Ah," Saskia said, "he is sniffing around. But I don't quite get his song. Is he a writer or some kind of luftmensch/poker player playing at graduate school?"
"Maybe all of the above," Lipkin said and he told her about Stark's Freudian theory as yet unrevealed.
"Fame, money and the love of beautiful women," she murmured and then laughed. "I wonder what this mysterious fourth could be."
There was a pause, a moment in which she seemed to lean forward, though she had actually not moved an inch. Lipkin froze. It was as if the figure of Stark, their attempts to figure him out, passed between them and kept them apart.
In the days that followed Lipkin decided to go ahead with the plan to push Stark's novel with Maureen Steinberg at Random House. This new material Stark had tossed at him so casually, almost contemptuously, had been the final touch: strong, witty, dark, a touch brutal, it reminded him of his first readings of Celine, the shock, the seductiveness of the language. Lipkin was suspicious of his own judgment in this situation and welcomed the notion of an outside reaction. Maureen was tough, smart, fair.
In the meantime his own literary life seemed to go in several directions at once. The places that welcomed his work were growing more and more arcane. He thought the final touch came when the Chattahattee Review awarded him first prize in a contest he'd never entered. He had no idea where Chattahattee was and he doubted that magazines could get more obscure. Ironically, at the same time Robin Fox, the house poet, well-connected as so many poets are, told him she'd heard somebody in the department was up for a MacArthur. She assumed it was Lipkin. "We all knew you were a genius," she said. "Maybe now everyone will know." But she would not reveal where she'd heard the word or how reliable it was. Also, Sarah's mother tongue was irony, so Lipkin didn't quite know how to take this.
Maureen Steinberg was eager to read Stark's stuff. "Frankly, Leo," she confided, "I'm under quite a lot of pressure to deliver young writers. Kids with a number of books in them."
"This kid is thirty-four," Lipkin said, dryly and mailed the manuscript that day. There seemed to be some connection between that action and his next, which was to call Saskia for a date. And Lipkin was determined it would be a date, an end to the buddy-buddy stuff. The conversation would contain no reference to Stark. Things were going along smoothly, discussing the sexual harassment suit against one of their colleagues--any mention of sex in any context seemed to strike the right note--when Saskia, sipping red wine in just the languorous way Lipkin had looked forward to said, "I hear you sent the bad boy's novel to Random House. You are being Lord Bountiful."
"You can't let personal feelings or irritations get between you and what you think of somebody's writing."
She leaned over the table shedding perfume--why had he never noticed her perfume before--and giving her voice the edge he'd been hoping for, said, "So, writing's your . . ."
"It's what some of us have instead of God." And they both laughed and clinked glasses at the Hemingway reference and at Saskia's place she did not suggest his coming up and her good night kiss was half buddy and something new that neither of them could as yet figure out. Maybe, Lipkin thought later, The Sun Also Rises echo had not been such a good idea: a cab rid with an impotent man and a nymphomaniac.
As if to authenticate his extreme response to Stark's transgression Maureen Steinberg called bubbling with enthusiasm . . . ". . . real find, powerful, funny, wild . . . He's fresh and unsettling, It will be noticed . . .I'll offer a contract and advance . . . is his address still the same . . . ? When do you think he'll finish it?"
"Got me. Ask him."
"I tried. There's no answer and no machine."
Lipkin got the message. Stark was undoubtedly off on one of his gambling binges. But all he said was, "When I see him I'll ask him to call."
"I read about your 'mini' award," Maureen said. "Congratulations. It's all in PW."
Lipkin sent a graduate student to the library to get a copy of Publisher's Weekly but by that time the letter had arrived. The Association of Little Magazines gave an award each year to the best writer who graced the pages of the various quarterlies, from Boulevard to Zyzzyva. A far cry from The New Yorker or The Atlantic but what the hell. In his new incarnation such things seemed to count. The award was called, without irony, the "Mini" and with it came a scroll, five hundred dollars and a bitter taste of doing everything in his life backwards. From the Pulitzer Prize to the "Mini" award in only a few years. He could hardly wait for Stark's reaction.
That night, Lipkin stayed up until after midnight working over his book of stories, mysteriously exhilarated. For the first time he saw them as connected; by theme, by occasional repeated character; a seamless whole in the middle stitching stage. It was going to be damned good and it dwarfed all the new feelings in his life, satisfaction at teaching well, pleasure at discovering a young writer who was the real Macoy, amused irony over getting a "Mini" this late in his career. Nothing seemed to matter except that the new book as going to be original, strong. He worked until four a.m. and fell asleep at his desk for the first time since his twenties.
As it turned out the "Mini" award came attached to a banquet: one of those academic things that began with cocktails at six (a cash bar), dinner at seven and home by nine-thirty. Naturally the invisible Stark was suddenly most visible.
"Hey, Professor, how does it feel?"
"How does what feel?"
"To be the one-eyed man in the country of the blind."
"Listen, Stark, just because you've been in the Atlantic . . ."
"The magazine of William Dean Howells, Henry James . . ." His country-boy grin made it hard to gauge the distance between his natural pride and natural wit.
"You've been in it once."
"So far. Okay, forget the country of the blind. Just enjoy being king of a very small kingdom for a night."
It struck Lipkin that these half jocular, half bitter exchanges helped him keep his balance in this unfamiliar terrain. He needed this competitive, contemptuous, gifted challenger to keep him on his toes; a sparring partner who occasionally drew blood, reminding Lipkin he was still alive.
"Listen," he said, "Maureen Steinberg likes your book. But she can't find you."
"In the nick of time. I was in New Orleans. Took a beating."
"How does it feel?"
"What? Losing over five hundred bucks?"
"Having your book accepted."
Stark surprised him. His moon face tuned grave. "I've changed a lot of it since. It may not be the book she thinks she wants."
Lipkin put his arm around the younger man. Wise, avuncular; he could see himself acting it out. "It's you she wants. Your take, your slant, your energy. You're on your way." He did not wait for thanks. If you don't have expectations you don't have disappointments. He left Stark to contemplate the change from a writer manque to an accepted one and moved into the fray.
Some of Lipkin's colleagues had turned out, too. Robin Fox sans her usual skirt and sweater, swathed in some sort of sari-like wraparound looked more festive than the occasion would seem to warrant.
"Remember when I told you one of our gang was up for a MacArthur." Her grin combined with the unusual costume told him all he had to know.
"Congratulations," Lipkin said.
Trying not to figure her age and the consequent dollar amounts it would bring, Lipkin turned back to being the king of a very small kingdom for a night. At the cash bar he encountered Richard Parnell, who'd taught English for thirty years and who had his own special reason for being glad to see Lipkin. It seemed he had a student, quite brilliant, but whose final paper had the smell of plagiarism about it.
"Could you help me out here," Parnell said. "It's post-modernism, not something I usually do. I'm Modern British. It's just that some of it sounds so awfully familiar. I've actually brought it. I knew you'd help out."
After a few too many drinks, after his acceptance speech, which Lipkin gave without irony, no big fish in small ponds stuff, he danced with Robin Fox to dispel any shadow of envy; also she look rather seductive--was it her wraparound, did success lend sensuality, or was he hungrier than he allowed himself to admit?
Unable to answer himself he went wearily home and read the paper which he knew in his heart had to be by Stark.
It was--a clever amalgam of several pieces by Bernard Bergonzi and a little-known Romanian critic, Enesco, who'd been obsessed early on by John Barth, Barthelme and Borges. Only a few essays had been translated and Stark had come on one or two of them. There weren't too many who would have caught it. In its own way it was brilliantly done. It was Stark's bad luck that Lipkin knew Enesco's work. But it was Stark's good luck that Lipkin was too heavily invested in his young anti-protégé to scuttle him because of a term paper. Also, there was enough of Stark's sharp-edge take on the three B's, the bad boys of post-modernism to prevent it from being an open and shut case. Besides, you didn't become a Random House author and get prosecuted for plagiarism in the same week. Lipkin picked up the phone with the sense that he was entering a new sphere--a new way of being--a not entirely pleasant sensation.
"It's okay," he told Parnell, "there are echoes, but not serious enough to invalidate the whole paper."
Like a character out of Dostoyevsky he sought out Saskia and confessed what he'd done. "Big deal," Saskia said when he'd laid out for her what he thought of as his defection from some universal norm. "Look," she said in a tone Lipkin felt was more intimate than the one he was accustomed to hearing from Saskia, "you cut a small corner for a guy--I say small because the paper wasn't a total lift--for a guy you think is a real writer, the genuine article."
"I don't think, I know. And now an editor I respect agrees."
She shrugged this last off. This was between the two of them. "And didn't you tell me writing was sort of what you had instead of God."
He grinned. "You knew that was a pastiche of a famous scene in Hemingway."
"Yes," she said. "And the next line is 'some people have God quite a lot.'" She leaned back, fielded an arch look and crossed and uncrossed her legs. "Because it's a takeoff on Hemingway does that mean it's not true for you?'"
"I don't quite know. But I'm sure being pushed these days. Babette says it's all I ever paid attention too when we were married. Now I'm writing my heart and head out and I'm as good as I ever was. And after my Maxi-days and Pulitzer Prize I'm King Mini of the quarterlies. And to top it off I've got Stark pushing me to the edge."
"I said you were lonely," Saskia said. "And lonely people sometimes make strange decisions." They'd left The Coffee Grind and were at her door. She paused. "Want to come in?" He practically fell over the lintel following her. Still, after an enchanting preliminary wrestling match she breathed into his ear. "I can't believe I brought an old friend out here and now--"
He waited, having no choice. "But not yet . . . this . . .," she said. There followed a bout of skirt straightening and erection hiding. Before he left, as if it might have some connection to the evening's events, he had to ask, "Is Stark still buzzing around?"
She nodded. "When he's around he buzzes."
"Has he landed?"
"No, still buzzing. I think he's having a thing with Karen what's-her-name, the one you got published in The New Yorker."
She stepped outside with him in the Arizona night, cool, still damp from the day. "It's a new life for you, Leo. I pulled you out of New York into this desert, I feel responsible."
"Teaching saved my ass. I'm not equipped to do much except write."
Saskia sighed. "God I'm glad I never wanted to write a book."
"But you had to--that one on Blake for your doctorate."
"That was a bookoid. Write one, get your Ph.D. and settle down to teaching. The students aren't bad. It's a good life all in all." She kissed Leo on the cheek. "You guys are involved in some battle of compulsions. I'm glad I'm just a spectator."
"Thanks for salving my conscience tonight."
Her laugh was distant. "That's me; superegos repaired on the premises."
The next morning there was a letter from Kim, his Korean adoptee, in his mailbox. As always he thanked Lipkin for the monthly check. He spoke of coming to America. "I would like to go to Columbia University in New York City," he wrote. Lipkin did not want to think about Babette's request that he stop those checks and send them to his on children. God, you had to do something in the world that wasn't about you and your own. There was a world elsewhere. And speaking of money, the advance from Maureen Steinberg turned out to be twenty thousand bucks.
"But I only get half on signing," Stark complained. They were going over some student papers when he dropped the news about the Random House money.
"That's the way it's done," Lipkin told him. "You can't expect them to pay you the whole amount till you've finished the book."
"It would be a hell of a stake."
"You're supposed to live on it while you finish the book, not gamble it away."
Impatient, Stark muttered, "I'll live, I'll live . . . and I'll finish."
Lipkin said not a word about the dubious paper. If you did something, you did it with a whole heart not a half-ass. But Stark, truer than ever, proceeded to test him even further. The semester was on its way out and students were making plans for the following year when Lipkin found in his office mail a note and an application form.
Dear Professor Lipkin, (Stark continued the absurd formality)
I want to apply for a Whittinger Fellowship for next year. It's twenty-five grand and with your endorsement I'd be a shoo-in. Thanks.
The application form had the usual questions: How long have you known the applicant? How would you rate his literary abilities? So far easy enough. Then, tell us what you think of his reliability, responsibility and a general evaluation of his character.
Push was definitely coming to shove. Lipkin had himself won a Whittinger Fellowship when young. Young and, he had to admit, not so buttoned up that he did not require a little forbearance from his recommenders. He was twenty-five, had dropped out of Columbia and Penn State. He had no idea of what he wanted from life except that he had to write. George Barclay, his good gray Professor, had blinked at some of the courses Lipkin claimed as his bona fides--several of which he'd enrolled in but did not complete. No one knew this better than his advisor Professor Barclay. But he wrote the recommendation anyway. The Whittinger had come through (though it was only five thousand then, but five thousand went a long way in the seventies), Lipkin had written his first novel and he was on his way. This memory of his good luck would be Stark's good luck. Not a word about plagiarism or irresponsibility. He would speak of an astonishing talent, already being recognized by a major publisher. He would fudge his way through the rest of the letter and Stark would be on his way. (As if he wasn't already.)
Lipkin made a rough draft and called Stark. No answer and no machine. It was close to term's end and Lipkin also needed him for some scut work but he was nowhere. In desperation he called Karen Kessler, giving credence to Saskia's gossip about their affair. The young woman was stiff, cool. She had no idea where Stark might be.
"I thought you two were--friends."
She laughed, a little hysterically Lipkin thought. "No euphemisms, Professor Lipkin, that's what you taught me. You mean were we screwing." Then just as suddenly she began to weep, not great heaving sobs, just a kind of wounded mewing. "Screwing, right, he screwed me good."
"What. . . ?"
"He borrowed four thousand dollars--the money I got from The New Yorker--I was saving towards a year in New York to just write.
Sick in his stomach Lipkin said, helpless, "But it's a loan."
"He said he lost it--in a game in Phoenix. You know he'll never pay it back." She breathed more steadily. "And he's broken off with me. It's over. Screwed."
In a fury of frustration Lipkin searched out Saskia in her office at school. Buried behind a mountain of books and papers she could still not defend herself against a Lipkin pushed beyond endurance.
"Listen," he said, "are you and Stark what you called a thing?"
She looked at him, an unaccustomed pair of horn rims perched on her nose. "Well, since you've bearded me in my den: yes, but only once. Then he went off to Phoenix to a big game."
Lipkin told her about Karen Kessler and she grew somber, not her usual mode. When he pressed her, she gave him the address of the hotel and the apartment where the game was being played. She'd kept track of Stark's whereabouts. The "thing" was apparently not played out yet.
Lipkin threw stuff into an overnight bag and headed for Phoenix. It was night by the time he was on the road, one of those cold clear nights, dark blue but dotted white with a million stars that reminded him the desert was all around; reminded him that he was forty-eight years old and in Tempe, Arizona, a strange new place, embarked on a strange new life, his writing still strong but headed for strange new destinations; he had seen Alexandra and Joanie only once in the past year and he thought of them with a distant ache (Babette had now become an adversary and shared no part of this sudden nostalgia).
The ephemerality of things swept into him, a marriage of eighteen years, a New York way of life all vanished in months. He drove with a strong sense of purpose, he would right a wrong, set things straight with this gifted young son-of-a-bitch. What the fuck had happened to the money from Random House that made it essential to take poor Karen Kessler for such a ride? But along with this was a vague sense of something unresolved in his own life, some testing of who he really was, some balance of powers that had yet to declare itself.
It was a four hour drive to Phoenix, the passing scene, cactus and mesas as bleak as the prospect before him. The shimmering horizons of heat added to the surreal sense of the whole journey. The hotel came up bare and Lipkin was forced to track Stark down to the actual poker scene. And scene it was, like some bad movie, ashtrays brimming with butts, men in shirtsleeves, beer cans everywhere (and surprisingly one middle-aged woman, plump and smiling, a winner for the night, perhaps). Stark showed no surprise at his appearance and the game appeared to be winding down.
There was a coffee shop nearby (it was extraordinary to Lipkin that after a life of exchanged dinner parties in New York he seemed always to be seeing people in coffee shops and bars). His rage was slightly blunted by actually having to confront Stark in the flesh: he looked more tired than he'd ever seen him. He carried, as always, the case which held his entire life.
"How'd you do tonight?" Lipkin asked.
"Broke even. Which is good because I can use the money." Stark offered up a wan smile. "An old gambler's joke," he said. "What's up, Professor. You're a long way from home."
The bitter coffee fueled Lipkin up again. "What the hell did you do to poor Karen Kessler! Where do you get off fucking up her life, her plans for a year in New York; what happened to the Random House money? Jesus, you are one piece of work."
Stark shrugged. "Karen's a grown-up. She can take care of herself. And the advance didn't cut it. But," he sat up straighter, his bloodshot eyes wider and brighter, "the novel is really moving. It's taken a terrific turn; the energy level is so strong I can hardly keep up with it." He smiled at Lipkin as if he were a child expecting a reward for especially good behavior.
"You're getting too off-the-wall, Don. One bad number after another." And he told him about Parnell and the doubtful paper.
"I was in a hurry for that one and I couldn't stop my own stuff just to do a lot of original research for a term paper. You know how it is, Professor, when the writing's hot you stay with it no matter what."
"Don't pull me into your cesspool. You're a cold, manipulating bastard. You don't care who you hurt or what rules you break."
Stark rubbed his stubbled cheek. He waited a long time before he spoke. He pushed cups and a sugar shaker out of the way so as to have a direct view and eye contact with Lipkin and measured out his words one by one, slow and strong. "I don't care about stuff like that," he said. "Because writing is the only thing that matters." He paused, the student teaching the teacher an unpleasant lesson, the next words coming out with a genuine push, none of his usual irony, no sloppy sarcasm: this was all passion, from behind gritted teeth. "Everything except writing is shit."
The rage that had brought Lipkin on his sudden night-time mission returned instantly, a storm that needed no gathering force. "Everything else is shit? A girl's money, faking papers--What are you, some kind of half-assed, pseudo-mandarin amoral esthete? What are you, a Raskolnikov of writing? Who the fuck do you think you are? What gives you the right?"
By way of reply Stark reached into his omnipresent case, pulled out a manila envelope and tossed it onto the table. For some reason he could not explain to himself Lipkin jammed the envelope into his own traveling case--an automatic response--regardless of anger, a student gives you a manuscript you take it. Seeing Stark's fixed expression, the cool resuming of drinking his coffee, Lipkin expected and wanted no further answer.
He slammed out of the bar and drove home in a sweat of anger and confusion. Why not cut off the son-of-a-bitch without another word. Fuck him and his fellowship application!
"What was in the envelope?" Saskia asked. She had made a dinner for them the next night, lobsters. A rarity in land-locked Arizona.
Lipkin was mellower, a few glasses of wine and the sense that intimacy was in the air; the intimacy of a confidante and also something more still to be explored.
"The next piece of his novel: the big center-piece."
"At first I was too pissed off to look at it. When I finally did it didn't cool me off toward this prick."
Saskia was easy in her silk lounging pajamas, easy in her skin, easy in their shared knowledge of the strange young man. "And it was good," she said. "Very good."
Lipkin tossed off his glass and grinned, bitter. "It was better than that. How'd you know? But can you imagine 'everything except writing is shit'. And he meant it--passionately. Can you feature that for a way to justify anything, all the dishonest crap he's pulled, how's that for a world view?"
Later, when the circling was over and the clothing strewn around the bedroom, after the lovemaking which felt to Lipkin like the closing of something rather than a beginning, he said: "What happened with you and him. Why?"
She was drowsy and murmured, "When he wants something he wants it very much."
Lipkin waited and finally said, "And then?"
Her eyes were closed. "And then maybe he wants something else. It doesn't matter to me any more than to him."
She rolled over onto her side facing him, a passionate but cool woman, moving gracefully into middle-age, given up on long-term commitments but still interested in experience. "What is it with you two," she murmured, "there's something I can't figure out. You don't really like each other but you're tied together like two men climbing a mountain peak."
"You mean if one fall, the other falls. I don't think so."
"No, there's some stranger connection."
"Don't tell me. Now that we're actually in bed together you're not going to give me the old Freudian hidden homosexual stuff--the two men going through you but really wanting each other."
Saskia was silent. Then: "I think it's something much stranger than that. What are you going to do--about him?"
"Fuck him." He laughed. "But not in the sense we were just talking about."
He did not stay, an early class in the morning had to be met, with material still at home. Saskia was asleep. He looked at her, curved in the bed like a question mark, stared at her long, before he left. She was still the friend who had brought him out here, had changed his life, probably nothing more, even now. Later at home, in spite of the remembered pleasures of the evening, he was restless. He knew that his tough talk about Stark was a kind of bravado. In spite of his anger, his disgust at the casual dismissal of all natural human concerns, it wasn't that simple. He lay in bed for a while wondering why he had gone so crazy at Stark's outburst. Oh, it was ugly enough, but something pulsed beneath the words that pushed and pulled at Lipkin. He felt feverish, got up and splashed cold water on his face. He did not put the light on in the bathroom. He had, at that moment, no desire to see himself in the mirror.
Instead, he pulled out his own work in progress, the book of stories he'd been working on slowly, steadily, the book which was growing longer and taking more chances with narrative structure, letting characters fall, interweave, hanging everything on the voice--he should have his own voice by now, he told himself; he stared at the book wondering for the first time if it would find a place in the world, that mythical place where people read your sentences and made sense of them for their own lives. He turned the pages in a kind of exhilaration thinking, it matters and it doesn't matter. In both cases it was life and death; almost nobody could know what it cost you to add a line or change a phrase, to give a character a destiny no one had anticipated, not even the character, what it cost to make it inevitable.
But the cost was repaid in full--witness the wild middle-of-the night excitement he and his manuscript were sharing. Towards dawn he heard thunder, followed by one of those cloudbursts you got in Arizona in exchange for months of dusty, dry heat. It felt like a relief as if something had been held in for too long and at last was released.
In the morning he knew precisely what he had to do. He went to his desk and wrote the recommendation: Stark was reliable, Stark had genuine character, Stark could be depended on to follow through on any and all tasks, Stark was a major literary talent, an artist: all lies except one.
He sealed the envelope, feeling as if he was somehow sealing his own fate.
The campus bookstore's air-conditioning was barely breathing. There, between poetry and biography, he encountered the subject of so much of his recent turmoil. Stark looked, if possible, even grungier than usual, a stubble of several days growth, a torn -shirt that read Jack Kerouac, smudges of dirt at the collar.
Lipkin had to give a talk at the library later in the day so he'd put on a shirt and tie, flannel slacks and blazer, the expected uniform, even though the downpour had not eased the awful heat and his collar was already soaked. The contrast in dress somehow made their unexpected meeting even more awkward.
He'd never seen Stark at a loss for words before; a lot of shifting of feet, craning of the neck. Having come a long way since their last enraging confrontation Lipkin could only say, stiffly, "That letter you needed for the Fellowship. It's been written." He noted his own use of the passive form. In how many classes had he recited the litany: the passive form is dishonest, passing the buck. "The Jews were murdered in the Holocaust." Wrong "Germans murdered the Jews."
He added needlessly, as if to drive the point home, "I wrote it and I've mailed it." There was no going back, he was saying but Stark had no way of knowing what he meant.
Suddenly Stark's awkwardness vanished. "Hey, Professor," he said, "great news. Then I'm in like Flynn."
"Don, It's time you called me Leo."
"Sure, sure Leo. How about a drink to celebrate?" His face was shiny with sweat and triumph.
Lipkin was sure he knew what it had cost him to write that letter. "Okay," Lipkin said. "I've got an hour or so before my lecture." He was feeling sick, a kind of sick despair that settled in the stomach like guilt, like losing more at poker than you could afford, like fear.
The heat outside hit them--a bright wet wall, but the bar was cool, dark. "Here's to us," Stark held up his glass for Lipkin to click in ritual toast. "What the hell," Lipkin thought, "what the hell," as he raised his glass, the two of them huddled safe against the savage Arizona summer, one of them enjoying the temporary caress of fortune, the other feeling the pinch of loss, one taking on the pleasures of his careless spring, the other suffering the beginning of his winter and beginning to understand his fate. "What the hell," Lipkin thought, staring at the self-absorbed, moon-faced young man, wondering what was it that drew him, moth and flame-like to this connection, what had made him fill a letter of recommendation to the Whittinger Foundation, a first-rate place of honor, with outright lies; what kinship was it that Saskia had seen, had pursued into his bedgetting, in some odd way, two of them at a blow . . . and of course he knew now that it was not so mysterious, that it had been hidden but clear from the start--that this weird flake of a Philadelphia gambler believed, as he, Lipkin, did and had all along, even though they both lived out their daily lives so differently; somewhere beneath the lacquered care of his daily life, his hard-earned child support, beneath the order of his essentially decent behavior, beneath his adoption of the Korean child Kim with his letters of encouragement about school, about some day coming to America, beneath his donations of support to Amnesty International, still what he believed was that writing was everything, that everything else, family, universities, morality, how you treated women, how you dealt with the institutions of the world, even what happened to the writing--The New Yorker or the Grabass Review--he believed that finally, everything except the writing was shit. The two of them, one suited and burnished by the middle class, the other scruffy with grunge, none of these differences counted; extremists of the word, they were like two terrorists of the imagination, men who knew better than the rest of the world what counted, bombs in hand, brothers in a mad prison of their own devising, caring little for the sufferings of other people who were merely real.
"What the hell," Lipkin thought, raising his glass and planning the rest of his life, laughing at himself and the silly pun that sprang forward, "what the hell," he thought, "there's more than one kind of fellowship."