Friday, September 23, 2011

Zuckerman Unbound


[1981]





"He was reminded of a story about Flaubert coming out of his study one day and seeing a cousin of his, a young married woman, tending to her children, and Flaubert saying, ruefully, 'Ils sont dans le vrai.' A working title, Zuckerman thought, and recorded in the white window of the composition book cover the words Dans le Vrai. These composition books Zuckerman used for his notes were bound in the stiff covers of marbled black-and-white design that generations of Americans envision still in bad dreams about lessons unlearned. On the inside of the front cover, facing the blue ruled lines of the first page, was the chart where the student is to enter his class program, period by period, for the school week. Here Zuckerman composed his subtitle, printing in block letters across the rows of rectangles provided for the subject, room, and instructor: 'Or, How I Made a Fiasco of Fame and Fortune in My Spare Time.' "

•••


"Pepler laughed his hearty appreciative laugh. God, he certainly seemed harmless enough. Dark glasses? A tourist indulgence. Going native. 'Whistle something else,' Pepler said. 'Anything. As far back in time as you want.'

" 'I really have to be off.'

" 'Please, Nathan. Just to test me out. To prove to you I'm on the level. That I am Pepler in the flesh!'

"Well, the war was on, the sirens had sounded, and his father, the street's chief air-raid warden, was out of the house in the prescribed sixty seconds. Henry, Nathan, and their mother sat at the rickety bridge table in the basement, playing casino by candlelight. Only a drill, not the real thing, never the real thing in America, but of course, if you were a ten-year-old American you never knew."

•••


" 'Look,' said Zuckerman, you want the whole truth?'

" 'Yes!' Eyes big, eyes bulging, eyes asizzle in a glowing red face. 'Yes! But the truth unbiased, that's what I want! Unbiased by the fact that you only wrote that book because you could! Because of having every break in life there is! While the ones who didn't obviously couldn't! Unbiased by the fact that those hang-ups you wrote about happen to be mine, and that you knew it—that you stole it!'

" 'I did what? Stole what?'

" 'From what my Aunt Lottie told your cousin Essie that she told to your mother that she told to you. About me. About my past.'

"Oh, was it time to go!

"The light was red. Would it never be green again when he needed it? With no further criticism to make or instruction to give, Zuckerman turned to leave.

" 'Newark!' Pepler, behind him, delivered the word straight to the eardrum. 'What do you know about Newark, Mama's Boy! I read that fucking book! To you it's Sunday chop suey downtown at the Chink's! To you it's being Leni-Lenape Indians at school in the play! To you it's Uncle Max in his undershirt, watering the radishes at night! And Nick Etten at first for the Bears! Nick Etten! Moron! Moron! Newark is a nigger with a knife! Newark is a whore with the syph! Newark is junkies shitting in your hallway and everything burned to the ground! Newark is dago vigilantes hunting jigs with tire irons! Newark is bankruptcy! Newark is ashes! Newark is rubble and filth! Own a car in Newark and then you'll find out what Newark's all about! Then you can write ten books about Newark! They slit your throat for your radial tires! They cut off both balls for a Bulova watch! And your dick for the fun of it, if it's white!'

"The light went green. Zuckerman made for the mounted policeman. 'You! Whining about Mama back in Newark and how she wouldn't wipe your ass for you three times a day! Newark is finished, idiot! Newark is barbarian hordes and the Fall of Rome! But what the hell would you know up on the hoity-toity East Side of Manhattan? You fuck up Newark and you steal my life—' "

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Previous posts on Philip Roth at Cinemasparagus:

The Ghost Writer [1979]

2006 and 2007 Interviews

See also some of the Chaplin entries.


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