Is he also shy? Or modest? Or mysterious? Or all of these things? I can’t say for sure, but the back cover of his most unusual and funny mystery, due out in June, and already sold to Blackstone Audiobooks, depicts a man with sunglasses rendering him unidentifiable. Furthermore the major characters in this story—Howie and Ariel—both hide their thoughts and personalities from one another.
And who are these people? Howie’s father had warned him: “You can’t ride two horses with one ass.” But here he was, living a double life—one racketeering with his crew and the other sitting in cafes reading Penguin classics. To fit in, Howie hides his intellectual interests from his gangster friends, but they still suspect something is not right about him. He will also disguise his interests and personality from Ariel, a young woman he encounters in a coffee shop who seems demure and bookish, but likes her men rough and her sex rougher.
With this introduction I turn it over to Ira.
* * *
“Once a certain degree of insight has been reached …all men talk, when talk they must, the same tripe.”—Samuel Beckett, Murphey
My kid, nine years old, H, called me from Florida, early, before noon, on Sunday. He was visiting his grandmother, my ersatz mother-in-law. In a wavering tearful voice he claims, “I miss you Dad.”
This takes me by surprise. I serve, no doubt, a function in the boy’s life. But every Christmas he goes to Boca Raton for a week. He’s accompanied by my partner, R, his primary-by-a-lot emotional support, and is usually happy as a mussel in wine-sauce. He swims and eats horrific Florida food. His grandmother dotes on her only grandchild, plies him with gifts and imparts the Boca sensibility that more-is-better, and more-than-your-neighbor-is-best. I don’t know what to make of his crying on the phone. “Did something happen that upset you?”
Stumped, “So what’s up?”
“I don’t know,” he sobs.
My heart breaks. His voice on the phone is high and wavering and inevitably reminds me of my ex-wife’s voice. “Listen H, are you depressed?”
He hesitates but then says, “Maybe.”
“I’m impressed, babe. My first depression didn’t hit until I was eleven.”
He doesn’t know what to make of this.
“You’re a prodigy. The heavy weight of existence crushed you before you reached double digits.”
By now he’s baffled enough to stop crying. He also likes to hear that he’s made me proud. I press the advantage. “Were you able to get out of bed this morning?”
“Oh. Well, that’s a sign you’re not clinically depressed.”
Maybe sensing my disappointment, he quickly adds, “But then I went back to bed.”
“Really? Are you calling me from bed?”
“I’m in the bedroom,” he assures, then, more softly, “but not in bed.”
“That’s okay. Do you feel like doing anything?”
So this requires quick paternal type thinking. These events shrieked for profundity, a deep teaching moment. “Do you remember The Odyssey? Odysseus travels everywhere, even to hell. He fights, he has Goddesses for girlfriends and pokes out his enemy’s eye like a real-life Three Stooger.”
The kid, I am happy to say, is familiar with the Homeric epics, due to a comic book I had bought him two years before. “Yes.”
“Well, do you know that about a hundred years ago a writer named Joyce rewrote the story and set it in Ireland and changed the main character’s name to Leopold Bloom?”
Not surprising since the comic book for Ulysses hadn’t come out. “And do you know what his heroic act was?”
“He got out of bed. Today, it takes all a man’s courage to put on his pants. After nearly three thousand years of religion and philosophy, we have not come up with a single legitimate answer to the question why bother?”
I stopped. I imagined the boy on the other end. Dark blond, moppish hair. Brown eyes. Cheeks as round and white as cue balls. He looked up to me just as if I were not going through the motions of fatherhood. He often listened as if I were explaining useful things such as a P.E. ratio or the meaning of a pitcher’s E.R.A.
“Why get out of bed? What is the point of all this going to sleep and waking up?”
“I have to go to school.”
“Are you doing the double talk thing?”
“No. A little. That usually cheers you up. What you had here was an attack of consciousness, maybe your first. Hopefully, you will not make a full recovery.”
“Really?” His voice wavered on the verge of breaking down. “I don’t like this feeling.”
“You’ll get used to it. If things go well you’ll wonder why time passes so quickly and pleasure fades like a dream. If not, life will bewilder you with its nightmarish quality. It will make you nauseous like a roller coaster that’s not guaranteed to stay on the tracks. The masters speak of absurdity and dread.”
I thought things were going well. Here I spoke naturally, not too obscurely while managing to include my deepest insight. I expected H to contemplate further and ask more questions.
Instead, his mother gets on. “I don’t know what’s going on. He’s never acted like this.”
“Don’t worry. I put things in context for him.”
“He’s locked himself in the bathroom. Let me find out what he’s doing in there.”
“Okay. Call me later.”
So I hung up, glad that instead of opening a 529 for his college education we were putting all our spare cash into a therapy fund. He will have access to his inner life if it destroys him.
I looked forward to talking to him again. I had prepared all my life to pass on the philosophical wisdom of the ages, and I was ready to talk Plato, Epicurus, Aquinas, Kant, Kierkegaard, Bergson, Sartre, Singer. While waiting, I re-read some of Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz, the chapter entitled “The Gray Zone.” When he called back, I’d be ready.
And he did, about two hours later. “Dad, Dad.”
“What? What happened?”
“I’m flying a kite. I’m on the beach flying a kite. And this man showed me how to do tricks. And I’m really good at it. The wind is great. And I can run really fast. I wish you were here. It’s so much fun.”
“That’s great, kid.” I didn’t let him hear my dejection. “And you’re feeling good?”
“When I get back to New York you have to get me a kite.”
And then he gave the phone to R. She said, “Yeah, I offered to get him a kite and take him to the beach. You should really be here to see this. The wind is high and he’s staring up at the sky as he lets out the string and pulls the kite this way and that. He’s just joyful.”
“Did he mention anything about what we were talking about?”
“No. Why? What did you tell him?”
“Just some jokes.”
So there it is. As literary writers, we like to think what sets us apart from the commercial junk is that we have deep thoughts, hard won through living and studying. We pride ourselves that we dive into those motivating issues that swim below the surface. But good fiction shows people flying kites in all weathers. Whatever meaning there might be must be extracted from that.
* * *
As usual, I hope you will leave comments on this blog. You can also reach Ira directly by emailing him at email@example.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also make the same offer I made last week: if you want an electronic file of Debasements of Brooklyn, I will happily send it on to you.
We have several possibilities for next week’s blog, and at this moment I can’t say anything more about it.