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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’m not the best short-story writer in the world. But I can tell you what I am. I’m a short-story reader. It’s one of my favorite forms. Some say it’s essentially an American form, like our musicals. Oklahoma! Guys and Dolls. But of course there’s de Maupassant and Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Isaak Babel, where do we stop, the Irish storytellers, O’Faoláin, O’Connor, O’God, those Irish know how to tell ’em! And how about our Latino friends, Carlos Fuentes, Borges, García Márquez …? An endless list of wonders. Short stories are great for good-night reading, and on planes and trains—easier to read a short story than a novel in a subway. I don’t only mean that a short story is short—a twenty-, thirty-minute read. A short story is also something you can reexperience, relive, reflect on—whatever you want to do with it—while waiting for your plane to be called, or letting your watch warn you that your ferry from Orient Point is approaching New London. That would distract you from thinking about a novel, say 1984 or The Old Gringo. But it gives you just enough time to ask yourself, Why did I like that story? Why did it hold me? What does it make me think about? Good stories are to enjoy. Tell me a story, Daddy. Well, once upon a time … Fun. But very good stories do more. First they entertain you, then they add to knowledge you already think you knew. They stretch you. Aesthetic aerobics.
Any collection of short stories or tales is a kind of map, with lines indicating where the traveler has journeyed, and this group of tales is no exception. There are Hollywood stories, not because “Hollywood” lends any special glamour to this assemblage—quite the contrary—but because Hollywood happens to be this writer’s hometown, where he was raised, where he ran a mediocre half-mile for L. A. High, put out a daily newspaper there and learned to meet deadlines, and where he first began writing the poetry that soon convinced him he should try his hand at prose.
“he Hollywood tales in this book are not particularly happy ones because no one is happy in Hollywood unless he or she is very successful, and no one in Hollywood can stay very successful. As this is written, I can think of at least three of Hollywood’s most brilliant directors, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, and Robert Wise—with all their Oscars and all their marbles—who can’t get a job. Apparently it’s okay to run a country at seventy-five or over, but direct a movie? The kids in short pants running the studios will tell you, “Forget it!”
There are a number of Mexican stories, because I have not only kept an apartment in Mexico since 1960 but left a part of my heart there indefinitely. Sentimental? Damn right. One day in the plaza of an old village I saw a scribe at a typewriter that looked like a relic of the 1910 revolution quietly typing a letter being dictated to him by an illiterate borracho whose complexion suggested the chemistry of red peppers, tequila and uncontrollable temper. As I watched them, “Señor Discretion” began to write itself into this book. A minor archaeological rip-off in Taxco, followed by chance associations with some serious pre-Columbian digs, provided still another little Mexican play on moralities. And the counterintelligence story, as extreme as it may read, actually came to me through a glass of Dos Equis in a pungent Mexican cantina, extravagantly named the Transatlantico, where a Mexican cop in the grip of tequila añejo was closing in on a pair of unsuspecting peasants from the mountains. So, picaresque these Mexican tales may be, but I had to hold back several more to try to keep this book in balance. The trouble with Mexico is you trip over the picaresque. Even their philosophers, like Octavio Paz, have to dig deep into their seriousness so as not to become pícaros.
Some of these tales spring from hobbies, like deep-sea fishing and boxing, and some from lifelong obligations, like having to keep up with the waterfront. And a few are country stories, like “Say Good Night to Owl,” because my novels have always been the city novels of a country boy. Los Angeles was country when I was growing up amid palm trees, fig and pepper trees, and the blossoms of grapefruit and oranges. I have lived on farms in Bucks County and beaches on the west coast of Florida and now on eastern Long Island.
A great blue heron just flew by my window. Where was it going, in the dead of winter? The germ of a story, or a tale. That’s how they begin. Of course a large bird flying by your window is simply a fact. An odd or interesting fact. A paragraph for Audubon magazine. What would make it a story? Well, if this large pale-blue bird is an anthropomorphic creature, he could be a symbol of a lost soul in a changing world. Why hasn’t he gone south to the warmer climes self-respecting blue herons expect and deserve? Is he a symbol of the greenhouse effect: He thinks or senses that our winters are getting warmer? Is he a metaphor for climatic aberration leading to social alienation? Or could this be the story of a bird whose mate has been killed by man or some other marauder? Many birds, from racing pigeons to swans, mate for life. Will this one continue to search for his lost mate until he freezes or starves to death? Or will a human sympathizer get involved? Will he or she try to get to the bottom of this mystery of the great blue heron who chose to stay, or simply was left behind? How does the human character we’ve brought into the story cope with this problem? Do the intervention and the coping change it from a fleeting event to a story? The possibilities, we begin to see, are limitless. A story is not an event, but a series of related events, one drawing on the previous one, and building to a climax. It doesn’t have to be a big payoff climax like a smoochy clinch or a screeching car-chase at the end of a movie. It can be quiet and almost deceptively uneventful. Chekhov comes to mind as the master of such an ending, and so does Hemingway, whose novels may date a little but whose short stories are still wonderful on rereading. Any student of the short story would do well to study their endings.
Short stories have played an important part in my life. My childhood in Hollywood was enriched by my father’s enjoyment in reading to us (his children) from the classics on Sunday mornings. Very un-Hollywood, you might think, for Father ran a big movie studio when I was in grammar and high school. But short-story writing, oddly enough, had helped us get to Hollywood: B.P. (all big producers used initials in those days) had won a New York City high-school short-story contest. It helped him get a job as a copyboy with Franklin Pierce Adams, F.P.A. (forgotten now, famous columnist then), on the old, still-lamented New York World. One day my sister Sonya (a gifted but underpublished short-story writer) found a copy of Father’s prizewinning story in the attic of our house in Hollywood. It was called “The Man from the North” and it was terrible, worse than Jack London when he was bad. But at least it was a story, with a beginning, middle and end, and it drew a picture, it set a mood and it had a theme, even if rather a simplistic one.
“The Man from the North” did two good things: It established Father as a professional who became one of the movies’ first “photoplay” writers, and it encouraged his own appreciation of short stories, an interest that he (and our mother, a would-be librarian) passed on to us through reading aloud and urging us to read everything from O. Henry and Stephen Crane to Tolstoy and Thomas Mann.
In my early teens, I was in thrall to the Russians and my first short story, “Ugly,” was written under their influence—about an outcast in Eastern Europe, so disfigured that he only ventured to appear in public at carnival time, when he could wear a mask and disport in disguise. I was also in thrall, you might say, to my father’s writers. When sound and the need for dialogue turned Hollywood upside down, B.P. threw a net around as many eastern writers—novelists, playwrights, even poets—as he could pull in. Out came Herman Mankiewicz, who had collaborated with George S. Kaufman and was later to write Citizen Kane, Ben Hecht, John V. A. Weaver and Edwin Justus Mayer, who had written two Broadway plays—The Firebrand and Children of Darkness—that were surprisingly successful considering their wit and poetry. And B.P.’s favorite, Vincent Lawrence, another Broadway playwright, earning twenty-five hundred dollars a week in Hollywood, cynical but conscientious about the movie work he had contracted to do, and at the same time devoted to the art of the printed word. When Vinnie got drunk, he would lapse into near-total recall of The Great Gatsby, and it was eerie to hear him recite the precise opening, or the haunting coda.
In my late teens I showed a story called “Busman’s Holiday” to my father, a fairly tough critic, who thought it good enough to try on Vinnie Lawrence. A tall, gaunt, driven Scotsman who still kept reaching for creative perfection, for what he called “that blue sky-rack,” Vinnie was down at his writing shack, in Topanga Canyon, built out on stilts over the ocean.
“V-V-Vinnie,” I stammered, “I just finished a story and D-D-Dad thought I—I—”
“OK, laddie, don’t tell me about it. Lemme read it for myself.”
Vinnie, my hero, took my story, retreated to the bedroom and shut the door. I stepped out onto a long, narrow balcony above the white water of the waves crashing against the rocks. I watched the aquatic commotion below, paced the precarious balcony and, every few minutes, glanced at my watch. Ten minutes, fifteen, twenty … When half an hour had passed, I began to worry. The story was a mere seventeen pages. Vinnie was a fast reader. What if something terrible had happened to him? He was high-strung, worked hard on top of drinking hard, and was under all sorts of pressure. Jesus, maybe he was dead!