Sunday, January 12, 2014

Certain Musty Old Letters

You know whenever I go on a little plane trip I like to jot down some things about it to tell you when I get back and then you don't read it and I don't really care. Sometimes I get lazy and don't jot until the trip is practically half over. But this time I STARTED JOTTING BEFORE THE TRIP EVEN BEGAN. I was sitting on the couch, waiting for time to go to the airport, and the Fox Movie Channel was on and I took out my special jotting notebook and start jotting down some things about this scene in this Doris Day movie that was on. Doris Day wore a backless, sparkling orange dress. A fat German guy was swatting grapes into the air for some reason. One grape fell into the butt section of Doris Day's dress and she inadvertently started a "dance craze" by trying to shake the grape out of her butt. I was thinking about how smutty everything used to be. I couldn't think of what to read on the airplane. I was really hoping for ANCIENT EVENINGS, but Bill Boyle isn't back from his trip home yet, and anyway he writes me that he has lost the tattered old copy of ANCIENT EVENINGS he had when he was a teenager, and which he had planned to bequeath to me. So I impulsively grabbed THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL - this despite my reservations about VILLETTE as good airplane material, and VILLETTE was by Charlotte Brontë; THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL is by Anne, the Brontë nobody likes! Ha ha, just kidding, Anne Brontë. But one of the first things I read at the airport was this: "It is a soaking, rainy day, the family are absent on a visit, I am alone in my library, and have been looking over certain musty old letters and papers, and musing on past times... having withdrawn my well-roasted feet from the hobs, wheeled round to the table, and indicted the above lines to my crusty old friend..." Well, that is just the kind of thing I want to read on an airplane. Something about the hobs really got to me, and I don't even know what hobs are! My mellow mood was abetted by gin, my go-to remedy for fear of flying. I eavesdropped on a woman who was ordering crab cakes at the "Sun Studios" themed bar at the airport (!) and the book made me think of how Kelly Hogan and I used to write letters all the time, back when people wrote letters all the time, and how Hogan recently told me she keeps mine in a waterlogged suitcase in her once-flooded garage and sometimes she takes them out. Oh no, I said, don't remind yourself needlessly of the inanities of that callow twerp, and Hogan clarified: "I don't read them - I smell them." An intoxicating brew of moldy sentiments! I was met at the airport by some grad students from the University of Cincinnati, where I was set to speak. I should thank them all, and especially the ones who drove me around while I was there and tended to my every need, and who, in fact, were responsible for my invitation: Luke, Steph, Justine, and Woody - and there were so many more, all nice. Luke and Woody were waiting by baggage claim with a huge poster with my name on it - decorated as well with several startling portraits of me, drawn by Luke's undergrads. They had been reading my short stories in Luke's class and he asked them to draw what they thought I looked like. One had given me a neck tattoo! Another, according to Luke (I haven't yet had a chance to examine the poster in detail, though Luke says he is mailing it to me) wrote her phone number on the poster, and "Call me" - ha ha ha! Woody and Luke drove me into the city, remarking cheerfully as we went over a bridge, "Obama cited this as a dangerous bridge that needs work." I shouted repeatedly to Woody and Luke that I wanted to go "somewhere fancy" for dinner. They said they'd take me to "the fancy hot dog place." Maybe they were kidding, but it WAS a fancy hot dog place, though not pretentious like some other fancy hot dog places I have heard about. It was called Mayday, very welcoming and comfortable, with excellent beer, friendly service and a pleasant, dark atmosphere. My hot dog contained lamb sausage made with cherries! So you will have to admit that was fancy. Somehow people already knew when I walked in the door of the fancy hot dog place about my work with ADVENTURE TIME. Someone wanted me to sign an apron for the kitchen. "My favorite is Lady Rainicorn," she said. She kind of went "Ah!" when I started drawing something at the bottom of my inscription, but it was just a stupid heart with an arrow through it. I'm the only person associated with ADVENTURE TIME who can't draw, reliably disappointing all I meet. It's understandable and even delightful to me that the students at "literary events" now are more interested in ADVENTURE TIME than in my books, which are but dubiously in print - in fact, I have a lawyer working right now to discover who is getting that tiny kickback on the rare occasion when a copy is sold. It's not me! I stayed in a nice bed and breakfast near the campus. My vivid and relentless dreams that first night took place - as if I were awake - in the actual room where I was sleeping, and were populated by humorous, cherubic ghosts or pixies who wanted to remind me whenever I became too relaxed that THEY were in charge. The room and bed were very comfortable, let me stress. But I was tormented all night by mirthful pixies - a first for me - and was tired for the reading. I didn't really want to read from any of my old, dead books, so I read from my cat book that no one wants to publish. As I was preparing my selections - the introduction, part of Chapter One, and the conclusion - I realized that most of the book has been published in bits and pieces, as I've cut it up and used it in lots of different stories and articles and the like. I'm sorry, sort of, that it's never going to appear whole, as "my cat book," though I see in retrospect it is perhaps unwise to write a 10-chapter novel in which nothing happens until the last half of Chapter Eight - a little wholesome advice I was able to impart to the young writers who attended the reading! In the Q&A and in her poetry, my fellow reader Marisa Crawford made some good points in favor of the use of pop culture in literature. One of her poems had Joan Crawford in it (and another made telling use of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART FIVE!) so I was glad that by coincidence I was reading the Joan Crawford section of my "cat book." After the reading, a bar. I sat with two other grown men - the head of the English department and the poetry editor of the Cincinnati Review - and we all talked about our kitties. I noticed that the openly sentimental discussion halted when Chris Bachelder came back to the table! Or maybe I imagined that. Did he exude the air of a man who would not tolerate such weakness? He was friendly and funny. But the cat talk did cease with his approach. Mr. Bachelder is a writer whose fiction I have always enjoyed and admired. I was meeting him for the first time, and we had fun trashing various McSweeney's editors. Ha ha! Not trashing. Affectionately ruminating upon their individual styles and methods. The conclusion of my cat book was published in McSweeney's, and I mentioned how the editor had made me change "solar plexus" to "abdomen." The poet at the table (Don Bogen) kindly took up for "solar plexus." Then we talked about why I had cravenly reverted to "abdomen" during the reading that day even though I had brought an old manuscript with "solar plexus" typed on the page. The strange tyranny of the absent editor! The next morning at the bed and breakfast I sat there reading this in THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL: "I thought it but reasonable to make some slight exertion to render my company agreeable." And I thought, yes, THAT is the kind of sentence I want to write all the time, and no other, editors can go to hell. And then Anne Brontë introduced some complicated plot business about trying to fetch a ball of cotton that had rolled under a table without disturbing a cat. WHY CAN'T ALL WRITING BE THAT? But that was the next day. The night before, as the students were about to leave the bar, I had the sudden urge to inquire, "Where do you go to sing karaoke in Cincinnati?" Luke knew. So a group of us walked some blocks to a gritty, narrow, cash-only joint called, with refreshing lack of irony, Junker's Tavern. Here is a picture of some of us getting ready to go to Junker's Tavern. That's Justine and Luke.
I'm in the middle, doing my thing where I think it's hilarious to look surly in a photo, but it never is. It was a good evening, though I got tired and made Steph and Luke leave before they could do "Mambo #5." Back at the bed and breakfast, the ghosts returned only once in a dream, as parody ghosts with greenish faces and CARNIVAL OF SOULS style dark rings under their eyes, but dressed in colorful rags, shouting, "God bless us, every one!" with Cockney accents and well-meaning but gruesome smiles.
On the plane back, the narrator of THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL was saying, "I was by no means a fop - of that I am fully convinced" and I was like, "Right, pal, keep telling yourself that!"