“TEASER” TO A NOVEL

Back when I was a young writer among other young writers in the 1970’s we all dreamed of getting an “advance.”  An “advance” was a large wad of cash that would free one from working dishwasher-jobs, and also free one of mooching-off and being-beholden-to various friends and relatives. This money would be given by some person (with more money than sense) who believed you had the ability to produce worthwhile writing.

In actual fact we were all basically like Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoons, saying, “I will gladly pay you Thursday for a hamburger today.” We desired the rewards before we had done the work.

Some of us got rather good at the con-artistry of begging without ever admitting we were beggars. In most cases, it only amounted to the vainglorious attitude of a person who feels he somehow above cleaning toilets, because he can write rhymes, and feels he is somehow superior to mothers who change stinking diapers, because he is this thing called “sensitive”, and poop makes him too queasy to contemplate the poetry in clouds. Such would-be-writers, (and I include myself in this crowd), did get some free meals out of adopting this attitude of being a proud beggar, but in the end we usually had to pay our dues working as janitors and cleaning toilets.

A few actually succeeded in obtaining large amounts of money for novels they had never written. I do not know of a single case where good came of it. However their fates are tales for another time.

Personally, the entire idea of gaining an “advance” on work I hadn’t done was mostly a dream that kept me going when things seemed hopeless. It was like dreaming you might win big, when you buy a two dollar lottery ticket. It might help you to keep slogging on when life is at its darkest, but at some point you start to realize that it the slogging that gets you through the dark times, and never the million dollars you never win from a two dollar ticket.

The only good I can see that came out of seeking advances was that one does learn to formulate an “advance”, even if one can never find a sucker to fall for it. It is a sort of promise one dangles, but never makes.

In a sense an “advance” is what all art is, for no art can match the Creation of the Creator, but a good artist hints, with a few lines, of the Greater Greatness.

This “teaser” is the result of more than forty years of writing, in the manner of a proud beggar,  various requests for advances. It’s the best I’ve done so far, but still doesn’t get around a serious problem, the problem being I am attempting to sell a novel that isn’t finished.

The only way around this is to charge nothing for it.

By the way, the following is fiction.

Introduction

For the past forty-five years I have dealt in rare books. It has been quite lucrative, primarily because I have painstakingly developed a clientele of very wealthy bibliophiles. They have paid vast sums for the first editions of the works of famous authors I occasionally chance upon. However if I depended on that alone I would not be as wealthy as I have become, for the competition is fierce when you are dealing with famous authors.   Instead the clientele I have developed also has a love for the obscure, the unknown, and the downright peculiar.

My profession has allowed me to travel a lot, for it is in obscure nooks of bookstores in backwaters of the former British Empire that I have had the best luck, when it comes to chancing upon the most interesting discoveries. However I cannot take credit for discovering the following work, for the truth of the matter is that I did not find it. It found me.

In the winter of 2004 Miss Bodkins, my secretary, was unloading some packing crates I’d shipped over from Inverness, Scotland, when she noticed something odd. As she removed and stacked books beside a particular crate, she noticed the piles were considerably shorter when beside the crates than they had been when within the crate. The crate obviously had a false bottom, because it wasn’t actually a crate.   It was an old footlocker, such as were found at the foot of beds in old-time English Boarding Schools.

I cannot remember how it was that I came to use that trunk as a packing crate; likely it was for sale at the same second-hand shop in Inverness where I found the books. In any case, it had found its way to New York City.

It did not take us long to remove the trunk’s false bottom. Underneath were the tightly packed papers of a teenaged schoolboy, dating from the period between 1967 and 1972. They included some diaries and poems, but largely consisted of onionskin letters and manuscripts from a friend.

The schoolboy was a South African who had attended a now defunct school called Dunrobin in the northeast corner of Scotland. The earliest scribbles were in English, but in 1970 the youth apparently met an American, and together they developed a secret shorthand, initially because they were discussing drugs and feared arrest. Miss Bodkins was able to decipher some of the traditional shorthand, but much of the shorthand was of the boy’s own invention, and it frustrated all our efforts at translation.

Fortunately Miss Bodkins discovered a sort of Rosetta Stone. In August of 1971 the American had sent the South African a manuscript in their secret shorthand, and the South African had gotten as far as typing out the first sixty pages in plain English. This gave Miss Bodkins enough to go on, and, because business was slow at that time, I left her busily working on translating the shorthand as I went to meet a wealthy client up in Connecticut.

A snowstorm prevented me from returning to the office that day, and when I returned the next day I was somewhat appalled to see Miss Bodkins had never left. Furthermore she seemed to be sobbing at her desk when I walked in. My relief was huge when I realized she was actually laughing, because she was transcribing a part that struck her as particularly humorous.

I usually find winters in New York dark and depressing, but the following months were truly delightful, as Miss Bodkins slowly put together the manuscript that forms the following work. For a person like myself, who delights in odd and obscure manuscripts, it was a once-in-a-lifetime joy.

The work consists of letters the American sent to the South African, and also an autobiography the American wrote, which apparently the South African had read and desired.   We have no copies of the South African’s letters, but can surmise some their content from the American’s responses.

I cannot emphasis strongly enough the uncanny ability Miss Bodkins displayed while translating the American’s shorthand into the prose you shall read. The young man’s spelling was atrocious, and his microscopic handwriting was so unintelligible I myself could barely distinguish it from the shorthand. Furthermore, the shorthand itself was in a state of constant flux, with changes noted in the upper right corner of every page. Because we lack the letters from the South African, none of the changes he himself added were available, and Miss Bodkins was often confronted by the American beginning a fresh message using a new, altered version of the shorthand that had been created by the South African. Lastly, the boys were well ahead of their time, for they abbreviated common phrases in a way much like today’s youth does in their emails; (IE; lol means “laugh out loud.”) It was up to Miss Bodkins to decipher these abbreviations and translate them back into readable English.

In the process of translating we could not resist sharing some of the half-transcribed secret letters with our friends, and from time to time friends suggested that Miss Bodkins had improved upon the American’s work, in the process of translating it. I can neither confirm nor deny this allegation, because to this day the original notes remain unintelligible to me, however, because the original notes were unintelligible to our friends as well, perhaps they should not have alleged what they insinuated. Miss Bodkins herself strenuously denies editing the work, and insists she worked very hard to retain the American’s queer mix of English, Scottish, South African, Yankee and Hippy slang.

Another objection we heard was that no teenager could write so much so quickly. Miss Bodkins theorized that their shorthand enabled them to write as fast as they could talk, which, in the case of drugged teenagers, can be rather speedily. Also I noted that, judging from the essays the South African kept, Dunrobin School forced the youth to write a great many essays in order to ready them for their O-level and A-level exams, and due to this constant discipline they wrote prose at a rate far swifter than most modern teens are able to achieve.

Miss Bodkins did confess to correcting some grammar, however she did so reluctantly, and only after great deliberation, which I personally witnessed because she would often run such changes by me, before making them.

On occasion these grammatical errors involved the American switching from the past tense to the present tense, and then back, for the American, when telling a story, would apparently recollect so vividly that he fell into describing events as if he were watching a film in the present tense. Miss Bodkins occasionally leaves such writing as it was written, to retain the quality of the youth’s prose, but on a few occasions the switches back and forth between the past and present tense, several times in a single sentence, created a confusion that begged a remedy. However I must stress that Miss Bodkins insists that such meddling with the American’s writing was the exception to the rule.

Miss Bodkins’ work became a labor of love, involving no pay whatsoever. I personally feel the simple fact she translated so much shorthand and so many abbreviations back to readable prose granted her a certain amount of leeway, and she may have produced better letters, in a more readable English, than the American himself could have done. She certainly does as much with my letters, on a daily basis. However I should also clearly state that for Miss Bodkins to write in the irreverent, vulgar, misogynic, and socially incorrect manner of the American teenager would display character traits in her that I have never witnessed, and doubt exist.

One abbreviation, “Stinedu,” Miss Bodkins decided deserved status as a word, and she left it as it was written, for reasons that shall become obvious to the reader.   Also she left the abbreviation of “because” as “cos,” due to the fact it appears in other letters the South African received from people besides the American, and apparently was common English for youths at Dunrobin, in 1971.

Eventually Miss Bodkins’ focus on this work interfered with the work I required of her, and I became petulant and accused her of falling in love with a teenager a third her age, who lived thirty-five years ago. She accused me of being jealous. After a good laugh, we decided we should make efforts to locate the two boys, who now would be in their mid fifties.

This proved more difficult than we expected, due to the fact both youths nicknamed everyone. In the process of attempting to locate people we were appalled by the swath death had scythed across the cast of characters mentioned in the American’s letters. We did not expect the elders mentioned in letters dated 1971 to be alive, but did expect more of the teenager’s peers to still be with us. In the end we discovered the whereabouts of both the American and the South African are a mystery. It is assumed they both died young, while on adventures.   The South African was last heard from in 1973, and the American in 1974.

The fact there is a slight chance the writers of this work may still be alive created an interesting dilemma for my lawyer, and he does not approve of my publishing this work. He has insisted I have the survivors sign certain documents, when it was possible to locate them, but all the individuals we were able to locate greatly enjoyed reading the teenager‘s irreverent observations, even when they saw themselves described in a less than flattering light.

In essence this work is a window into a world that is gone. It may be of value to future historians because the young man, in his attempt to comprehend the society he was dealing with, describes people and events in a detail that I can only describe as baroque. The pity is that he seems to have little awareness that his society is in a process of meltdown, and is in a sense evaporating even as he attempts to learn how to swim.

I personally couldn’t help liking the people involved, even as many are described unflatteringly. I suspect a lot of my enjoyment is merely due to the fact I am fascinated by rare books, but Miss Bodkins is convinced others will find enjoyment as well, and therefore I offer this work up for publication.

New York, New York
September 2006

July 4, 1971
Southernwood, East Hendred
England

Dear Kaff,

I guess you’ll be surprised to get this letter so soon. It hasn’t been 48 hours since you left but it already seems like a year.   I imagine you don’t get much jet-lag flying north to south to Johannesburg, with the time zones practically the same, but I bet you still need some time to recover. When you do, make sure to write me.

I can’t say where I’ll be. Mother is mad at me for wanting to go home to the States. She wants me to drive around with my younger brother Tom and little sister Lily and the Fossil and her until August, touring Scotland. I can’t imagine being crammed in a car with them would be fun. Lily and Tom would fight and the Fossil would frown and fume. I told her I’ve seen Scotland and just want to go back home.   She says I didn’t see much, going to Dunrobin.   Instead I ought be a sardine in a tiny English car with her.

Of course I can’t tell her I want to go home and get stoned, but I do. It’s been so long since I’ve been high I can’t remember what its like. I’m much healthier, but there’s no heaven in my life. I want it.

My oldest brother Halsey is over visiting. O yeah.   He came before you left. I forgot. We stayed up until three last night talking. So I didn’t catch up on my sleep, even after staying up all night talking to you before you left. I guess it goes to show you I’m a natural born burnout. I don’t want to sleep. I want to think.

Halsey mentioned there is some sort of religious movement going on back in the States called the “Jesus Freaks.” For some reason I got upset, hearing that. It’s like the hippies couldn’t face reality and ran away to a security blanket. After moldering away in Dunrobin School for a year the last thing I want is to be boxed up in some new set of rules. Religion’s not for me. It would be as bad as being a sardine in a car touring Scotland with Mother.

I can’t see what’s so good about touring. Once you’ve seen one castle you’ve seen them all. Doesn’t she know I’ve frozen my ass off, living in Dunrobin Castle for a year?   O yes, and gardens. We must see the gardens. Well, Dunrobin had gardens, and all they were good for was running off caveats. How many times do you suppose we jogged around that big, circular garden at Dunrobin, running off all those caveats we got? Mother doesn’t understand the sight of a garden makes me break out in a rash. And I’m sitting in Southernwood’s garden now, at the iron table where you and I talked, and all I can say is: It is boring. I feel stale. If I was high I might see some beauty in the flowers, but when you are alone they might as well be plastic.   Get me out of here.

I’ve only been out of school a week and already I miss everyone. Now, ain’t that ironic? I spend a whole year dreaming of escaping a prison, and now I want to go back? No way. Like it said on that sign in the London subway that we laughed at: “No way.”

I was hoping Halsey might bring some pot but he didn’t dare. He was afraid of getting nailed in customs. So I just nicked a big bottle of Woodpecker cider from the pantry last night, and we got a bit sloshed. But it isn’t the same as getting high.

A friend from high school named Woofer is dropping by tomorrow. Maybe he’ll bring some pot.   He’s touring Europe this summer, but not as a sardine. He’s getting away from his parents, and staying at youth hostels. I suppose that might be fun, but I just want to go home.

My mother seems to think being a sardine would be family time. Home. What a hypocrite. If she cared about family she’d never have divorced my Dad. Then she sends Tom and Lily away to boarding schools, so she won’t have to deal with them and can pretend to be some snobby English duchess. And now she talks about family time?

I might consider being a sardine cos I feel sorry for Tom and Lilly. Their situation is pretty sick, when I think about it. They both seem sort of maimed. My little sister Lilly has adopted a snobby English accent and I hardly know her.   My little brother Tom is still the same pest, but has a sort of scared look all the time. They actually preferred boarding school to living in this old, clammy house. They told me there was a ghost in their side of the house, and they used to hug each other, too scared to sleep. So they wanted to get the hell out of Southernwood, even though it meant they were separated from each other at different schools. And my mother has the nerve to talk of family? I get angry and wish I could do something, but what can I do?   Get me out of here. At least back in the States I might be able to start a commune where they’d be welcome.

That’s why I want out.   I really don’t feel welcome in my mother’s phony world. It’s OK to visit, but no place to live. I can’t be myself.

Sorry this letter is so much complaining. I guess all I wanted to say is that I miss you already and hope you’ll stay in touch,

 

July 7, 2007
East Hendred, England

Dear Kaff,

Got your letter.   We probably were writing at the same time. So how can you doubt we have a psychic connection? The pity is we haven’t learned how to skip writing letters. Print is primitive, compared to psychic contact.

So your Mom wants you to work at the bank? I don’t blame you for rebelling. After all the eyestrain involved in studying for A-levels the last thing you need is a desk job. Still, I can’t believe you told that plumber you were trained. You have guts. And I think its pretty amazing you lasted until lunch before getting fired.

Man, did I ever laugh reading your letter. Especially where your Mom nags in the evening about whether you looked for work in the afternoon and you tell her you signed up to be a mercenary in Mozambique.   Would they really take you at age seventeen? Don’t do it. A bank is better, and I couldn’t stand it if you were dead.

I might be going to die in Vietnam, for all I know. I asked my Mom if there was any reply from the colleges I applied to, and she looked all guilty and it turned out she never mailed the applications. I hit the roof. Not really, but inside my skull I did. If you don’t go to college in the USA you get drafted.

She said she couldn’t send the application because there were spelling mistakes. I don’t believe a word of it. I think she didn’t send them due to the postal strike, and then just plain forgot. I figure she was much too busy going to dinner parties and playing the duchess.   They got shuffled to the back of her desk, and buried.

I’d have listened to my spelling teacher in grade school more if I’d known I was going to die in a jungle if I didn’t get a hundred on every spelling test.

Any word from Jim in Singapore? He used to talk about joining up to fight Maoists in Malaysia. Or has Singapore separated from Malaysia now? Anyway, I guess the Malaysians had enough brains to not join Mao.   I’m not sure the Vietnamese are so smart.

Wouldn’t it be odd if we three died in jungles on the same day? What good would it be then that we studied Chaucer at Dunrobin?

It just makes this garden I’m sitting in all the more pointless. My mother wants to live in a fake world of clinking cocktails and chit-chat about blithering nonsense. There’s a pile of idiot magazines she subscribed to in the house I can’t believe.   They’re called “The Tattler, ” all about who is seen at what party at what mansion. Lots of pictures of people dressed funny, with faces that look pretty concerned about being seen with the right people at the right place.   I had this feeling the people in the pictures were all completely mad, as I looked through magazines, bored silly.

I’m so bored my eyeballs are falling out. Luckily my friend Woofer dropped by for a day and a night. I hoped he’d sneak some pot through customs but he didn’t dare.   He did pick up two tabs of street acid in London, and we dropped them here in this garden. They tasted like malted milk tablets. Then we waited and waited and waited. Nothing happened, so I guess they actually were malted milk.   Woofer got pretty mad about spending two quid for two malted milk tablets, and said you just couldn’t trust criminals like you used to. But we did get a laugh out of how we sat there waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Woofer was pretty discouraging about my old gang back in the states. It sounds like nobody is getting along, and there’s lots of bickering.   It just made me want to hurry home and slap them into line, but Mother is still going on about me touring Scotland with her. I wish I had your guts. I would tell her she’s got me touring Vietnam, and that’s enough.

If I am going to die in some jungle I deserve to go home and see Eve first. I’ve been dreaming of her for a solid year, and my mother is pretty stupid if she thinks touring castles in Scotland is more attractive.   I did tell my mother that, though not in so many words. I just said I wanted to see my girlfriend. My mother looked pretty disappointed. I think she hoped I’d forget Eve after a year, because Eve’s Jewish.   Mom can marry a fossil, but I can’t marry a Jew.

It was nice of you to write Mother that thank-you note. When you said all those nice things about her it reminded me she isn’t all bad. I don’t know why it is, but when I first get home I can’t stand her. It takes a while to get used to her. Then I get nervous because I feel like I’m getting too comfortable, and might wake up some day and find I’d never done anything, and was a fifty-year-old virgin living with Mommy.

She doesn’t say so, but I think she’d like that. She doesn’t approve of men rushing off to die in jungles. It’s improper, old chap. The best occupation for a man is to grow orchids.

Oh God, please get me out of here. This flower garden is sheer hell to me. I want to head down to South Africa and work for a plumber with you.

I’m surprised you want my book “The Party Woods” so bad. I don’t see how I’ll ever get time to finish it, now that I’m not jailed at Dunrobin. I glanced over it briefly, yesterday evening, and it just seemed like all these pieces that don’t hang together: Beads without a string. I just want to burn it. I can’t even show it to anyone but you, cos it’s all in our secret shorthand. Maybe I’ll put it through a copier machine when I get back to the States, and send you a copy.

You will notice I addressed this letter to your proper name. Sorry about the last one. I forgot Kaffir was such a bad nickname to have in South Africa. Still, your description of your Mother’s face made it all worthwhile,

Yours,
Nig

July 9, 1971
East Hendred, England

Dear Kaff,

Got your letter in the nick of time, because I’m about to leave for the States.

You are an inspiration.   I’d never have the guts to keep telling plumbers I knew about plumbing, and keep getting fired. And to gradually learn enough about the trade, each time, to avoid getting fired for longer and longer periods of time? That was genius. And now a guy is keeping you? Amazing. And I guess it beats working at a bank.

I wonder if there is some pub where plumbers hang out in the evening, and they were sitting about talking shop, and then one plumber mentioned a complete idiot who applied to work for him, and then a second plumber said the same idiot also applied to work for him, and pretty soon they were all talking about this amazing idiot who never quit, and they decided that anyone who displayed such tenacity deserved a chance. And it pays more than the bank?   Congratulations.

Sorry you feel so lonely, but I wouldn’t worry so much about being a virgin. Not that I don’t worry a little myself, but I doubt losing it will make me a man. Cows do it, and they don’t turn into men, do they? Ducks do it, and they don’t turn into men, do they? So how is it going to make me a man? Anyway, if it really is such a big deal I’ll go to a whore, but that disgusts me somehow.   I’d rather lose it with someone I love, like Eve.

If you pursue women with the same guts you pursued the plumbing job then some night all the women will all be sitting about discussing guys, and they’ll all realize there’s this one guy who tries and tries, and one will decide you are worth hiring. So don’t worry.

Sorry if I seem flippant, but I’m sipping some stout and don’t give a flip. I’m going home to the USA, and can’t tell you how happy I am.

You were psychic to write about the Fossil and say my stepfather isn’t such a bad guy, because even as you wrote he was saving me from going stir crazy here. He is a fossil, but a nice fossil.

He sat down and talked with me. I can’t feel very comfortable with a guy who is seventy, and he takes forever to say anything because he’s a lawyer and that’s how they talk. However I told him I had more interest in Eve than touring old castles, and he nodded like I might be understandable. My mother can’t see why I’m interested in a Jew. She never makes me feel at all understandable.

He also told me the law has changed and you can’t escape Vietnam by going to college any more. I was sort of relieved, because I don’t want to go sit around in some stuffy classroom listening to men who prefer books to real life. I also don’t want to go to Vietnam, but at least it would be outdoors.

The new law is that they put all the days of the year into a lottery, and then draw them out.   If you are unlucky your birthday is first, and you get drafted. My birthday was in the middle, so I probably won’t be drafted, though it isn’t a sure thing. I have to register when I get back to the States.

My stepfather said I could be helpful if I went back to the States ahead of them and got the house opened up. Apparently the people who rented the house trashed it and bailed out on the arrangement, and it’s all locked up and a bit messy or something. I’ll need to get his car registered and inspected, but will have wheels.

I’m just thinking it will be really neat to have a car and the house to myself for a while. Eve’s mother will not think it is a good idea, so I won’t tell her. Not right away, anyway.

Remind me again to send you a copy of “The Party Woods” once I’m settled back in the States. I have a feeling I’m going to be really busy, and will forget.

I’m too excited about going home to write any more. I’ll send you an address.

Yours,
Nig

 

July 11, 1971
Sudbury Road,
Weston, Massachusetts

Dear Kaff,

Here is my new address so you can write me here and tell me what’s going on.

I am too tired and jet-lagged to write beyond saying I was stoned fifteen minutes after I got off the jet and was tripping within an hour. I got in yesterday but it took me a whole day to manage the twenty miles to finally sit here in Weston. It’s like the party never stopped the whole year I was gone. It’s still going on even here even though it’s nearly midnight.

I don’t like it much.   Maybe I’m just tired. I’ll write a longer letter after I get some sleep.

Yours,
Nig

(To be continued) (At:  https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/novels-teaser-part-2/ )

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