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0 Comments | Nov 25, 2015


wine-glass-spilledGrowing up, there was this little creek down back of our house. Nothing special, maybe a foot wide, a few inches deep, but, good lord, I can’t tell you the countless hours I spent down there enwrapped in the throes of adolescent fantasy. The story, though, was pretty much always the same. I’d collect armloads of branches and buckets of mud, and I’d dam up the creek and then wait hours for the water to rise up behind my crude earthworks. In the meantime, I’d construct a small town at the base of the dam using Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and plastic model train buildings. Olive green army men typically populated this unfortunate village, unmoving plastic figures who had not the slightest inkling of the grim fate that awaited them. When, hours later, the dam inevitably and cataclysmically failed, the deluge would sweep before it all the structures and residents of the doomed town, following which I’d spend another half day locating all the casualties and gathering them up once more for the next day’s catastrophe.

Jack looked slowly up from the page and met my eyes. I offered my best what-did-you-expect shrug and took a sip from my beer glass without breaking eye contact. We were seated in the sidewalk patio area of one of Jack’s favorite Greek places on the upper west side.

“So,” he finally said, “it’s a God thing?”

“I guess,” I replied. “I was nine. What the hell did I know about why I did things?”

He turned the page over briefly, as though some secret clarifying insight would be revealed on the back. There was none.

“You weren’t one of those animal torturing kids, were you?”

“Depends …” I replied, a moment’s hesitation.

“Depends on what?”

“On what you mean by ‘animals’,” I said.

“Animals. You know—living breathing organisms.”

Having made it well into my fifth decade, I was surprised to concede that this minor foible of my childhood had actually troubled me, at least slightly, for much of my adult life. Never mind the fact that virtually every kid I grew up with did their own fair share of burning ants with magnifying glasses, blowing up frogs with firecrackers, and administering other assorted torments.

“Well then, I’m gonna go with yeah,” I said. “I might’ve been known to engage in that sort of adolescent behavior. It was part of the whole rural growing up thing.” I paused and stared more closely into his silence. “Should I be feeling judged about now?”

“No judging,” he said, hesitating uncomfortably, pursing his lips. “I’m just trying to see myself in that place … out of curiosity. I was a city kid. Our only animals were pigeons.”

“We had seagulls,” I replied, pausing to gauge his sensibilities. “I had a friend who used to fly seagulls.”

“Do I want to know?” he asked.

“Fishing pole and casting reel … with a hook and a piece of bread. You throw it up in the air, gull takes the bread, and—”

His upraised hand told me I had done a poor job of gauging his sensibilities.

“There are writers who wouldn’t be comfortable including that sort of stuff in a memoir,” he said.

“Then they shouldn’t be writing memoirs.” I felt superior in on oddly inferior way. That makes no apparent sense, but it’s how I felt. “Memoir is supposed to reflect reality.”

“Readers want to hear about how miserable your upbringing was, how cruel your surroundings, how you struggled to survive against the odds.”

“Abusive, alcoholic drug-addicted parents, dead siblings, rain leaking through the roof of our freezing, rat-infested tenement …” I said.

“Exactly,” his laconic reply.

“Not what a clueless, juvenile asshole I was.”

He smiled a wan smile of resignation, rubbed his chin hard. “What if your environment was grim and your cruel parents drove you to your own personal depths of depravity?”

“What if I was a normal nine-year-old kid doing normal nine-year-old kid stuff and my parents were perfectly decent loving people who had nothing to do with my depravity?”

More silence, either thoughtful or uncertain, probably both. The air grew thick. A cloud passed before the afternoon sun.

“People want to feel good after reading a memoir,” he said. “They want to be able to feel like even though their own life has sucked, at least it’s not been as miserable and hopeless as the author’s.”

“What if they just come away feeling superior to the clueless, juvenile asshole kid?”

He abruptly switched gears without acknowledging my final rejoinder. “There’s the matter of the journey.”

“How I made my way from juvenile delinquent to the upstanding, wildly successful man that I am today. How I achieved redemption for my past transgressions.”

“How the animal torturer grows up to do volunteer work at an animal shelter …”

“Or the kid knocking down dams and inundating make-believe villages grows up to be a famous architect.”

“It sounds trite and cliché when you say it that way,” he said.

“That’s because it is trite and cliché,” I replied. “What if instead of it being a story about how the disturbed kid achieves redemption later in life, it’s really a story about how there’s absolutely nothing wrong with your kid doing all this same stuff? How he’ll be fine if you just let him be a kid.” I was warming to this angle. Jack was not.

“So the pitch is ‘read my client’s memoir because it will make you realize your kids aren’t actually as fucked up as you think they are’?”

“And maybe the insecure helicopter parent won’t feel like they need to have their kid in therapy when he’s seven because he pulled the wings off a fly. Maybe he won’t need to be on a Ritalin regimen the whole time he’s in elementary school. There are worse outcomes from reading a book.”

He returned his eyes to the page, sighed heavily, finished the remainder of his wine, and gestured to the waiter for a refill.

“Robert, look …” he said. More sighing. “Sophomore titles are a big deal. You get that, right? Pentagrams sold twenty-four thousand copies worldwide, hard- and paper-back. Couple of prize short lists. It’s an okay first effort … a decent first book.”

“But not exactly Harry Potter,” I replied.

Jack knew better than anybody that I had barely earned back the advance on my first book, a well reviewed short story collection. He knew, as well, that the only reason it had done as well as it had was because two of the stories had been picked up by national magazines. His fifteen percent on my advance hadn’t exactly changed his lifestyle. Frankly, I was a bit surprised he had stuck with me.

“Here’s the thing, Robert. You’re at an early stage in this journey, but it’s important to establish a direction from the outset. Branson House isn’t going to put up with stories, then novel, then memoir, then poetry.”

“I’ve gotta find a niche, a pigeonhole,” I said.

“You’re new,” he replied. “You’re building a brand here. You need to decide what you want to be.”

“Indulge my muse or make a living selling books.”

“Pick one,” he said laconically.

“If we’re just talking straight numbers, fiction is the ticket.”

“Novel outsells memoir about ten to one,” he said. “And, if you’re really hung up on all that juvenile delinquent stuff,” he lifted my draft sheet. “No reason why a fiction character can’t go there for you. There’s no shortage of thinly disguised author autobiographies in fiction.”

There’s always the Jim Frey route,” I said, smiling in what I hoped was an ironic manner. “Make up a bunch of tragic shit, call it a memoir, and then count on a big sales boost when it’s all later revealed to be a pack of lies.”

“A great strategy if your goal is to ensure that you never publish another book.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “You’re right, of course.” I sat back and clasped my hands tightly together for a moment, simultaneously shifting my gaze momentarily to the busy street. The noises of the city—every car horn, every shout, every siren wail and police whistle—blurred in that instant into a single outrageous white noise burst that made my head hurt.

“I’ll write about an author,” I said, “who’s struggling with his sophomore project after an inaugural book of only limited success.”

Jack leaned back I his chair. “Memoir, memoir, and more memoir,” he replied. “And besides, no one wants to read about an author’s internal struggles with his art.”

“Hold on,” I said. A strange thought was congealing in my head. It might have been inspiration. It might have just been the bus exhaust. “What if this author—this fictitious author—is a pathological narcissist who can’t imagine that his lack of success might somehow be due to his own shitty writing? So what does he do? Naturally he blames his agent. After all, it’s the agent’s job to sell the work, right?”

I had his attention.

“Agents,” he said, “are quite close to their authors. Surely he would know if his author was that narcissistic.”

“Would he?” I said. “Any author worth a damn is at least a decent story teller.

“So what’s your narcissist author do with this little psychosis of his? Is he gonna stalk the agent or something?”

“Oh, better than that,” I said. “He’s a narcissist but he’s a creative narcissist. He harbors this deep grudge against the agent, but he also knows that he desperately needs a new book topic if he’s going to salvage anything of his miserable writing career.

“Don’t tell me,” Jack said, slowly beginning to shake his head back and forth. “He whacks the agent?” I slowly curled up one side of my lip in silent acknowledgement.

“And then,” I continued the thought, “he writes the book—the novel—as though it was fictitious, when in fact …”

“When, in fact, he really did it,” Jack said.

“Accepting for a moment the possibility that someone might actually want to read such a contrivance, why would your protagonist be such an idiot as to write a book—”

“A novel,” I interjected.

“Fine, a novel … describing the details of a crime that he himself had carried out?” He sat back again, raising his wine glass and taking what seemed like a smug sip.

“Thanks to the abysmally slow production times in this industry of ours, by the time the novel is published, the crime is a year in the past. The author can plausibly argue that he has used the tragedy—the fictional tragedy—as his way of purging his agent’s death from his memory, or maybe paying homage to his great friend who was so tragically struck down in his prime.”

“Huh,” Jack said, sounding more than a bit interested. “Even though it’s fiction, you’d want to write it in the tone of a confessional memoir, as if the author is wracked …” he coughed once, twice, then reached up to loosen his top shirt button a bit, “wracked with guilt over what he’s done.”

“He’s simultaneously pouring out his guilt over the crime and his grief at the loss of his dear friend and colleague.”

Two small beads of perspiration appeared on Jack’s forehead. “It could,” he said, “be a sort of Crime and Punishment meets In Cold Blood. That’s not entirely a bad …”

He coughed a couple more times, very hard, as if attempting to dislodge something from his throat. “Jesus,” he said, “did they turn up the thermostat or something out here? It feels like it’s a hundred degrees.”

“Of course,” I said, “our author would want to make this whole thing look like an accident, right? I mean, yeah, he’s a psychopath, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to go to prison for the rest of his life just to publish a successful book. He’ll need some clever way of pulling it off.”

Jack raised a hand to his forehead, pushing back his hair and attempting to wipe off what was fast becoming a sheen of sweat from his forehead. His eyes were open quite wide now and he did not respond to this latest assertion, so I continued.

“He’d want maybe a driving accident. Mess with the brakes, that sort of thing,” I said. “Except then he’s got to have some mechanical aptitude. I mean it’s not like he’s going to enlist someone’s else’s help to pull off this little caper.”

I lifted my water glass and took a sip, keeping my gaze firmly riveted on Jack’s eyes. He had not reacted to these final thoughts on my fictitious author’s motivations, instead reaching for his wine glass and tossing back the remainder of its contents. He set the glass back on the table, but ended up tipping it over in the process. He did not endeavor to right the glass, instead drawing several increasingly labored breaths.

“I think I … should go,” he said, pushing back his chair. “Don’t know what the hell is—”

But instead of rising from his seat, he pressed both hands hard against his forehead and leaned forward, his gaze now focused on the floor. He seemed about to vomit.

“You know,” I said. “writers aren’t typically very good mechanically. Maybe it would make more sense for our protagonist to go with something medical. You know, make it look like a heart attack or stroke or something. Plenty of easily available substances that cause those sorts of reactions, substances easily snuck into a drink or food, hard to trace after the fact. Few minutes of research on Google would be all it takes to figure it out.”

At this point, Jack was beyond the point of speaking, and his breath was coming in extremely labored efforts. He lifted his face, eyes bulging, tongue partially protruding. His look was one of increasing desperation, as though I ought to be doing something to help.

“Jack,” I said, “all this talking and drinking has got my bladder protesting. Tell you what—you give that some thought and I’ll hit the men’s room real quick.” I rose from my seat, glanced quickly around the still empty patio area, and stepped in the direction of the rest room, casually reaching out and lifting Jack’s wine glass from the table as I departed. On my way past the bar, I set it down next to a collection of other dirty glasses waiting to be cleaned. Ignoring the men’s room, I made my way out the front door of the restaurant and down the sidewalk to where my car was parked a couple of blocks away. Once inside, I started the engine and sat quietly listening to the radio, glancing occasionally in the rearview mirror. Within five minutes, an ambulance, sirens wailing, was pulling up in front of the restaurant. Two emergency techs rushed inside and remained there for the better part of fifteen minutes, eventually exiting, in no particular hurry, with a gurney bearing a covered figure. I put the car in gear and slid slowly out of the parking spot.


*          *          *



A novel by Robert Hendon


Given the tepid critical and commercial response to his inaugural publication, the story collection Pentagrams, Robert Hendon’s sophomore offering, Memoir, has caught the literary world utterly off its guard. It’s a confusingly named novel, but a good sort of confusion, for though the book is clearly labeled ‘novel’ on the cover, it’s so photorealistically rendered that one closes the final page wondering if, indeed, it’s not a thinly veiled confession. Knowing a bit of Hendon’s back story adds to the piquancy of the narrative, for the wanton murder described so graphically in the novel surely draws inspiration from the death of Hendon’s own literary agent Jack Cranston just fourteen months ago of a sudden heart attack. The skill and poignancy with which Hendon thrusts together fiction and deep personal tragedy yield for the reader an epic work of irony and human pathos, a work that is eminently worthy of the accolades currently being showered upon it.


Benton Giles

The New York Review of Books

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