Saturday, April 21, 2012

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 298: Colman

Let us rejoin our hero Arnold Schnabel, on a hot wet night in August of 1957, in the rare-books shop of Mr. Philpot, in that mecca of the arts known as Greenwich Village…

(Kindly click here to refresh your memory of our previous episode; newcomers to the fold may go here to return to the very first chapter of this Gold View Award©-winning 53-volume memoir.)

“I used to dread going on vacation only because of the annoyance of having to pack up twenty or thirty volumes of Arnold Schnabel’s masterwork. Now, thanks to my Kindle, packing is a snap!” -- Harold Bloom, in the
AARP Magazine.

“It’s right there,” said Mr. Philpot, pointing to a very thick hardback book still in its dust jacket lying on the desk among all the other books and periodicals and bric-à-brac.

“Oh, my, that’s it?” said Thurgood.

Putting his cigarette between his thin lips, the only type of lips he had, he picked the book up, held it in both his hands, and moved them gently up and down, as if gauging the book’s weight. Then, removing the cigarette from his mouth, and holding the book horizontally with one hand, he glanced in an open-faced way at both Mr. Philpot and me.

“Got a nice heft to it,” he said.

“It’s a goodly-sized tome,” said Mr. Philpot, smiling. He opened a drawer in his desk and dropped the car keys into it. “If you ever need a good doorstop you’ll be in good shape.”

Thurgood stopped “weighing” the book, and now turned it upright and examined its cover.

“Very tasteful cover illustration,” he said. “I like the, what do you call it, the minimalist effect?”

Mr. Philpot, having closed the drawer, now sat back and puffed on his pipe, still smiling.

“What's your opinion, Mr. Walker?” said Thurgood, showing me the front cover.

The cover drawing showed a man standing on a street, holding a suitcase and smoking a cigarette. It was black-and-white, on a dark yellow background, with some hints of blue and streaks of pale red. Superimposed over the top of the drawing were the words, painted roughly with a brush in black, Two Weeks in a One Horse Town. Below the title, printed, was a novel by Theophilus P. Thurgood.

“It’s pretty classy,” I said. “Is your name really Theophilus?”

“It is,” said Thurgood. “And believe me, I’ve considered changing it. I considered publishing my stuff under the name T.P. Thurgood, but then someone reminded me that T.P. can mean toilet paper.”

“Maybe you could just go by your middle name,” I said.

“My middle name is Pierpont,” said Thurgood.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, I guess you might as well just stick with Theophilus then.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he said. “I was so naive when I started out. I should have changed my name to Frank or Jack at the very beginning of my career.”

“Theophilus is a very distinguished name,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Yeah, I guess so,” said Thurgood, turning the book over. “Oh, this turned out well. Very nice. Very nice indeed.”

He showed me the back cover, which had a black-and-white photograph of the author. Thurgood sat there in three-quarter profile, smoking a cigarette, wearing what looked like a tweed jacket and a nice striped tie. He was clean-shaven except for a neatly-trimmed moustache, and his hair was shorter and nicely combed, with a bit of a wave on top. The background was dark grey, and the cigarette smoke was pale against it. In the photograph Thurgood looked very thoughtful, which he hadn’t appeared at all so far in real life, if you could call this real life.

“Pretty classy,” I said.

“That’s what you said about the front cover.”

“I have a limited vocabulary,” I said.

“When you’re a writer you’re supposed to say you’re using a ‘limited palette,” he said. “Like a painter, y’know? Who only has a few different tubes of paint.”

“Why not just say limited vocabulary?” I said.

“It’s classier to say limited palette.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“You’re still new to the game. You’ll learn.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You really like the picture? You don’t think I look too -- stuffy?”

“No, not at all,” which was true enough, because I didn’t really think anything about it.

“You don’t think I should’ve gone with one of these outdoorsy ones, with me on the deck of a fishing boat, or maybe playing with a dog on a beach?”

I didn’t care, but even I knew he didn’t want to hear that.

“This picture’s fine,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at it again. “It does look pretty classy. I think I look a little like Ronald Colman here.” He held the back cover so that Mr. Philpot could see it. “What do you think, Mr. Philpot? Ronald Colman?”

“Oh, to a T,” said Mr. Philpot.

My right knee was really hurting me now, but for some reason I didn’t sit down.

“What do you think, Mr. Porter?” said Thurgood, now holding the book so that I could see the back cover again. “Ronald Colman?”

“That was the guy in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, right?”

“No, that was Robert Donat. Why? Do you think I look like Robert Donat?”

“Well, maybe a little,” I said.

“He’s pretty good-looking,” said Thurgood. “But you don’t think I look more like Ronald Colman here?”

“He was the Thin Man guy, right?”

“No, you’re thinking of William Powell. You think I look like William Powell?”

“Maybe it’s just the moustache,” I said.

“Ronald Colman,” he said.

“That was the guy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”

“Not Spencer Tracy.”

“No, the other one, I saw it when I was a kid.”

“Fredric March.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right, Fredric March.”

“Ronald Colman,” he said, in an insistent way. “The Prisoner of Zenda. A Tale of Two Cities. ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,’ et cetera. Ronald Colman.”

“Oh, him,” I said, ready to accede to anything at this point, just to move things along. “Yeah, you do look a little like him in this picture. Ronald Reagan.”

“Not Ronald Reagan. Ronald Colman.”

“That’s what I meant to say,” I said.

“But the younger Ronald Colman,” said Thurgood.

“Right,” I said. “When he was younger.”

“Ronald Colman, not Ronald Reagan. I don’t think I look anything like Ronald Reagan.”

“Right,” I said. “Ronald --”

I’d forgotten again already. I get like that when I’m bored.

“Colman,” said Thurgood.

“Exactly,” I said.

Now that this was settled, Thurgood opened the big book and began riffling through its pages.

“The scope,” he said. “The, the majestic sweep. Look, there’s -- what, nine hundred and ninety-nine pages here.” He looked at me again, smiling, showing many of his nearly full set of nicotine-stained teeth. “Almost a thousand pages,” he said. “Not bad, huh? How long’s your book?”

“This one?” I said, pointing to The Ace of Death, the book I had been railroaded into buying.

“No, not that one,” said Thurgood. “I can see that one’s only about three hundred pages long, big deal. I mean the book you wrote, your epic poem of the bohemian life, what’s it called, The Beckoning Graces?”

“I think it’s called The Brawny Embraces, actually,” I said.

“Whatever, how long is it?”

“Not as long as your book,” I said.

“I thought so,” he said. “Yeah, this book, you really get your money’s worth with this baby, yes sir. Did you ever read a book and it’s so good that you didn’t want it to end?”

“Um --”

To tell the truth I was usually more than ready for a book to end well before it did end.

“Well,” he went on, “with a book this long you’ve got that much more to enjoy. It’s a shame it has to end at all, really. I should do a sequel. Maybe a whole series of novels. What do you call that?”

“Pardon me?” I said. My knee was really, really hurting now. I shifted my weight to the other leg.

“What do you call it,” said Thurgood, “a whole series of related novels?”

“A ‘series’?”

“No, there’s a fancier word, a classier word --”

Roman fleuve,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Exactly,” said Thurgood. “Roman fleuve.”

There was an odd pause here as he continued to leaf through the book, silently, and as Mr. Philpot sat back in his chair smoking.

My left knee hurt, now that I had shifted my weight to that leg. I wanted to sit. But I felt awkward just sitting down while Thurgood was standing there. I thought I would say something to distract him while I sat down, and so, sitting and speaking simultaneously, I said, as if casually:

“So what’s the book about, anyway?”

He stopped riffling through the book and looked at me.

“You’re sitting down.”

“Yes,” I said. “My knee is, uh --”

“I hope I’m not boring you.”

“Oh, no,” I said, another lie.

“Because I can leave. My business here is through after all.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “I was just, uh --”

“It’s not every day an author gets to hold his new book in his hands for the first time. Surely you can appreciate that, being a literary man yourself.”

“Uh, sure,” I said.

“But if I’m being tedious, you know, I’ll take off.”

“Not at all,” I said. “I only sat down because --”

“Did you ask me that just to be nice?”

“Um, uh, what, um, uh --”

This was insane, but at least I was sitting down now.

“What you asked me,” he said. “Were you just feigning interest?”

“What did I ask you?”

I looked at the sherry bottle.

“You asked me what my book was about. You were just saying that to be nice.”

“Oh no,” I said, wishing I was drinking the sherry, even if it did taste like straw. “I was just, you know, uh --”

“He was curious,” said Mr. Philpot. “Don’t be so touchy, Thurgood.”

“Oh, sorry,” said Thurgood. “We authors can be very sensitive. I’m sure you feel that way about your own book, Mr. Walker.”

I hadn’t liked any of what I’d read of my own book, and didn’t feel sensitive about it at all, but I thought it best to play along. This is the trick of conversing with people, I have found. Just tell them what they seem to want to hear, and then everyone can go home if not happy then at least not in a state of high dudgeon.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I get very sensitive about my book.”

“Don’t you just hate it when people tell you what’s wrong with your book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not fond of that.”

“Let them go and write their own damn books if they’re so smart, right?”

“I agree,” I said.

“Everyone’s a critic. Everyone has an opinion.”

“Um,” I said.

“I fucking hate critics. Couldn’t write a good novel themselves if their lives depended on it. I’ll lend you my book if you want,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

“What do you mean? 'Oh'”?

“Well, uh, I don’t know if I’d be able to get to it right away. But I’ll be sure to buy it.”

’Buy it,’” he said, as if he were saying something else, like, “It’s very warm in this place.”

There was another pause, an awkward one. Mr. Philpot picked up his glass of sherry and finished it off, then returned to smoking his pipe.

Thurgood went back to turning the pages of his book, occasionally taking a drag of his Pall Mall.

It was for moments like this that tobacco was invented. The wooden box full of Pall Malls was right there on the desk in front of me. I had already been invited to take one, and I should have taken one now. But, instead, in my stubbornness, in my insanity, and just to say something, I said again, “So, what is your book about?”


“I was just wondering what your book is about.”

“Oh,” he said.

“But, you know,” I said, “if it’s -- too hard to -- or --”

“I don’t know what it’s about,” he said. “But it looks good. Doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “It does look good.”

“Read the inside front jacket copy,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Good idea,” said Thurgood. He turned to the inside of the front cover of the book, and read aloud:

“’Harry Baxter gets off the bus in the small town of Walter’s Hole, carrying only a cardboard suitcase, with six dollars and change in his pocket and half a pack of cigarettes. Walter’s Hole seems like a quiet town, a peaceful town. But Harry is soon to find out that Walter’s Hole is in reality a seething cauldron of passion and intrigue.’ That’s all it says.”

“Well, that sounds pretty good,” I said.

“I’s kind of sparse,” said Thurgood.

“You know what I hate though?” said Mr. Philpot. “I hate it when the jacket copy gives the whole damn plot away. Check the inside back cover.”

Thurgood turned to the back inside cover of the book, and read aloud again.

Theophilus P. Thurgood, author of the critically acclaimed My Sister, My Wife and Love Song of a Dead Man, lives in Greenwich Village with his cat, Squeeky, and his dog, Pepper.’ Well, that’s not true,” he said. “I don’t have a cat or a dog. Filthy creatures.”

“It’s public relations,” said Mr. Philpot. “It humanizes you. And this way both cat lovers and dog fanciers think you’re a nice guy.”

“Oh, well, that’s okay then,” said Thurgood. “Oh, this is good, a nice blurb.”

“Read it,” said Mr. Philpot.

’I have read Mr. Thurgood’s epic new novel Two Weeks in a One Horse Town and I am happy to report it is not only a ripping good read but a deeply and profoundly moving work, spiced with a jolly, wry wit.’ Horace P. Sternwall, author of The Ace of Death.

“An excellent blurb,” said Mr. Philpot.

“Yeah,” said Thurgood. “I just wish it had been somebody like, I don’t know, Bennett Cerf.”

“A blurb from Cerf means next to nothing,” said Mr. Philpot. “That man loves everything.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” said Thurgood. “Oh, I almost forgot.” He closed the book and looked at Mr. Philpot. “You owe me a glass of Amontillado.”

“Help yourself,” said Mr. Philpot. “A deal’s a deal.”

“Oh, boy, I’m really going to enjoy this one,” said Thurgood. “Here,” he said to me, “want to look at my book?”

I didn’t, but as he was already holding the book out to me, I took it.

It certainly was a big book, and almost as heavy as a brick. I pretended to look through it while Thurgood uncorked the Amontillado and refilled to the brim the jelly glass that Mr. Philpot had given me to drink from so long ago. Thurgood stuck the cork back into the bottle, put the bottle back on the table, and lifted the glass.

“The first one was to quench my thirst really,” he said. “The second one was to soothe my existential despair. But this one, this one is to be savored, for pleasure.” He passed the jelly glass under his nose. “I get hints of wisteria, and just a breath of honeysuckle.” He glanced at me. “What do you think?”

“Honeysuckle?” I said.

“No, I mean what do you think of my book.”

“Looks pretty good,” I said.

“Go ahead, read some of it.”

“Right now?”

“I just want to hear how it sounds.”

“Where,” I said, “um, just, uh, read anywhere?”
“Anywhere,” he said. He turned around, went over and grabbed the other chair that was sitting against the wall, brought it to the desk. “I want to hear if it rolls trippingly off the tongue.”
 He sat down in the chair and stared at me, smoking his cigarette, waiting. 

“Just go to the first page, Mr. Walker,” said Mr. Philpot.
“Yeah,” said Thurgood. “First page, first chapter.”

“Well, okay,” I said. I found the first page. “’Chapter One,’ I said.”

“Skip that,” said Thurgood. “Just go right into the story.”

“Okay,” I said.

And I began to read aloud.

(Continued here, doggedly.)

(Kindly turn to the right-hand side of this page to find a current listing of links to all other published chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. This week’s episode brought to you in part by AARP™; now available in large-print format for the failing of sight.)

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