Friday, February 19, 2010

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 187: celebrity

Not just once but twice our memoirist Arnold Schnabel has managed to discomfit the Prince of Darkness, and now that vindictive fallen angel has taken his revenge by transporting our hero into Ye Cannot Quench, a novel Arnold had been forcing himself to read out of a perhaps misplaced sense of obligation to its author, the hot-blooded Miss Gertrude Evans. In Arnold’s new persona as the handsome and romantic young poet Porter Walker he is lunching at the Algonquin with the novel’s comely young protagonist Emily and her employer, the strapping publisher and bon vivant Julian Smythe, when who should stop by their table but the public relations man Nicky Boskins, who turns out to be none other than the aforesaid chief demon in human guise…

(Click here to go to our previous episode; go here to return to that long-ago first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning saga.)

So, it was not enough that he had trapped me in the sort of novel I didn’t even like to read, but he had joined me in its cast of characters, no doubt just to mock me and torture me and generally annoy me preparatory to dragging me down to the fires of hell.

“Just do everything Nicky tells you to do,” said Julian. (He chewed his steak as he spoke, but he was one of those rare people who can chew and talk at the same time and not be disgusting about it. I have no idea how this is done. I can chew with the best of them, and I believe I’m pretty good about keeping my mouth shut while doing so, but if I try to talk and chew simultaneously I always feel as if everyone is staring at my mouth, waiting for a morsel of food either to come flying out across the table or, conversely, to get stuck in my throat, cutting off my verbal brilliance in mid-sentence along with my access to oxygen and spoiling the party for everyone.) “He’ll get you on the TV, he’ll arrange some interviews with the papers and magazines. He’ll set up a photo shoot for you. What do you think, Emily, a shot of Porter leaning over the old typewriter, a trail of cigarette smoke setting off his noble features?”

“Oh, golly --” she said.

“Or maybe just one of those three-quarter profiles, staring off into wherever it is poets stare off into. But again with the cigarette smoke. The cigarette is essential. Oh, but wait, I haven’t seen you smoke yet, Porter. You do smoke, don’t you?”

This was a good question. I, Arnold, had given up the vile weed, I hoped permanently, but Porter (I remembered from what I’d read of Miss Evans’s novel) was as much of a smoker as I had been until yesterday (my yesterday, not his), if not more so. But I was determined to fight against Miss Evans’s plotting, no matter how arbitrarily, and so I said:

“In fact I’ve given up smoking.”

“You’re kidding me. Why?”

“Smoker’s cough. Fear of cancer.”

“Cancer? What an idea.”

I forgot, we were in 1957.

“Well, it’s possible, isn’t it?” I said.

“Sure, Porter, it’s possible, but, hell, next thing you’ll be telling me that this delicious T-bone I’m eating is going to give me a heart attack. Or that a couple of martinis at lunch with a bottle or two of wine is a bad thing.”

“Personally I think a man looks ever so attractive with a cigarette,” said Emily. “And even more so with a pipe.”

“There ya go, we’ll get you a pipe, Porter, how about that? A writer always looks good with a pipe. What do you say?”

“Well, I don’t know --”

“I’d suggest a cigar but you don’t seem the cigar type to me.”

“Porter’s too refined for a cigar,” said Emily. “But with a pipe I think he’d look quite distinguished.”

She was sounding suspiciously like Miss Evans now, the Miss Evans that sounded like Katharine Hepburn.

“Some new clothes, too,” said Julian. “Something classier if you don’t mind my saying so than that department-store seersucker that’s hanging on you like a collapsed pup-tent.”

Emily blushed, and I felt bad about Julian’s unwitting aspersion on her sartorial taste, so I spoke up:

“I like this jacket,” I said.

“Yeah, but you’re a poet, you’re not meant to care how you look.”

“I think he looks fine,” dared to say Emily.

Julian gave her only the briefest of glances.

“We’ll make an appointment with my tailor,” said Julian. “Fix you up with a few nice suits. And don’t worry, I’ll put it on the publicity budget.”

Okay, this is how it begins, I thought. The pipe, the custom-made suits. Soon they would have me riding to the hounds and writing noble stanzas for presidential inaugurations.

“Listen, Julian,” I said. “I’m happy with the clothes I have, and I don’t like pipes.”

“Okay, fair enough, but won’t you at least smoke a cigarette when you’re getting your photos shot?”

“I’m not smoking and I’m not getting photographed either.”

“But, Porter, what are we going to put on the book jacket if not your photograph?”

“No photograph,” I said.

“Porter --” said Emily.

“Wait,” said Julian. He took a drink of wine, seemed to swish it around in his mouth, and then swallowed it. “Boy, that’s good,” he said.

“Porter, you’re being entirely unreasonable,” said Emily. In her apparent consternation she sounded a little less like Katharine Hepburn now. She sounded more like Bette Davis for some reason. “In fact, you’re being frightful.”

“No,” said Julian. “In point of fact I think Porter’s behaving brilliantly.”

“Say what?” said Emily, slipping into what I suppose was her native West Virginian accent.

“Think of it, Emily,” said Julian. “An author, a poet -- and a good-looking fellow, too -- who shuns fame and all its trappings. Who doesn’t want to be known for how he looks or dresses. Who lives only for his whaddyacallit, his, uh --”

“His art?” suggested Emily.

“His goddam art,” said Julian. “It’s perfect. Now I’m wondering if it’s better after all if we don’t put you on Paar and Allen and Eddy Murrow.”

“I’m not going on television either,” I said.

Julian cocked his head slightly, and then smiled.

“Why am I not surprised?” he said. “That’s brilliant, old boy. Just brilliant.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He sawed off the last surviving chunk of his sixteen-ounce T-bone.

“So,” he said, popping the meat into his mouth, “I guess radio and print interviews are completely out of the question?”

“No,” I said, “I mean, yes, sorry, no interviews.”

“Brutal,” said Julian. “Absolutely brutal, but I like it. Man of mystery. The last true poet. The public will eat it up. But, hey, just to get the word out a little, how about if we just get, say, little Truman over there to follow you around for a day or two and knock off a ten or twenty-thousand word profile for the New Yorker? We’ll get him to emphasize the rebel angle.”

As he said this last bit he waved his fork at one of the short men at the table with Nicky, and the little man waved back enthusiastically.

“No thanks,” I said.

“Okay,” said Julian, “Truman can get to be a bit much, I’ll grant you that -- so what about Norman over there then? He’ll do it, he’s always looking for his next by-line.”

He waved at the other short man, and this guy waved back also, although less enthusiastically than the other one.

“Norman can write it for the Village Voice maybe, that’s probably more suitable for you, anyway. Then Nicky can get someone at the New Yorker to write a "Talk of the Town" piece about Norman’s piece. Just be careful if you have drinks with Normy though, he starts to think he’s Irish when he gets drunk and next thing you know the barstools are flying --”

“Um, I don’t think so,” I said.

“You mean you won’t be careful or you won’t have drinks with him?”

“I mean I don’t want anybody writing a, uh --”


“-- a profile about me.”

“Oh, Porter,” said Emily, again.

“It’s not like a regular interview,” said Julian. “All you gotta do is hang out with some fool writer for a bit, and then he --”

“Or she,” chimed in Emily.

“Right,” said Julian; “or she -- make a note, Emily, maybe we’ll get Lillian Ross to do it -- anyway, Porter, all you gotta do is just do what you normally do all day, except you’ve got some journalist following you around.”

“But if I have some journalist following me around all day then I wouldn’t be doing what I normally do.”

“Porter,” said Emily.


“Why are you being so -- contumacious?”

“I don’t know what that means,” I said, quite honestly.

“It means you’re being as, as stubborn as a mule!”

In her excitement she had slipped back into her country accent.

“An absolute mule!” she said, and now she sounded like Bette Davis again, but with a southern accent.

Julian chuckled, and polished off the wine in his glass.

And all of a sudden I got bored with myself. I had been trying to assert myself as my own character, but now that I thought about it for a second, wasn’t I only acting the way Miss Evans might have decided my character should act? I was just about to relent and tell Julian to bring on the profilers, the photographers and TV shows, he could put me on the burlesque circuit for all I cared, but then he spoke:

“No, Emily,” he said. “Y’know what? Porter’s right. I mean if you’re going to shun the limelight what’s the point of half-measures? And the funny thing is --” He picked up the red wine bottle, which was almost empty. “You want some more, Porter?”

“No thanks,” I said. To tell the truth I felt ready for a nap.

Julian poured the last of the wine into his own glass.

“The funny thing is,” he said, “that I’m sure our boy Nicky will work out a plan to take your aversion to fame and use it to make you even more famous than you’d be if you were the typical writer who’d trample over his own mother for a chance to be on Art Linkletter.”

(Continued here; Arnold after all is really only just getting started.)

(Kindly refer to the right hand column of this page to find a rigorously up-to-date listing of links to all other published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. “Schnabel is the logical culmination of St. Augustine, of Rousseau, of Proust, of Joyce, of Alfred E. Newman.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Maury Povich Show.)


Jennifer said...

Loving the layers upon layers... also loving Arnold fighting Gertrude's narrative. Maybe Gertrude will end up with a better book... a collaboration between Arnold, Nicky, and herself.

DR said...

"She was sounding suspiciously like Miss Evans now, the Miss Evans that sounded like Katharine Hepburn."

ha ha ha!

Unknown said...

Arnold's changed his mind for nobody but Jesus and Elektra so far.
Brilliant dialog as always but with that sneaky new twist, and twist, and twist again.

Dan Leo said...

Hey, if I find Gertrude's book in the used-book store, I know I'm snapping it right up. There's a shop here in Philly called the Book Trader -- maybe, just maybe....

Goodtime Samaritan said...

If I find Gertie's book in a used book shop then I'll know I've finally crossed over into Arnold's World.

rhoda said...

a world where poets have to fight to avoid fame - now that's an alternate universe!

Dan Leo said...

It's the best of all impossible worlds, Rhoda.

Unknown said...

I just realized this is a profound meditation on the concept of free will.

Dan Leo said...

Oh my God. Manny, you dropped the P-Word!