Saturday, November 23, 2013

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part 373: novel

We left our hero Arnold Schnabel here with his companions (Thurgood, Pat, Henry James and Ferdinand the fly) in the cramped, hot and stuffy manager’s office of that strange Greenwich Village boîte known as "Valhalla"…

(Kindly go here to read our preceding thrilling episode; click here to return to the all-but-forgotten beginning of this 69-volume Gold View Award™-winning memoir.)

“I tell my students that Arnold Schnabel is not merely part of ‘the canon’, nay, but a canon in and of himself.” — Harold Bloom, blurb for the paperback edition of
Duck’s Blood Soup: the Philosophy of Arnold Schnabel, by Dan Leo, the Olney Community College Press.

I had been gypped.

I had paid Mr. Philpot five dollars for this so-called novel, almost half of my savings in this world, and here the book didn’t have even a single word in it. Not to mention not a single picture.

“My dear Porter,” said Henry, “aren’t you having a libation?”

Porter. That was me.

“Oh, right, thanks,” I said. 

I closed the book and went the few steps over to the desk (and indeed this office was so small that it was impossible to go much more than a few steps in any direction).

Thurgood and Pat had already reached out and grabbed a Dixie Cup apiece, Henry held another one up in a sort of tentative salute, and I saw that Ferdinand was already floating in the liquid in one cup, lapping away. 

I picked up the remaining Dixie Cup.

Henry raised his cup higher, with a very serious-looking expression on his face. It occurred to me that the face of a fat man was somehow even more depressing when it looked serious than that of a normally-sized or even skeletally thin man. Nonetheless, I forced myself not to look away from him, not wanting to seem rude, as I was sure that no one likes to know that his visage engenders a horror of life in the viewer.

“Let us drink to literature,” said Henry.

“Here, here,” said Thurgood, “to literature.”

“Bottoms up, fellas,” said Pat, and she took a slug.

Henry didn’t drink yet though, because he wasn’t finished his toast.

“But,” he said, “let us drink not to trashy literature, nor to evanescent best-sellers, to insubstantial and passing fads, no, let us drink to great literature.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Thurgood. “To great literature,” and he put his cup to his lips and drank.

“Excuse me, but I’m not quite finished,” said Henry.

“Oh, sorry, ” said Thurgood, and he wiped his lips with the sleeve of his suit jacket. “Please, go on, Mr. James.”

Without a second’s pause Henry went on.

“Let us drink then only to the greatest of the great books,” he said, “those books which will outlive us all, those books which will live, indeed, forever!”

No book will live forever,” said Ferdinand’s voice, echoing up from his Dixie Cup. 
“What’s that, my infinitesimal fellow?” said Henry.

“You heard me,” said Ferdinand, and he flew up from his little lake of liquor and perched on the rim of his cup. “No book lives forever, because someday everything will die. This whole world and everything in it. The whole shooting match. Dead, gone, remembered by no one and nothing.”

“Everything?” said Henry.

“Everything,” said Ferdinand. “Unless of course the human race figures out a way to travel to another habitable planet before this one dies. But I wouldn’t bet on that eventuality.”

No one said anything. There was nothing to say to this.

“The truth hurts,” said Ferdinand. “But things could always be worse. Try being a fly. Go ahead. Try it. Well, let me tell ya, being a fly is no fun, no matter what anyone tells you.”

There was another silence here, not complete silence of course, as the jukebox music still blared right outside the door of this small office, but inside the office everyone was silent for a few moments.

“Well,” said Henry, at last. “Shall we drink then to the books that live at least as long as the human race lives?”

“Whatever,” said Ferdinand, and he dove back down into his cup.

“Amen,” said Thurgood, and he took another drink. 

Henry also took a drink, while Pat, who had realized she still held in one hand the cocktail glass she had come in here with, poured what was left of her new drink into the glass, swirled it around in the melting ice cubes in it, and took another drink. Then, with a slight sigh, she crumpled up her now empty Dixie Cup and tossed it onto the desk.

“Trash that for me, will you, Henry?” she said.

“Of course, milady,” said Henry, and he picked up the wadded paper cup and flipped it backhanded toward an overflowing wire wastebasket under the staircase to his right. The cup hit the side of the basket and caromed to the floor. I considered going over and picking it up, but decided on the spot, for once, not to bother. There would probably be a lot more trash on that floor before this night was over. Perhaps even I would be on that floor before the night was over.

“You are not drinking, Porter,” said Henry.

“Oh,” I said. I was getting used to being called Porter. 

I raised my Dixie Cup and took a drink. It tasted like scotch, but also a little like bourbon, and, to be honest, it also reminded me a little of plain ordinary Schenley’s whiskey, which is what I often drank if I just wanted a cheap shot of potential oblivion.

“So, what do you think?” said Henry. “As I was saying, this is my extra special private stock, aged thirty years in Madeira barrels –”

“Good shit,” said Ferdinand, and he flew up out of his cup and landed on its rim again. “Damn good shit, Henry.”

“Why, thank you, my microscopic friend,” said Henry. “I am so glad you are enjoying it.”

“Good shit,” said Pat. 

She opened her fingers and let her burnt-down cigarette drop to the floor, even though there was an ashtray right in front of her on Henry’s desk, and all she would have had to do was lean forward and extend her arm a bit. But to be fair to her I should mention that there were quite a few other cigarette and cigar stubs on that floor. She didn’t seem disposed to step on the butt, and so I did. 

“Yeah, really good shit,” said Thurgood. “So, Porter, you said you wanted to read some of my book?”

“Oh, God,” said Pat, and she took another sip from her glass.

“Just a brief passage,” said Thurgood. “Ten or twenty pages.”

He held his book out in my direction. His outstretched arm was near Pat’s face, and she pushed it away.

“Right,” I said.

It had been my idea, after all, part and parcel of my recent brainwave. I started to step over to take the book, but Henry held up his hand, not the one that cradled his drink, but his other one, which had his still-burning cigar in it.

“Perhaps Mr. Thurgood would like first to say a few prefatory words.”

“Words?” said Thurgood.

“Yes. Prefatory,” said Henry.

“Prefatory,” said Thurgood.

“Like a preface,” said Ferdinand.

“I need another cigarette if I’m going to listen to this crap,” said Pat.

“I have cigarettes!” said Thurgood.

He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out two slightly damp and malformed cigarettes, and I figured these must be the ones he had stolen from Mr. Philpot’s engraved wooden cigarette box earlier that evening, or a year-and-a-half ago, depending on how you looked at it.

Pat took one of the cigarettes, and put it in her mouth, and, while Thurgood proceeded to fish out a kitchen match and strike it on his dirty thumbnail, I thought over my brainwave.

My plan such as it was (and it could not have been more vague and half-baked if I had tried to make it so) had been to enter into the world of Thurgood’s novel by reading aloud from it, and then somehow try to pass from that fictional universe back into my own and presumably non-fictional world. After all, hadn’t I previously traveled into not just one but two other worlds by reading his book, and then back into this one? If I had done this sort of thing once, couldn’t I do it again?

Thurgood had lit cigarettes for both Pat and himself, and now they both sat back in their armchairs, exhaling clouds of smoke which immediately merged with that originating from Henry’s cigar, and after slowly waving out the match Thurgood politely leaned forward and dropped it into the ashtray on the desk instead of tossing it to the floor. The smoke from the two cigarettes and one cigar was already filling this little room, and I could almost feel the oxygen being forced up the spiral metal staircase toward that narrow dark corridor that led to Mr. Philpot’s shop.

“So,” said Henry, “Burwood.”

“Yes?” said Thurgood. I guess he was afraid to correct Henry.

“Tell us about your book.”

“My book?” said Thurgood.

He looked at the front cover cover drawing of a man standing on a street corner, holding a suitcase and smoking a cigarette.

“Yes,” said Henry. “Tell us a little about your book.”

“Well - it’s called Two Weeks in a One Horse Town,” said Thurgood.

Two weeks you say,” said Henry.

“Yes,” said Thurgood. “In a One Horse Town.”

“I see,” said Henry. “Would that I could come up with such an arresting title for one of my own books. Do go on. Please tell us something about it.”

“Oh,” said Thurgood. “Something about it?”

“Yes,” said Henry, and if this reads painfully I assure you it was even more painful in actuality.

“Okay,” said Thurgood. “Let’s see. Well, there’s this guy, see, this man, and he comes to this town, this –”

“One horse town?” said Henry.

“Exactly,” said Thurgood. “He comes to this one horse town.”

“For two weeks I suppose.”

“Yes,” said Thurgood. “Two weeks.”

“And why does he come to this town?”


“Yes. I assume he had some reason for going to this town.”

“Right,” said Thurgood. “His reason. Well –”

He looked at me, and I could see the poor fellow was pleading for help, being put on the spot like this when after all he had never even seen his book before this very night.

“If I may interject,” I said.

“Oh, please do, Porter,” said Henry.

“Well,” I said, “I haven’t read Thurgood’s entire book yet, but from what I have read I think the reader doesn’t really know why the man goes to the town.”

“Ah,” said Henry.

“However, he does seem to be running away from something.”

“Right,” said Thurgood. “Exactly. He’s running away.”

“But as to what it is he's running away from," I said, trying to sound as if I cared, "it’s a mystery.”

“Right,” said Thurgood. “A mystery.”

“So the reader’s like kept in, um –”

I was running out of steam, but Henry jumped in.

“Suspense?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “Mystery and suspense.”

“Yeah,” said Thurgood, although he didn’t sound so sure of it. “I mean, that’s okay, right?”

“Certainly,” said Henry. “I used both mystery and dare I say suspense in a little bagatelle I wrote myself, perhaps you’ve read it. The Turn of the Screw?”

“Turn of the Screw,
” said Thurgood. “You know I’ve always meant to read that.”


“I hear it’s – swell.”


“Yes. Like, really good.”

“So some people seem to think.”

“I mean I’ve heard it’s really good,” said Thurgood.

“Well, that’s reassuring,” said Henry. “But tell us, Kerwood, what were the themes you wished to pursue in this work?”

“The themes?”

“Yes. The deeper subject matter. It can’t just be about a man stopping in a small town for two weeks, can it? It must have some deeper level?”

“Deeper level,” said Thurgood. He shifted around in his seat, and took another drink from his Dixie Cup. “The deeper level.”

“Yes. Presuming it has a deeper level,” said Henry.

“Oh, sure, sure it does,” said Thurgood. He took a drag from his cigarette and glanced over at me again with a look like that of a man who knows that you are the only one in the world who can give him an alibi proving he really wasn’t at the scene of a murder.

I felt sorry for him, and so I began to speak nonsense again.

I think the deeper level is man’s sense of being lost in the modern world,” I said. “A sense of always striving for a place of belonging.”

“Right!” said Thurgood. “That’s exactly it. Thank you, Porter.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“And this is really what you had in mind when you sat down to write it?” said Henry.

“When I – sat down to write it?” said Thurgood.

“Yes,” said Henry. “Unless you write standing up. Or lying down.”

“Well, I, um, yeah, sure, I guess,” said Thurgood.

“Great,” said Henry. “Because I’ll tell you right now I hate these so-called novelists who sit down to write something with no deeper level in mind.”

“Me too,” said Thurgood. “You gotta have that deeper level.”

“A theme,” said Henry.

“Definitely,” said Thurgood.

I saw that Pat’s eyes had closed, and although she still held her drink in one hand and her cigarette in the other, she emitted a gentle snoring sound. 

“Wait a minute, though,” said Thurgood. “I just remembered. It’s also about redemption.”

Redemption?” said Henry. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Well, you know,” said Thurgood, “at the end of the book the hero gets, like, redeemed –”

“What twaddle. What is he, a pawn ticket?”

Pat’s head bobbed up and her eyes opened.

“Ha ha,” she said.

“All right, this is driving me insane,” said Ferdinand. “I’m having another drink.”

“Me too,” said Pat.

Ferdinand dove down into his cup again, the third time for him, and Pat lifted her glass to her lips.

Henry raised his cup to his lips again also, and suddenly I had another brainwave.

Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing for me to read aloud from Thurgood’s book. After all, what had my previous reading done for me but bring me right back to where I had started from? And, conversely, if that’s the word, and it’s probably not, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that the pages of my own book were blank.

A blank page was a page that hadn’t been written yet, and a book full of blank pages was a world that hadn’t been created yet.

I looked at the plain green cover of my book, with its embossed dark blue lettering.

The Ace of Death

a novel of despair and terror


Horace P. Sternwall

Perhaps it was up to me to create the world of this book, and if it was up to me, then maybe I could create a world in which I could go back home.

“You look very pensive, my dear Porter,” said Henry. “Is something on your mind?”

“No,” I lied.

(Continued here, and for no one really knows how long now, as yet another cardboard box of marble copybooks filled with Arnold Schnabel’s small but meticulous handwriting has just recently been discovered in the rafters of his aunts’ house in Cape May, NJ.)

(Please turn to the right-hand column of this page to find an up-to-date listing of links to all other other legally-accessible chapters of
Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©; accept no substitutes. Now published simultaneously in the Collingswood Patch™: “So much more than a small-town gossip rag.”)


Unknown said...

I read a short story by Colm Toibin, whose clear, resonant sentences excite me. But this story began with stacked prepositional phrases obscuring a forgettable noun. Continuing on, I read several recondite subordinate clauses before reaching the passive verb. If I hadn't persevered and pressed "next" on my Kindle, I wouldn't know that Toibin had opened with a quote from Henry James.

Dan Leo said...

Good old Henry – never afraid to break all the rules!