I arrange my desk, in preparation for literary flight
* I cull my notes for material, coming across odd things about the brevity of life and the cause of hair loss * One note leads to a discussion of out-of-body experiences with Jeeves, whom I mark as a likely candidate for having had such an experience * I type up a scene about New York’s clubs, which leads Jeeves and I to discuss, in order, the Racial Question, the Jewish Question, Fitzgerald, the Great American Novel, and my own plans for myself as a novelist
I didn’t take Murrin’s advice. As soon as Jeeves unpacked my things, I sat down at that desk to get to work.
I had my computer open, and my pens, pads, and thermos of coffee were at the ready. My Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1960 edition, replete with my preferred British spellings, was there for moral and spiritual support, though I’m too much of a coward to use the spellings in my own work.
Anyway, there I was, like a pilot in his cockpit. My desk was my instrument panel, and being on the second story of the Mansion added to this flying motif.
I took in the lovely view out my window – green lawn, marble nymphs, old trees, blue sky, and far-off mountains. A bird, unseen in the tree closest to my window, made a cry, once, and then a second time to make sure it had got it right the first time. Another bird responded in a slightly different key. A mother calling to a child to come home for lunch? The child answering? All was well with the world. The birds were singing! The sky was a kindly blue! I was at a writing desk!
I poured myself a cup of coffee from my thermos. I drank the coffee. It was weak, thin, nothing more than warm brown water, but that was of no consequence. Coffee for me is a placebo: it just has to be there, regardless of taste. I can’t write without it.
The first thing I did was take out my notes, which I kept in a large shoe box. To try to have some order, I had placed the notes in about fifty letter-size envelopes, and so the box was overflowing. My notes – kept on various mad scraps of paper – were my observations and thoughts on things, but mostly they were witty, off-hand remarks or long speeches that my old roommate Charles had made.
On the outside of the envelopes were neatly printed messages to myself as to what I might find inside, for example:
Charles on New York Society
The Time We Snuck into the Opera
Charles on Women
Charles on the Royal Family
Our Troubles with Cockroaches, Fleas, and Pigeons
My Thoughts on Charles
My Thoughts on Sex
I felt a little sad looking at the envelopes. I missed Charles. But he didn’t want anything to do with me. My drinking had made living with me as a roommate intolerable, and it was while I was in rehab that he had kicked me out—he had no faith that I would reform.
And now that I was trying to reform – off the booze for twenty-four hours – it didn’t really make a difference. I was writing a novel about him, which I was hoping to publish someday, and I knew he would never forgive me for this, no matter how loving my portrayal of him might be. He’d find it humiliating that I would reveal to the world how penniless he was and how dependent he had become on the women whom he escorted. But I felt mercilessly compelled to write the book – he was too great a character to pass up. Also, I was selfish – it was me or him. My money from the settlement wouldn’t last forever. I had to write a second novel to survive and to prove to myself that the first book was not a fluke, that I was, indeed, a writer. And every writer needs a subject and Charles was mine.
I put my hand in the shoe box and randomly chose an envelope that I had labeled: ‘My Random Thoughts That Perhaps Can Be Given to the Narrator.’ I removed a torn scrap of paper…”
So I had to harden myself and be ruthless. I brushed aside, as always, my misgivings and my guilt, and pressed on with the book in order to make proper use of this glorious writing room the Rose Colony had given me. Also, once I began working, my bad feelings always went away as I experienced an odd joy in reliving and reshaping my time with Charles, and, too, in my mind, which mollified my guilt, I was making him a hero, even if he would never see it that way.
I put my hand in the shoe box and randomly chose an envelope and interestingly enough came up with one that I had labeled: “My Random Thoughts That Perhaps Can Be Given to the Narrator.”
I removed a torn scrap of paper, like a fortune cookie’s note, and it said, in my handwriting, though I didn’t remember writing it:
I keep repeating to myself: Life is short. Life is short. Life is short. Will I shorten it further if I keep repeating that? Have the character based on me think this.
That wasn’t very helpful, so I took out another slip of paper. This one also featured a litany:
I wish I wasn’t going bald. I wish I wasn’t going bald. I wish I wasn’t going bald. Well, that didn’t work. Those three wishes make me think of the Wizard of Oz. Doesn’t Dorothy have to say something three times?
I should sing “If I only had hair,” but to the melody of “If I only had a brain.” I could also sing that song, though. I have no hair and no brain.
I am probably losing my hair because of sex-with-self. Loss of minerals. When I look at other bald men, I know this is true for them as well. Baldness is the Mark of Cain for self-abuse. What’s more stunning is that all the men with hair are somehow refraining, and many of them look quite depraved. Well, you never know what goes on in someone else’s life. Some people may look depraved but are quite nice. So the narrator could assume that Charles doesn’t touch himself since he has all his hair.
I wasn’t sure when I wrote that note, either. It was odd receiving these messages from an earlier self. I did consider, though, with some happiness, that I was making progress on one front – of late I had been feeling good about my hair. My thinning had reached some sort of elegant stasis, or so I told myself.
I removed one more note:
I’d like to have an outer-body experience. Maybe the character based on me could have one. Since I probably can’t have one in real life, my character could.
“Jeeves,” I called out.
Jeeves transfused himself from the bedroom to the writing room.
“Have you ever had an outer-body experience?”
“Do you mean, sir, an out-of-body experience?”
“Yes, you’re right, Jeeves… I must have confused out-of-body with outer-borough. Anyway, have you ever had one?”
“One what, sir?”
“What do you think? An out-of-body experience! Lifted out of your body and gone somewhere else. You strike me as the type who might be good at this sort of thing. So you could tell me what it’s like to leave your body and I’ll write about it. I’d like to put such a phenomenon in my book.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve not had an out-of-body experience.”
“Really? I’m surprised. Would you like to have one, Jeeves? I’d get one for you if I could.”
“No, sir, I don’t want one.”
“Well, I’d like one, Jeeves. You would think with my yoga I could get one, but ten sun salutations probably isn’t enough… It would be a relief to get out of my body every now and then. I often feel I’m jumping around in a costume that doesn’t fit right.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
“No need to fret, Jeeves. At the moment, my body seems to fit pretty well, though my nose is throbbing. It’d be nice if my nose could have an out-of-body experience, leave me with a suitable, temporary replacement nose, and come back when it’s healed. Sort of a positive spin on that Gogol story. You follow me, Jeeves?”
“At some distance, sir.”
“Well, that’s all, Jeeves. I’m very excited to get to work, even with a throbbing nose.”
“Very good, sir.”
I drank some more coffee and returned to my shoe box and went to the “Charles on New York Society” envelope. I took out a large scrap, upon which I had jotted down an excellent exchange between Charles and myself on New York’s clubs. This dialogue, I felt, could comprise the next day’s scene after the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade discussion. So I typed up the following:
“I wish I was a member of the Yale Club,” I said to Charles. We were having an early-evening glass of wine. This was in lieu of cocktails since we didn’t have any hard liquor. He was sitting on the blue couch, which was also his bed. I sat on the white couch, crossing my legs at the knees, trying to affect a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. pose. “So many of Fitzgerald’s stories take place at the Yale Club,” I continued. “Be romantic to have a club to go to for a drink and meet friends.”
“I’m sure the Yale Club is destroyed,” said Charles. “They probably have women members. The best clubs don’t take in women. The best clubs are still fascist holdouts. Randall Chatfield, an old fruit, resigned from the Players Club because they took in women. He wanted them to take in boys. The Explorers Club is good, but you have to be an explorer.”
“It’s probably silly of me, though, to fantasize about clubs as these romantic places,” I said. “I don’t really want to be a member now, but a member in the 1920s, when Fitzgerald was around. The problem with that is, if I went back in time to the twenties I couldn’t be a member since I’m Jewish.”
“Well, if you can go back in time, then you can also change your religion. I would think that time travel gives you great powers.”
“But I wouldn’t want to change my religion.”
“Then stop whining,” said Charles, admonishing me. “And stop romanticizing about clubs. They didn’t take in Jews. You have to accept this. It’s the way things were. In the twenties, the best hotels used to have signs: NO JEWS, NEGROES, OR DOGS. And this upset many people; they liked to travel with their dogs. The rich still like their dogs. Prefer them to children. Less expensive.”
“If they’re rich, why does it matter?”
“Don’t be stupid. The wealthier you are the cheaper you are, and nobody is more barbaric to their children than the rich.”
“Well, I guess I don’t want to go back to the twenties. Too racist. It’s racist now, but not quite as bad.”
“I hate that word. I told my students that I thought Scandinavian women were the most beautiful and so they called me a racist, and I explained to them it’s preference, not racism. I also told them I have great admiration for blacks. They’re one of America’s first families.”
That took about an hour to produce, fixing the dialogue, getting it just right. When I had it at a somewhat acceptable level, I called for Jeeves.
He insinuated himself back across the hall. “Yes, sir?”
I read him the day’s efforts. “Very good, sir,” he said when I had finished.
“You think so, Jeeves?”
“I do seem to be fixated on Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Gunga Din must have mesmerized me at some point. But maybe it’s a passing phase. Though I am enjoying having his mustache. Well, I can always remove him during the next draft. I don’t think too many people will know what posing like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. means. I’m not sure I do.”
“Very good, sir.”
“You did pick up, Jeeves, that I’m trying to subtly address the Racial Question and the Jewish Question? And some hint of the Homosexual Question, with the mention of Chatfield.”
“Yes, sir. You touch on these matters in a most subtle way.”
“There are so many Questions, Jeeves. Have you noticed?”
“There are also a lot of Problems. The Monogamy Problem, the Mind/Body Problem, the Designated Hitter Problem in baseball… Naturally, I’m most curious, in a self-centered way, about the Jewish Q. For the Nazis it was what to do with us, but for me the J.Q. is: ‘Why are we hated?’”
“An exceedingly difficult question, sir.”
“We Jews would like, of course, to figure out how not to be hated, either changing ourselves or changing the haters, but maybe we just have to accept that we’re hated, like they advocate in AA – that you have to accept you’re alcoholic. So we Jews just have to accept that we’re hated and move on… I wonder if there’s a twelve-step group for Jews to help us work on this, though I guess that’s what the synagogue is for, which makes sense since most AA meetings are held in churches. So Jewish AA, which, I guess, is just Judaism, is held in synagogues and instead of twelve steps you have Ten Commandments.”
“Well, in my book, Jeeves, I’ll simply pose these Questions. I won’t come up with any Answers. But that’s all right because you don’t have to be conclusive in novels about the human condition. When you write the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or directions for brain surgery, then you have to be firm, but with novels it’s enough just to ask the Questions. People don’t expect too much from literature. They just want to know they’re not alone with being confused.”
“An astute observation, sir.”
“Know what’s upsetting to me, Jeeves? Writing that bit about the Yale Club and Fitzgerald made me think how most writers I admire hated Jews. Including Fitzgerald. They shouldn’t publish people’s letters. Inevitably you spot the anti-Semitic remark from one of your heroes and it breaks your heart… Oh, well. Even if Fitzgerald was anti-Semitic, I still say The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel. People keep talking about the Great American Novel as if it hasn’t been written yet, but it has. By Fitzgerald. It has everything American: money, sex, cars, liquor, forging a new false self, prose like cocktail music, New York City. What do you think, Jeeves?”
“You make a convincing argument, sir.”
“Thank you, Jeeves… I do think, though, that even if Fitzgerald wrote the Great American Novel, he was wrong on one thing: there being no second acts in American lives. I think he said that because he died so young. He missed his own second act – his elevation from being out of print at his death to being in the canon… Well, maybe he did prove his point, since his second act came in death, not life, but I think people live so long nowadays because of vitamins that they do have second acts.”
“Quite possibly, sir. Life has been extended.”
“You know, Jeeves, I’m not trying to write the Great American Novel. My ambitions aren’t that far-reaching. But maybe my book will be the Great New Jersey Novel, since it’s about me leaving New Jersey for New York, but always knowing in my heart that I would return to New Jersey someday, as I did when I moved in with Aunt Florence and Uncle Irwin in Montclair. Maybe that will be the end of The Walker – moving to Montclair and having Uncle Irwin shoot me. It will be like the end of The Great Gatsby, but instead of a pool, since they don’t have one, he could shoot me in the tub because I’m wasting hot water… I’d like to be killed at the end of my novel… Do you think that’s too morbid, Jeeves?”
“All tragedies end in death, sir.”
“I do intend for it to be a comedy, but maybe the ending could be tragic.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Well, I’m not going to write the Great American Novel. That’s for sure. I don’t have to write the best book about the whole country; one state is good enough for me. Of course my first novel was also about New Jersey and losing my parents. Maybe I’m working on a New Jersey cycle, like Wagner and the Ring cycle.”
“Sounds promising, sir.”
“You’re very patient, Jeeves. I’m sorry if I bore you with talk of my literary plans.”
“Not at all, sir. I enjoy listening to you.”
“Thank you, Jeeves… and thank you for listening to my passage.”
“It was my pleasure, sir.”
“Well, I had better get back to it.”
“I will leave you then, sir.”
“Wait, Jeeves, did you hear something? A voice? But like God – faraway and deep?”
“This is incredible… Could we both be having the same auditory hallucination?”
“No, sir. I believe what we are hearing is the loudspeaker from the racetrack. We passed the course on the way here and the races must be commencing.”
“You’re right, Jeeves. Thank you for clearing that up. Well, it’s not too distracting, that voice; I can pretend it’s my Muse… Maybe in a few days, if I work well, we can go over to the track and give them some of our money.”
“Very good, sir,” said Jeeves, and then he breezed out of the room to let the young master resume his labors.
And so I passed my first day at the Rose Colony – happily culling through my box of notes, like picking at a roasted chicken for some skin or dark meat; typing up scenes; sipping my thin brown coffee; listening to the far-off voice of the track announcer; eating the lunch in my pail; ignoring the throb of healing in my nose; and occasionally staring at the beautiful and unexplored green estate just beyond my window.
From Wake Up, Sir!
Jonathan Ames is the author of nine books including The Extra Man, I Love You More than You Know and the graphic novel The Alcoholic. He also created the hit HBO comedy Bored to Death, starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson, and the forthcoming Blunt Talk, starring Patrick Stewart as a British newscaster in LA. He lives in New York. Wake Up, Sir! is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Read more.