Greg Gerke


At the 100th Anniversary of The Waste Land party, a debut novelist continued to check his phone. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, his first novel, about a family's last four generations, starting with immigration from Italy, to years in New York, to buying land in the west, to heading the WTO protests and carrying other secret anti-government sentiments, before going to the Middle East to fight terrorists because the U.S. wasn't doing a good enough job, was expected to get reviewed in the Sunday Book Review and he kept checking the web page to see if the piece had been made public. Though his agent had tried to get advanced word, including some low-grade hacking, all attempts were unsuccessful as a successful lawsuit against the practice of giving advanced word to agents and publishers by a disgruntled writer who had been lied to by an emissary of the book reviewer (the actual review was negative, not positive) erased any more early notices by the paper. Though they did know the reviewer was a peer and possibly a woman he'd once been on a panel with who also wrote similar types of fiction—grand sweeping stories of immigrants making their own sort of Americana—and been fairly celebrated. At the mind-numbing panel he talked briefly with her on stage and smiled to hide his nervousness at public speaking. He didn't teach and rarely read out loud. He'd once vasovagaled when experiencing the degree of anxiety he appeared to harbor again. In the hospital to have some cysts removed from his back, he had fainted when the IV went in, prompting the anesthesiologist to shoot too much of a heart accelerator, Rubinal, into his system, causing a near-death like feeling because he couldn't breathe or hear anything and shook uncontrollably for some minutes—an experience (along with the subsequent failed lawsuit) that would be the basis of his sophomore effort, a work on which he had spent a good six hours that morning wrestling with the conception of the main character's mother. It probably won't be her, he texted his agent, who sat at home refreshing his screen as well because a lot of money had gone into Mr. Iowa and Mr. Paris Review Prize, but they still needed the Times, even a lukewarm review would have some quotable quotes. Plus, he needed this book, Everything I Never Fold Away, to be a hit. He'd had many a clinker recently and the old man in the large corner office had begun to look askance at him during meetings, though the agency across the park had made an offer last year. The debut novelist rolled his eyes at the keynote speaker, Rhoda St. Johnstone, continuing on, forty, fifty minutes now, and he texted the agent again, then went to the site, pressing and pressing and pressing. Finally it was there. Not the first, so no cover review. Page eight! It was by the woman. He opened it and the subtitle seemed like a publisher's recap on the book's back but that was standard. The review's first sentence: "Ernest Hemingway once said, 'Don't describe an emotion—make it,'"and his heart sank. Using Papa Asshole to chide him in the first sentence! He went on, passing though the recounting of the prescriptive plot—so many twists and she didn't make it sound good. If he'd pitched it this way he certainly wouldn't have sold it. Then the critical passages. "Lincoln Lawson's freshman effort, complete with today's most hot-button issues, yawningly announces itself as relevant to our time of upheaval, but shouldn't relevance be assumed of any novel?" He couldn't believe she really went for the throat, but she did. Nothing was good. She even made fun of the title, while getting in a story about how she'd come up with a title for her bestseller. Maybe it was a practical joke—a mirror NY Times page? He put his wine cup on the floor. Someone asked if he was okay. The literary critic Roman Clef peered at him and counseled the young man to read some Thomas Mann and probably drop some weight. Um, the debut novelist said. Back to the review, "When self-pity fails him, Lawson piggybacks on . . ." The sensorium of words in the sentences of the review began to not register as words, they were ideograms of his future and would become his New Age signposts for trauma, loss, envy, inertia, vindictiveness, and rage. "Lawson's struggle to differentiate a theme from an idea," equaled loss of higher wages. "Another thorn in Lawson's text is his overuse of adverbs . . ." equaled self-loathing. Did it matter a decorated teacher had told him he had nothing to worry about, his themes were grand, his language superb? Now what would that teacher, retired in Naples, with all his novels from the Reagan eighties forgotten, say? And the debut novelist's wife? They'd waited years for this moment. He'd taken time with the novel, five years, promising kids at the end, though that still hadn't come about and it had been finished eighteen months ago. How could the review be explained? What did you do to that woman years ago on that panel? his wife would say. Nothing! I said I admired her prose. Her prose? What the hell is that? Flirtation? "Your prose" is Swedish for "body." "I liked your book" would have been sufficient. Didn't he know women? Of course, all his main characters were men. Just, please. Listen to me once in a while. What else did you say to her? Nothing—I . . . I . . . maybe I said she had a nice dress. Oh Lord, and his wife would throw his dog-eared copy of The Art of Fiction at him. Why don't you read this for the eightieth time? Extrapolate the art of discretion from the king of malediction. Ah. Fuck Gardner anyway—no one read his novels anymore. The debut novelist heard St. Johnstone say, And then I wrote a wonderful cookbook, and he staggered a bit, beginning to smell oranges, and the people surrounding him seemed to move away in slow- and fast-motion, in the style of a Lynch dream-sequence. As they walked on, admonishing or shunning, they made motions and other unfortunate expressions of disregard and one man, who'd written a biography of Hart Crane, seemed to implore him to take hold of his own upper left arm as he himself did, because that had to be grabbed to signal to everyone around what happened to Lawson's heart, how it had run aground into the medical annals, because thirty-one-year-old heart attacks were rare but becoming less so since people ate worse and ate too much, playing games on the computer instead of walking, not able to love well—the true heart disease—and Lawson nodded: Yes, yes I should hold that, it did hurt, a hurt like a big knife plunging into flesh, and he grabbed at the arm and had to sit down, but he fell to his knees, and because of his extra weight this hurt the knees, new hurt, he couldn't hear, but did feel. Oh geez, why did he eat all those cherry flans as reward for working hours extra on the novel, the fucking novel? He'd had the Italian gene, quick release heart disease, and he fell onto his belly and for the second time in three years thought that his end had come, but at least he wouldn't have to endure the online ridicule for or against himself or a woman he had done nothing to anger. Fuck her then. Maybe he was just saved from being designated a mediocre novelist through poor notices, poorer sales, and pitying public looks. Everyone tended to be kinder to the nonliving.