Trudging Through the Land of
Three days ago was the fiftieth anniversary of my third sale, my
first real sale, the 1,200-word short "We're Coming Through The
Windows" to Fred Pohl's Galaxy. Quelle triumphe! Quelle dommage.
The two earlier sales to the fifth or seventh rate Playboy imitator, Wildcat
(I wrote about the first sixteen months ago) were real because I was paid,
but they never felt authentic; the stories were wispy, deadening pornography
and the position was ridiculous. The sale to Galaxy was different; I had
(as I wrote G.P. Elliott) "finally sold a magazine of which someone has
heard" and in fashioning an inconsequential, breezy little satire for a
respected market I had demonstrated to myself that I could do this. "I can
do this," I had thought, reading Norman Kagan's "Laugh Along With
Franz" in the 12/65 Galaxy. "If this son of a bitch can get
away with this kind of social satire in a category market, then I have some
kind of a future because I can do this too." But I did not believe it
until I had done it.
The sale was important out of all proportion to its remuneration
or length. After that fellowship year (and a hundred rejections) at Syracuse,
after failing to break The Atlantic, Esquire, or The Hudson
Review, after all of the contemptuous dismissals or cock-teasingly worthless
near misses (the Atlantic Monthly Press editor Esther Yntema was the
most cunning and vicious), I had crawled back to New York without possessions
or hope, willingly foregoing the larger fellowship I had been offered for the
next year because my young bride and I were flat out of money, $750 in debt to
the State of New York, and there seemed no way to get through the summer simply
to enjoy another academic year of humiliation. Scott Meredith hardly beckoned
but seemed willing to take me on for $90 a week. Starting in the fee department
and exhibiting talents I never suspected I possessed, I was able to hang on and
shortly thereafter become familiar with the agent's client list: Mack Reynolds,
Marion Bradley, Phil Dick, Christopher Anvil, Charles Runyon, James Schmitz.
These clients, even beyond the mystery writers, interested me. "I used to
read a lot of this stuff as a kid before I found Look Homeward Angel,” I
mumbled. "If these folks can do it, maybe I can do it too." Two
months later, renewing my acquaintance with the magazines, I found "Laugh
Along With Franz". I have parsed all of this at greater length in various
venues over the years.
What Fred Pohl (who always treated me like a pro, years before I
was one) gave me for the first time was sight of a road to publication. It was
not a golden road and its destination was surely not the Land of Smiles (I had
all of those clients' income figures and troubled correspondence in front of
me) but a road it was nonetheless, and for the first time I found myself able
to look forward, not through a rancid haze of desire but in a practical
fashion. Fifty years later, no stout Cortez, no precipice, no eternity at which
to stare, but I was able after a fashion to trudge the terrain. Knowledge may –
until and unless the brain freezes – be a mean series of acquisitions, but it
is still better to have than stupid.
* * *
Alfred Bester could tell you that. His characters do so over and
again in the hundred mocking guises of his interstellar remittance man, old
liver and onions himself. “You can't go back, old ami, you cannot change
the past because it is only your past, you can send a thousand prayers into
thin air but they are only your prayers and they will come back only to
yourself. The 5,271,009 choices you face in a lifetime, my pesky, insidious,
ignorant friend, and you will make first one and then the other as if you were
thinking, but you are only responding.” Another wink, a shaky gesture. “There
is only that eternal loneliness but, hic!, you try to fill it with the
illusion of change.” The Men Who Murdered Muhammed could only murder
themselves, but even then the past could not be killed, the past was always
there lurking, and in the end your Common Book was the Bible of your fall. All
of this is in J.D. Smith's new critical study of our boy Alfie (1913-1987),
Grand Master and Holy Fool, perhaps the only true genius who ever wandered (by
mistake) into our garden and in the end he could not get out. Maybe Annie
Proulx or Thom Jones could sneak away from the Venus flytrap of the markets but
Alfie, in thrall, could not escape ingestion by the world snake.
Smith, an Illinois University Professor, has laid out the work
with synoptically surgical precision, trapped the man from his playful
beginnings to half-incipient career and then the two desertions, the first in
the ’40s to comics, radio, drama, the second and longer from the late ’50s to
the early ’70s when Holiday dissolved underneath and he made a forced
return. The two astonishing novels, the dozen and a half even more astonishing
short stories, which ended in 1963 with “They Don't Make Life Like They Used
To”, and then the long, long goodbye after the second return in 1971. The weak,
weaker and weakest novels in succession, the flailing at conventions, the awful
decampment and disintegration to Bucks County in the last half decade. The
greatest science fiction writer who ever lived dissolving in silence at a bar
in the backwoods, listening to the Eastern rednecks mock the Blacks and the Jews.
(These were not the words that were actually used.) Getting home by automobile
through prayer or luck, Charles Platt once accompanying him through these
rambles. "Alfie, do they know you are Jewish?" Platt wrote he
asked Bester. J.D. Smith has no answers, but he has suggestions, some florid
(he sees The Demolished Man as a grotesque, consciously monstrous
extension of Freud, Sigmund the man-eating plant in the Little Shop of
Horrors), others merely suggestive (Gold exacerbated the Freudianism of the
first novel, sulked when he was not offered The Stars My Destination,
and then verged on ugliness.) Joe Ferman shrugged in contempt and gave it back.
His son and I had a similar experience two decades later with the first third
of The Computer Connection. Bester's odyssey was perhaps no more
paradigmatic or disastrous than Henry Kuttner's or Alice Sheldon's, but unlike
theirs it was instructive. Many young writers were changed by close observation
of Bester's life and fate. Kuttner had little to teach beyond the obvious
dangers of overwork, and Sheldon, not quite the only other true genius who ever
wandered into the field, was too sui generis to leave anything other
than her body of work and a false lead. No Land of Smiles for that lady.
Smith's work is remarkable and irreplaceable, a mark of transition
toward the great biography of Alfred Bester which would explain science fiction
to itself and Bester to the world. That biography would be Mahler's Tenth
Symphony; like Deryck Cooke with Mahler, J.D. Smith has given as much as
possibility would grant.
* * *
My novel The Men Inside (Lancer, 1973) is a first-person
work disguised as third person. I noted this again while reading Smith's
synopsis and commentary on "Fondly Fahrenheit" from which The Men
Inside was clearly derived.
Bester was shrewder than Nabokov, shrewder than anybody.
"Fondly Fahrenheit" was published a year before Lolita.
14 January 2017: New Jersey