Monday, October 11, 2010

Blinded By the Brilliance of His Own Reflection

Patti Abbott has another of her challenges running, this one a little different. Instead of giving a topic and seeing what everyone can do with it at once, she's proposed a round; the topic is jealousy. Patti went first. My task was to use the character who inspired the jealousy, and write a story about what made him jealous. Subsequent weeks will follow the same pattern.

So, here's my contribution. I'll post links to new stories as they come up each Tuesday. (Apologies to Patti for not getting ahead of the curve last week, and, especially for not commenting on her excellent story that provided me with such tasty fodder. I've kidded about it over the last week or so, but things really have been busy, and my attention span has been more like a taffy pull than a train of thought. I promise to do better.)


"Jimmy! Jimmy! Over here!"

"James! One more, please! James!

Grady Disch watched the media fawn over James Preston and forced a smile. It was Grady's book—a book of poetry, no less—that had them here. The best selling book of poetry since Ogden Nash, not that a cheap comic like Nash was comparable to Grady Disch.

The critics hadn't cared for it. "Warmed-over sentiments that need more time in the oven." "Ostentatious prose with a rhythm." What were poetry critics but unsuccessful poets, and what were unsuccessful poets, aside from jealous? Grady had sales.

What really put the book on the map was the audio version. University of New Mexico Press took the unusual step of releasing an audio book of Grady's poems, and got James Preston to read them. Grady thought Preston was a ham, though a ham with a marvelous speaking voice. True, Preston did appear in last year's Scorsese film, but everyone knew that was DiCaprio's picture. The timing of Preston's breakout performance, coupled with the release of the audio book, recorded while he was still struggling off-Broadway with no public profile, pushed them over the top in sales, and won a Fowler Prize.

A Fowler would never be confused with a Pulitzer or a Man Booker, or even an Edgar. The Fowlers were spawned when university presses banded together in a time of uncertainty and created a series of awards devoted solely to books published by their brethren. Willows Touching the Ground to Reach the Sun had won for best audio book. Not best audio book of poetry; best audio book. Period. It was a coup.

Grady had looked forward to the tour, thrown together when someone at UNMP saw the perfect publicity storm taking shape while it was still a nameless depression. Crowds were ten times those expected, and Grady basked in the acclaim, the adulation, and the women. Mostly the women, one in each city, except for two in Cincinnati, which Grady had not previously considered to be a literary hotbed.

It rankled that Preston got most of the attention, with his slightly longer than fashionable hair, sloe eyes, and perpetual one-day's growth of beard. There was always a reading, and Preston would presumptuously make a show of bringing Grady up to share the applause, as though they were applauding the reading, not the words. Grady could have read the poems himself—he probably read Lies My Mother Told After the Dissolution of Her Second Marriage better, anyway—but Preston surely could not have written the words.

Truth be told, Grady was glad when the tour ended. He was sick of Preston's incessant attempts to hog the stage, and he needed some sleep. A year later they were together again to accept the award. The Fowlers had never seen such media. Where once stood a handful of photographers—at least one paid by the award committee itself—now were over a dozen. Preston had only the week before finished touring for his latest picture, a star turn for Quentin Tarantino, something about Jewish gangsters joining the CIA to hunt Nazis in Argentina after the war. Scarlett Johansson played a former OSS killer who joined a convent in Buenos Aires to atone for atrocities she'd committed and falls in love with Preston while an SS Colonel (Stanley Tucci) stalks them both.

Grady stood near the door, feigning patience, while paparazzi swarmed over Preston, trying to get his good side. To Grady, Preston's good side was the back of his head, walking away, but such was popular taste. A handler caught the actor's eye, pointed to his watch, and Preston made excuses and moved toward the door. Grady stepped forward, hand extended, to enter with his award-winning collaborator. Their eyes met for an instant and Preston said, "Sorry, I have to get inside. Sorry," never stopping, and Grady realized the actor didn't recognize him.

They sat next to each other after Preston gave a performance of acting happy to see Grady, as though he hadn't deliberately snubbed him five minutes earlier. Grady graciously insisted that Preston speak first onstage, where he gave a concise speech honed from years of watching awards shows: short, covering all the bases, and only as excited as he had to be about winning an award he clearly considered himself to have grown beyond.

Then Grady spoke—at length—about the primacy of the written word. How verbal interpretation was but a valiant effort to describe the shapes and relative positions of spots of ink on paper, depending on an interloper between the author—or, of course, poet—and his audience that must ultimately fail. Describing—in detail—the almost telepathic communication between the poles of reader and writer that a speaker could not help but damage through his intercession. He read an excerpt from his newest poem, To Write the Unspeakable Dream, not noticing the audience's increasing restlessness until a stage whispered, "For Christ's sake, Disch," carried into the house and Preston, still smiling at the audience, murmured into his ear, "You might want to start wrapping up, Grady."

The applause that accompanied them back to their seats was a tenth of what ushered them onstage and Grady realized—too late—that even here, among his supposed peers, jealousy and petty emotions reigned. The same men and women who had voted him the prize were now as jealous as the critics they had proven wrong, wounded by his popularity while their volumes sold in the dozens.

Three interviewers, one at a time, asked perfunctory questions of him at the reception, while committee members brought Preston champagne, as though he couldn't get through the adoring throng on his own. Bastards, all. His new volume, From the Fingers of God to the Eyes of the Blind, would establish him as the most important American poet since Frost. Maybe even Browning.

He'd read the audio version himself.


pattinase (abbott) said...

This is absolutely pitch perfect. Thanks for giving Grady his due!!!!

YA Sleuth said...

Loved this. What a voice.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is terrific!! I love it! I like the context, especially - what a natural context for this kind of jealousy.. Wonderful!

C. Margery Kempe said...

Much much fun -- I was lucky to get a sneak peak, so I am brainstorming something to keep the high going.

sandra seamans said...

Great story, Dana!

Charles Gramlich said...

I've never seen a chapbook of poetry used better.

Evan Lewis said...

Zow. A great story on several levels. You've perfectly captured the snarky poet mentality, and the poem and book titles are a hoot!

David Barber said...

A great follow up, Dana. Well done.

Nigel Bird said...

hi dana. taking on the baton with style, i see. the bar is high. how many more athletic references can i get in, i wonder?
anyway, i'd like to invite you over to my 'Dancing With Myself' series, so check out Sea Minor and see if you're interested.
i'll be part of the jealousy marathon later in the loop.

Dana King said...

Thanks to all for the kind comments. I apologize for my tardy response; things have been hectic at work and home the last week or so. Looking back, I'm glad Patti scheduled me for early in the process. I don't know what I would have come up with if I'd been on the hook for this week or next.

Nigel, special apologies to you for missing your kind invitation. I've seen your blog and I'm flattered to be asked. Please drop me an email at dlk11756 (at) and let me know what you'd like from me.