I took a train up to Halifax to write about Canada. I thought Canada would be good for me. Get me out of my slump, which had been going on for more than a year now. But it rained a lot for three days, and I wound up sitting in a bar and drinking Rusty Nails with a Canadian who had a grudge against the United States. I fell into bed like a boxful of hammers and woke up at noon with this great idea, and got on the train to go back to New York and sat in my compartment and wrote a gorgeous broadside against Our Neighbors to the North and said what every American has wanted to say for the past hundred years about Canadian independence—Oh, get off it—and in Portland, Maine, the train stopped and I got off and walked around and used the men's room in the depot and there, in the excitement of creation, I left the manuscript on a ledge next to the urinal and walked to the train and the conductor said, "How's that writing of yours coming along, young fella?" and I let out a yelp and dashed back to the men's room and it was empty. No manuscript. Nothing. I hustled around the waiting room looking in trash barrels. No luck. Finally the whistle blew, and I climbed on the train distraught and went to the club car and had a whiskey soda. First decent thing I write in a whole year and I leave it in the pissoir.
"Something wrong?" the bartender said. "You look down." So I told him.
"Well, that's a shame," he said, as if I'd lost an embroidered hanky or the sports section of the paper instead of a literary creation. A woman with red hair was sitting at the bar. She said, "Just sit down and write the story again. That's what Fitzgerald did when Zelda left the manuscript of The Great Gatsby on a train in Zurich. He sat down in a hotel room and wrote it again—and it turned out even better!"
I hate people who give you inspirational advice like that. I loathe them.
A man in a wrinkled brown corduroy suit said, "I heard that Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was pitched into the fireplace by an illiterate field hand, and Faulkner proceeded to get drunk and write the whole thing from memory in two days straight."
"Easier said than done," I said.
"The power of memory," the woman said. "T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land fell into a hot bath and the ink washed off and he had to rewrite it, and when he did he made April the cruelest month instead of the 'coolest,' which it had been before. Robert Frost once wrote a poem that was eaten by a dog who ran off into the woods, chased by the poet, and only then did he decide to change the poem to 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' instead of 'Stopping at the Dew Drop Inn on a Wednesday Night,' which is what it was when the dog ate it."
We were bumping along through New Hampshire, bound for Boston, and the bartender gave me a double whiskey soda, on the house, and the corduroy suit said, "Did you know that Philip Roth's A Boy's Life was sent to the cleaners with a box of sweaters and eaten by solvents, and he rewrote it as Portnoy's Complaint?"
"You see?" the woman said. "All is not lost."
Mr. Corduroy continued. "And John Updike's Rabbit Relaxes was sent by mistake to Tehran in a brown Samsonite suitcase, then New Delhi, Sydney, and Lima, Peru, and only after it returned did he decide that Rabbit maybe shouldn't go to Sun City and get deeply involved in volunteer work. He decided to kill him off and spare the reader."
"Okay," I said. "I get the point."
"Walt Whitman's original manuscript, which he lost, was Leaves and Grass. William Carlos Williams lost his poem about the two beers left in the icebox and realized they should be plums."
I stood up to leave.
The bartender chimed in. "Take adversity as an opportunity! Pick yourself up and do better. That's the American way. You lose your manuscript, you write a better one!"
"But you should've done it right away and not come in here and had two big glasses of Scotch," the woman said. "When Emily Dickinson lost her poem 'Because I could not stop for Lunch' she was at the tennis court with Lavinia, and she didn't spend an hour scouring through the tall grass for a tiny square of folded paper tied with string. She sat right down with a towel around her neck and rewrote it better."
It was depressing, hearing about great writers and how they'd risen to the challenge. A reminder of how little I'd done with my life. No Rabbit books had I brought forth, only an assortment of small black pellets. My big ambition had been to write for The New Yorker, and one day—sheer blind luck—I took an antihistamine and two aspirins and some zinc tablets and 5 mg of vitamin E and wrote a thousand words that they bought and published, and then the formula never worked again. A few years later I went to see Mr. Shawn at The New Yorker and he and I hit it off big time. We discovered that we both liked a variant of poker called Footsie and were both Stones fans and knew all the words to "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar." He took me out on his boat, Shawnee, and shook up a pitcher of martinis and told me I was trying too hard. "You can't become a writer by reading Elements of Style," he said. "You've got to experience life." So I wrote a novel about growing up in the Midwest, my one experience in life, called Spacious Skies, and it was pretty successful, but the sequel, Amber Waves of Grain, was a stinker. ("What a dumb book!" the Times said.) Sales were pitiful. Two weeks after publication big stacks of it were on sale at Barnes & Noble for $1.89, and the security tags had been removed so as not to hinder shoplifters.
A dumb dumb dumb book. Why did I write that long first chapter with thirty-four pages all about soybeans? And then in Chapter 2 the agronomist, Danny Montalban, suddenly is no longer in Fargo, he's in Fresno, and we're at a lesbian commitment ceremony at a pimento ranch with ladies in denim caftans whanging on little drums and chanting Sapphic things and Cathy and Denise affirming their love for each other and riding away on a piebald pony and then there's that whole thing about the transcontinental railroad and the driving of the golden spike—where did all that come from?
Suddenly I was a joke. I walked down Forty-third Street and heard the word "soybeans" whispered and people tittering.
I was on Seventh Avenue in the Thirties, walking fast to make a lunch date with a woman named Shahtoosh, and a construction guy passed me pushing a handcart piled high with lumber and the cart tipped and a half ton of lumber brushed against my pants leg and crashed to the sidewalk. Had it fallen six inches north it would have snapped my left leg in two. And then Shahtoosh wasn't at the restaurant. She left a message: Sorry. Something came up.