As the years had worn on, as I slunk from adolescence to young adulthood, as I accepted the fact that I was not Saul Bellow, I had begun to think differently about the mission of fiction, or at least my own writing. Storytelling in particular seemed to have been neglected in American realism, of which Bellow was the champ. Realist writers were committed to representing the middle range of experience, the mundane daily existence that virtually all of us endure most of the time. "What happens next?" was not a question the arch-realists wanted their readers to ask, because the answer was assumed: "What happened the day before." Melodrama, coincidence, extreme events, were not, therefore, the proper centerpieces of fiction, and the plots of Bellow novels like Dangling Man, The Victim, and Seize the Day were clearly not intended to increase a reader's heart rate. But I was spending my days as a prosecutor in Chicago, living in a world animated by a constant struggle with the transgression of norms. And I was repeatedly struck by the spell that came over a courtroom when the critical witness in a criminal case took the stand to offer his account of how evil had happened. There was a lesson there to me. Our lives may be ensnared in a web of dailiness, but our imaginations are not. There is something essential in our fascination with crime and the law's struggle to impose reason on impulses that have proved ungovernable for some. Of such reflections was my first published novel, Presumed Innocent, born.
When Presumed Innocent appeared, in 1987, it changed my life. I went from being a prosecutor cadging moments to write on the commuter train to the author of a novel that was both at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and hailed on the front page of the Times Book Review. More than one person pointed out to me that Saul Bellow was no longer the only hot literary gun in town, which I regarded as laughable. I put few contemporary writers in Saul Bellow's league, and I certainly would never make such a claim for myself. I was sure that Bellow would condemn Presumed Innocent for what it was confessedly meant to be: a work committed to the tropes of popular fiction with a plot whose events were anything but routine.
Nonetheless, the novel made me a local celebrity, with the attendant duties. Late in 1991 I signed a form letter from Chicago's largest literacy organization, asking hundreds of authors across the country to donate books for a fundraising auction. I did not even know who was on the mailing list, and I was therefore astonished when, in January of 1992, I found a note from Saul Bellow in my law office in-box. He had scratched his home address at the top of the page, commented on American illiteracy rates, and promised to send a book to the auction. Then he added, "I read your first novel with admiration and pleasure. The new one I haven't caught up with yet."
"The new one" was my second novel, The Burden of Proof, which had also been reviewed on the front page of the Times Book Review, albeit sourly. Nonetheless, the book had prolonged my fifteen minutes, landing me on the cover of Time, and had remained No. 1 on the Times best-seller list for eleven straight weeks in the summer of 1990.
I wrote back to Bellow at home, and enclosed a copy of Burden, telling him how thrilled I was to know that my work had come to his attention. I realize in retrospect that when a Nobel Prize winner bothers to send you a handwritten response to a form letter, and takes the trouble to give you his home address, he's not trying to remain remote. The logical thing would have been to propose lunch or a cup of coffee, and deliver my second novel in person. But Bellow for me was a figure steeped in symbolism, and I suppose I could not bring myself to think of his realm and mine converging in real life.
I was excited nevertheless to send him the book. Although I had occasionally imitated authors I admired, I had never tried to write like Bellow. But some of his diction and, more, his irony have stuck to me forever, in the way the lessons of youth always do. The internal chats of Sandy Stern, the protagonist of The Burden of Proof, palely echo several Bellow characters—something I had been aware of when I wrote, and which others had occasionally commented on. I hoped Bellow would recognize the homage and be flattered.
Thus I hardly got what I expected when Bellow sent a typed letter to my home eleven months later. He apologized for not acknowledging my gift earlier, which he blamed on "a succession of stunning deaths." One of those certainly was that of Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, with whom Bellow had taught for more than a decade at the University of Chicago, and who had passed away the month before. Then Bellow continued,
I think I told you how much I admired Presumed Innocent. Of course your first book was particularly attractive. I have always succumbed happily to the terrible weight of criminality, investigation, and prosecution—especially on our own Chicago turf. The Burden of Proof could not match the attractions of its predecessor. I always hate to write critical letters and avoid them. I especially hate getting them myself. Because of my advanced age, there always seems to be an element of speaking de haut en bas. I shun that kind of thing and I would be terribly sorry to be seen by a colleague as anything but a fellow writer. I preferred your first book to your second, it's as simple as that. Now I shall look forward to the third. I apologize for what may appear to be impoliteness and send my best wishes.
Thirteen years later, I still don't know exactly what to make of this letter. It goes without saying that a simple thank-you note, especially nearly a year late, would have sufficed. I did not request or need this candid putdown, and I have never quite understood why Bellow would say he avoided critical letters and then drop this one in the mail. Nonetheless, if I were more secure, I might have recognized this blast from the mountaintop as entre to a personal relationship founded on my acknowledgment that, whatever the whirling of literary fashion, Bellow was the master—ground I will always willingly concede. After all, I didn't like Bellow's novels equally either.
But at that point I heard his message as unambiguously harsh. It did not help, of course, that this response out of the blue was the kind of gratuitous knock my father had regularly delivered when I was least suspecting. Reading the letter was a blow to the noggin, as Bellow might put it. Who looks a gift horse in the mouth like that? "De haut en bas" indeed. What was French for "jerk"?
I decided then that I was finished with Saul Bellow. I never wrote back, never sent the third novel he claimed to look forward to, never communicated again.
A year later Bellow was gone—wooed away by John Silber, the president of Boston University. Chicagoans were stunned when Bellow's intention to leave the University of Chicago was announced, in the spring of 1993, but I imagine the deaths that Bellow complained of in his letter to me had made Chicago seem a haunted place.
About a year later, the summer after Bellow took up his duties at BU, a prominent cultural journalist from Germany arrived to interview me in connection with the German publication of my third novel, Pleading Guilty.
"I met Saul Bellow last night," my German visitor told me when our meeting began. I assumed that he had used his journey to Chicago also to interview Bellow, who was still turning up in the city now and then. But no, the encounter had been purely fortuitous. The German had gone into the Berghoff, a fabled Chicago eatery, and there in line in front of him, also alone, was Saul Bellow. The reporter recognized him, and they had a pleasant conversation. The Berghoff stands directly behind the Federal Building, where I had worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for eight years, and I had probably eaten a hundred meals in the place. The irony of this European's wandering in once and meeting Chicago's most celebrated literary citizen gave me a pang. Should I perhaps reconsider, I wondered, and seek out Bellow while he was around? But again I decided no. The memory of his letter remained fresh, and coming of age in the literary world I had learned more than once that some authors are better read than met.
Now and then in subsequent years I encountered friends of Bellow's whom I'd amuse with the tales of our near midair collisions. Several offered to arrange a meeting. I suppose that if I'd bumped into Bellow in the Berghoff, as the German reporter had, I would have been thrilled, but I was unwilling to initiate a meeting, feeling that I would somehow be a supplicant. This was a psychodrama of my own authorship. But it remained imperative to me to say I didn't need that.
And so Bellow's passing was an occasion for mourning. The door was closed. My father, too, has been gone for several years, and I experienced again a bit of that startling absence. Reading the obits that mentioned that Bellow had attended Tuley, the mental crossing gates finally lifted and I realized that my relationship, such as it was, was with two men, not one—a harmonic that undoubtedly complicated my few personal dealings with Bellow, but which, I also realized, dramatically heightened my stake in his books and my appreciation of them. Lying in my Amherst dorm rooms, Bellow's novels seizing me by force, I felt as if I were somehow reading the secret story of my own life. And I suppose I was.