“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
“Yeah, sure I remember. But I always heard your name as Chris Alice.”
“No, it’s Salas.”
“Any relation to. . .?”
“I don’t think so. It’s a pretty common name in the valley. My family’s lived there like forever. BG.”
“Yeah, Before Gringo.”
Wendt gave an appreciative chuckle. He hadn’t heard that one before, nor did he really remember the man sitting across the table from him, Christopher Salas, Nora’s hot new literary sensation.
“I’m surprised you remember me.”
“Oh, yeah, you were one of the young hotshots on the literary scene. . . .” The guy Wendt remembered as Chris Alice was a chubby, baby faced, neurotic twerp, a green litterateur with an insinuating manner chewing up the edges of the poetry scene, not the distinguished dark haired man in his late forties with trim graying goatee, lively brown eyes, Hollywood smile, and the polished red cheeks of a man who liked his drink. Tan besides, he was jacket photo ready.
“But you, you were like a god back then. I saw you read at the Hipper Than Thou once, with a jazz combo. And at Glide a couple of times. With Irma Maurice, I think.”
“That sounds plausible.”
“And that Chinese poet, I forget his name. . .”
“Right, and you were part of that scene of what I thought of as ‘the older poets’.”
Wendt laughed, remembering. “That was more than twenty years ago.”
“Yuri Khasid, remember him, the Chechen poet?”
“He’s gone on to the misery of fame, fortune, and fatwa.”
“Ann Ahmoly. Now that was one sexy Hungarian intellectual. I tried having a conversation with her at a party once. I got this incomprehensible stare. I don’t think I was that drunk.”
Wendt nodded. “You probably were, and that stare was as deep as it got. It was all a pose. If you hang out with a bunch of talented creative types, people are just gonna assume that you are too. She was also known as Ann Nomoney or Miss Ann Action.”
“And Valerie Richards!”
Wendt winced at the mention and felt the tightening in his windpipe. “Yeah, Val.”
“You guys did a lecture together at New Arts Village, geez that was a while ago, on early Twentieth Century French writers. I won’t forget that. I made a list of everyone you mentioned. Cendrars, Reverdy, Roussel, Queneau. I was particularly impressed by Roussel, I remember. How a play on words could suddenly change the direction of the narrative, right in the middle of a sentence!”
“Yeah,” Wendt agreed, bored and way past nostalgia. He mentally reviewed some of the questions he was supposed to ask this now successful author, questions Nora thought appropriate. Well, if he got around to them.
“I was in Richard Granahan’s advanced poetry class at State, too. He spoke highly of you.”
Wendt shrugged. “We were friends.” He wondered if it was the same class Grace Niklia had been in.
“I heard he just died.”
Just died, Wendt mused, more like death became him. But he was losing focus. He needed to regain control of the conversation. “Yeah, but what about you? Everyone was talking about how Chris Alice had a rocket in his pocket. Then you just dropped out of sight.”
Salas smiled with the ease of nice teeth and shrugged. “I had my fill of the city, the scene. After a while, what I was doing, my poetry, my writing, all seemed meaningless, you know?”
He nodded sympathetically. “AIC, Artistic Identity Crisis. How old were you then?”
“Mmm, late twenties. I’d seen it all, done it all, you know. Published in all the right magazines, The New Yorker, The Nation, read at all the hip venues, like The Project, The Poetry Center, Beyond Baroque, Naropa, the Y. Had a selection of poems published by OMFG Editions. . . .”
“I remember that press, always thought that stood for Only My Friends are Great, and your book was titled. . . ?”
“Pull My Finger.”
“That’s why I remember.” Wendt look down into the possibly of one swig’s worth of red wine at the bottom of his glass and wished that it was whiskey. He glanced at the waiter knowing that they had reached Nora’s two bottle limit with the meal, her stipulation for footing the tab for him and her client at the fabulous Washbag on Powell. He had made short work of the rack of lamb though Salas had seemed perplexed by the half roast chicken in lemon sauce, and picked at it dissolutely. He wasn’t hesitant about the wine Wendt had selected, a pinot grigio and a hearty Zinfandel, both from the Sonoma Valley. If he had learned anything from his Monday dinners with Dorian, it was how to select wines.
Wendt leaned forward in confidence. “A lot of people have come up with that as a tentative title for their poetry selections before.” He paused. “But no one ever had the guts to use it,” reflecting that impetuousness could easily be substituted for guts. “Offending bourgeois conventions is a young man’s game.”
“I was going to call it Preparation H but there were trademark issues.”
Wendt winced. More asshole humor.
“Anyway, according to the reviews, and it didn’t get many, it was sophomoric, ill-advised, crude, and déclassé.”
“Doesn’t sound like they read more than the title.” Not all that farfetched as Wendt had reviewed books of poetry with only a glance at the table of contents and the title.
Salas shrugged. “In hindsight, I don’t know if I really blame them. No one wants to pull the finger let alone open a book whose title suggests that you do. Bookstores, even used bookstores wouldn’t carry it. The ones that did carry it shelved it in the humor section.”
“Ah, but you were a succés de scandale! In the poetry world that’s often better than actually being any good.” And as assurance, Wendt added, “Present company excluded. Besides, you made a splash and got people pissed off at you. What more can a poet ask?”
“Still, it left me feeling empty.” Salas held up the bottle of Zin. “This is almost gone, mind if I finish it?”
“No, go ahead. But you realize that what you say can and will be used against you.” He said it with a show of teeth. He was referring to the piece he’d been asked to do on Salas for the Pacific Rim Institute Quarterly.
PRIQ, as it was commonly known, was a slick, high end arts and culture magazine published both on the West Coast and in a Chinese language edition in Shanghai. They were gold plated and Wendt could count on placing something with them at least once a year. Connie Chin, the editor, was an old friend. Not to mention that the magazine was funded in part by the Holbrook Foundation on whose board sat Dorian Pillsbury, and at one time, Nora White, his so-called agent. She was now, not so coincidentally, Chris Salas’ agent. She’d dropped a hint one day when he ran into her at the Caffe Trieste. “Did Connie from the Quarterly get in touch with you?” He’d been remiss in checking his phone messages and email. “Maybe you should give her a call.”
His assignment, were he to accept it, and he never shied from a puff piece if the money was good, was to profile Christopher Salas, and his politically incorrect novel, Third Brain, The Story of a Man and His Penis which was causing much consternation, apoplexy, and denunciation among feminists, literary circles and book reviewers. Nora’s one sentence synopsis had been “A man has visions of future events while holding his penis. Make of it what you will.” Though Wendt had not yet read the advance copy Nora provided him, he couldn’t help but remark on the irony. Granahan would probably have enjoyed reading it. Or writing it. It was a subject he was quite fond of.
The waiter came to take Wendt’s plate and looked inquiringly at Chris’ half finished chicken. “Was everything all right?”
Salas looked down at his plate. “Yeah, it was fine. Guess I wasn’t all that hungry.”
“Dessert? More wine?” The waiter was just doing his job.
Both Salas and Wendt shook their heads, Wendt saying “I think we’re done. Bring the bill and I’ll sign it.” Wendt enjoyed playing the bon vivant especially if someone else was paying. And then, as an aside to Salas, “Why don’t we continue the interview at the bar?”
Salas picked up the first round. And the second. He fleshed out his earlier introductory back story, explaining that he’d had plenty of time to write being Mr. Mom to his two boys while his wife, an administrative lawyer for Marin County, brought home the Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops. He’d written a couple of novels in that time, but had been unsuccessful in placing them with a publisher or an agent. Then someone, it might have even been his wife, suggested he try his luck with a local agent rather than the New York City set. He’d dug up a city phone directory and gone down the list. He didn’t want to go with AAA Literary Services or Ace or Best, with their advisement to see display ad on same page. The very last listing was the unpretentious White Literary Agency. Nora loved the novel, Salas recounted, said it was the best dark humor she’d read in a long time.
“I thought you were a poet.” The tone wasn’t accusatory.
Salas shrugged and signaled to the bartender, circling both their half empty glasses with a finger. “I started out on poetry but soon hit the harder stuff.”
“You think prose is harder than poetry?”
“Not prose, per se, but fiction, yeah.”
“So you’ve given up on poetry.”
“Aw, I could probably get back into it if I wanted to. I find that I use a lot of the same techniques in my fiction. Symbolism, extended metaphor, and so on. It was the vacuous social scene that really turned me off. So high school. Who’s in, who’s out.”
Wendt nodded to the bartender as she poured his Jameson and placed the glass of beer next to it.
Salas continued, “I’ve come to think of the poetry scene as a nasty little playground. There are the fortunate few playing king of the mountain atop the play structure, but otherwise it’s a string of endless lunatics staking claim to their corner of the sandbox, getting into turf battles, fueled by booze, pot, crack, meth, junk, and sociopathic egos carrying on 24/7, bitching, yelling and screaming empty braggadocio, taking offense at the slightest perceived slight, punching each other out or threatening to, crying over the spilt milk of their contrived ill conceived verse, marrying their students, getting knocked unconscious by their much younger wives, and shitting themselves in public. This is simply the literary life, sub-genus American poet. Gregory Corso once said, or so I heard, ‘Poetry is great—it’s the poets who fuck it up.’”
Wendt rolled his eyes and laughed. “Yeah, I think I heard that one, too.”
“I liked your paraphrase of that from back in the day much better. ‘There are no bad poems, only bad poets!’”
“Did I say that?” Wendt smiled wryly. “I must have been quoting someone.”
“Anyway, as a novelist, people expect you to be anti-social. Point Reyes is just far enough away that I was out of the loop of all that petty bullshit, and I had my kids to look after. That’s pretty time consuming.”
“Sounds like you had the advantages of woodshedding.”
“I don’t get what you mean.”
“It’s a jazz term. When a musician sequesters himself and practices his chops he’s said to be ‘woodshedding.’ It can be applied to artists who drop out to develop their style, painters, writers, before reemerging into the public eye. Probably an old down home expression used by black musicians whose only privacy was had out in the woodshed.”
Salas smiled. “I’ve never heard that. Guess you might say that that was what I was doing.”
“It does have its disadvantages though. Some guys get a little too comfortable with their seclusion and forget that the aim of what they’re doing is to polish up their act, not become a hermit.”
Salas favored vodka drinks and stirred the ice thoughtfully. “I always thought of it as being in a bubble. Or a cocoon. A fog cocoon, especially where I’m from.”
Next Time: The interview with Chris Salas becomes fluid as the author springs for more drinks. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY & WEEK to read the pdf file.