Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at 'Commentary'
The author I most enjoyed working with during this second act was Alfred Chester. Except for our both being Jewish and literary, we couldn't have been less alike. I, the burdened husband and then single parent with a strong streak of idealism; Alfred, the bohemian queen who confessed in his review of Naked Lunch:
I am a ne'er-do-well, I suppose, a cynic, an immoralist, and therefore very contemporary. In a pinch, I would give up everything, because I value nothing, except my skin.... It feels so good, especially in the sun or in the woods or in the sea or against another. Philosophy, politics, furniture, books, paintings, human relationships, the whole of Western civilization--none of it feels so good, none of it is me.
Alfred had grown up as the youngest child in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn and was marked by a treatment for a childhood illness that left him not only bald for life but also without eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair. With his scruffy, outlandish orange-red wig, which sat uneasily on his head, he looked bizarre. Without it, his narrow blue eyes, usually glinting with irony, his chubby cheeks and his sexy pout of a mouth came more sharply into view and made him look like a Jewish Pan.
He had recently returned from a decade in Paris and had entered the New York literary scene with a big splash--an archly provocative put-down in Partisan Review of Tropic of Cancer ("Even Romeo and Juliet is more stimulating"). Norman had asked him to review John Updike's collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, and this piece, too, was startling and even more transgressive. After granting Updike's skill with syntax and details, which created a polished surface with the illusion of depth, he declared:
Updike shows us nothing to which we can refer his scrubbed and hygienic characters--not to any real emotions, not to any idea of destiny, not to God, torment, laughter, nature, eternity, anything large: anything large, that is, except the word-rate of the world's most generous literary oasis, the New Yorker. Let us sit down for a moment at this expensive watering place of Updike's art where, with weary avaricious sighs, so many other writers have at last disburdened themselves of their talents.
This last jab from a writer whose sale of a story to The New Yorker had enabled him to clamber out of poverty in Paris and return to New York. Norman had turned him over to me, and late one afternoon soon after the Updike review appeared, so did he, having come to ask for an advance on his next piece for us. He wasn't wearing his wig that day, and I was conscious of a certain nimble boyishness coexisting with his bald, dissolute face: Huck Finn meets the Baron de Charlus. When I asked him where he wanted to go for a drink, he said, "Oh, any Irish gin mill will do. Nothing Upper East Side." Then he said, "How do you like my outfit?"
He was wearing a ragged French sailor blouse, soiled white duck pants and sandals. "I'd say you look like a French Quarter cafe writer down on his luck."
"Perfect," he said. "I didn't know you, so I decided to dress down. The impoverished look. Is Norman going to give me the advance?"
"Sure," I said. "You're a catch."
"That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me for at least a week." Then he said, "Don't worry. I can tell you're straight as a string." And giving me the eye, he said, "But if you ever decide to broaden your experience, there are a few things I'd like to show you."
Basking a bit in his flirtatiousness, I lost my uneasiness about his rapier wit, and we hit it off from the start. We got to talking about writers we liked, mine outnumbering his about ten to one.
At one point he asked me about Lawrence Durrell. I said I'd tried to read The Alexandria Quartet. "It's just so decadent," I said.
At which his face lit up. "But of course," he said. The only current American writer he seemed to have much use for was Norman Mailer. He said that Mailer had the vision, intelligence and guts to say something new and to create what was most needed in America, a political hero. "I wish he'd cut out the God and Devil stuff. It's so boring and makes him silly. Also I wish he'd stop running to be Norman Mailer."
The last point seemed to me particularly fresh and astute, more in the spirit of the swashbuckling literary swordsman I'd been reading than the amiable one I was drinking with. "But don't most really outspoken writers want to be in the public eye?" I asked. "Aren't you running to be Alfred Chester?" In a heartbeat, he dropped his congeniality and looked threatened. "No," he said. "There are too many of them."
"Too many what?"
"Too many me's." He slowly regained his poise. "When I write fiction, I know who I am. When I write about other writers, I'm just a situational blob, depending on who I'm putting down." It was a strange remark, since he seemed so much himself, so self-possessed, but it would soon become a prophetic one. Over the next hour, I learned that he'd been in Paris for most of the '50s, that he'd written pornography for Maurice Girodias's Traveller's Companion Series as well as a novel about a handsome young corpse, Jamie Is My Heart's Desire, that had been published in France and England and had garnered high praise from V.S. Pritchett. "He said I was fearless and very talented. Not bad. V.S. Pritchett doesn't throw himself away," Alfred explained with his crafty leer.
"I agree with him. You not only take the hide off Updike, you even take a direct poke at The New Yorker when you're broke and could use that 'expensive watering place.'"
"Oh, they'll never again publish anything that I can bear to write anyway. I've got a whole drawer full of 'don'ts' from Shawn."
Over the next two years, we published pieces by Alfred on Nabokov, Burroughs, Albee, Salinger and Genet. It was Alfred's dead-eye but personable prose that made me realize that literary criticism didn't have to be solemn to be serious, that it could take the form of individual free play rather than the heavy team spirit I was writing, the team of the New York Elders. Alfred was the Frank O'Hara of criticism, ballsy and shrewd and just this side of smartass; and like O'Hara's insouciant insights, his could be startling.
Take his piece on Burroughs. Commonly regarded as the ghoulish laureate of heroin, he seemed no more than literary sport until Chester came along, took a good look and exclaimed:
Whether or not Burroughs wrote his book in a narcotic trance, his debt to Alice in Wonderland is enormous, and to have got himself thus indebted is so right and so brilliant that it makes me wish I liked Naked Lunch better than I do. In attempting to write a novel that will pull the washplug out of the universe, that will wither with scorn and smear with muck all the works of man and God, what could be more superb or to the point than to take as one's method the method used in the most loved story of the English language?
He then goes on to quote a passage on the Mugwumps; their addicted victims, the Reptiles; and the Dream Police that clinches the connection--though, as he says, only very rarely does Burroughs "approach the precision, wit, and truth of Carroll," and mostly is so compulsively violent, scabrous and repetitious that his source becomes incidental.