Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More Bob Anderson: Let Us Now Praise Famous Authors

“The works of William Gaddis are taught in the freshman English classes of all the great universities across our land,” Bob Anderson often said. He was proud of the fact that he was not only an acquaintance of the man now often acknowledged as being one of the greatest of American postwar novelists, but that he had actually entertained the celebrated author in his own home.

Bob had worked for CBS in New York for many years (claiming, in fact, to be the one who "discovered" Andy Rooney: an apocryphical tale to be related later), eventually "burning out” sometime around the early Seventies. He and his wife Annie sold their New York digs and moved to Jericho, Vermont to settle Bob's jangled urban nerves. They say Jericho’s now a bedroom community for Burlington, but back then it was an out-of-the-way rural place. Bob and Annie busied themselves making Tiffany-style lamps out of stained glass and selling them by mail order, a business they continued until the day Bob figured out that the hourly return on their labors was substantially less than the existing minimum wage, and retired altogether.They’d also acquired a house in Key West near the current Key West Seaport, which was then still a working commercial area of shrimp docks and fishhouses. One of their neighbors was a local grande dame of some renown who for a period of time ran an ongoing salon of, well, original Key West characters, the real kind who gave the place its zany reputation, but who are now for the most part extinct, displaced by generations of poseurs and arrivistes, as predicted accurately by Ernest Hemingway 70 years before in his novel “To Have and Have Not.”

It’s told that eventually the doyenne tired of hosting her parade of characters and one day without explanation threw them all out, withdrawing the welcome mat forever, but not before Bob had made the acquaintance of a young lady from New York who was William Gaddis’s second wife, Judith.

Before Bob and Annie journeyed back to Vermont in the spring, they extended an invitation to the Gaddises, through Judith, to join them for a country weekend at their place in Jericho. The appointed summer weekend was established and the invitation accepted, and although hindsight might have dictated a “let’s not and say we did” scenario, a commitment having been made, the Gaddises were obligated, for better or worse, to make a trip up to Vermont.

One can only imagine the arrangements made in Jericho that week leading up to the day of arrival, the weeding and mowing, the trips to the ABC store for the proper wine and spirits, the preparations for a perfect and memorable feast, the proper positioning of various pieces of memorabilia throughout the old farmhouse for conversational purposes. “William Gaddis is coming! William Gaddis is coming!”

About three o’clock Bob started to get worried that he hadn’t heard from them. They were, of course, on their way, and he’d send specific directions on how to get to his house. On the other hand a lot could go wrong. But if for some unfathomable reason they weren’t coming, they would call.

Instead of worrying about it, Bob decided to raid the liquor locker for a “stiffener” to steady his nerves. It’s a long trip. They probably set out late. They’ll come rolling in soon.

Nowadays people drive with their ears glued to a cellphone. People have even been killed in accidents while diverting their attention from the road ahead to the text messages of their cellphones. But as recently as 30 years ago, especially in Vermont, making a telephone call, especially a long distance telephone call, was not as simple as punching in a few numbers on a hand-held device. You’d have to find a pay phone and go through an operator, and you’d better have a handy supply of quarters to feed that pay phone, providing it was working.

Bob checked the phone at the farm house. There was a dial tone. It was in good working order. He’d better hang it up though, because they should be calling any minute. He strode out onto the front porch, looking down the empty stretch of Route 15. There was hardly a car in sight on that warm Vermont afternoon. He went back in and poured himself another drink.

Around five o’clock the phone finally rang. They were at a general store about forty miles south on Route 7. They got lost on some back roads in upstate New York. With a little luck, they’d be there in an hour.

By the time they finally arrived, Bob, having taken counsel of his fears that they weren’t really coming, had already had a few too many. Of course the guests had a long day’s drive, and a little attitude adjustment was in order. There was an obligatory round of drinks before supper, and what kind of a host would not join his newly arrived guests in a libation? Bob had another one.

When Annie finally brought out her feast, Bob was already entering a phase of incoherency. Raising his hand to make a point, he slumped forward, passing out face down in his dinner plate. Judith said all she could remember, when he came up, was that he looked like a Santa Claus, because of all the mashed potatoes in his beard.

I heard this story from Judith. Bob never mentioned it. He did say now and then that he’d known and admired William Gaddis. Perhaps he’d forgotten that he’d been carried up to bed by one of the greatest of American postwar novelists and two women.

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