Monday, November 08, 2004

His Name Is Duncan
By J.D. Finch



He had never felt he’d better understood how cattle felt than now as her momentum, like an aura of concrete, moved him to the place he was supposed to be, a position of subservience in front of the editor’s desk.

“So what’s the plan Cal?” his editor asked him with a “let’s-get-on-with-it” urgency.

He gazed around the room slowly, put off by knowing that he was the lowest item in it, except for the waste can under a desk that itself was head level to him. He felt like a stone that had been thrown into a pond that had impossibly been decorated in ersatz Italian Renaissance and he was sitting on the bottom as the Boticellis, Cellinnis et al floated above him.

“Plan?” he parroted, as he squeaked his index finger quickly across the faux leather chair. “Oh, the usual, I expect”, he said casually, as if barely aware his attention was required. “Just keep typing until once again I find the magic formula that lets me create a story to transfix the masses.”

“Very clever,” the editor said. “Unfortunately the ‘masses’ decided that your last two were ‘misses’.”

“They were every bit as well written as my first two.”

“Yes,” the editor agreed, even though he himself had been more interested in baby bottles than books when the two bestsellers had been published.

“So it must be something else. Don’t you think, Cal?”

“People aren’t buying books; it’s an industry-wide problem,” he sighed.

“So you don’t think that the problem might be your image?” said the editor while admiring the yellow-orange glow of the tip of his Marlboro Light. A smokeless ashtray gently hummed in its open drawer and kept the haze to a manageable minimum.

“Frankly no,” he said flatly, in the way he sometimes used to make a point: a pose he used to convince that a concept was beneath him.

But of course he cared. And secretly he agreed with his editor. They both knew he was a fine writer, but he couldn’t compete with the new postmodernist darlings that were filling up the bestseller lists. The ones who threw all the book parties for industry insiders and the critics. The critics! My God, he couldn’t even imagine it!

“And what are you implying, that I’m old?” he said running his fingers through his graying hair. “Okay so I’m heading for 40 -- no biggie. Life begins at forty, isn’t that what they say?”

“If by ‘they’ you’re referring to my grandparents, you’re spot-on,” the editor said smiling bitter-sweetly. “Do you want to be categorized with them? Because I’ll tell you, if you don’t find a way to connect to the current pulse of things, within five years your career is going to be as dead as they are.”

When had the lit world become a personality contest? When had bookstore readings become a sort of cerebral talent show, a hokey 21st century vaudeville? And when had his editors become so damned young?

“If you cared about promoting my stuff as much as you do hanging with the latest wunderkind and altering yourself with the hot boutique drug, perhaps the sales would be more up to your expectations. How do you expect me to sell if I get no support?”

“You have the same support you’ve gotten from us all along. We haven’t reduced promotion for you by a dime. It’s you...you give us nothing to work with. It’s no longer enough to say ‘the latest by Caleb Duncan’ and expect the damn book to do back flips off the shelves.”

“Look at who’s reading today,” he went on, passionate, yet cool and unruffled. “Twentysomethings and younger. They’re clueless about Cal Duncan, -- you’re only a name they saw on their parents’ night tables when they were toddlers. They don’t want anything their parents like; they want their own stuff. They want their books, not their parents’. They’ve developed...oh, I don’t know, ‘taste’ for lack of a better term. They have pretentions and if you don’t appeal to them, you’re out of there. In two generations they’ve gone from magazines to zines to literary quarterlies to books, God bless ‘em.”

Duncan hated that his editor so easily verbalized what had been a racquetball of a worry bouncing and ricocheting off the interior walls of his guts for too long: he was becoming an anachronism, sliding inexorably into oblivion as surely as Quint in Jaws slid down the deck of the foundering boat until he could feel the fish’s tonsils tickling his...

Chomp!

“Look Cal,” said his editor solicitously. “I want you to do something for us.”

Duncan looked at him; the helplessness and doubt he felt etched his face with deep lines making him look like a runner who’d already decided to come in dead last, even before the starting gun had been fired.

“All right then, I want you to do something for yourself,” the editor said softening his tone as much as a man in his business could without being accused of the deadly sin of sentimentality.

He handed Duncan a business card that looked like a miniature Fillmore poster, with a bright tie-died pattern swirling around one of the sort of smiling simpering fools that Duncan called “nouveau gurus”. Duncan looked at the card: “Henry Blascomb, Planner of Events, Giver of Soirées, Supplier of the Unusual”.

“Now please excuse me,” said the editor as the herder arrived, again transporting another writer up to the desk by sheer will. “But be sure to give Henry a call, okay Cal?”

Duncan managed a pained nod as he left. He thought he felt a force keeping him clear of the receptionist and her charge as they passed and he smiled at the young…woman? What was she – sixteen? he wondered as the door closed behind him.

The receptionist had somehow already gotten back to her station, and was deeply involved in paperwork. He looked at the door. “Malcom Talbot Jr., Editor” said the Olde English brass letters, perfectly aligned with each other. One had to looked closely to see the slightly different burnish that told him the “Jr.” had been added later.

“His father was better,” he said aloud. “Much better.” If the human force field heard him she wasn’t letting on at all.

[e-mail jdfin2 at hotmail.com]

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