by Peter Byrne
(Swans - December 15, 2008) I had a dream -- well all right, a nightmare. I was sitting in my local coffee spot consoling myself. Here I was at the bottom end of small-town Europe, but the coffee was a world-beater. I pushed aside the Italian dailies and my empty cappuccino cup. Exceptionally I called for a quick espresso on top of it. I'd need an extra shot of courage. Swans' writers had finally caught up with me.
R. Scott Porter turned up first. It was unnerving. I couldn't imagine him out of California. He looked jumpy over here among the desperate hordes. I assured him there was nothing to worry about for the moment. No one would rush his gated paradise. The townspeople had only one thought in the forenoon: Getting home for a big mid-day meal and the afternoon sleep. Pacific Coast cooking and New World wine figured on their menu just above the bubonic plague. America was safe from invasion.
Louis Proyect replaced him in the accusatory chair. I swiveled my head in guilt. Would this dialectician guess that I'd nodded through the stretches of the Unrepentant Marxist blog when he detailed the 1970s' infighting in the Socialist Workers Party? Would he declare napping to be postmodern? Apparently not, because today he wore his genre-fiction and comic-book hat. While he mused over Patricia Highsmith's influence on Harvey Pekar, I wedged in one question. Why did the Unrepentant's stories always start bad-bad and end with the cavalry arriving in workers' caps that nobody wears any more? I assured him I used to sit by Karl Marx's grave in Highgate Cemetery and eat peanuts. But he wasn't impressed. Nervous, maybe about where I threw the shells, he asked me how to get to Uncle Gramsci's house. I told him the only way was Palmiro Togliatti Avenue.
Guido Monte materialized in a rainbow puff of smoke. His pockets were stuffed with immortal quotes. I knew he would say, "Peace," but in what language? With all his erudition, he'd never learnt that multilingualism was passive aggression. I asked him what was so peaceful about talking to me in Sanskrit. We locked horns over a couple of English translations, but there was no overpowering him and finally I saw why. This guy was a Sicilian Prospero, and I peered hard to see the title of the big tome under his arm as he went off. Shakespeare told us about Prospero's book of magic. Guido's was a Norwegian dictionary.
Double take. Here was the earthbound Gilles d'Aymery! Had he come by kayak? No, Jan Baughman who was at his side must have coaxed him into some kind of ecological continent hop. He wore his Nader T-shirt. Jan wore one too. But Ralph had a broader face on hers. Nom de nom, I was in for an editorial grilling! They were rehearsing their good-cop-bad-cop routine. I'd seen others walk that plank. Riding high on the Swans' tide, they had suddenly gone over into non-person deep. But, I was wrong again. Gilles only wanted to talk about le foot, i.e., the soccer of his prodigal youth. As for Jan, she was on vacation, and doodled a cartoon face of Nancy Pelosi, putting the dollar signs back where the surgeon had taken the lines out. Off they went, planning the 2012 campaign, with Matt Gonzalez's uncombed locks swaying on the back of both their shirts.
I couldn't believe my eyes. Here was Martin Murie actually under a roof, no wide-open spaces around him, not a note of Home on the Range to be heard. Looking for wild life, he'd come over through Naples. I explained, shedding a tear, that those critters in the mountains of garbage were the last we had to offer. Then I put on my recycler's face and pointed, upbeat, to the no-smoking sign, and not to the host at the espresso machine with a Tuscan cigar in his mouth. Hunting? I told Martin that shooting was practically non existent here in the Bel Paese. Anything that moved in our timid wilds had been gunned down and stewed ages ago. The Roman Empire, not the smiling waiter, had done the deforesting. Martin was not discouraged, urged me to militancy, and strode off, his beard flying in the sirocco, to do some bird watching.
You would think that Michael Doliner was easy to handle. Didn't he float a couple of inches off the ground on his way to the library? With a name like his, he should have looked like Sterling Hayden, and been tall and chary of words. No way. Straight off he twirled his toga and started his Socrates impersonation. I'd been through all this before. Faced with the gadfly you can swat him, which is unfriendly. Or you can play the dunce who is always set up for a fall in those dialogues. There's only one way to win: Don't dialogue. You just agree with everything he says. How do you agree with a question? You say, like a politician, "That's a very good question." He stands there with his mouth open waiting to chomp your answer, and you don't give him one. You say, like a grinning guru, "That's something to think about." Michael looked disappointed and asked about the bus to Athens.
Next came a flash. Porca miseria, paparazzi! A short creature with a Leicca where his head should be asked in a Chicago accent, "What's a matter, 'you no like-a?'" It was Art Shay with used puns tucked in all around his hat band. Finally my chance had come to back the chirpy maestro into a corner. "That time back in the Windy, when you shot the series on Clarence Darrow. Did he really tell you he'd had William Jennings Bryan's mistress in a wheelbarrow the night before?" "Partner, your memory's slipping, Clary Dee said he had her and her sister, the one with frizzy hair. Back in Deerfield, I've got a picture of her that I'll send you once I sort out my studio." "You'd swear to those facts, Art?" "Pourquoi pas? I remember the day well. I'd just got back from Springfield where Life sent me to get some shots of Abe Lincoln playing croquet. That guy had one presidential wrist movement, and always the gentleman. He'd yell, 'Fore' like Jimmy Durante."
Then the game-changer popped in. I mean the one who made it all fiction. No one could actually be named Raju Peddada.. I'd assumed he was an item on a menu or a figment of exuberant Porkapolis word-Shay that would evaporate when you separated him into syllables. Not so. He sat down before me now and raised a designer's fine hand for the waiter. This guy had been around. My doubts about his identity folded when I saw that rectangular shape in his throat. This was the writer who had swallowed Roget's Thesaurus and would cough it up in spurts as we reached for our Webster's. I was going to kid him about writing with a t-square and a view-finder. But I could see he was fitting me into a travel article about Italy and didn't interrupt.
Next up had blood on the tip of his goatee. I saw the fountain pen in his holster and knew it was Charles Marowitz. This Playboy had pummeled the Western World, and I stole a quick glance at his biceps, no disrespect intended. I was ready to throw up my hands in surrender and join the long line of the stretched-out and squelched. This was Encore's enforcer who had struck terror into London's West End and left Edinburgh Festival thespians mourning their lisping dead. Hatchet man for The Village Voice and even pulling off hits in The New York Times, his assassin's career stopped only at the wide Pacific. He settled theatrical scores from The Los Angeles Herald Examiner like any Mafia boss does from a prison cell. Then to round things off he rubbed out The Herald. I was too scared to put my question: Wasn't he stacking the deck by writing plays, directing them, and then doing the drama critic?
Who are you? Jack the Giant Killer? "No, I'm Michael Barker," the man said in pure Strine, testing his slingshot. I should have known. That was his file cabinet behind him on wheels. Now he was riled, "And I can prove it too." "Prove what?" "Anything. I can prove anything," said the muckraker extraordinaire, "You want the references?" I'd already been dazed with his footnotes stretching to infinity in a couple of juggernaut articles. I wasn't up to wrestling with more Goliaths. "Easy does it, Mike. No credentials necessary. At Swans we all trust each other, except in year-end round-ups or when a buddy disagrees with us. Let me ask you something. When you were a kid, did the bigger boys slap you around?" He didn't answer but made an effort to stand tall though he sat in a chair. I gave him my hypocrite smile before going on. "Down there, you know, down under, do you people ever attack the little guy?" Well, he clearly had enough of this little guy, and I watched his stiff back as he wheeled away his files that seemed to glow with revelations to come.
I could see more of them out there. Faces as serious as winter, faces utopian naïf, oldsters with a chip on both shoulders, bloggers with eyes deformed by their screens, one-issue saviors looking for a cross, and in the air, over all, a light sprinkling of the salt of the earth. There was Marie Rennard with her spyglass, seeking the sea. The ineffables joies domestiques must have spooked her. Hark! Wasn't that Isidor Saslav humming a 19th century orchestral ditty deep in the heart of Texas? But lo and behold! The Serb professors were coming. I slid out the back door and took a rain check on the Balkan Wars. Chicagoan or not, I'd have a siesta this afternoon, a dreamless one.
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