Few people are aware of the fact that Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison were chums. This unlikely twosome inhabited my imagination in a series of vignettes I channeled a “few years ago” (going on ten, I think), two of which I took the trouble to write. I love these projected confabulations but some readers, over the years, have been offended by them. Ah! What doesn’t offend them, if the conditions are even only slightly right…?
1. IF I DEALT IN CANDLES: THE LOST MASTERPIECE OF RALPH ELLISON
Constance thanked Wally profusely for his helpful critique and slipped the manuscript into her purse while Fan, with her gloved hand on Wally’s throbbing mitt, beamed at him and they all ordered drinks and that was the last anyone ever heard of it.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
It had been days already and he couldn’t get that line out of his head. Bald frigging sissy. Bald frigging wig-wearing pansy son of a bitch. Couldn’t sleep because of it. Heart racing. Well, that and Fan’s snoring. It’s not marriage that kills the marital romance but the fartsoaked, snorehaunted warmth of the marriage bed. Poor Fan: the mottled brown back she smuggles into sleep in her pyjamas. Guilt from thinking this triggered a wave of loving pity and genuine gratitude like an endorphin rush after a hammer blow to an extremity and he thought, with a nod and the tenderest smile: partners for life, Fanny.
She always slept so deep and hard he could pretty much do whatever he wanted on his side of the bed without waking her. There he lay with his bedcovers thrown back and his pyjama bottoms off and his big fat jimmy in his hand while birdsong, streetsong, the singing of the water in the pipes as the neighbors performed their ablutions heralded another pinkeyed Paris dawn. Wally swears you can hear the French dookie crashing against the s-curves in the pipes on the way down but Fan just laughs at him. Like meteorites. Like fiery meteorites. His vivid imagination.
-This vivid imagination paid for that dress, didn’t it?
-Now don’t you start!
-I’m just saying, Fan. I’m just saying.
He still relishes the fact that it’s no longer Fanny who brings in all the money.
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
He finally gets his very own Paris Review interview and they send Tinkerbell and Butterfly McQueen to do the job. Ain’t that something.You know how lethal a white sissy and a faghag Negress can be together, each a canny burlesque of the other… inside jokes and furtive looks and an infallible knowledge of absolutely everything, especially, of course, manner of dress and style of speech. Condescended to by a couple of hincty short-story writers for godsake. Ain’t that rich. For this I win the National Book Award? Vilma and her conked hair and that keloid on her right biceps and she’s trying to get saditty on him.
He had his eelhead jimmy in his hand and Connie was crawling across the hotel’s Persian carpet towards him on her white satin belly just begging for it. There goes that vivid imagination of yours again, Waldo. The most important Negro-American writer on earth… shove this in that little pink mouth of yours, gal… winner of the National Book Award… he couldn’t believe that either Saul or himself had ever been so young or on intimate terms as to competitively compare erections. It was a close race but his was bigger and so of course Bellow runs and gets a tape measure. Hoping he’ll triumph in girth. Then he theorizes with a straight face that the Negro penis isn’t rooted as deeply in the groin as the Caucasian organ and this explains the average extra inch or two. In other words the Negro prick is cheating. The Negro prick; the Hebrew schnozz; the Irish capacity for drink: the exemplary dimensions of the ethnic. Saul’s buzzword: exemplary.
The look on Chester’s face as they picked their table at the Café de la Mairie and Chester ordered in high school French and Wally opened his mouth and ordered in a nosy rich Boursault of a tone and switched to his professorial English for the duration of the interview… Chester’s look had been one of those well what do we have here looks and Wally immediately thought of Saul’s frigging Sam Johnson joke, of which he frigging never tires, apparently, and if Saul tells it one more time at a party in Wally’s presence Wally will break that schnozz of Saul’s for him. At the very least put it out of joint. Besides which he always gets it wrong: it’s not a talking dog it’s a dog walking on its hind legs. Is that erudition?
Saul would sit there with a book of ‘great’ quotations open right next to the typewriter and salt-and-pepper his manuscript with kultcha. Season it with what he called ‘smarts’. Wally has seen him do it. Saul would wink and say, Whaddya think, buddyboy, a Matthew Arnold or something from Suetonious? Or maybe let’s throw ’em a real curve ball and opt for a schmeck of Lao- Tze. Way back when when Saul was still in on the joke. They would argue well into the night, Wally and Saul, about teleological niceties such as the fate of consciousness after the fact of mortality and Saul could not abide Wally’s assertion that individual consciousness reverts to its place in the great Undifferentiated Essence upon the moment of death… he was adamant, vociferous, nearly hysterical in his condemnation of it and Wally finally twigged that Saul’s resistance to the concept was, at root, anti-integrationist.
Connie paging through the manuscript.
I’m fat, thinks Wally. Call me Wally, says Ralph. I sweat too much, I need to lose weight, I’m losing my hair. I hate this big round barrel-shaped Negro head of mine and I hate these black gums and ashen elbows. This mustache. I look like an usher at the Apollo. I look like a Gold Coast garbage man. Freddy Dupee with that lethal smirk of his going, it’s funny, but he only seems to bark at you and the garbage man. Nobody fears or respects me. I’m all curves and no angles. I look like the over-stuffed furniture in Connie’s grandmother’s parlor. No wonder she won’t screw me. Saul and his goddamned girlish waist. Fine, if you like runty.
Vilma winking at Alfred so subtly that Wally almost misses it and she asks him, smiling with parental tenderness, Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
-Call me Wally.
In the intro to the interview, in the penultimate sentence before the interview commences, this: “While Mr. Ellison speaks, he rarely pauses, and although the strain of organizing his thought is sometimes evident (emphasis Wally’s), his phraseology and the quiet, steady flow and development of ideas are overwhelming.”
Saul’s paging through Wally’s top secret manuscript, the follow-up to Invisible Man, kind of wincing and shaking his head and muttering to himself: damaging, very damaging. He tells Wally, Okay, fine, it shows a new sort of fluency for you, but fluency at what cost? This is very damaging to one’s reputation; they’ll massacre you if you’re crazy enough to publish it. Better to aim low and hit a bulls eye than aim at the stars and kill an albatross instead. Listen, don’t be sore. You wanted my honest opinion and now you have it. My suggestion would be to take this new found fluency and apply it to something a little closer to home. Your own people, for example. Don’t over-reach, Wally. What, this rich, vibrant diasporan culture you keep telling me about… this fertile vein of ore, as you once put it, has suddenly run out of stories?You’ve outgrown it? It ain’t worth mining any more? Dismissive gesture at the manuscript. Is that what this means?
Constance, Saul and Ralph standing at the corner where the eyepatched veteran sells roasted chestnuts from a rusty cart across from the Tuileries in full flower and throng. A warm but overcast day. Saul’s holding a helium-filled balloon and unties it and sucks the gas and does a few bars of What’ll I do? in a cartoon grasshopper croon and Connie laughs, thoroughly charmed. Ralph is fuming but he can’t show it and says, I say, old chap, you sound like one of Hadrian’s prize eunuchs!
All three traipse arm-in-arm across the Place Pigalle, gay talk and big smiles except Ralph’s smile, of course, which is faux as an undiscovered Lautrec, a wet forgery, not even a good one, twitching at the corners. He keeps having this vision of an open manhole appearing suddenly on Saul’s side of the sidewalk. Saul, wearing his hat at a rakish angle, is saying, out of the corner of his mouth and rather loudly, Be advised, young lady, that if you keep up with these enchanting ways of yours you run the severe risk of ending up in one of my novels. You’re not litigious, I hope. Constance blushing. Saul snaps his fingers. Say, that’s an exemplary title for something: The Litigious Sylph. Whaddya say, Waldo? We haven’t heard a peep outta you since the Tuileries…
Ralph and Saul in the alley behind the hotel.
-I saw her first!
-This isn’t the schoolyard, buddyboy. This is the jungle and in the jungle, as you oughta know by now, the king of beasts holds sway. Namely, moi.
-You only even came over in the first place because of those damned letters I was writing about her!
-Hindsight is 20/20, ain’t it?
Constance paging through the manuscript on the checkered tablecloth in an out-of-the-way bistro that Ralph discovered with Fanny last year and whereinto Saul is highly unlikely to stumble. Ralph’s palms are moist. Constance is radiant in a pink mohair sweater, matching beret, black satin slacks and patent leather mules. Wally inquired, both to quell his nerves and because he had a genuine interest in fashion, as to the shoe’s designer. Constance said she honestly couldn’t remember; Robbie had given them to her right before the divorce. Robbie would know, she said. He has a shoe fetish.
Ralph joked, “What do they know of mules who only mules know?”
Have the critics given you any constructive help in your writing?
Fanny croaks, “Baby?”
“Are you awake?”
“Was I snoring again?”
“No, baby. You weren’t snoring. You were talking in your sleep.”
“You sure were.”
She reaches for her glasses on the nightstand and rolls over to face him, blinking behind the lenses, face lined with the meaningless diagram of her recent dreams, monogrammed silk pyjama top buttoned to the neck. Smiling she says, “What did I say?”
“You sang Stardust.”
She slugs his shoulder affectionately. Wally’s hand is still throbbing… it’s killing him. His writing hand. It’s infected. It amazes him that Fan has yet to notice the four raw against-the-grain gouges in fat fester behind the knuckle rill.
The three of them emerge from the rear exit of Madame Tussuad’s, blinking into the midday sun, waiting under the awning, and Saul does one of his impromptu magic tricks, only instead of a quarter from behind Ralph’s ear he snatches a frigging cotton ball.
Connie must be, what, 34 or 35 and she looks it at certain angles and yet there remains a youthful glow to her, a creamy kind of pastry warmth and though she is not quite the sylph that Ralph first saw on C.L.R.’s arm in ’46 he remains terribly smitten. She looks up from the manuscript and studies his face as though mystified.
“And the title…”
“If I Dealt in Candles.”
“That’s right. It’s very pretty, Wally. Where is it from?”
“An old Yiddish proverb. If I dealt in candles, the sun wouldn’t set; if I dealt in shrouds, people would stop dying!”
She closes the manuscript and without taking her eyes off the title page she says, “It’s just so well-written, what I’ve read so far. It really is. But I…”
“I’m glad it pleases you. I thought…”
“Yes?” She seems to steel herself against the blunder she’s certain he’s about to make.
He takes a deep breath in a sort of now-or-never way and she beats him to it, interceding on behalf of their friendship. She says, pressing her palms flat on the paper, “It’s not my place to comment, Wally, and please don’t be sore, but, gee, isn’t it kind of, I don’t know, wrong for you to be writing about Shtetl Jews, no matter how beautiful the writing is, while your own people still strain against the bonds of slavery?”
“By adding this certain amount of beauty to the story of the Jews, aren’t you stealing the same amount from the story of your people, who can ill afford to have this beauty stolen from them?” She says, “Oh please, please don’t be sore about all this, what I’m saying, Wally, but I guess I’ve taken it upon myself to speak for your race in this matter because you’ve turned your back on them… with the blood of old Egypt in your veins you’d rather tell the story of Moses! With that gorgeous, wonderful, heart-breakingly loyal woman by your side all the years of a fruitful and intimate marriage you opt to pursue the fickle affections of a silly, inconsequential, self-absorbed white girl who couldn’t even manage to stay married to the father of her own poor mulatto child. Wally, Wally, what’s the matter with you? What are you doing to yourself? Are you sick in the heart? Tired of being the luckiest Negro on Earth?”
“Don’t get me wrong… as I said, gosh I’m impressed, Wally, I really am, it’s beautifully written… it proves that you’re more of an intellectual than even I or Richard or Saul ever took you for, though I’m sure Fanny wouldn’t be surprised at all… she’d read a few paragraphs and know it was you, although, ironically, and correct me if I’m wrong on this: she was never meant to see it. Was she? Was she, Wally? Is that what being intellectual is for, Wally… for fooling your own good wife? Is being intellectual, in the end… is it only good for writing clever books for fooling your people and your wife? Is there no higher end towards which to apply the magnificent mind in that little boy’s head of yours? That school boy head of yours with its silly school boy crush on a sad, tired female of your oppressor’s race?”
“I will always love you, Wally, honestly, although by the time I’ve said my piece I’m willing to bet your passion for me won’t exactly be blue ribbon material.” She laughs and digs her fingernails hard into the hand he reaches for her under the table with.
Wally had been so concerned about eluding Saul that he’d clean forgotten about eluding Fanny. In walked Fanny to find Wally and Constance in a cozy little corner of the out-of-the-way bistro that Wally and Fan had discovered together last year. They called it ‘Our Out of the Way Bistro.’ It was a common rendezvous point. Had Wally forgotten? Or was his subconscious the secret engineer of the entire scenario? He stood rubber-knee’d but steadied himself and fetched a chair for Fan from one of a dozen empty tables and said, with a smile that seemed to be little more than his mustache itself, Constance was just showing me a manuscript for a book she’s working on, Fan. He glanced down at Constance who glanced up at him and he addressed her,
“It really is marvelous, doll, but it needs work, as I say. I wouldn’t show it to anyone else until you’ve rectified, uh… a few of the particular points we discussed. I’d be happy to look it over again after you’ve… yes… worked on it a bit…”
Connie chained naked and writhing to a rusty bedspring in a vacant lot on the South Side of Chicago on an overcast day in Autumn as several dozen identical Bigger Thomases in tattered flesh-revealing piss-reek finery emerge in deprivation and hunger from various caves, warrens, gutters, cellars and trash heaps in the vicinity…
Wally holds his breath. He toe-tenses and… sees stars and… detects one of the semen arcs landing with a tap on the Herald Tribune far away atop the dresser. Where the other two squirts land he neither knows nor cares but in the tingle of post-ecstatic slump he envisions Alfred Chester in that ratty orange wig tilting back in his chair at the Café de la Mairie with his fingers intertwined on his chest and his lips moving in the deliverance of some grand theory or profound observation or other as though he’s the famous writer being interviewed for the Paris Review and Wally fantasizes standing up and hauling off and punching Chester so hard his head snaps back and the chair back cracks and a fusillade of flashbulbs going pop pop pop pop pop like Ernest Fucking Hemingway has just walked in the room.
2. ORGONE ENERGY
“And we are?” asks Saul, on the rising tune of the inveterate pedant.
“Visiting specialists from the Mayo Clinic,” drones Wally. He can’t be bothered to lift his eyes from Life, specifically Kim Novak. Luscious as platinum cantaloupes on the dark background of the flapping page. The odor of terror-intensified pigshit pulses through the car like an evil silk as Wally pumps the window crank without taking his eyes for a moment off his girl.
“Visiting specialists by the name of…?”
“Drs. Gus Guildencranz and Harold Rosenstern,” finally looking up, “but that’s where I think you’re going too far, old bean. If you don’t mind a little constructive criticism.”
Window sealed he can hear his stomach growling so he rolls it down again for the cover of the roar of the road. Just an inch. He’s starving but to ask Saul to stop for a bite anywhere along the next forty miles of U.S. Route 19 is to risk death or humiliation.
“This is a pilgrimage of sorts,” says Saul, lifting that chin. “And by the way, Wally, what’s the state of your Chaucer?”
I can’t get the line Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana out of my head.
Without waiting for a response, Saul launches into a few lines from the gap-toothed Wife of Bath’s prologue, Yiddish lilt intact, and Wally wants to guffaw but restricts himself to a smirk because it’s still rather early in the drive and this isn’t exactly the most propitious spot on the trip to be hailing a cab. But he can just see Saul assaying the arduous task of memorizing a little Olde English in preparation for the very conversation he was sure to initiate in order to feature it, rehearsing it out loud on the toilet and over breakfast and while packing his overnight bag with that pungent Italian aftershave and the Japanese fishgut rubbers Berryman mailed him for his 49th birthday.
I keep wanting to sing it Talleyrand.
The truck of pig thunders by again, a massive green Waukesha semi from the 1930s, pitching like a slave ship, left flank studded with flexing pink snouts, the smell in the wash in its wake instructive. Wally knows pigs as intelligent, sensual creatures, all too aware of their fated purpose. From the pig’s point of view, the totality of human culture is dedicated to the control, torture and consumption of pigs. Wally waits until Bellow competitively overtakes the truck again and he rolls down the window again and his hand is a dark glider, pushing the interstate wind. He’s sweating in his laughable smock (Bellow’s idea) and the wind that funnels down the sleeve is a numb tongue licking his armpit.
Makes him think of some good old days. Driving back in the back of the feed truck from a squirrel hunt with Tooty, say. Shoot enough squirrels and it starts to feel like you’re shooting squirrels; that is, that squirrels are being shot like bullets from the barrel of your squirrel gun. Tooty said so and it was true. You aim the barrel and the squirrel bounces against the fence or the tree trunk in a savory puff of smoke.
“To translate,” Saul adds, with a wink, “surely cock and cunt weren’t designed by the good Lord for the mundane purpose of distinguishing the sexes, or mere pissing, or the making of more pissers. Listen, along those lines, something’s been haunting me, and I’d like your esteemed gloss on it. I would appreciate a little sober reflection before you pontificate on the matter. How do you suppose a medieval cunt smelled?”
He tosses an unwrapped stick of Beeman’s. Flicks it. It bounces off Wally’s head and lands on the detritus between the two car seats, the crumpled mimeographs and candy-wrappers. Lots of candy wrappers, because sweetmeats and poontang are the Bellow Scylla and Charybdis: he’s always either skinny and in rut or chaste and chubby. Wally must admit he prefers this slower, rounder Bellow. Even in the ridiculous lab coat. Wally must also admit that the idea of visiting Wilhelm Reich in Lewisburg State Penitentiary may be just what he needs to kickstart his muse.
Come, Mr. Talleyrand.
Wally had been half-way through the writing of a novel about which he’d told not even Saul, the type of thing called Science Fiction, set three thousand years in the future, an end-of-the-world sort of scenario, the races of man all extinct but for one middle aged Negro intellectual and one young Scandinavian tourist girl (speaking not a word of English) who is first spotted by the Negro on the observation deck of the Statue of Liberty, to which they’ve both climbed to get a view of post-apocalypse Manhattan. Anyway, he’d gotten that far, one hundred and forty pages, and then froze, but froze in the dynamic paralysis of a tightrope walker who’s made the mistake of looking down. Simply stopping won’t save you.
“He possessed the affable good looks of the man who accepts that he is not handsome, nor need he be, winning from surprisingly attractive women of his caste and color, once every blue moon, that fair genus of sympathy that is not altogether distinguishable from love.”
He’d been rewriting that sentence for a week, stymied as to how to go on, when Bellow rang. And now they’re on the way to pay a visit to cosmic sex-theorist Dr. Wilhelm Reich, an involuntary guest of the Feds these days for shipping an Orgone Box (a telephone-booth-sized chamber specially designed to accumulate cosmic radiation while an occupant masturbates in it) across state lines. The guy is the Wernher Von Braun of mental sex hygiene and he’s locked up in the joint with bootleggers, killers, white slavers, pansies, mulattoes and tax shirks. Bellow downshifts and says something about the erect penis being a rigid, all-purpose umbilicus and Wally responds rather plaintively:
“But don’t you see… sex is the profoundest subject on Earth… until one speaks of it? Isn’t it rather like one of those bewitching monsters that dwell at the bottom of the sea? Miles and miles down? More beautiful than anything encountered on the surface? Shining like dreams in the cold, deep dark of an eternal night? But when one makes the fatal mistake of bringing one up into the warm light of day… a few ounces of dead gray sludge on the hand is all one is left with.”
“I like that metaphor, kiddo. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I admire it. Would you mind, terribly, if I took the liberty of extending it for your edification?”
“Not at all, old bean.”
“Well, the wondrous creatures of which you speak are, in point of fact, sometimes brought to the earth’s surface for close examination by the great scientists. They’re brought to the surface in specially-pressurized containers in which they survive the journey quite wonderfully intact. I propose that the mysteries of sex can likewise handle the transition from the murky depths of man’s subconscious to the sunlight of rational analysis if the language dealing of it is a special container, so to speak. A special container, designed for the purpose. This is where the topnotch novelist, with a philosophical inclination and unequaled experience in the field, not dissimilar to our best scientists, mapping the unknown, enters the picture.”
“And you’re working on something…”
“It is going to be earthshaking.”
“And this pilgrimage to Herr Doktor Reich…”
“Research. This book will be like no other book I’ve written, Wally, or that anyone has written, for that matter, and it is therefore incumbent upon me to get this thing just right. There is precious little room for error in this undertaking. Quite frankly, there’ll be none. I’m not an impressionist like you, buddy boy, which is not to say that impressionism doesn’t have its place, of course it does, there are people out there who light their lamps with it, but I’m dealing in high explosives here. As I see it, I’ll either end up blowing the lid off of two millennia of Western man’s psychosexual oppression, from which every modern evil springs… famine, war, social injustice, racial hatred… and, thereafter, be feted as a hero on a par with a Paul Revere or a Martin Luther, or…”
“Or you’ll end up with your ass in a sling and a baked apple in your mouth.”
“Far from kosher.”
“You know what I always say.”
Lining the left and right of the modern highway run buffers of bristling greenery behind which a highway-bisected community of American citizens united in the near-unanimity of their conception of Wally as a sort of trick gorilla bustles. Or so Wally sees it. They are cloving hams and clipping coupons and sluicing driveways and pruning forsythia and tweezing chin-hairs and house-breaking puppies and listening to a county-wide Little League tournament on the radio. And if Wally by some deranged caprice were to persuade Saul to drive to the patchbald diagrammatic field where the Bluejays were besting the Hickories and were then to walk as in a dream towards the pitcher’s mound amidst all those uniformed, apple-cheeked, freckle-nosed Buds and Scottys, the radio announcer would’ve whooped and said There’s a nigger on the field, ladies and gentlemen, a mustached nigger on the field in a medical smock! Good Lord and Hallelujah I have truly seen it all!
Saul sees something similar.