With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I need to cut more pages from my upcoming book, so I’m trying to keep in mind William Faulkner’s advice to writers: “You must kill all your darlings.” No more procrastinating over whether a particular Notebook entry deserves a berth or needs to walk the plank. It’s nothing personal, I tell a comely paragraph (110 words, perfect posture, not an ounce of fat) as I grab it by the collar and give a little push. You wanted to live forever, I say. Of course you did. Deathless prose, et cetera. Soon you’ll be a drop in the ocean of God’s love. Don’t ask if it’s dark. Don’t worry that it’s cold.
Today is the forty-eighth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a dark day in U.S. history and a turning point in my life. I know now that our country lost its innocence long before the death of our thirty-fifth president, who was hardly an innocent himself. Yes, not even John F. Kennedy was John F. Kennedy. Still, I was only eighteen when the president was killed, and, though I was no radical, the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone was about as credible to me as George W. Bush’s assertion, decades later, that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. My naive faith in my government was shattered. Soon I began to question everything from the war in Vietnam to our numerous alliances with tyrants and torturers to our own relentless buildup of weapons of mass destruction. Everything.
My wife, Norma, leaves for Florida tomorrow to spend Thanksgiving weekend with her family. Since our regular house sitter is out of town, I’ll be staying at home with our two cats, Franny and Zooey. I’ll miss Norma, but I won’t miss hearing her relatives pillory Barack Obama as a socialist intent on dismantling capitalism (if only) or a closet Muslim with a bogus birth certificate. Impassioned political debate is a beautiful thing in a democracy; at a family gathering, I’m not so sure. Fortunately Franny and Zooey’s political beliefs line up nearly perfectly with mine, although they may be a little more patient than I am with that cool cat in the White House, and a little to the left of me on animal rights, especially their right to always get their way.
At a friend’s party I talked with a woman whose grandparents, like mine, had emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in the early 1900s. “Isn’t it amazing,” she asked, “that we’re only two generations off the boat?” She made a gesture that took in our friend’s lovely garden, his modest but artfully furnished home, the delicious food. “Our grandparents came here in steerage,” she went on. “Wouldn’t they be astonished by all this?” No question about it: My father’s parents, fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms, arrived in New York as impoverished teenagers and, unable to read or write English, struggled for decades to make a life for themselves. My mother’s parents wound their way to Chattanooga, Tennessee, only to be driven out by the Ku Klux Klan, which reviled Jewish shopkeepers as much as it did their African American customers. And here I am, the Jewish editor of a magazine published in the South, free to print whatever I please, no crosses burning on the lawn, no thugs breaking down the door, no one calling me a goddamned Jew, at least not to my face.
When I was growing up we didn’t celebrate Christmas: no tree, no gifts, no tall tales about a mythic Santa. (I was, however, encouraged to believe in an Old Testament God with manic-depressive tendencies and a narcissistic personality disorder the size of Alaska. Like Santa, he had a white beard.) These days I’m a nonobservant Jew who reads the words of Buddha, has a picture of a Hindu guru on his wall, and prays to Jesus. This makes the holiday season a little complicated for me.
It’s a measure of how much the South has changed that a politically progressive magazine like The Sun has flourished here. Still, The Sun’s Southern roots don’t go very deep. Maybe that’s because I’m a displaced Yankee who’s lived in North Carolina for forty years but wanders the streets of New York City in his dreams. (If I live here for the rest of my life, I still won’t be a Southerner; for that, the South has to live in your blood and in your bones.) So what do I call home? The house I share with my wife and our cats — is it my home? Is the woman I adore with my clinging, possessive kind of love my home? This sixty-six-year-old body with two arms, two legs, and all the other standard equipment but, alas, no extended warranty — is it my home? How about the words I’ve published, thousands upon thousands of them marching off to do battle with falsehood and injustice, words as pointed as the tip of a spear and polished until they shine — are these words my home?
I’ve set aside working on my book to focus on the next issue of The Sun. The issue comes first — always. The issue trumps writing in the morning and running in the morning and sleeping in in the morning, because I have to be back in my body when the alarm goes off at 4:45 AM, not stranded on the tarmac in another flying dream gone awry. The issue trumps sit-ups and push-ups, money and no money, bouts of depression and fears of a double-dip recession. The issue trumps lunch with friends and dinner with Norma and late-night conversations with dead ancestors whose calls I’d otherwise take, even though the signal is so weak I can barely make out what they’re complaining about.