Writers write about their families. We invent, explain, recreate, escape them. Imagine how they might have been different. For me it starts by the shores of Lake Ontario when a young man left the family mill in Sandy Creek in upstate New York to go to the Civil War. He would be shot through the ankle, return home, run a piece of silk through the wound for a year to keep it from closing on the inside, and mill the rest of a long life. His son, my grandfather, moved to New York City, became a military surgeon, lost a finger in the First World War, commanded a National Guard regiment between the wars, was Divisional Surgeon of the 27th Division, served in the Second World War, and sent two sons to the Second World War. One was missing in action, and the other, a tank commander, killed himself five years after. The missing son had been wounded in four places, most severely in the foot, and taken prisoner. He returned from Germany weighing 98 pounds, married, sculpted, taught art, vehemently discouraged his sons from the Vietnam War, and now lives in North Carolina.
I was born into a family with its tradition and tragedy. War hung like fate over the family. It wasn’t talked about; it wasn’t expected. Uncle Mason, it was said, “died of a broken heart.” The boot Moreau Salisbury wore at Antietam was on a bookcase in the house in Scarsdale with a pencil sticking through the hole a rebel minnié ball made. Grandpa had a box of medals and grandchildren were allowed to play with them. I asked Grandpa why he was so free with them. He said only one mattered. The Purple Heart.
War was there. It was respected.
War wasn’t all that mattered. My father was an artist, and though he wasn’t likely to make a dime with his Picassoesque canvasses and charming bird sculptures, art was respected. It was OK to pursue an artistic chimera. My mother, a haughty Virginian and very attractive woman, also respected art, but would have preferred it to be more remunerative.
We lived on the north shore of Long Island, Scott Fitzgerald country with its nervous mix of old and new money, mansions, sailboats, snobbery. My father taught at a private school in Oyster Bay. In seventh grade we moved to Huntington, West Egg to Oyster Bay’s East Egg, and I moved from East Woods Country Day to Toaz Junior High School – from talk of debutante parties and prep schools to falsies, switch blades and bowling. This experiment in democracy lasted two years when my burgeoning Long Island accent got me sent off to the Hun School in Princeton, where my father had gone after his family lost most of their money in the Crash. It wasn’t posh and the early 1960s were a tight-assed, self-loathing time when I didn’t belong in any of the words I’d seen. I wasn’t alone in that feeling. The early sixties: “One world dead, another powerless to be born,” as Matthew Arnold said.
A new world was born on a Friday in Dallas and when four young Englishmen landed at Idlewild Airport a few months later. Everything changed if you were sixteen. You could feel it. Prayers were going to be answered. I remember lying in my room that spring at Hun so late I could listen to the radio and hearing Bobalu and the All Nite Satellite playing oldies and Beatles and knowing, just knowing, this competitive, buttoned-down, all-boys purgatory was ending. Music changed, hair changed – you didn’t have to look like Elvis to attract women. Charisma was going another way. Grow your hair, listen to the Beatles, Motown, read Naked Lunch. Then drugs.
I didn’t mess around with college. I went to New College, now New College of Florida, an experiment in the sunny backwater of Sarasota (after the circus, New College – for the locals, the deluge) with virtually no rules, requirements or restraint. It was sex, narcissism, drugs, self-destruction, smart women, enough nerdy guys to guarantee face time for non-nerds, a marvelous sense the rest of the universe sucked – that private island Janet Leigh seeks in Psycho. The 1960s. It was fun. It was new. It hadn’t become a cliché or life style. It wasn’t on television. New College didn’t get political, to the extent it ever did, until after I left.
The real world was out there too. I managed to get kicked out for anti-social behavior, which took some doing, and had a draft physical at the Coral Gables Induction Center in March, 1968. I passed and the president of the college took me back. I got close to the abyss – the family abyss – and backed off. I was scared shitless.
When I graduated in 1969, I taught third grade in the Bronx for a draft deferment. I felt I owed the country something, but not my skin. I got an education. Fancying myself verbally nimble, having survived prep school, a man for all situations, I thought I was ready. I wasn’t. I was overwhelmed by 33 of the most energetic, imaginative, chaotic, verbally empowered, needy, brilliant, eight and nine year-olds ever created. I made it through a year, was probably the worst elementary school teacher in the history of New York City, but I got an education. I never looked at black people, the inner city, or America the same way. I went through the looking glass. It’s not fair. It has beauty.
The day after school ended in June, 1970, I started writing a novel. If you had told me I wouldn’t get a book published for 19 years, I would have laughed and done it anyway. My life changed in 1965 when I read The Great Gatsby. I never wanted to do anything but write that book, or a book that encapsulated my feelings about me, my world, and America, like Fitzgerald. Gatsby’s not the greatest American novel, or greatest twentieth century American novel. It’s just my novel. The only thing I like less than talking about Gatsby to people who don’t like it, is talking to people who do. My feelings are religious.
I once went through a book-signing line twice to look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s granddaughter and say her grandfather ruined my life. Eleanor Lanahan was amused. Of course her grandfather didn’t ruin my life, he saved it. I needed saving. I am one of those people who need to do something they think essential – not saving the world, not making money, not screwing every woman (not any more). I was too intense, self-conscious, self-destructive, hurried, scared. I needed a grail. An art, craft, something to work at your whole life to seduce yourself, impress the world, forget the world - make a world, be sole proprietor, find that private island. The novel.
The novel is no longer the main event under the cultural bigtop. Like baseball, God, New York City, it doesn’t go away, it just reappears in less attractive form. The novel no longer has the unquestioned preeminence it had in 1851, 1925, 1955. We’ve had modernist fragmentation and deconstructed-post modern-Europhallobullshitocentric hierarchy. I’m too old for ideology. I’m too old for other people’s ideas. I’m not too old for art.