by Michael Coffey
It was a terrible Saturday, the kind of Saturday you have after a Friday night spent explaining to your third wife why you had a hooker in your house and how the condom wrapper she spotted under the couch was not, after all, necessary. I promised said wife I would get some help. To mark my sincerity, I suggested we all go to a bookstore—wife, son, me. I’d start there. This earned her gruff consent.
I considered changing everything about the way I read, but my remorse ran deeper. I considered changing everything about the way I lived, loved, breathed, and ate as well. I was in that not-smoking-not-drinking-resume-going-to-Mass place, maybe learn-a-foreign-language-and-spend-a-decade-reading-Dickens place. I would live forever in family. I was in the poorhouse of want and shame, which dogs often call home. It’s where I belonged.
In the poetry section, I picked up an anthology edited by Robert Bly—he couldn’t have been more disdainful of the kind of work I had loved; I’d always returned the favor. He wanted “story,” “emotion,” “power,” and “love.” He wanted language treated as sacred, not something to be torn, shorn, and laid naked. That’s it! That’s what I wanted to hear now. Next to Bly was an old favorite—Charles Bernstein, founding Language poet, colleague, friend. On the back of his book, this: “Bernstein’s allegiance has not been to any one kind of poetry, but to an ‘artificed’ writing that refused simple absorption into the society around it.” Why would I be interested in that? Refusing society? What had that done for me? What was I doing? I took the Bly and dropped Charles back in his slot.
I moved to the self-help section. I stood there in the brightly lit area (it seemed more brightly lit than the poetry section—is that possible?). I found the adoption books, most of them on how to adopt. Or how to search. Being adopted was the source of my problems, I’d grimly announced. My wife approved this line of inquiry. I was on it.
I spotted Betty Jean Lifton’s spread of titles on the adoption experience. I opened one of them and found a brief section headed “Literature” toward the back. It dealt solely with the writer Harold Brodkey—“an adoptee who is not involved in the adoption movement.” Adoption movement? I decided to leave that part for another time.
Lifton offered up Brodkey as a victim of what she called the adoption syndrome, and his prose as symptomatic of an adoptee’s unwhole self. Brodkey had told her that he “used adoption as a form of freedom—it separates you from the norm.”
“Brodkey is all adoptees writ large,” she concluded. Adoption, freedom, writing. I leafed inside for more:
Orphans—Oedipus, Moses, Sargon, Romulus, Remus, and Superman … pretended to be real persons in everyday relationships and then disappeared on secret exploits that they shared with no one…
Adoptees, then, live with a dual sense of reality, wanted and unwanted, superchild and monsterchild, immortal and mortal… One part chosen, the other abandoned.
And left on the carpet.
Adoptee fantasies are an attempt to repair one’s broken narrative, to dream it along. They enable the child to stay magically connected with the lost birth mother.
Her name was Cinnamon, she said.
I underlined the words “broken narrative” so hard I tore through the page: everything I did not know captured in two words—and now it’s the only thing I know.
I took the Lifton book, returned the Bly to his slot, picked up the Bernstein again, put it back again, and read in a chair till the rest of the family had made their choices. I had made mine: Lifton, with a promise to find Brodkey.
“An accidental glory.” These three words end the first thing I ever read by Harold Brodkey, a story of his called “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” long ago. The story appeared in an issue of the New American Review, edited by Ted Solotaroff. “Then” was around 1979 or ’80, after NAR had become defunct, and its slim teal-colored volumes, each bound like a mass-market paperback, could be found in used-book bins all over the city. They made for bargain reading. I was young and new to New York City and its literary culture. I was making $117 a week as a copy editor for the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers on East Forty-seventh Street.
By the time I arrived at these three words—sitting alone in my fourth-floor walkup on Eighty-first Street—I was in tears, breathing hard. That’s what I remembered of Harold Brodkey.
“His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft” is about one thing—a son being carried by a father, into and out of sunlight. That’s it. In about seven thousand words, you go from “I am being lifted into the air” to the ending, where the sunlight is so bright in the child’s eyes that he turns his head inward, toward the heat of his father’s neck, and then notices his father’s face, “unprotected from the luminousness all around us … caught in that light. In an accidental glory.”
That passed for love, in Brodkey. It passed for love with me—a tableau, of some relation, in a wider, alien luminousness, where nothing is fated, nothing is assured; where everything’s an accident, but nonetheless glorious.
I was particularly vulnerable to that kind of thing at that time: My little boy, from my first marriage, not yet two years old, and his mother, after trying to live with me, had decamped for Indiana, where she was from and where we had met three years earlier. Together she and I had endured a romantic collision at the end of my senior year of college, gotten married at an outdoor hippie/Chicano civil ceremony that August, complete with roasted pig, Mexican rock band (“Los Impactos”), and plenty of psilocybin; we’d braved a year in Leeds, England, as I worked toward a master’s degree; survived my parents’ disapproval of our marriage and then enjoyed their blessing when my son was born; but we couldn’t handle eighteen months of being poor and unaccomplished and kid burdened, and we came apart. Though one part of me was giddy with the freedom of being single again and not strapped by nightly, suffocating family affairs and grinding domestic chaos, I missed my little boy.
I might have seen Brodkey not long after. I was sitting in my local Irish bar, where I stretched out five dollars nearly every night into eight or nine mugs of draft beer with a dollar’s tip, mourning my losses by forgetting them. A man wearing the face I’d seen pictured in a copy of Esquire, with the long, solid, beveled head and accusing eyes, came through the door, his cashmere coat swinging from his broad shoulders like the cape of a warrior, a garment he seemed to expect someone would relieve him of, so that then he could fire off a few quick combinations like a fighter, or, presto, produce a handkerchief from a sleeve and release a dove. An elegant woman with a cap of short silvery hair followed in his wake, looking bemused. She did not remove his coat and they did not stay for a drink, as I had hoped. Harold bulled his way to the bar and asked—a bit imperiously of Leo the barman, I thought—directions to some place he was clearly not in. Snow melted and winked out on the wool of his topcoat. I thought of saying something about his story or something clever in the literary-gossip category—“What’s up with Joseph Heller? I read it. Nothinghappened!”—but I was in my cups, so I swallowed it. Through the bar’s large window I could see the two of them on Second Avenue, looking north. Harold donned a hat I had not seen— a fedora; he snapped the brim as if setting a course, put his arm around his lady, and together they sailed forth.
That was the last I thought of Harold Brodkey for the next sixteen or seventeen years, during which time I built a career in publishing, wrote a few books, married again, and then again; cycled out of New York for brief stints—for a small literary press in Dutchess County, for the editorship of a magazine about small literary presses, in Connecticut—and generally filled my reading with writers who were not Harold Brodkey. I could hardly be faulted for abandoning Harold: During this time, if he was known at all, it was for notpublishing. Something about a long-promised novel, announced more than once in publisher catalogs, that had continually failed to appear, its non-existence moving from house to house, looking for a home that would have it, for a house that would wait for its author to finish, pronounce it done. When it did come, the reviews were dismissive: The Runaway Soul. I did not read it.
Could I be faulted for abandoning my young son? He was now a teenager; he lived in Indiana. He had two younger half brothers. I saw them all at his mother’s funeral—my first wife’s funeral. She died brutally of hypothermia, alone, drunk, in a cold January rain. Could I be faulted for having moved on, to other marriages, now my third, with a new son? These questions hadn’t vexed me much, but they would. And they turned me back to Harold Brodkey—with an assist from that small tear of condom-wrapper foil, detritus from a drunken night alone in the city when the family was away.
Over the years I had maintained a respect for the Brodkey style that I remembered from the father-son story, not to mention a notion of literary celebrity from that sighting in the bar, even if I’d only imagined it. I knew there weren’t other stylists working like that, endlessly circling a subject or a feeling, spending an entire story on one small shaft of sunlight and those it falls upon, pushing people, the same people, in and out of it, and writing about it. There was a rawness of emotion in what I sensed in his work: not coarse, like Harry Crews or Charles Bukowski, but deeply nuanced, like very complicated surgery into emotion’s entrails—Henry James-like, but speedy, neurotic, modern. I was wary of it. Still, I was too engaged, during those years, in other projects of reading and coping and not coping, to follow what Brodkey was (not) up to. Then that night and the penitential bookstore visit that followed.
I proceeded to read all of Brodkey—the two slim volumes of stories; the huge story collection (Stories in an Almost Classical Mode); the novel The Runaway Soul; the Venice novel, Profane Friendship; the outtakes from PF (My Venice); the nonfiction essays and reviews, Sea Battles on Dry Land; and the final statement about his coming to his death by AIDS, This Wild Darkness—and I decided I had no sympathy for him. Inside the front cover of one of his books, I scribbled, “HB: So incapable of forgiveness himself that his principle project is to so irk the reader as to make the reader unforgiving too. Now we’re all guilty.”
Brodkey was famously prickly, by most accounts vain and preening. He was a braggart in his books—about his genius, his prick, his luck “in sex, in looks”—and he comes off as simply asinine. He thought he was original and brave and at the end declared himself “tired of defending my work.” Tired he may have been, but there is no defending the author of so many confused, contradictory, obnoxious, ill-kempt, and self-important paragraphs that tumor his work. Like this, from Runaway Soul:
The thing about the absolute and the artists who made art out of it is that the only structure they have which generates emotion is the structure of the awesomeness of the absolute and then the curiously moving pain and comedy of the mind wandering as it inevitably does in real moments, in the immensities of the real; and I prefer the structures of actual emotion and the reality of moments.
It’s a shame that Brodkey’s excesses were not reined in, because what he was after—“making conscious language … deal with wild variability … by telling a story in reference to real time”—is a laudable project, one pursued by only a few major practitioners—Proust, Stein, Kerouac. And it led to some remarkable literary feats—his infamous story “Innocence,” about bringing a woman to her first orgasm—a thirty-two-page story, fifteen thousand words, some of them laughable, some of them memorable (“To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die”), full of Brodkey’s obnoxious self-regard, but also a rare ride along, in prose, with someone thinking and feeling and, in this case, fucking. True, it was sensationalist, but in a way it was the perfect Brodkey story arc—a steady state of want/desire accompanied by physicality and talk ending in a climax.
I met Brodkey once, and it was perhaps the boldest thing I have ever done, and one that I may have yet to answer for in some literary afterlife—a wild aesthetic gambit born of desperation. I knew from Lifton, whom I began to see as a therapist, that Brodkey was sick, and then I knew from The New Yorker(“I have AIDS. I am surprised that I do.”) what he was sick from. I knew from Lifton where he lived, and who his wife was. I was reading all his work, I had many questions, complaints, and compliments to offer, and I decided to call Ellen Schwamm Brodkey, Harold’s wife. She answered the phone. Her voice was heavy, as if imitating a man’s. If it was playful, it was play with an edge. “Hel-lo—o-o,” she said, and dragged it out, near peevish, a note or two—as if to say, “Make this good. Or good-bye.”
I said who I was and what I wanted—to talk to her husband about his writing and adoption; that I was adopted—she cut me off with some guttural sound. I assumed it was with purpose. I went silent. She was silent. Then I heard a croaky “What is it?” It was Harold. His syllables crumbled into air like a day-old baguette. Wispy. Again I said who I was and what I wanted; I was an admirer of his work and hoped to talk to him about his writing and—he cut me off, but this was for a cough, a long cough that was going to cost him dearly in precious breath. I could hear a gasping receding from the phone.
“Do you mind hanging on?” said Ellen, back on. I realized then, as I waited, hearing the howling run of Harold’s coughing, that these were fucking tough people. “No, no,” I said. “Should I call—?” She cut me off again. “He does this. He’ll get over it. Honey now …,” I could hear her say, love in her voice as his awful hoarse huffing began to subside.
They invited me to come up and visit on the following Sunday. “The newspapers bring him to life, and then he is talkative—aren’t you, Harold—especially the Book Review,” she said, laughing, at his expense, I felt. I heard a squawk from him and wondered what I was in for.
It was going to be a big event for me, and my wife knew it. She had welcomed my efforts at reform as a promising start. She suggested I take some time to myself on Saturday—“Do what you have to do”— to prepare for Sunday’s assignation. I took a couple of his books—the early stories and the one just out then, Profane Friendship, a novel (his second; all of a sudden—written, I heard, in nine months!)—and some clippings I’d found, and a notebook for notes, and I set off for the New York Public. I got as far as the Lion’s Head, about forty blocks short.
I remember sitting in the sunlight that spilled in off Christopher Street. It was late fall, a near winter light, the low southern sun coming through a leafless Sheridan Square. I loved the way the day’s first drink hit, and how the thin, kind light brought out the burl in the bar’s rounded rail.
I set to work in the bar. No one was there to bother me, the regulars not up yet, not in. I wrote down question after question for Brodkey. I decided to assure him at the outset that this was to be an inquiry into writing style and its connection (“if any”) to the experience of adoption. I wrote down what Lifton had quoted him as saying and what she had said of his work (“the experience of every adoptee writ large”). I would bring Profane Friendship for him to sign. I was certain he loved this book—because it was a clear embrace of love between men, and here he was, dying of AIDS and being accused of being a publicity bitch even as death made its way toward him, and of floating a fallacious chronology of when he got AIDS (in the 1970s, he wrote). I thought immediately—this is a time frame that squares with something he told his wife, he’s lying, and I resolved not to ask him about it. “It’s your story to tell,” I imagined saying to him.
Was this just a fantasy, meeting Harold Brodkey, in his home, to ask these questions? As I lapped at my fourth or fifth Beck’s, I got scared. I might blow it off. I might never go. Usually, an idea like this stays an idea, an imagined conversation, one in which I can ask bold questions, be told clever answers, and never have to actually sit in the humid, live space with another person, in this case an enigmatic stranger who is dying.
I would go there, I decided. I must. I closed my notebook. I moved to the other end of the bar, just as a couple of my mates came in, surprised to find me there, and more surprised that I was already well on my way. A long day into evening it was—college football, Clinton jokes. Frank McCourt walked in; over the din, I tried to impress him with my project for the next day with Brodkey. I tried to tell Frank of the broken narrative of the famine survivors. “You’re a little cracked there yourself, Michael,” he said. He wouldn’t say a word about Brodkey. “I hear it’s your birthday, is it,” he said, and bought me a drink. And it was.
Their apartment on the Upper West Side was like other Upper West Side apartments I’d been in—sudden, intricate warrens of rooms with unaccountable amounts of sunlight within. This was where and how, I had come to feel, a certain professional class from a certain era lived in Manhattan—Jewish, doctors, theater people; the heart of the city’s opera and serious drama market; liberal Democrats; good people, people who read fiction. People who would take me in.
The doorman announced me and I was sent up. The elevator opened onto a hallway with a mirror over a small table with a bowl of flowers. I looked terrible. I looked dark eyed and haunted. No, I didn’t. I looked more closely in the wobbly light of the glass—dark eyed, I was; maybe handsome. I looked vulnerable. This is how I wanted to appear to Harold Brodkey.
Ellen answered the door. She was taller than I, her face handsome. She said, Hello, Michael, warmly. She had short white hair, enormous bangle earrings. She was made up. There were hoops upon hoops of a silk blouse around her neck and upper body, capri pants, and slippers. She was lovely.
I made my way in. No Harold.
I was offered coffee or tea. Coffee, black, I said. Harold was to be brought out by a nurse, Ellen informed me. I heard the radio go silent—she’d clicked it off. That awful Isaiah Sheffer introducing the awful William Hurt.
I held my tongue about Sheffer, whose pompous intoning over a tuning orchestra introduced every week an otherwise valuable series of short stories on radio. But my mind was slow with yesterday’s drink, heavy as a loaf of vinegar-soaked bread. I feared I smelled as bad. I would need to refer to my notes, which were right at hand. Harold rolled into the room.
He was not grizzled, he was shaven. His head looked enormous and dented, as if his skull had suffered an accident and been acceptably banged out in a body shop with rubber mallets. His hair was so short and gray that it was barely distinguishable from his pale skin. The eyes were another matter, though—bright, somehow sharp edged, as if made of broken glass, and they glittered under eyebrows that were restless. He smiled crookedly and extended his hand from beneath a beautiful tartan blanket.
“Thank God you came. Life’s too short to hear Bill Hurt do Hemingway over into a what? A car salesman.”
“I can’t stand that show,” I blurted out, as Ellen handed me coffee in a large French bowl. I needed my two hands to hold it, so I put my books down.
“Let’s sit down,” Harold said. He cocked his head, amused that, of course, seated he already was.
“So, you’re with Publishers Weekly, I understand.” I hadn’t mentioned that. I was an editor there.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“You like my book?” he asked, looking at the copy of Profane Friendship I had placed on the coffee table.
“I think it is very beautiful. It reminds me of Thomas Mann. It’s your Death in Venice?” My lip was trembling. I hadn’t read Mann’s short book, but had seen the Antonioni movie with Dirk Bogarde long ago.
He looked at me and puffed a breath. “I guess you didn’t write this then?” He closed his eyes. “And I quote: ‘Brodkey’s logorrhea is painful to read, endlessly, strenuously yet tentatively straining for effect; never has a severe editor been more needed. There is a considerable talent here, certainly, but buried in self-indulgence.’ ”
From memory he did this. I was silent.
“Publishers Weekly,” he said.
“Well … ,” I began.
“My editor was hurt.” His face broke into all kinds of parts of a smile. Tough all right.
I told him I loved self-indulgence. “Who else can we indulge?” I offered, and he looked approvingly at Ellen, who was busy adjusting the blinds.
“Whom,” he corrected me, with a glance.
“We can only try,” Ellen said with feigned weariness, as the blinds ruffled down loudly.
“Stop,” he said.
I rushed to reassure him, this sick man. But came up empty.
“Turgid and self-indulgent, that word again,” he said, quoting. “Publishers Weekly, The Runaway Soul. You’ve been hard on me, but I deserve it.”
I told him that anyone wrestling to make a sentence convey the movement of thought and feeling in the act of thinking and feeling, not in reflection, but in action, is going to find it hard going. Only real writers appreciate the bravery of the struggle. He liked that.
I began to feel doubts about my own problems with Harold’s excesses. If I wanted a writer to follow the movements of thought as they are thought, why should I complain that some of it lacks structure, argument, discipline?
I had to go on, though. I decided to brave it: “I don’t think you do story very well,” I said to him, and hastened to add, “I don’t either,” as if he gave a shit. “I can’t even tell a joke”—my favorite line about this malady.
“Hummph.” He made the noise, and I waited. “How to tell a joke.” His voice trailed off and his eyes settled on a buttercup of sunlight shimmering on the opposite wall. We both watched it. Ten seconds passed.
“I can’t master—and I wonder what you feel about this,” I said, pulling out my notebook, “the going from a to b to c; the plot building, the holding back of information in order to build mystery and then delivering it with artful timing.”
“That’s quite true,” he said, and closed his eyes.
Ellen was gone now. The nurse I had seen but for a second was gone as well. The room was silent, the furniture respectfully at ease. I thought he might be falling asleep.
“What do you like—specifically—about my work? Tell me.” His eyes opened.
“I think ‘The River’ section of Runaway Soul is a brilliant set piece. No one else could have written it.”
“It’s about jerking off,” he said, challengingly, “in a river. Who else wouldhave written it?”
I said, “Mr. Brodkey, it is about more than … jerking off.” My hesitation—was it prudery?—brought a look of interest to his face. I think he might have wanted to talk about jerking off, but was intrigued by having the conversation turn, if now it was, to talking about not talking about jerking off.
“It’s about sunlight,” I ventured, “and shadow and the pull of a river and birdsong and clouds and being a young child, an adopted boy, entering puberty, entering this river—was it the Missouri?—and being afraid that someone—his adoptive father, right?—was about to die, or had died, I can’t …”
He cut me off. “Yes, yes, yes. I love that piece. I found such release in it. Do you know,” he asked, rolling his chair back a little, “Kafka’s story ‘The Judgment’?”
Indeed I did! “I do, yes.” This was a lucky break. “I know the last line, in fact.”
“Really. Well, what is it? I forget.”
“ ‘At that moment the traffic was literally frantic.’ ”
“Yes,” he said, closing his eyes again. “Something like that.”
There was a long pause before he resumed. I realized he was waiting out the crunching sounds of some trash compacting from the street. “Kafka said that he wrote that story in one sitting, through the night. A father humiliates a son, and the son runs to the train trestle, hangs beneath the bridge, and lets himself go, down into the gorge. The end. He said it was like an orgasm when he wrote that last sentence—literally frantic.”
This had to be the end of the interview. I wanted to run out of there. It was too perfect. But I couldn’t. There was nowhere to run to, there were tears in my eyes. I felt vivid.
Without composure, I said, “Is that the perfect story then? One that follows an emotion into some kind of … release? Death? Or”— I hazarded it—“ejaculation?”
Harold suddenly seemed tired. His eyes were at half-mast. “Yes, I suppose so. It’s the best we can do. But not enough.”
Ellen brought some scones out, and offered lemonade. “Fruit only for you, Harold.” She placed a bowl of melon cubes in his lap.
I crumbled through a scone while Harold sucked at the melon bits. We recovered, for it seemed we had to.
“What else did you want to ask?” he said, and I felt the shadow of the nurse behind me.
“I wanted to know, sir,” adopting for no good reason a jocular tone, “if you felt that not having a complete uninterrupted story to your life, because of the adoption and being raised by, what, a second cousin to your father and her husband in a weird place like University City, Missouri, you were unable to write—or was it uninterested in writing—a conventional narrative, something beyond the template of, say, sexual coming. Some of your stories follow the same path.”
He thought for a long time. I stopped chewing my scone.
“Uninterested,” he said. “Ergo unable.”
As I descended in the elevator I realized I had forgotten to have him sign my book. In fact, I had left it there. When the doorman showed me the street, the sunlight was blinding. I had no dark father’s face to turn away to, for shade. I stared into the sun’s wide glare for the second I could stand it, then dropped my lids. An explosion of reds, sheets of Rubylith and sea life, in a flood—all of this a fantasy, for I have never met Mr. Brodkey, but such is what we do with broken narratives: We try to mend them as we can.