By Han Ong
I call Norton and (where else would a number made available on the internet get you?) speak to a young voice, front-of-office, an unpaid intern probably, not unfriendly, not unhelpful, but the gist is the sooner I get past him, the sooner I’ll get to—not exactly the person I wish to speak to; or even the person who would give me the number (or God forbid, the physical whereabouts) of the person I wish to speak to, but—the first in a relay team whose job it is to get me to perform—inasmuch as these things can be done over the phone—my bona fides, a kind of humbling upon humbling, before the information can be surrendered either on that first call (but, as I said, after many transfers) or hours or days later, with an intervening wait that is a further dramatization of how far away I am from the gates. And either way there will come a sigh from the other end that might as well be issuing from my own lips to acknowledge both the picayune quality of this quest (“Hi, I know he no longer works at Norton but this is my last contact point for him?”: always that sentence-as-question tone to ingratiate and assuage) and my complete lack of qualification to undertake even such a picayune quest (“I’m his, um, I was his student and I am … I’m compiling notes for his biographer.”).
Fifteen or so minutes and four different speakers later (each of whom I imagine to sit successively higher up in the Norton food chain, but really, who can tell?), I am told to call the former secretary of the man I wish to speak to. It’s been at least two decades since he was employed here, I’m told. I know, I say. And, well, the reason nobody has any contact info for him—well, actually the last person who would have had it, Valerie, our great copy editor who has been here since the fifties, she just passed away. Well, not just, but she passed away. I’m sorry, I say. And also, the real real reason nobody has a contact number for him is that he cut himself off from us when he left. There was, um, rancor. Great rancor. A blowout. Cops had to be called. I didn’t know, I say. Well, that’s the news that’s fit to print, the speaker says. So the secretary is … ? I have no idea, the speaker says. We have her number here because she’s been longtime friends with the secretary of our publisher, the head honcho. That’s why her number’s available. I have no idea what you’ll find if you call—if she’s still alive. But if anyone would know where Marshall Levitow is, it would be her, Cora Lynn would be the one. God, she must be in her eighties by now? Anyway Sarabeth is maybe the same age, and she’s still kicking and giving all of us a run for our money. I presume Sarabeth is the publisher’s secretary, Cora Lynn’s friend, but I don’t ask. I say to the speaker: I’m thinking Mr. Levitow is still alive? Because otherwise, a man of his distinction, The New York Times would’ve run an obituary and I haven’t been able to find any? You may be right, the speaker says, but again I can’t help you there, I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. He might have fled to Cuba, for all I know. It’s a joke but the speaker’s tone is mirthless. You know, she says, I’m going to transfer you back to my secretary, and you can leave your contact info with her, and if I can think of any writer we have in-house who used to be edited by Mr. Levitow, although no name is springing to mind right now, which could mean there’s nobody who fits that description, but just in case, leave your number and your email and if I can think of a new lead, I’ll send it your way. Thank you, I say.
But Cora Lynn Baker is very much alive. Yes I’m Cora Lynn Baker and yes I worked at Norton as Marshall Levitow’s secretary, she says to my query. I explain why I’m looking for her former boss and she waits a minute before replying: Well, yes, I remember Mr. Laurence. He passed away, I say. I heard something about that, Cora Lynn says. How old was he? Mid-sixties, I say. That’s … that’s very young, Cora Lynn says. He killed himself, I say. He took pills. I’m so sorry to hear that, Cora Lynn says. That is a surprise. Why? I say. Why would that be a surprise? The Mr. Laurence I knew, Cora Lynn says, was full of life. Full of fight. Pugnacious, you could say. Did he and Mr. Levitow get into a lot of arguments? Not a lot, Cora Lynn says, but when they did, Mr. Laurence you could hear him from outside the office even with the door closed. He was a tough cookie. I recognize this man, I say. Cora Lynn doesn’t say anything else, so I repeat my question: Cora Lynn, do you think I can pay Mr. Levitow a visit? Is he around? Oh, Cora Lynn says, he would like that very much. I don’t think he gets much visitors. And I don’t think he gets a chance to talk about them old days a lot. Not where he is.
Cora Lynn, eighty-something, dressed up for the occasion: a hat pinned to her wig; a line of white powder visible at the back of the neck so that the wig won’t tickle where it comes to rest on skin. Her perfume smells like three different scents: alcohol, suggesting a disinfectant, menthol as in some kind of muscle rub, and above both, an overpowering floral aroma, like a scented candle. She has on sensible flats, black patent leather, with a decorative gold ring near the toes. She has put on shiny nylons, and on her floral-print blouse she has pinned a brooch of a salamander coalescing from red jewels, the red of its eyes darker than the surrounding body. She’s as excited/anxious as I am, and when the male nurse wheels Marshall Levitow into our quiet corner of what is referred to as the day room, she stands up immediately, holding onto my hand for support. Hello, Mr. Levitow, do you recognize me? she says.
Cora Lynn! he says. You’re a sight for sore eyes.
Ohh, she says flirtatiously. Your eyes are not sore at all.
In the car service, Cora Lynn had told me that Marshall Levitow is younger by at least five years, putting him in his late seventies. Come give me a hug, he says, and she approaches. The male nurse waits until they finish before telling us he’ll be back to take Mr. Levitow to the dining room for lunch and that we’re welcome to join if we wish.
Who have you brought with you? Levitow says.
I introduce myself. My full name and that I’d been a student of Laurence’s.
Oh my God, Levitow says, slapping his knee.
I hope you don’t mind, I say. My coming to visit.
Are you kidding? he says.
Cora Lynn sits back down at my side.
I’ve brought some questions and I also hope you don’t mind if I record our conversation.
How are they treating you here, Mr. Levitow? Cora Lynn says.
I wish I could say I can’t complain, but I can complain and I do complain. But what are you going to do? Growing old. He shakes his head.
And your health? How is your health? Cora Lynn says.
How is yours, Cora Lynn? You’re going to outlive me, Levitow says.
I don’t know about that, Cora Lynn says. Today is a good day but tomorrow, who knows?
Well you look good today, that’s for sure, Levitow says.
Because I’m coming to see you!
You should come more often.
The truth is, I haven’t been getting out of the house too much these days, Cora Lynn says. Thank God for this young man.
Well, thank God, Levitow says. So you say you’re going to record this? I don’t see a tape recorder.
I’m using my phone, I say. Would that be all right?
That thing records? Levitow says, then laughs. But of course it does. Why am I surprised?
It records audio and video. We’ll just do audio.
That’s fine with me, Levitow says.
He wants to talk about Mr. Laurence, Cora Lynn says.
It’s too bad about Laurence, Levitow says.
May I start by asking you if you were surprised? When you heard—first, how did you hear of it?
It must have been the papers, I guess, Levitow says. I don’t know who else could’ve told me. I don’t keep in contact with a lot of people from the book days. It was in the papers, wasn’t it?
So that is what happened. I read every day. The New York Times, mostly. You’d think there’d be a line for it here, and there is—a line and a pecking order, and I guess I’ve been here going on nine years, so I’m higher up in that order than when I first came, but I had them install a computer, a cheap one, not much bells and whistle, just a screen and the internet, and—listen. Let me ask you. Is fifty bucks a good price for the internet?
Is that what you’re paying? Fifty a month?
Does that sound like what it would cost?
Yeah, I say, trying to think of what we pay for the service at Dutch Kills. That sounds reasonable.
Because I don’t want to be the kind of person who always thinks he’s being taken advantage of, but sometimes you just have to wonder. So I was saying …
The New York Times? Laurence’s death?
I keep up with the papers on my computer although Manuel, the nurse, I call him my nurse but he’s really everybody’s nurse during the day, Manuel, he said he worried that once I had a computer in my room, I wouldn’t ever come out again, and he worried that once I made a request for a computer in my room, others would do the same, but that hasn’t happened, and I try not to let the first thing happen too much, and besides unless you’re sick you have to show up for meals in the dining room and I have my friends here and I like to keep up.
Oh, what do you talk about? Cora Lynn says.
We don’t. Not much anyway. Henry he’s in a wheelchair like me and Albert, he’s ninety, and he’s blind, and some days he asks me to describe what the weather’s like outside, but we’re happy to sit there and look at the others, happy to keep an eye on one another and know that we’ve made it one more day. Just old friends doing what old friends do.
That makes me happy hearing that, Cora Lynn says.
Were you surprised when you read that Laurence had killed himself? I say.
I can’t say I’m surprised by anything much anymore. Sad. Certainly sad. I didn’t get to know Laurence very well. We worked on three books together—
His first three, I say.
Yes, the first ones. But in those days, who knows if it’s still like this, it wasn’t unusual for an editor, at that point I was senior editor and to prove my mettle and my worth I felt, we all did, people hovering near the same rungs, that we needed to acquire and promote and edit as many different voices as we could, to see who would stick. Not that we didn’t believe in those we were acquiring, and not that we looked out for quantity over quality, rather that we had to look out for quality and quantity. Advances weren’t crazy so you could do this. You could publish someone with a not-too-big outlay of money, and so the risk, from the publisher’s perspective, you could take this, and we did, over and over. By the time I left the business, it was a whole different game. But this is business talk. You want to know about Laurence. So let’s say that … Um, um …
You were saying that you didn’t get to know Laurence too well.
Ah, yes, thank you, young man. Because I had equal relationships, if you will, with about two dozen other writers that I was also editing, and I tried hard not to play favorites, because writers, well, they can be like children with petty demands that may seem petty on the surface but are usually hiding some bigger test that they’re asking you to pass. They are selfish children who have been neglected by their parents and are always looking for surrogates in the larger world. Levitow laughs.
Was Laurence like that?
Oh, they were all like that!
But Laurence in particular?
Not more or less than the others, Levitow says.
When you acquired Laurence’s first book, I say, was there a sense of his “voice,” if you will, or “style,” or “contribution”—
These are good words, go on, Levitow says.
—was there a sense of his take on gay life marking a change from the gay books that were being published at the time?
Let me see, Levitow says.
I wait in vain for an answer, so I prompt him with, I’m trying to figure out what his historical place is in this genre that’s called “gay lit.”
I liked his voice, Levitow says. His written voice, I mean. I realize that’s not sufficient. Let me see … It’s so long ago.
Oh, you can do it, Mr. Levitow, Cora Lynn says. You sound like your mind is as sharp as ever.
Levitow smiles at her. Laurence Warshow, Levitow says. Then repeats the name a few more times, still adding nothing to his recollection. I berate myself for shortsightedness. I should’ve brought the three books Levitow and Laurence worked on. Should’ve reread them, marking passages and pages to recite to this old man, who of course would need his memory jogged—a storied career, Laurence Warshow just one strand in it. The Queen of Angels Rest Home in Flushing, Queens. Dark-carpeted “day” room, whose windows face the fenced parking lot, glimmers on the gray water of what the greeter had told us was the Flushing Bay visible beyond denuded trees beyond the parked vans and cars, which includes our car service waiting. There are fake flowers in a large vase parked on the coffee table in front of us, and in another vase on a side table underneath a mirror placed too high for a man in a wheelchair to be able to see himself in. Fallen balloons anchor a corner of the floor in the sitting area opposite ours, the two spaces connected by a windowed walkway floored in parquet. The air smells like Cora Lynn, but I don’t know if it’s she who’s rearranged the chemistry of the atmosphere or if it’s just the scent shared by old people wherever you go. Her hands are quivering on her lap. Perhaps she understands that this early in the conversation we’ve landed on a decisive gap in Levitow’s memory. He can’t walk, or at least isn’t trusted to do so by this establishment and his doctors, and though his speech is sharp, his appearance does not put him at odds with his environment. He has shoulders that dip so low as to make his clavicle look like a frown. Big up top, his legs are sticks, and I wonder if this mismatch is the reason for the wheelchair or the other way around: if absolved of work, the lower half of his body has stopped claiming its share of the food he takes in. His jeans are old looking, so too the long-sleeved plaid shirt, and I can’t tell if the spots of shine on them are from too much wear or bad laundering.
Were you impressed, reading that first book, that this was the work of a self-taught man?
Well, I didn’t know anything about that. I admired the writing and knowing that he was a self-taught writer added a dimension to my admiration, but only after the fact of having finished the manuscript. The difficulty I have in answering your question comes from the fact that I didn’t have much knowledge of what you call gay literature. Certainly, I knew of Ed Mallory’s work. Ed had made such a big splash, a historical splash, because suddenly what they used to call “the love that did not dare speak its name” was, in Ed’s book, speaking and describing and explaining. So he deservedly got a lot of attention. When Laurence came along, I would say that the task of attracting attention was much more difficult, because the subject matter was no longer novel. It was already taken for granted that homosexuality could be a legitimate subject matter. So I would say that Laurence’s task—not that he would call it that—was much more difficult. And Laurence, the way he made a name for himself, and I can’t claim that I understood it then, but I do now, after the fact, long after the fact, is that he had an assumption, if you will, that he was going to write for his people, his group of homosexuals, that their lives were worthy of being written about without it being, as with Ed Mallory, a kind of dramatized argument for equal treatment or equal rights. He had an arrogance, Laurence had, and his homosexuals were selfish, ogreish, attitudinous, kind sometimes but almost despite themselves, in other words his were young homosexuals, young in both age and outlook, and I think this was what resonated with the younger critics, both homosexual and heterosexual, the energy of it, the seductiveness of this assumption. And I would say—again, I did not know it at the time, I was attracted to the energy of the book but I couldn’t have said more beyond that—I would say that Laurence was the only one of the second generation, Ed being by himself, I would say, in that first generation, but maybe this is not fair? God knows we’re not giving people like EM Forster their due, and of course Jimmy Baldwin, and then there’s Gore Vidal and Ed White. But as I said, I’m no historian, no expert. But in that generation immediately following Ed Mallory’s splash, Laurence was the sole one, or at the very least the first one for the longest time, to leap from Ed’s pleading for equal citizenship and to take it for granted that homosexuals did not have to plead.
Levitow is smiling. He is back in his cerebral element, the lapse leapt over. Cora Lynn is looking at me and smiling.
What about AIDS? Levitow says.
Laurence’s work, how did it adapt or respond, do you think?
I don’t know that I would characterize his writing as adapting or responding to that. We never talked about the personal toll it took. Or if he himself had a scare. I heard from a younger gay writer, but years later, that he had had some sort of health scare. But I don’t know if this was AIDS or some other illness. He was very discreet about these things, and I understand that discreet might be a strange word to describe someone who wrote a racy book—this is his last book with me—but let’s say he was more willing to disclose truths about his life in that area than in the area of health.
Do you think he responded to AIDS by ignoring it, by writing a book that was unapologetically sexual?
I don’t know if I would say that. The truth would be closer to say that he’d been working on that book for much longer than AIDS had been a presence in his life and in the lives of his friends. Looking back on it, I would say that the first three books shared the same tone. All unapologetic, all celebratory and not mournful. They might have been started if not at the same time, then close to it, and he worked on them simultaneously, going from one to the next, and the order in which they were published reflected the order in which he finished them.
Why did his relationship with you end after three books?
Frankly because his head got too big for his body. Levitow shakes his head. He asked for stupid things!
A bigger advance. There was no way we were going to pay what he and his agent asked for. So he, I believe, got it from another publisher, and that book didn’t do too well, and so he screwed himself. He was adrift in a house with whom he established an understanding that was strictly commercial, so once he failed to deliver, he only had himself to blame if he was cut adrift. This happens with a lot of writers, don’t get me wrong, but Laurence, after three books, needed some other kind of book, some other story, and he wasn’t willing to test himself to find that story, and readers began to take him for granted, and rightly so.
Did you have suggestions for him about what this new kind of story might be?
What’s the use? By that point, he’d stopped talking to me.
But would you have?
If I did, I don’t remember now. But make no mistake, I’m not saying that I’m a master of plot or rather plots. I would’ve … Let’s see—I might’ve counseled him to write more about AIDS. So you’re right. I would’ve said he needed to respond to that. There was readerly interest in what kind of shape AIDS was making in the world of homosexuals and of course in the larger world. And he did write that, eventually. But I think he waited. Because he didn’t want to jump from youthful energy to a premature old age. But by the time he wrote about that maybe he was playing catch up with other writers who had taken the bit between their teeth and run with it, who deserved more of the attention.
Did you edit any other gay writers, Mr. Levitow?
One or two others. Wilson Crenshaw and, and, let’s see …
Cora Lynn says, Mr. Whitemore?
Thank you, Cora Lynn. Whitemore Harrison. And Wilson Crenshaw.
How would you describe them, relative to Laurence?
Well, Mr. Crenshaw was African-American. Is, I mean is. And he had a take on the subject that included that. And Mr. Harrison, he will tell you outright that he was more indebted to non-homosexual writers. His idols were southern, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. So though he wrote about homosexual characters, that would not be how he would describe his focus. It’s inevitable, the niche is what what-you-call gay literature occupies more and more as the younger generation moves on and becomes more ambitious. But Whitemore, he never once talked about Laurence, and I wouldn’t know what he felt about Laurence, either positive or negative.
He wrote a bad review for one of Laurence’s later books. In The New York Times, I believe.
Maybe Laurence deserved a bad review for one of his later books, Levitow says.
So you weren’t aware of any kind of feud?
Everyone feuds, Levitow says. All like children, like I said. In the end, what does it matter? Do people still read Whitemore? Do people still read Laurence? I can’t say. I don’t keep up with the tastemaking that goes on these days. When I read, I read the news. I read the same handful of people that has piqued my interest from the beginning. Philip Roth, Updike, God bless him, Salinger, God bless him too, Vonnegut, DeLillo, I suppose you could include DeLillo in the bunch. These are the writers I’m interested in.
All white men, I say.
I wouldn’t make too much of that, Levitow says.
Cora Lynn looks at me like I’ve just made bad form. You don’t think people read Laurence still?
Levitow shrugs. I suppose that death has returned him momentarily to the spotlight.
I suppose it has.
Is that why there is interest in his biography? Levitow says. To take advantage of the momentary spotlight.
Mr. Levitow, I say, you know how long it takes to write a book. By the time any kind of biographical undertaking is finished, the spotlight would have long moved on.
You may be right, Levitow says. He sighs. Excuse my bitterness. I’m just a bitter old man. I hold no rancor against Laurence. But you have made me relive how angry I was when the negotiations after his third—and might I add, very successful, no small thanks to Norton, to myself, and the countless other hardworking people who made sure that everybody but everybody paid attention to Laurence and his writing—after everything, for things to turn out the way they did, well, Laurence was to blame. Laurence was to blame when he was turned out of the house he joined after Norton. He was to blame for having no one to champion him and to shelter him from the tough commercial times ahead.
Are you saying you would have done that at Norton, even if the books after his third one had not sold as well, had continued not selling?
I am not out to make myself a hero. I’m sure there would’ve been consequences and I would have been forced to cut him loose. Those were tough times, getting tougher. But I would have fought for him to stick around for far longer. I would have provided counsel. I am not anyone’s father, and Laurence might’ve rejected my advice, but I would have acted as honorably as I could, within reason and within the circumstances. I had writers who we had to cut loose. The command came from on high. I rose to vice president of the company but that did not shield my writers. That did not shield me! This is an American business, bottom line. Well, there you have it. Those two words. Bottom line. But we put out good books. Some of them great. Within the constraints, you could say things were more heroic than not. Laurence might still last. As I said, the death might shine a spotlight and in doing so, might remind people of the value of his voice, the contagiousness and the seductiveness of that voice, which, if you want more reminiscence, that voice stands in marked contrast to the person himself, who was ornery, argumentative, and not to assign psychotherapy to my nonexistent skill set, but he gave the impression of fighting to become who he was, and even once he became himself, he was still fighting, he knew no other way. I’m not saying he fought me every step of the way when I was editing his manuscripts. In fact, he was often amenable to, let’s say, for example, wholesale transpositions of paragraphs or sections or even chapters. He listened when I explained. He said he would take my comments and suggestions into consideration and I would say he kept most of them. The fight would be, I guess, on word choices, on a certain lack of generosity in his outlook on other people, you know, lightly disguised caricatures of people in our circle, whom I recognized, and this being such a small world, who I knew would be hurt, first off, and would want to take revenge in any way, secondly.
Would you give me an example of some famous person he caricatured that you counseled him against?
I can’t remember, Levitow says. I give him a moment, to which he responds: I really can’t.
How about an example of word choices that he tangled with you on? I say.
Um, um, I’m sorry, but this is too far back and I can’t recall … Let’s just say he liked slang, and street words, and he liked to repeat the same words over and over, and I remember saying to him that as a writer it behooved him to work on an expanded vocabulary, and he said, I remember him replying, that he was using repetition as percussion. But as far as I was concerned, a little of that went a long way. Did you bring any of the first three books with you?
I’m afraid I didn’t.
I could send them to you and come back in a few weeks, after you’ve reread them, and maybe we could have a—deeper? A deeper conversation?
That would be good.
If you were me, I say, is there something about Laurence you would ask?
He had the temperament of a child. I know I’ve said that all writers are children but that is not what I mean. I’m speaking now of his suicide. I confess that I didn’t want to know the details and however it was I came to know of the fact, I didn’t read deep into the piece. I don’t know how he did it and I would appreciate it if you didn’t say anything. But he had been very canny in making of the limitations of his young life—the lack of education, the bullishness of his personality, the few friends—a subject for his writing, and if he had only persevered past the setbacks, discouraging though I’m sure they were, he could’ve made the limitations of his old age, he could’ve turned these into the gold of his new books. I have no doubt that he had the skill, the visionary talent. No doubt at all. So he took his life. Which is like a childish tantrum of wanting to show people up. But where does that get you. It doesn’t even sound like, from you, that death has given him a very hot spotlight. Warm maybe. Lukewarm, it sounds like. And then it passes. It passes. And you are dead and you have no fight and you’re back to the state you lament about. He sighs. I am not a writer so I do not feel as if—nor do I want it—but I certainly do not have the same agency as someone like Laurence. To record his thoughts. To record the wrong that he feels history has done him. I respond. I suggest. Just as intelligently as my writers. That is the way it’s always been and I have been happy in this position.
Mr. Levitow, do you mind if I ask you, when you read, besides The New York Times, you mentioned names like Roth and Updike, when you read them, is part of you still an editor, marking out sentences or passages for improvement?
Not when I read Roth and Updike, no. These are the masters of the realm. They are the masters our country has yielded. And part of the reason I read them is because I know I will not need to engage that editor’s critical mind. I read them for pleasure and for the peace of knowing they cannot be bettered.
Where would you put Laurence in that hierarchy?
I wouldn’t, Levitow says.
So you think this biography is not worthwhile? I say, at the same time thinking: Fuck what you think. For the first time all day, I feel the fire of my old self, like hunger, like an ulcer.
No, of course not, Levitow says. Every life is worth documenting. Well, maybe not every life. But Laurence’s life certainly is. He does not need to have been a mammoth of American letters to warrant a biography.
So you wouldn’t say that Laurence is among the greats of American literature? I ask. Cora Lynn is smiling. If there has been a turn in the conversation, she has missed it entirely. My question comes from the same impulse as aggravating a wound, a childish ploy intending to prolong the pain, the enjoyment of the pain.
No, he most certainly is not. What I will say is that Laurence began very promisingly.
You mean, with your first three books together.
But have you read the others he wrote after your relationship ended?
I didn’t have any need to. I was no longer his editor.
So how can you say that he didn’t make good on what you call his promise.
To be candid, I read an article or two, here and there.
Articles, I say.
And I could tell that his writing hadn’t moved much further from when I last encountered it.
Articles, I repeat. But not the books.
Levitow is silent.
On the basis of articles, “here and there,” you’re prepared to dismiss Laurence?
I don’t think I’m dismissing him.
But he is no Roth or Updike or even DeLillo.
Of course not, Levitow says.
Of course not, I say. My tone finally catches Cora Lynn’s attention, but other than turning to look at me, she remains noncommittal, still happy to have facilitated this day.
Mr. Levitow may I ask you a question?
He gives a small laugh, as if to say, What have we been doing thus far? Sure, he says.
Do you think Ed Mallory is among the what-you-would-call greats that American literature has produced?
Not Ed, no.
May I ask if you think writing about homosexuality would disqualify you from producing great American literature?
I am not an expert at what you call the genre of gay literature, despite having worked with Laurence on three books. He may be recognized as one of the founders of the genre, but when I was working with him, my concern was to get his voice and his writing to as sharp a place as they could get.
So there are no books written by homosexuals or about homosexuality that you would rank alongside the writers you mentioned?
That’s not the way I see the world. I love what I love and I don’t have external qualifications for them. Other than excellence and a kind of peace that is induced when you meet excellence.
I think the books Laurence published after he left Norton are greater than those he worked on with you, I say. This is a surprise to me. I hadn’t planned on making such a statement. I don’t even know if this is what I believe. At least I can be sure of this: those books do not mark a dip in Laurence’s writing. Levitow may be right that the first books had a swagger that made you overlook the youthful flaws, the overstatement, the tendency to conflate caricature with characterization. Their autodidact’s brio was the making of Laurence. The books that came after, three other novels and a book of essays, were naturally older in spirit, conservative of energy but not politics, with a sourness and cynicism that most readers found off-putting and laid at the feet of his dipping career trajectory but which traits others, myself included, argued had been there all along and had been among his most bracing, welcome writerly qualities, given the times in which they were composed and to which they are addressed. In his books, Laurence spoke like this: Listen, you motherfuckers … Listen up to my tired, grinding voice, a voice more whine than wine, but that I will turn into my own kind of loner’s music, in its odd way not pretty but captivating, and wasted, wasted on all of you undeserving motherfuckers who hear only in the register of cozy life affirmation and banal self-realizations and so on and so forth but I will still speak, I don’t know what else to do, and I will still… and so on and so forth.
I haven’t read them, Levitow says.
Yes, that’s what you said, I reply. For a moment I had been angry but now I’m just really sad. But look at him, look at Levitow: nearly cross-eyed from the pleasure of sparring. He’s alive. Right at this very minute, the most awake he’s been in a while, I’d wager. Describing the weather to blind what’s-his-name, but otherwise mum, keeping sphinxlike company with one other pensioner in their triumvirate of still-aliveness, observing but not speaking. Saving his talk for the dinner table? He could be the guy who brings everyone up to the twenty-first century. The investment in the computer and in an online New York Times subscription pays off center stage during mealtimes: the reciter of the Times and the times. Would he spare them the gory parts? How about obituaries? Would they welcome news of their peers’ deaths, of death’s proximity? He would recite facts, leaving out divisive opinions. Maybe he once provided commentary, before being shouted down: the end of the road, everyone just wants to get along. His eyebrows are aimed at me with fake perturbation but his eyes and some drool at the corner of his mouth are the tells. His mind is so alive. Called to recapitulate his hierarchies, to defend his distinctions, he’d come through, razor-sharp, and I’d been there to see it, so had Cora Lynn. The mind is the first to go? For him it would never be the case. He licks his lips. He wants some more sparring.
So Roth, Updike, Vonnegut, DeLillo. Would you add anyone else to that list?
It wouldn’t be much of a list if it got too crowded, Levitow says. Then: Give me names.
Toni Morrison? I say.
I would not put her on that list, Levitow says. She does not belong.
Not even with the Nobel Prize? I say.
If it had been up to me, she would never have gotten it. Undeserving. A sacred cow, Levitow says.
Really? I say, though not a Morrison partisan myself.
Is that the only other name you mean to test me with?
Alice Munro? I ask.
Maybe, Levitow says, and then changes his mind. No. I don’t know enough of her work to be able to judge.
But not Laurence, I repeat.
Laurence Warshow is not on that list, young man.
Despite the fact that you called him visionary. A visionary talent.
He is not on that list, Levitow says again.
David Foster Wallace?
I don’t know his work.
I’ve only read one book. I liked it. But I’m not prepared to call him one of the greats based on one work alone.
Cora Lynn had been turning her head from one face to another during this litany, as if she was at a tennis match. The smile has not once left her face. What is this game anyway? The Oracle at Queen of Angels?
Sitting here, I realize: I won’t keep my promise. I will not mail Laurence’s books to Levitow. There is no reason for coming back. He is a man of his time, happy in his deathless ideas. He will wait for my call or for Cora Lynn’s. In a week, in two, not hearing from me through Cora Lynn, he will have softened his certainties. He’ll be prepared to maybe, just maybe, induct Laurence into his club of eternals, but situating Laurence in an antechamber, not yet fit to enter, but at least within begging distance. He’ll say anything I want to hear just so I will return and again give him this rare time. Refuting feckless multiculturalism with ideas of which he is neither progenitor nor, with his aged body, perpetuator. But being deathless, these ideas will outlive him. That is what this young man does not understand. These are ideas being held not just by him—he is merely one of the flame-bearers. In front and next to him, so many more: plus one and one and yet another … With me, today, he gets the chance to be deathless.
Han Ong is the author of the novels Fixer Chao and The Disinherited. A MacArthur Fellow, he was most recently awarded the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. His new play Grandeur will have its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in the Spring of 2017.