Oh Lord, Save Me From New Grub Street

<i> Ward's novel, "Red Baker," won the PEN West Award as the best work of fiction for 1985. His new book, "The King of Cards," will be published next year</i>

I was living in my girlfriend’s apartment in Washington, D.C., which was so small that it looked like the place in which the Swede waits to die in “The Killers,” and I had some horrible irritable bowel syndrome that felt like a baby’s hand squeezing my intestines (from drink, the Doc said, but what did he know? I was sick from defeat, poverty, exhaustion, mind-numbing rejection from publishers--21 of them had just turned down my new novel. I drank to keep myself sane, as any right-thinking man would!).

And I had no money except what I could score off old editor pals at GQ and Rolling Stone who might give me a profile to do of some actor, for which I had to act humble and grateful but deep down inside a little dying animal voice is screaming, “Oh God, not another one of those”; I had already written soooo many profiles. I had even once been, God help me, a “hot” journalist, but that was three years and 10,000 hours of mind-numbing dull chitchat ago, and I couldn’t even bear to start another lead, “Cher is resplendent in pink!”

And so here I was with my rejected book, a book I knew was a killer, and yet, and yet 21 rejections. One editor even called me and said, “We love it, Bob, but we can’t buy it because it’s about working-class people and they don’t read books!” Oh Lord, this was a bad, bad time. I would stare down at my manuscript, all 400 pages of it, and think there has to be some way out of this, there has to be some escape, but what could it be?

After all, I was writing a book in 1983 about broken-down blue-collar guys from my old stomping grounds in Baltimore; what happens to them when the steel mill closes, and how their whole way of life--the life I knew in my past--was wiped out. Oh, nothing mattered to me as much as this book, and yet it seemed hopeless. This was the mid-'80s and Jayboy MacInerny was the King of the World with his sweet little wisp of a book about getting coked out in New York, and more power to him, he wasn’t even a bad guy for a Yupster. But I knew that I was doomed, like Algren or somebody, to this death in life, no money, no home, unless I could write a script or something, get out of D.C., ‘cause God knows I didn’t have any fiction left in me just then. Man, I was beat. Flat. Dolorsville.

So in the mornings my girlfriend went off to work at National Public Radio and I lay in bed drinking cheap wine and smoking cigarettes and tried to make calls to my old editor pals but was too defeated to even dial the phone most of the time and by 11, I would fall into a melancholic stupor and I thought this was it, this was the end. Maybe, what the hell, I’d turn on the gas, like in the old Depression movies. (“He’s all blue Sarge!” “Get the lawn bag, Riley!”)


Instead, I dragged my ass to the typewriter and kept retooling my dying novel, and when I got too depressed to do even that, I started reading. Reading had saved my life before. Once in Haight-Ashbury when I was thinking about putting a gun to my head, I read “The Moviegoer” in the downtown library reading room and managed to pull through.

Yes, I needed to read. That was essential. Reading was purification, everything else diversion from the facts. It was diversion that was killing us. I was sure of that. So I started reading. I’d read all day, anything handy. I mean I was too wasted to go through the books to get to one I wanted. I’d just reach in and grab one off the shelf and open it. That’s how I read all of “Fathers and Sons” by Turgenev, which brought tears to my eyes, and how I discovered the book that saved my life, more or less, “New Grub Street” by George Gissing.

I don’t know why the book was in my library. I didn’t remember buying it and I don’t think it was my girlfriend’s either. All I knew was that I started reading and I couldn’t stop. It was as if God had pointed me to it. This had happened a few times in my life and it’s why I believe in God, if you care to know, why I think he’s watching us, though maybe not all the time, and maybe we break his heart too often. But I started reading and I couldn’t stop.

The time is 1880. The place, London. Edwin Reardon is a serious writer in his 30s who’s managed to produce a couple of artistic novels. One of them, “On Neutral Ground,” has been somewhat of a small success, and for that brief time, Reardon is feted and meets a charming middle-class girl named Amy Yule. He knows he shouldn’t marry her; she’s young and thinks he is sensitive and talented, which he is, but he is also too sensitive, too brittle, headed for a lifetime of poverty. But she is in love and hopeful and he so needs hope that he marries her anyway, dooming them both to a poverty-stricken existence unless he can find some way out.

I would lie there in my unmade bed on those rainy Washington mornings and I would feel the creeping horrors come over me. It was as though Reardon was my fictional doppelganger. I read with a kind of ghoulish delight, and yet, yet also a sense of something else.

I didn’t understand what it was at first, but it wasn’t all horror; no, there was something--Christ--liberating about it. Because the book was done without sentimentality. Reardon was drawn sympathetically but his less “serious” friends also were fully realized characters.

There was Jasper Milvain, his dandyish publisher-editor knockabout in the world of the three-decker novel in London. Milvain is always coming around to Reardon’s miserable digs, encouraging him to “write for the market,” and poor, pathetic, ridiculous and noble Reardon is always saying, “Yes, yes indeed, but how do I do it?” And Milvain is always telling him to do something Gothic such as “The Weird Sisters,” and Reardon is dying to keep his middle-class wife who is too weak for this kind of existence for very long, and he wants to sell out. Oh God yes, let him sell out.

And he tries, he tries to write a novel about evil twins, “The Weird Sisters,” and I am sitting on the bed, with spilled ashes on the cigarette tray and my girlfriend is calling and asking me how I’m doing and I’m lying and saying, “Oh great, great, darlin’, everything is great now . . . Yes yes yes . . . I know they’ll see the value of my book soon, and meanwhile I’m going to write something commercial and it’s going to hit big, so big we are going to be like Scrooge McDuck taking baths in cartoon Grecian pools filled with gold coins. Don’t you worry.”

But in actuality, I’m going back to this horrifying book and Reardon is getting sick, and the other characters are these penny-ante journalists just like my old pals in New York, and they are fighting over who gets to do a book review for 20 pence, and hating, yes, hating and despising each other because some other wretch got the gig, and it’s so damned . . . God Help Me, funny.

Yes, I’m having this attack of screaming panic laughter, thinking, “It was always this way. No one has ever wanted literature. In those days they wanted music-hall guys and bloomer gals, and in these days they want Madonna and rappers who trill out doggerel to some cretin’s beat.”

This should make me more depressed, ready to go fully whacked out nuts, but it doesn’t and I don’t know why. So I put the book down and try writing something about it, and I think this: Knowing that George Gissing wrote this and suffered it, and died at 46 but his book still lives and tells the truth, this is what’s saving me. Why, it was like the blues . . . you see that? It was like reading the blues and my pain was suddenly lifted off my back by this totally honest novel.

OK. OK. OK. I don’t really know how these things work. That would take a pince-nez-wearing scientist with Ed Reimer eyes and eerie electrodes that measured galvanic skin response. I only know that it did work, you see? Because somehow as Reardon sank--and got sick and of course could not write “The Weird Sisters” because only true high-passion hacks can write true hack work--and as Jasper Milvain rose higher and higher by inventing a magazine called Chit Chat with short little articles, and pictures of celebrities going to and coming from the theater and clubs (which sounds, of course, exactly like People Magazine; “Grub” was written in 1891, so Gissing foretold our whole culture of celebrity and moronic illiteracy a hundred years ago), I began to have something of a religious experience. I knew that I would survive my 21 dead publishers. I knew that I wouldn’t drink myself to death, and I would make some kind of stand. The truth does that to me; it’s phony lying cynical optimism that kills.

I went back to work, and cut some of the b.s. out of my own book. You see, my book was grim, with touches of black humor. And what was wrong with it at first was that I was trying to pull my punches. I was trying not to go all the way to the dark. And after reading “New Grub Street,” I went back and instead, gleefully, doggedly made it darker still, until it shone like some polished piece of coal.

And two weeks later Joyce Johnson, herself a great writer, bought “Red Baker” for Dial Press. The book came out, and got great reviews, and though I never made any money on it, I ended getting a tryout writing for “Hill Street Blues” because of it. That worked, and I am no longer poor, and I no longer drink as much, and I even just a few weeks ago finished a new book of stories, and a novella. . . .

I don’t want to make any outsized claims. “New Grub Street” didn’t save my life all alone. But it helped. All I know is that it’s a great novel. It’s about art being trounced by the wagons of commerce, and it’s also grimly funny, and it’s how most real writers live their whole lives, even those sequestered in the comfy academies--maybe them most of all--desperate, afraid of the light going out without ever having written anything noble or true.

They say that in his own life Gissing was unable to accept success, that his marriages all were disasters and that he sabotaged himself whenever he was on the threshold of respectability. Maybe so, but in “New Grub Street,” he got it dead right: There’s no special pleading, no whining, and no quarter given. Which is how it has to be with real art.

“New Grub Street” is a great and true book. I owe you one, George, and we’ll have a drink one day together, when we’re all farthing-less in heaven.