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A Post-'Graduate’ Life

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Charles Webb works in the wee hours, rising about 2 a.m. and writing on a laptop until nearly 6. Creating things that will have an audience beats cleaning houses, acting as caretaker-manager for a New Jersey nudist colony, picking fruit or clerking at Kmart, which is what the author of “The Graduate” was doing, among other things, during a 25-year publishing drought.

And when he’s done working and goes to the windows of his apartment, this son of Pasadena, now 63, looks out on the cool and mostly wet mornings of Brighton, on the southern coast of England. It certainly beats a trailer park in Ojai, or a three-year stay at a Motel 6 in Carpinteria, both of which he’s called home.

With a handsome new edition of “The Graduate” just published by Washington Square Press--the play based on the book now running on Broadway--and a well-received novel, “New Cardiff” (his first since 1976)--published last year and now out in paperback--Webb has made a remarkable comeback. He and his wife, Fred, even have some financial certainty after years on the margins of minimum wage, maxed-out credit cards and bankruptcy, due to the six-figure movie-rights sale of “New Cardiff.”

His agent, Caroline Dawnay, speaking from her London office at PFD Ltd., Europe’s largest literary agency, said, “It’s been the fastest turnaround this agency has ever known. From acquiring the rights to releasing the film will have taken slightly less than a year--a great tribute to Charles’ talent.” The movie, to be renamed “Hope Springs,” will open in October and stars Colin Firth, Heather Graham and Minnie Driver.

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It’s good the check for the movie sale arrived. Webb receives nothing from the new edition of “The Graduate,” or from the play--which grossed more than $14.5 million and, though receiving poor reviews in New York, had an advance sale there of $5.3 million, the record for a nonmusical. The theatrical rights were sold not long after the book’s original publication in 1963, and the novel’s copyright was given permanently to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1991. Reached by phone in Brighton, where he moved to get away and experience a new culture, Webb said, “Though neither Fred nor I are Jewish, we gave the rights to the ADL because we felt they had influenced us in a profound way, to understand prejudice in all of its forms and victims.”

He and Fred are no strangers to the grand, and sometimes eccentric, gesture. Married in the ‘60s, they divorced to protest the ban on gay marriage (only to remarry to smooth the emigration process to Britain in 1998), and Fred, formerly Eve, changed her name in solidarity with a support group of men named Fred who suffer low self-esteem. “True story,” Webb said, “but the original impetus was for other reasons. ‘My father always wanted a boy’ would be closer to the mark, although my father-in-law already had two of them, so his appetite was seemingly insatiable in this regard.”

The author speaks about success and failure in the laconic manner of an aristocrat who would find it bad form to complain or boast about anything, a man equally at home in a cowshed or a palace. Never bitter, Webb seems amused by most things, but added to his charm and courtesy is a survivor’s iron confidence. Asked perhaps one too many personal questions, he responded with a gentlemanly but prickly sense of humor: “Well, what do you think of this? Next time you’re at your dentist, what if you said: By the way, I’d be interested in knowing more about your wife. Can I see a picture of her? Is she your first wife? Have you ever been sued? Are you straight or gay? Do you have affairs? How much money do you make?”

Born in 1939 to the son of a successful doctor and, “I suppose we’d have to call my mother a homemaker,” Webb boarded at a prep school in Santa Barbara and then went on to Williams College in Massachusetts. He won a writing prize at graduation that allowed him enough money for the two years it took to write “The Graduate.” Mike Nichols’ 1967 film soon transformed his creation into part of American cultural history.

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Reading the novel, one is struck by how Buck Henry’s script merely transcribed it, almost scene by scene, line by line, but with two notable exceptions: The word “plastics” is never mentioned, and the novel doesn’t demonize Southern California. (The film’s first line, also not in the book, is a pilot’s announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to make our descent into Los Angeles.”) Webb said, when asked about this, “If I’d grown up in Peoria, it would’ve been the same book. I’m happy it’s out again.”

The roots of his distinctive style can be traced to a trip to London during his college years, when he saw “The Caretaker,” by Harold Pinter. “It was the one piece of writing that moved me more than anything else. The dialogue, characterizations, it really stood out, an electrifying experience.” In “The Graduate,” you can see Pinter’s influence, especially the deadpan sense of menace beating at the heart of ear-perfect exchanges. Question marks are eliminated where they would normally be employed, which adds a note of alienation between characters who aren’t terribly interested in answers anyway but are conversing by rote, barely hearing one another.

The novel holds up well because of its stripped style and the absence of politics, historical events, brand names, fashion or any reference that would place it in a particular era. It’s a good bet that certain young people will always understand this tale of youthful inertia, chronicling a few months in the life of a young man with a first-class education but no ambition and less hope, at sea in a culture he finds grotesque, honest enough to say: “I don’t see any value in anything I’ve ever done and I don’t see any value in anything I could possibly ever do. Now, I think we’ve exhausted the topic. How about some TV.” Shipwrecked in the real world, he embarks on an affair with his father’s law partner’s wife, one of the great villains of American fiction, Mrs. Robinson. It is only when he falls in love with her daughter, and then loses her, that he sees the course he has to follow.

“Benjamin is part of a long line of naive, confused, innocent heroes in the coming-of-age tradition of Holden Caulfield,” said Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English at City University of New York, author of “Gates of Eden,” the seminal study of 1960s culture, and the just-published “Leopards in the Temple,” an examination of postwar American fiction. “‘The Graduate’ is a generation-gap story, pitting the unspoiled freedom of youth against the sterility of their middle-class families. Its point of view is that older people live unhappy, materialistic, sexually frustrated lives and impose their boredom on the young. That’s why it touched a nerve in the ‘60s. It’s a declaration of independence, of generational rebellion in the name of greater innocence and purity of motive.”

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Six other novels followed, none approaching the success of “The Graduate.” Asked if one of them, “Booze,” a story of an alcoholic artist, was in any way autobiographical, Webb said: “I’ve never had that particular problem, though I had a lifelong smoking habit. I finally kicked it, working in Hackettstown, New Jersey. I had to. Any drug limits your perceptive horizons. And at that point in my life, I’d drifted into this job at Kmart, which on one level I thought of as a great lark. But it was a horror show. I felt I was limiting my clarity of mind. To see my way out of it, I discovered a connection: I’m either going to keep smoking and stay here forever, or quit and leave the job. The day I quit Kmart was the day I quit smoking.”

Webb speaks of the years without an audience as a “hiatus” and “not wanting to be distracted by the publishing process.” He referred to the new novel, a love story and comedy of manners about an artist, Colin, and two women he’s involved with. Colin hasn’t worked in a while and says, “Some artists go for years without doing any work.... It’s common with creative people.” But then later he says, “I’ve lost my art, and I don’t know what to do.” And finally, a startling admission: “I’ve been leading a secret life, the life of someone slowly losing their sanity.”

He’s completed a screenplay with the working title “Home School” and is in the middle of a play. He doesn’t read much. “Every writer is supposed to provide a list, aren’t they, of what they’re reading. After writing and thinking and thinking about writing, when I’m done for the day, I’m not much interested in more fiction. I watch ‘Eastenders,’ this great soap they have over here. In the States, I was addicted to ‘All My Children.’ Brighton’s interesting; it’s like the West Hollywood of Europe. Getting a perspective on one’s self by leaving one’s culture is important. I felt like I was soaked in all things American.” He paused. “It’s always good to go away.”


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