He loves hamlet but can only be Mamet

Times Staff Writer

Wearing dark sunglasses and a black beret, David Mamet jumps out of a BMW convertible at a neighborhood cafe in Santa Monica, where the late autumn sun is slanting in that rakish Southern California way. At breakfast, over a large cappuccino and heaping bowl of oatmeal with raisins and walnuts, the 55-year-old playwright and screenwriter is polite but as notoriously private and elliptical as ever, qualities that have led to facile assumptions.

Unfairly or not, Mamet sometimes is described in the same terms as his best-known works, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Glengarry Glen Ross." Journalists have spun him as hard-boiled, streetwise and macho, a Chicago native who likes hunting, knives and whiskey, not the type who would note the unfurling of fiddlehead ferns in the woods.

But his bearings happen to be, in fact, in Cabot, Vt., where he is entranced by the changing of the seasons and other markings of country life, he writes in his new book, "South of the Northeast Kingdom." The book includes 22 black-and-white photographs taken by Mamet, who has lived in Vermont off and on for nearly 40 years. He notes the ways in which his work and character have been shaped by life in a community of post-and-beam houses made of first-growth pumpkin pine, hand hewn and framed without nails. (Mamet, his wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and their two small children also have a house on Los Angeles' Westside, though he won't say how much time he spends there.)

"South of the Northeast Kingdom" is part of an ongoing series of "literary travel memoirs" being published by National Geographic Directions. The series, launched last spring, includes an eclectic mix of acclaimed novelists, nonfiction writers, poets and playwrights.

Mamet is a prolific writer, producing work that includes children's books, poems and songs; the plays "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" and "Oleanna"; and screenplay adaptations for the movies "The Verdict," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Wag the Dog." At first, in a telephone conversation, he says he would be "thrilled" to talk about the book. "Oh, goody," Mamet says when an interview is arranged.

But in person, Mamet, a compact man with a trim beard, tends to be terse, uttering sentences of, say, one to three words and not the least bit concerned about the potential awkwardness of using silence as a punctuation mark. He is not unfriendly, and his gaze is direct -- "Hi, I'm Dave," he introduces himself, offering a grin and firm handshake. Occasionally and inexplicably he is expansive, and during those moments, while his erudition is unleashed, he is humble, a man who is wincingly aware of the riches in his life.

Initially, Mamet says, he was a little reluctant to write what he thought might have to be a travel book for National Geographic. "I kept asking them, 'What can I write?' and then I'd reiterate the question in a different way. I didn't want to disappoint them. I said it might be kind of --" he finally settles on a word: "unusual." "They said, 'Great, write whatever you want.... ' So that sounded like a good deal to me."

Mamet even agreed to do a couple readings from the book in Vermont and Massachusetts, though he is busy writing a screenplay on John Dillinger for Warner Bros. and creating a one-hour drama series for NBC. "I love it," he says of "South of the Northeast Kingdom." "I'm just really glad I got a chance to do it, glad I got a chance to take those pictures and put down the things I've wanted to say and, mostly, to discover some things that I didn't realize I felt. One of the things that I hope came out in the book is I'm real grateful to have had many years of life in those kinds of communities, which are, in the course of events, dwindling."

He writes with a lyricism reminiscent of Robert Frost's works on New England (though he is not a big Frost fan), and with a Henry David Thoreau- esque sense of place. His Vermont is a mostly gentle place, populated by straight shooters. "In the cities, words are used to charm, to seduce, to misdirect," writes Mamet, who is known for writing swaggering, profane dialogue that captures the cadence of the streets. "Here, we are expected to say what we mean; those who use words otherwise will be held accountable, perhaps considered fools."

Cabot is the kind of town, Mamet regrets, that is disappearing with the encroachment of city life, which "ensures the transformation of Vermont into Connecticut." He blames himself as much as anyone else for the incursion, admitting that, by his presence, he is an "inevitable part of the cycle of growth and decay."

Some reviewers of "South of the Northeast Kingdom" have surmised that Mamet is revealing another side of himself. But Mamet points out that he wrote and directed a film about Vermont, "State and Main" (the 2000 movie, while actually a Hollywood satire, does show a weakness for white picket fences, a firehouse with a Dalmatian and kids who wander down the street with fishing poles). And Mamet notes that he wrote a novel about Vermont, "The Village," published by Little, Brown in 1994. (The book actually is a psychological, dark drama about a small town, but Mamet does bring the landscape to life.)

He also has written essays about his life in Vermont, but in his 1992 collection of memoir-like essays, "The Cabin" (Turtle Bay), reviewers tended to point out his stepfather's violence and the fact that his grandfather once threw his mother down a flight of stairs. But in the title essay, he wrote about the cabin near his house in Vermont, where he works at a Civil War-era walnut roll-top desk, surrounded by memorabilia.

So are the critics wrong to say that "South of the Northeast Kingdom" is a departure for him? "You know people get confused," he says and relates a Mamet-esque parable, this one about his late friend, Shel Silverstein, the children's writer who also wrote country music and plays and drew cartoons.

"There was no way for people to form an accurate assessment of Shel's output," Mamet says. "The only way you could do that is to know him and to love him. So his answer was never to talk to anybody." A faint smile flits across his face. "Pretty good answer," he says.

Mamet, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, also has lived and worked in New York. A New Yorker writer proclaimed in a 1997 profile that "Mamet, who worked in the Windy City only between 1973 and 1977, is either Chicago's most famous New York playwright or New York's most famous Chicago playwright." Mamet also has lived in Massachusetts, which once prompted the Boston Herald to dub him "our sage of South Boston." In a December 2000 article, the Chicago Tribune declared him "Chicago's own Mamet."

But Vermont, Mamet writes in "South of the Northeast Kingdom," "is the perfect place for a writer to live.... The land informed and informs everything I've done since I've lived here."

His neighbors have included folks such as Doc Caffin, the kind of country doctor with a craggy face who made house calls in pants pulled up over pajama bottoms and once patched a deep saw cut on Mamet's hand with bandage and Scotch tape. "Cheaper than the other stuff," Mamet quotes Caffin as saying. "Works just as well."

Mamet also writes about the blacksmith and the potter and guys with names like Buggy Morse, and he notes that Vermont still is a place where folks vote at town meetings by a show of hands.

Vermonters are funny, taciturn and self-sufficient, he explains. So does he feel like a Vermonter? "Oh, no, not at all," Mamet says. "I feel very grateful to have been living there, but I'm not a Vermonter. That's a different species.... I don't have that honor."

He offers, by way of explanation, another parable: "There's the old joke about a fellow from down country. Comes to Vermont and his kids are born there, and he says to the people at the country store, 'Well, I know I'm not a Vermonter but at least my kids are Vermonters.' One guy says, 'Your kids ain't Vermonters.' The guy says, 'Well, they were born here.' And the other guy says, 'Well, if your cat crawled into the oven and had kittens, you wouldn't call them muffins, would you?' " Mamet lets the story sink in. Then, "Pretty great," he pronounces.

But in "South of the Northeast Kingdom," there is no mistaking the place that he thinks of as home. From his kitchen window in Cabot, Mamet writes, he can see his burial plot in South Woodbury Cemetery. And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "I thought how terrible it would be, in that after-life we all imagine as death, not to rest in Vermont."

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Memoirs cover passionate ground

In spring 2002, National Geographic Directions began publishing a series of "literary travel memoirs" by well-known writers, including novelists, journalists, poets and playwrights, who were asked to "write about places that inspire or excite them or arouse their passion, interest or curiosity. The places might be halfway across the world, in the writers' own neighborhoods or places of the heart." The hardcover books, which are scheduled for publication through at least 2005, will be published internationally in several languages.

So far, 28 writers have committed to the series, including Oliver Sacks (who wrote about Oaxaca, Mexico), W.S. Merwin (southwest France) and A.M. Homes (Los Angeles), whose books were released in 2002. Among those who have signed on but have unscheduled release dates are William Least Heat-Moon on western Ireland and Larry McMurtry and Paul Theroux on places that have not been announced yet.

Forthcoming books will include:

* Louise Erdrich, on Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada, and Peter Carey on Japan, both this summer.

* Ariel Dorfman on northern Chile, Jamaica Kincaid on Nepal and Anna Quindlen on London, all in 2004.

-- Renee Tawa

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