From the author of the “thrilling” (The Christian Science Monitor) novel The Other Typist comes an evocative, multilayered story of ambition, success, and secrecy in 1950s New York.
In 1958, Greenwich Village buzzes with beatniks, jazz clubs, and new ideas—the ideal spot for three ambitious young people to meet. Cliff Nelson, the son of a successful book editor, is convinced he’s the next Kerouac, if only his father would notice. Eden Katz dreams of being an editor but is shocked when she encounters roadblocks to that ambition. And Miles Tillman, a talented black writer from Harlem, seeks to learn the truth about his father’s past, finding love in the process. Though different from one another, all three share a common goal: to succeed in the competitive and uncompromising world of book publishing. As they reach for what they want, they come to understand what they must sacrifice, conceal, and betray to achieve their goals, learning they must live with the consequences of their choices. In Three-Martini Lunch, Suzanne Rindell has written both a page-turning morality tale and a captivating look at a stylish, demanding era—and a world steeped in tradition that’s poised for great upheaval.
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Suzanne Rindell is the author of two novels, The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch. Rindell spent most of her life in Northern California (Sacramento and San Francisco), but currently lives in New York City, where she is at work on a third novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Suzanne Rindell
Greenwich Village in ‘58 was a madman’s paradise. In those days a bunch of us went aroundtogether drinking too much coffee and smoking too much cannabis and talking allthe time about poetry and Nietzsche and bebop. I had been running around with the same guys I knew from Columbia – giveor take a colored jazz musician here or a benny addict there – and together wewould get good and stoned and ride the subway down to Washington Square. I guess you could say I liked my Columbiabuddies all right. They were swellenough guys but when you really got down to it they were a pack of poserwannabe-poets in tweed and I knew it was only a matter of time before I outgrewthem. Their fathers were bankers andlawyers and once their fascination with poetic manifestos wore off they wouldsettle down and become bankers and lawyers, too, and marry a nicedebutante. I was different from theseguys because even before I went to college I knew I was meant to be an artist,even if I didn’t know just yet exactly what form I wanted my creativity totake. As far as I was concerned academiawas for the birds anyhow, and the more I spent time below 14thStreet, the more I realized that the Village was my true education.
When I finally threw in the towel and dropped my last classat Columbia, My Old Man came poking around my apartment in MorningsideHeights. He ahemmed quietly to himself and fingered the waxy leaves of theplants in the window and finally sat with his rump covering a water-stain on ahand-me-down Louis XVI sofa my great-aunt had deemed too ugly to keep in herown apartment. Together we drank acouple of fingers of bourbon neat, and then he shook my hand in a dignified wayand informed me the best lesson he could teach me at this point in my life was self-reliance. His plan mainly involved cutting me off fromthe family fortune and making long speeches on the superior quality of earned pleasures.
Once My Old Man broke the news about how I was going tohave to pave my own road it was all over pretty quickly after that. I threw a couple of loud parties and didn’tpay my rent and then the landlord had me out lickety-split and I had to golooking for a new place.
Which is how, as I entered into mystudy of the relative value of earned pleasures, I found myself renting aone-room studio in the Village with no hot water and a toilet down thehall. The lid was missing on the tank ofthat toilet and I remember the worst thing I ever did to my fellow hall-mateswas to get sick after coming home drunk one night and mistake the open tank forthe open bowl. But even without mywhiskey-induced embellishments the building was a dump. It was a pretty crummy apartment and when itrained the paint on the walls bubbled something awful, but I liked being nearthe basement cafés where people were passionate about trying out new thingswith the spoken word, which was still pretty exciting to me at the time. In those days you could walk the streets allaround Washington Square and plunge down a narrow stairway here and there tofind a room painted all black with red light bulbs screwed into the fixturesand there’d be someone standing in front of a crowd telling America to go tohell or maybe acting out the birth of a sacred cow in India. It was all kind of bananas and you were neversure what you were going to see, but after a while you started to come acrossthe same people mostly.
I had seen Miles, Swish, Bobby, and Pal around theVillage, of course, and they had seen me, too. We were friendly enough with one another, all of us being artytypes. I knew their faces and I knewtheir names but the night I really entered the picture I was in such a sorrystate it was a real act of mercy on their part. I was slated to read my poems for the first time ever at a place calledThe Sweet Spot. Earlier that afternoon I had been looking over my pages when itsuddenly struck me they were no good. The discovery had me seized me up with fear until my whole body wasparalyzed and I sensed I was rank with the stench of my impending failure. The poems were bad and that was the truth ofit. My solution was whiskey, and by sixo’clock I had managed to put down half a bottle before the poems finallystarted to look better than they had at three p.m. In my foolish state I decided finishing theother half of the bottle would be the key to gaining at least a few moreincrements of poetic improvement. By thetime I took the stage I could barely hold myself upright. Somehow I managed to get off two poems... moreor less... before I heard the wooden stool next to me clatter to the ground as itfell over and I felt the cold sticky black-painted floor rise up like aswelling wave to my hip and shoulder and, seconds later, my face.
When I came to I was lying on a couch in Swish’s apartmentwith the whole gang sitting around the kitchen table talking in loud voicesabout Charlie Parker while a seminal record of his spun on a turntable near myhead. After a few minutes Pal came overand handed me a cool washcloth for my bruised face. Then Bobby whistled and commented that I had“some kind of madman style” in anadmiring tone of voice that made me think perhaps the two poems I couldremember getting off hadn’t been so bad after all and maybe it was even truethat in getting wasted I had actually made the truest choice an artist couldmake, like Van Gogh and his absinthe. Icould see they were all deciding whether I was a hack or a genius and the factthey might be open to the second possibility being true fortified me and filledme with a kind of dopey pride. ThenSwish boiled some coffee on the stove and brought it over to me. He told me his religion was coffee and hecouldn’t abide his guests adding milk or sugar and so I shouldn’t ever expecthim to offer any of that stuff. Thecoffee was so thick you could have set a spoon in the center of the mug and itwould’ve stood up straight and never touched the sides. Later when I learned more about Swish he toldme that was how you made it when you were on the road and once you’d had yourcoffee like that everything else tasted like water. I guess some of Swish’s romantic passionabout cowboy coffee wore off on me, because after that night I sneered atanything someone brought me that happened to have a creamy shade or sweetenedtaste.
Swish’s given name was Stewart and he was nicknamed Swishbecause he was always in a hurry. He wasone of those wiry, nervous guys with energy to spare. After I’d taken a few sips of Swish’s coffeeand managed to work my forehead over some more with the washcloth I was feelingwell enough to join them at the kitchen table and dive into the talk aboutDizzy Gilespie and Charlie Parker, and all of a sudden it was like I had alwayshad a seat at that table and had just never known it. The frenzied tempo of their chatter wascontagious. They conversed likemusicians improvising jazz and I hoped some of this would find its way into mywriting. Between the five of us wefinished off a pot of coffee and two packs of cigarettes and fourteen bottlesof beer and shared the dim awareness that a small but sturdy union had beenformed.
Swish regaled us with his adventures riding the railsacross America like a hobo and about the year he’d spent in the MerchantMarines. Even though he’d never finishedhigh school he had still managed to feed his mind all sorts of good solid stuffand in talking to Swish I realized all those guys at Columbia who thought theyhad the edge over you because they went to Exeter or Andover were all prettymuch full of horseshit because here was Swish and he was better-read thananybody and his education had been entirely loaned out to him from the publiclibrary for no money at all. There was amoment when I worried that maybe I’d offended Swish because I said something toset him off and he went on to give a big argumentative lecture all about JohnLocke and Mikhail Bakunin and about Thoreau. But my worries about having offended him were unfounded because I laterrealized Swish was one of those guys with a naturally combative disposition.
After he’d finished harping on old Mikhail’s theoriesabout anarchy I asked Swish what he did for a living now his hobo days wereover.
“Bicycle messenger,” he replied. “Miles here is, too.”
I regarded Miles, who seemed like an odd fit for thisgroup. He was a slender,athletic-looking Negro with sharp cheekbones that would’ve made him appearhaughty if they had not been offset by his brooding eyes. He wore the kind of horn-rimmed glasses thatwere popular all over the Village just then. He nodded but didn’t comment further and I gathered that being a bicyclemessenger wasn’t his primary passion and figured him for a jazz musician. He had the name and the look for it, afterall.
Anyway, the topic of conversation turned to me and what myambitions were and sitting there at the table I already felt so comfortable andeverything seemed so familiar I found myself confessing to the fact I’drecently come to the conclusion that I’d decided to become a writer. Only problem was, ever since I’d arrived atthis decision, I’d been having a spell of writer’s block.
“I’ll tell you what you do,” Swish said, his wiry bodytensing up with conviction. “You hop on the next boxcar and ride until you’refull up with so many ideas you feel your fingers twitching in your sleep.”
“Well, I for one think a good old-fashioned roll in thehay would do the trick,” Bobby chimed in. “It’s important to keep the juices flowing.”
“Says the fella who’s so busy balling two girls at once hecan’t make it to any of his auditions,” said Swish. I asked them what they meant. It turned out Bobby wanted to be an actor buthis great obstacle in achieving this ambition was his overwhelming beauty. Under ordinary circumstances this wouldn’t bea problem for an actor but in Bobby’s case it kept him far too busy to getonstage much. Wherever he wentloud-shrieking girls and soft-spoken men alike tried their best to bed him andbecause Bobby liked to make everyone happy he went along with all of it and wasloath to turn anyone down. He waspresently keeping two girls in particular happy. One girl lived with a roommate over on MortonStreet and the other lived in the Albert Hotel on East 11th and this left Bobbyconstantly hustling from one side of the Village to the other.
Bobby’s recommendation that I ought to ball a girl (or twoor three) to get over my writer’s block appeared to disturb Pal’s sense ofchivalry and make him shy: He shifted in his chair and set about studying thelabel on his beer. He was by far thequietest and most difficult guy to read of the pack. Later I found out Pal’s real name was Eugeneand he was named after the town in Oregon where he was born and as far as firstimpressions go he often struck people as something of a gentle giant. He was a couple of inches over six feet andhad the sleepy blue eyes of a child just woken up from a nap and when he readpoetry or even when he just spoke his voice was always full of a kind ofreverence that made you think he was paying closer attention to the world thanyou were.
“How ‘bout it, Miles?” Swish said, continuing theconversation. “What do you think helpswith writer’s block?”
I didn’t know why Swish had directed the question toMiles. It unnerved me that after Imentioned dropping out of Columbia, Bobby had let it slip that Miles was due tograduate from that very institution come June. The lenses of Miles’s glasses flashed white at us as he looked up insurprise.
“Well,” he said, considering carefully, “I suppose readingalways helps. They say in order to writeanything good, you ought to read much more than you write.”
“Oh, I don’t know about all that,” I said. I was suddenly in an ornery, contrarymood. The way he had spoken withauthority on the subject antagonized me somehow. “The most important thing a writer’s gotta dois stay true to his own ideas and write. I don’t read other people’s books when I try to write, I just read myown stuff over and over and I think that’s the way the real heavyweight authorsdo it.”
Miles didn’t reply to this except to tighten his mouth andnod. It was a polite nod and I sensedthere was a difference of opinion behind it and I was suddenly annoyed.
“Anyway, fellas, I think I’ve given you the wrong ideaabout me because I’m not really all that stuck,” I said, deciding it was timefor a change of topic. “I’ve writtenpiles and piles of stuff and I’m always getting new ideas.”
This was mostly true, and the more I thought about it nowthe more I began to think perhaps it wasn’t writer’s block at all but more acase of my energies needing to build up in order to reach a kind of criticalmass. Back then everyone in theneighborhood was talking about a certain famous hipster who had written anentire novel in three weeks on nothing but coffee and bennies and about how hehad let it build up until it had just come pouring out of him and about how theresult had been published by an actual publisher and I thought maybe that washow it might work for me, too. If I justsoaked up the nervous energy of my generation and let it accumulate inside meuntil it spilled over the top I was sure eventually a great flood wouldcome. Swish and Bobby and Pal all seemedlike part of this process and I was very glad they had inducted me into thegroup. Even Miles was all right in theway that a rival can push you to do better work. Perhaps it was the mixture of the whiskey andcoffee and beer and bennies but I suddenly had that high feeling you get whenyou sense you are in the middle of some kind of important nerve center. I closed my eyes and felt the pulse of theVillage thundering through my veins and all at once I was very confident aboutall I was destined to accomplish.
Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the 50’smade for a unique scene. If you lived inManhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors andflavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one anotherthan they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things thisway. All the energy of the war effortwas now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, brightplastic things and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade ofFormica to match every desire. All of itwas for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atombomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright whiteflash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yeturgent light over everything that surrounded us.
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