photo: Bonnie Waitzkin
Fred Waitzkin’s debut novel, The Dream Merchant, “tells the story of a gifted salesman who can sell anything to anyone,” as he described it when he sent his guest essay along. I say “debut novel,” but Waitzkin’s been writing for years; even if you didn’t read his memoir about raising a chess prodigy, Searching for Bobby Fischer, you might’ve seen the movie—and that’s just one of his books. So why, after all this time, a novel? “It’s a layered question,” he wrote, “and for a semi-coherent answer I should start at the beginning.” (Afterwards, if you want to learn more about Waitzkin’s writing process, he spoke at length to Scientific American blogger Scott Barry Kaufman.)
When I was a 13-year-old boy growing up on Long Island, I dreamed of being a salesman like my dad. I worshipped him and wanted to follow in his footsteps selling fluorescent lighting fixtures for new office buildings. He was a great salesman—he landed a lot of big orders, and like my protagonist, he was not restrained by ethics or fear of hell. And I loved his chutzpah. I learned from Abe Waitzkin the language and ecstasy of the big deal, and ultimately I learned from him the tragedy of a salesman.
My mother, an abstract painter, hated the idea of her son being a salesman. She was always reading me poems and stories. When I was 12 or 13, she gave me Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. By then I was already an ardent fisherman and Hemingway’s tale of heroic loss and longing written in short rhythmic sentences burrowed itself into my being. On the pages of my earliest short stories Mother would edit my prose with passionate (India ink) suggestions that looked like de Kooning abstractions. Mother would introduce lush metaphors that I had never imagined were in this world. Also, when I was a teenager, she introduced me to jazz and took me into Manhattan for drumming lessons. To this day I still pound out rhythms on the skins. But more to the point, I’ve refined the Afro-Cuban rhythms of my youth, and they are all through my prose. I write tapping my foot.
My parents disliked each other for as far back as I can remember. They were divorced when I was 16, but this dichotomy between my dad who was a meat and potatoes guy, brilliant but darkly pragmatic, and my mother, who thrived in fantasy and was dedicated to art, created a polarity that has guided my aesthetic life to this day.
21 April 2013 | guest authors |
photo via TomFolsom.com
Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream is a new biography of actor/director Dennis Hopper by Tom Folsom, who I’d previously known for The Mad Ones, a book about New York organized crime figure Joe Gallo. So that’s an interesting mix for a young author, right there… As the author of a 1970s Hollywood retrospective, I’m going to be very interested in learning what Tom was able to uncover about The Last Movie, which notoriously derailed Hopper’s directing career for nearly a decade—but which has since been re-assessed by many as an artistic triumph, although it’s hard for the rest of us to judge since it’s still not available on DVD. Maybe this book can light a fire under that process…
It’s a dangerous headspace to be in, Dennis Hopper’s, where I’ve been for the past three years, writing my unconventional biography on the legend, icon, actor, director, and Hollywood outlaw. Now that I’m back from the front lines of HopperLand (and thankful I didn’t have to check into rehab), I’ve got a road-weary traveler’s bent to discuss my travails through his world. Perhaps I should nail up a sign: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Unfortunately, I never got to met the man as planned because Hopper passed away in May 2010, just months after I began the book—but my first steps into his story made it clear we’re talking about someone who, as his buddy Kris Kristofferson put it in his song about Dennis, was: “a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction.”
This motto would make a traditional biographer scream. (Or perhaps sit in the middle of a ring of dynamite and light the fuse, as Hopper did as a stunt in the 1980s.) Luckily, I never intended to spend three years churning out cotton candy for the mill, or write a typical Hollywood biography. I set out to capture the distinct literary quality of someone who lived his life like a modern day Don Quixote, always pushing the edges of his outer envelope, in search of his peculiar American Dream.
5 March 2013 | guest authors |