Cannon to the left of me, cannon to the right of me. I can’t trespass on confidential Random House business in this diary, and I can’t betray my family’s more private moments. I can’t say, for example, that I’m about to sign up a Teletubbies diet book or that my wife will ghostwrite it. I have to stay on more or less safe ground. It’s surprising how little of that there is in my life, especially professionally. Almost everything I do is pretty closely guarded. When I talked to my boss, Ann Godoff, about Slate’s invitation to do this diary, she said, “Of course you’re not going to discuss advances [the amounts of money we pay to acquire books] or anything like that.” I said no, I wasn’t going to discuss advances; I’d just see if they could be quoted without commentary on a crawl that would go along the bottom of the screen.
So what can I talk about? Self-disparagement is about all I can come up with for this first entry. Last Friday I had a short story rejected by The New Yorker. It was about an editor who lost to another publisher a book he wanted to acquire. This rejection of the story didn’t bother me much more than an anvil dropping on my head might have, and it would have bothered me even less, had it not been for the content of the rejection. I came back to work from recording four audio descriptions of the books I’m publishing next fall–novels by Gary Krist, Paul Griner, Vassily Aksyonov, and Jonathan Kellerman, if the schedule holds–and found a message in my voice-mailbox saying that my story had been turned down and I should call if I wanted to talk it over.
It’s always good to ask for an assay of the metal alloy of the anvils that drop on your head, I said to myself, so I called. “We don’t really go for stories about publishing,” I was told. (I knew this, from having edited fiction at The New Yorker for twenty years, but unlike my rejecter I knew that this story only seemed to be about publishing and was at its core an unutterably funny yet profound existential statement about the human condition.) “This one is lively and reads right along, but there are too many real people in it. And I hate the narrator’s voice.” Ooof! A pretty heavy anvil indeed, as it turned out–a lot of lead mixed in with the iron, was my guess–and, when I recovered my senses, it made me doubt the wisdom of my curiosity about its composition. “Now really, Dan,” my personal Torquemada said to me at the end of this literary equivalent of a root-canal session, “I don’t want you to feel bad about this.”
What better way to salve an ego bashed in on Friday than to get on a train on Saturday morning and go on a two-hour trip to Dover Plains, New York, where there sits a tub of rust of an automobile, and start it up for twenty minutes (so that it will start up the following weekend so that I or my wife can drive it another hour north to our house in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, while the one who doesn’t do that takes our two kids and the whimperingly auto-phobic dog, Pepper, and drives our seriously dented car that we keep on the street in New York to New Marlborough) and then get back on the train and come back to New York? Just about any way would be better, I think, but that was my way. I edited and read on the way up, got off the train, went to the car, turned the key and got as gratifying a response from it as I had gotten from The New Yorker. But not to worry. I picked up the battery-booster device that I had given to my wife for Christmas–the kind of intimate and romantic gift-giving I specialize in–and jammed it into the lighter receiver. Fifteen to thirty minutes, and the car would start up. Then leave the car running for twenty minutes to recharge the battery and then for another twenty or thirty minutes to recharge the battery booster and we’d be in business for the next weekend. And–I realized as I set out to buy some lunch while the battery booster did its work–I’d miss the train back to New York and have to wait two or three hours for another one. I couldn’t even run the car long enough to recharge its battery.
It came to me how badly I’d miscalculated this inherently ridiculous mission at the exact moment when I saw that the little bagel shop at the Dover Plains train station which I had been counting on for sustenance had closed a few minutes before the train I’d arrived on had pulled in. Not to worry, though–a little farther along, in the blinding blizzard that had suddenly blown into town, was another little food place, albeit less upmarket than the bagel place. So, I said to myself, since the battery booster wouldn’t have accomplished its absolutely futile mission by now anyway, I’ll just walk on, hunched over against the snow and freezing wind, and when I get there–why, when I get there, I find that it has gone out of business! Perfect!
Now the train’s hour of departure is drawing nigh, and so, increasingly hypoglycemic, I rush back through the whiteout and with anticipatory triumph based on absolutely nothing, since, as I believe I may have mentioned, I can’t keep the car running long enough to recharge its battery, to say nothing of recharging the battery booster, I start up the car. Not!--as we all were saying a few years back. Now I have a dead car and a dead battery booster and no lunch and a two-hour trip back to the city on a train that, I know from years of experience will as it goes south through Westchester, if in fact it can go anywhere in this polar meteorology, pick up more and more teen-agers bound for the big city and bent on wreaking any sort of rail-travel havoc possible. I have only a couple of minutes left to get back on the train, so I run toward it and fall flat on my face in the snow, and when I finally get to the train my palms are bleeding and my pants are soaking wet.
Here’s what I’m going to do. Today I’m going to call the service station at the corner of Route 22 in Dover Plains and ask them to go to the car in the station –a heartbreakingly short half mile away, like Amundsen or Norkey or Lewis and Clark or whoever it was having to stop heartbreakingly short of their adventurous goal–and either recharge or replace the battery. But to do that I’m going to have to send them the keys by express mail, I guess, since they can’t get the hood open without the keys. And then I’m going to call the battery-booster people and have a little talk, not that it would have made a bit of difference if the device had worked. It’s the principle of the thing.
On Sunday, to try to regain a little equilibrium, I played squash with an old friend, David McCormick, who was my assistant at The New Yorker–when I was there turning down stories that really were about publishing–and who discovered the great young American short-story writer George Saunders in the slush pile. I also subscribed to HBO, so I could watch The Sopranos, which everyone is talking about–including, incidentally, the teen-agers on the train, as they went hurtling about the car that my stomach was rumbling in. I think I am allowed to say that my family is happy about at long last getting hooked up to HBO.
But I’d better stop there.
P.S.: I forgot to watch The Sopranos.