|Herb ’n’ Lorna (A Love Story)||by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy|
|In Which Herb Is Born to the Pipers of Boston|
GRANDFATHER, Herb Piper, was born in Boston, into a family that was broke.
For generations, the Pipers had exhibited two outstanding characteristics:
a cool-headed talent for selling and a gullible ineptitude for investing.
It was quite possible for a Piper to accumulate a tidy nest egg over the
course of a week of selling and lose it in an hour by buying into a scheme
that he thought would double his money overnight—a land deal, say, that
he had overheard two fellows talking about downtown while he was having
lunch, a deal that, he allowed himself to be convinced, involved virtually
no risk whatsoever, a deal that was as sure as sure can be. Like a dog
biting its own tail, a Piper at his worst turned his talent against himself,
selling himself on the wisdom of his folly. This type of self-deception,
self-injury, has been known in my family for generations as “doing a foolish
Piper thing.” When imprudent Pipers found that they had done a foolish
Piper thing, when the land, the development company, and the two fellows
vanished, some Pipers would brood and curse themselves and the foolish
Piper giant who seemed to dog their steps, but others would shrug and chuckle
at themselves and their inherited folly. Herb’s grandfather was of
the chuckling type. “Well,” he had said when he broke the news about
the land, the development company, and the two vanishing fellows to Herb’s
grandmother, “I’ve gone and done a foolish Piper thing, haven’t I?”
Once, however, there had been a substantial Piper fortune, thanks to Herb’s great-grandfather, Thomas Piper, and his association with Frederick Lewis Tudor, the finest flower ever to blossom on the vine of American marketing genius. In his essay “The American Drummer,” Wilhelm Huber wrote, “I am among those who hold that a genius for selling, that curious alliance of art, ingenuity, inspiration, cupidity, and fraud, is the American genius.” Certainly it was a genius for selling that made the United States, for a while at any rate, the commercial giant of the world, indeed the model for what a commercial giant might be. Just what was the nature of that genius that made America a great commercial nation, that genius that was so pronounced in Frederick Lewis Tudor and in the Piper family? Edward Huxtable has attempted to describe it, in The Person in Your Mirror Is You:
The inept salesman or saleswoman has the wrong mental image of himself or herself and his or her product, something like a huckster at a sideshow in a traveling circus might have: he or she feels that what he or she sells is inferior, an embarrassment. He or she imagines that he or she could be a much better huckster if the fat lady were fatter, the rubber man more limber, the dog-boy more slavering. But the best huckster, the genius huckster, begins by selling him- or herself on the merits of his or her commodity and so finds it not merely easy but intellectually satisfying, even morally gratifying, to persuade the rubes or inform the consumers that slim fat ladies are the rage, arthritic rubber men the rarest, dry-mouthed dog-boys the marvel of the age. The natural genius salesperson, whether he or she peddles books, cars, furniture, jewelry, pocket calculators, or investment schemes, is a carrier of his or her own infectious self-deception.
The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. . . . The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.
There was a giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy iron chain on his ankle, watching over a pirate chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block. . . .
Hooray for Freddie Tudor!
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|Thomas Piper, Frederick Lewis Tudor, and Nathaniel Wyeth (arrows) oversee the ice-cutting operation on Lake Wenham, Massachusetts, in 1845 (from The Illustrated London News, May 17, 1845)|
TRIUMPH didn’t last for the Pipers, although ice made Tom Piper a wealthy
man. When he died in 1852, he left a considerable fortune, including
stock in Tudor’s ice business, but within two years his two sons and two
daughters had lost it all.
Tom Piper’s eldest son, Eleazer, visited a palmist on the day after his father was buried. The thrust of the palmist’s remarks was that Eleazer was about to go through a key pivotal time in his life, and that prospects were not good, but that Eleazer could make the best of things by trusting his intuition. Eleazer left the palmist’s with his head reeling. In the course of his walk home, he decided to act in accordance with a hunch he’d had for some time. He had been keeping an eye on a British patent medicine, Tono-Bungay. Its sales had grown phenomenally. Eleazer had tried to persuade his father to invest in it, but Thomas Piper’s interest in ice had been so consuming that he had paid little attention to his son; Eleazer suspected that his father thought little of his business abilities. The Tono-Bungay company was just beginning to make a serious move toward expansion beyond the British Isles, and Eleazer’s intuition told him that now was the time to strike. If he could persuade his siblings to invest, they might obtain an American monopoly in Tono-Bungay, which ought to put them on a surer footing in the coming turbulent times that the palmist had predicted. This was surer than ice, as sure as sure can be.
The sons and daughters of Thomas Piper agreed, swept up by the force of Eleazer’s conviction and his hereditary gift for salesmanship. They divested themselves of everything ice had brought them and bid for and won exclusive rights to the American market for Tono-Bungay.
Within a month, Tono-Bungay collapsed. The Ponderevos, who had launched the business in Britain, and the Pipers, who had hoped to advance it in America, were paupers. The palmist, confronted by a blubbering, drunk, and disheveled Eleazer Piper, told him that he had actually been extremely lucky. “If you hadn’t followed your hunch in this matter,” she said, “there’s no telling what might have happened. Of this, however, I am certain: things would have been far worse.”
In the years that followed, the Piper fortunes rose and fell within a narrower range on the scale of success and failure. When they rose, they rose only to the level where there was enough for dinner and a little extra in case someone dropped by; when they fell, they fell to the level where there wasn’t enough for dinner, and if someone dropped by, one of the children would answer the door and say that Father was out.
I should like to see the custom introduced of readers who are pleased with a book sending the author some small cash token: anything between half-a-crown and a hundred pounds. Authors would then receive what their publishers give them as a flat rate and their “tips” from grateful readers in addition, in the same way that waiters receive a wage from their employers and also get what the customer leaves on the plate. Not more than a few hundred pounds—that would be bad for my character—not less than half-a-crown—that would do no good to yours.
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
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Copyright © 1994 by Eric Kraft
Herb ’n’Lorna is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA,
a division of St. Martin's Press.