Passionate Spectator
Preface: The Groundwork of This Well-Meaning Book

cover of the St. Martin's Press USA edition

IN JULY 2004


    Reader, lo here [is] a well-meaning Book. . . . I desire therein to be delineated in mine own genuine, simple and ordinary fashion, without contention, art, or study; for it is myself I portray. . . . Thus, gentle Reader, myself am the groundwork of my book.
“That We Should Not Judge of Our Happiness Until after Our Death”

AM A CROWD.  If you see me on the street, strolling, I may seem to be alone, but I’m not.  If you are watching me from the building across the street with your binoculars while I am sitting at home in the little room where I do my work, the business of reminiscence, you may think that I am alone, but I am not.  I am never really alone.  All the people who have played parts in my past, and all the people whom I have invented to fill the gaps in my past, are with me, wherever I am, wherever I go.  Their constant presence has made me one of the people one passes on a New York street who hear inner voices, and among those I am one of the ones who listen to them.  I walk to the unpredictable rhythms of a shifting internal confabulation, the chatter of a cocktail party of the mind, with everyone at that party vying for my attention, each in a singular way, but each—regardless of what he says or how she says it or how any one of them finds a way to be heard for a while above the others—asking, pleading, or demanding that I tell his story next, or, at the very least, that I find a way to tell her story, even a bit of their story, while I’m telling mine.  I’m a memoirist.
    As a memoirist, my intention is to tell my own story, of course, and to tell it in a way that keeps my good side toward the camera, but those other people have their parts to play in the story that I intend to tell.  They deserve my attention, those people from my past, not only the ones who were really there, but also and especially the ones I have inserted into my past who never asked the favor.  I try to pay them the attention they deserve, but I can’t pay them all the attention they desire.  I just don’t have the time, for one thing.  I live in the world, as you do, and I have my needs and duties.
    For very many years now, I have set aside an hour and a half every morning, early in the morning, when I sit in the little room that I mentioned, a stuffy little room in a small New York apartment, and invite the whole crowd to jabber away as much as they like.  Having given them that time, I should be allowed to ignore them until the next morning.  I don’t owe them any more attention than I have already given them.  I should be free for many hours to go about my business and think my thoughts, without interruption.  That’s what I think.  They don’t agree.
    Instead, they intrude throughout the day.  I never quite know when one of them—or a gang of them—will intervene in one of the simple negotiations of everyday social intercourse, but I have come to expect that the intervention will occur, and I’ve become (I think, I hope) adept at disguising the fact that when they interrupt, when they clamor for my attention, I step for a while out of life and into my memory, or my imagination.  If, for example, you were the woman in the delicatessen a block and a half from my apartment from whom I buy a large cardboard container of coffee when I find myself flagging during the part of the day when I try to earn enough money to pay the rent and buy the coffee, you would never know how populous a mind I bring into the store when I come through the door.  I’m sure you wouldn’t.  I’m sure she has never noticed.
    “Good morning,” I typically say when I enter the establishment.
    “Hello, how you doing?” she invariably replies.
    This is a perfectly fine exchange.  Perfectly normal.  I’m sure she has no idea that one of the most persistent time-travelers from my past is standing right beside me, wringing his hands.  His name is Matthew, and I will explain him in a moment.
    “Time is running out,” he’s telling me, as if I didn’t know.  “A terrible fit of desperation has come over me, as I suppose it comes over all of us when we see that we’re coming to the end of—the end of—of—”
    “The trail?” I offer impatiently.  “Our wits?  The days of our lives?  Our sojourn in this vale of tears?”
    “You can say that again—it’s gonna be a cold one!” says the woman.  “You don’t need a bag, right?”
    “No, no bag.  Thanks.  Stay warm.”  I smile.  I’ve gotten away with it again. Out the door I go, apparently as normal as the next guy.
    In the street, Matthew won’t let up, even though walking fast and talking faster are making him short of breath.  “We come down to these questions,” he says.  “What are we after?  Where are we going?  What do we want?  How will we spend the time that remains?”
    “On a beach, with an oiled beauty by our side,” suggests another of them.  His name is Bertram W. Beath, BW to his intimates, and I will explain him after I have explained Matthew.  Please be patient.
    I turn down the street, toward the river, instead of taking the most direct route home, so that I can confront them without being seen.
    “Listen, Matthew,” I say, setting my jaw, “I’ve got a lot to do this afternoon.  For the Eager Readers series, I’ve got to write a history of the construction of the transcontinental railroad in words of two syllables or less—”
    “What are you going to do about transcontinental?” he asks, his brow furrowed with genuine concern.
    “I’ll call it ‘a railroad that would go all the way across the country,’” I say.
    “He’s good at that,” says BW.
    “For Mrs. da Silva and the Friends of the Sun Society, I’ve got to ghostwrite a dozen irate letters to the editor about the administration’s misguided energy policies; I have to chip away at this month’s newsletter for the proctology group; and I’ve got to look for new clients for my memoir-assistance service; and none of that is paying me enough to allow me the luxury to listen to you.  Save it for tomorrow morning.”
    “That’s telling him,” says BW.  “Not that it will work, of course.”
    I turn left, abruptly, and begin walking briskly toward home.  After half a block, I glance over my shoulder.  They’ve fallen behind, arguing about something, to judge from the gestures they’re making.  I quicken my pace.  I’ve escaped them for a while.
    They will almost certainly be back at bedtime.  I am a twenty-four-hour memoirist.  I never sleep.  Literally, that is not true, of course, but I think that it is true and accurate to say that the memoirist in me never sleeps, that the memoirist is at work even during sleep, certainly during dreams.

FOR THE OBSESSIVE MEMOIRIST, the actual living of life is a blessing and a curse.  Diurnal existence, with its quotidian comings-and-goings, provides the raw stuff, the basic and essential substance of the memoir, and that fact, the utility of life as lived in providing the ingredients for the memoir-baker, if only at the daily-bread level, makes life worth living, but the mind is not content to eat life raw, so the stuff of daily life is just grist for its mill, and the mind requires some time to do its grinding.  The memoirist requires some time to do the writing, and the revising, and the re-revising and on and on until the life in the memoir, the life on the page, has found and memorialized what wasn’t evident—perhaps wasn’t even there—in the chaff of the lived day.  I guess that’s not quite right.  I suppose the mind does eat life raw, but in the manner of a ruminant, cycling the stuff round and round again, chewing its cud until the mash is digestible.
    For the memoirist who invents as much as he records, living life is only half the fun.  Life is a rough draft.  The mind remakes it, revises it, and rewrites it, unwittingly through memory, deliberately through the imagination.  To what we have actually experienced we add our thoughts about those experiences, and we transform them in the process: the unexamined life is not worth living.  We also transform our actual experiences by including in our accounts of them not only the facts but also the possibilities: the unimagined life is not worth living.

WRITING MY MEMOIRS does not pay the bills.  For that, I have a number of day jobs.   Perhaps I should explain my habits.  I get up early.  I spend an hour and a half in my little room working on my memoirs, listening to my crowded mind.  Then I go to a gym while Albertine takes a brisk walk around the reservoir in Central Park.  We eat a little breakfast together and read the Times for a while.  I shower and dress and go to work; that is, I return to the same little room, but I go there to write for other people, doing contract work, writing of many kinds, whatever comes along, whatever I can find, the hackwork of the freelance writer.  That is my day job.  It makes for an uncertain life, and for the last three years it has been—how shall I put this—unrewarding.  I’ve found enough work to fill my days, six or seven days a week, but it hasn’t paid enough to pay the bills.  Though the last three years have been particularly disappointing, the pattern was established as soon as we moved to Manhattan: too much work for too little money.  Before we moved, we ran a small hotel, Small’s Hotel, on a small island, Small’s Island, in Bolotomy Bay, off Babbington, on the South Shore of Long Island, where we lost a little money every year for decades.  We sold the place and escaped with a bit of cash, but since then we just keep slipping downward, and little by little we have spent the money we took from the hotel (the sweat equity we had accumulated over all those years) and slid into debt, running up balances on credit cards with cash advances to pay our rent and other basic expenses, and even taking a loan from the Relief Fund of the Memoirists Guild, which feels humiliating to me.  For the past several months, we have done very little after working hours.  We just stay at home and watch rented movies.  We’ve developed these stay-at-home habits partly because we don’t want to spend money, and partly because I finish the day so discouraged that I don’t want to show myself among my fellow creatures.  I don’t want to be noticed.  I know that my failure shows on my face.  Lately, I’ve begun to think of getting out of town.  I’ve thought about the possibility of our moving to Punta Cachazuda, Florida, where my grandparents retired many years ago.  I haven’t visited the place since they died, but I know that the living was easy there—and cheap.
    However, that may not be necessary.  I have some hope for a new business venture, Memoirs While You Wait, which I initiated while we still lived on Small’s Island.  I’ve had some interesting clients.  Actually, I’ve had two clients, and when they came to me, independently, they barely had one interesting life between them.   That is to say, if I had skimmed the cream from both their lives, I could have served up one interesting life.  Of course, I urged them to exaggerate, embellish, and, when opportunity knocked, steal to make their lives more interesting on the page than they ever had been in fact, so you may be sure that the lives that I sent my two clients home with were far more robust than the feeble things they brought me.  I’m good at this memoir-assistance business, and I really do think that I can make a go of it.
    Lately, however, business has been slow.  That is, slower.  Even slower than that.  As I write these words, I have no clients.  I can’t explain it.  I’m using the same methods to advertise my services and solicit clients, but I’m not getting any.  Perhaps people are no longer interested in writing their memoirs?  Perhaps only a small percentage of the population is at any one time interested in writing their memoirs, and those people have already written them, and so the well is dry?  Nonsense.  The fault must be mine somehow.

NO MORE THAN FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO, while I was beating myself up in the foregoing manner, I decided that a large container of coffee was probably just what I needed to help me get into fighting trim for the working day.
    “I’m going to get the Big Coffee,” I said to Al, grabbing my keys and wallet.
    So much depends on chance.  Once upon a time, during another period when I was feeling the weight of debt, Albertine told me that I shouldn’t worry because I had what she called “Leroy Luck.”  I’d never heard of Leroy Luck before, and I accused her of inventing it to cheer me up.  “It’s the same sort of luck that Jack had in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’” she said, “the luck of the dreamer, a boy’s luck, the sort of luck that works in the background while a boy is sitting on the sand and his thoughts are sailing out to sea.”  There have been times when I’ve thought that she might be right.
    At the corner where I turn left to go to the delicatessen where the Big Coffee is brewed and purveyed, an enterprising homeless man named Henry sets up a card table every Tuesday and offers for sale anything he has found in the neighborhood trash that seems salable to him.  On other days he sets himself up at other locations.  I know that because I have sometimes seen him set up elsewhere, and because I asked him.  I mentioned to Albertine, laughing as I did so, that I could probably sell a few copies of my memoirs from a folding table in a good location.  “Don’t you dare,” was, if I remember correctly, her advice.  This was a Tuesday.  The card table was up, and it was covered with salvaged goods.  I slowed as I passed, running my eye over Henry’s wares, but not making eye contact with him because I was embarrassed to be on so tight a budget that I couldn’t buy anything from a homeless guy doing business from a shaky card table.  That quick, hangdog glance was enough, though.  There, right in the center of the table, was a book, a book that, if its title could be believed, held just the information I needed.  It was called Creative Self-Promotion.  I had been shy about self-promotion.  I knew it, and I was ashamed of myself for it.  The man who does not ride the tide of his times is out of step, as I think someone said.  Perhaps, with a handbook to follow, I could overcome my reticence and start touting myself and my services as shamelessly as all my friends and neighbors.  I had the coffee money.  I could buy the book instead of the coffee.
    “How much?” I asked.  Henry shrugged.  I gave him the coffee money.
    When I returned home, Albertine, canny observer that she is, noticed that I wasn’t carrying a container of coffee.
    “Didn’t you get the Big Coffee?”
    “No,” I said.  “Henry was set up at the corner, and—”
    “You bought a bag of beans.”
    “You traded the cow for a bag of beans.”
    “Oh,” I said.  “Maybe.  I bought a book.” I displayed it.
    “You’re branching out?”
    “Going into taxidermy, are you?”
    “Creative Self-Promotion for Taxidermists?”
    “For taxidermists?”  I turned the book around and looked at the cover.     There, below the bold title that had caught my eye, was the continuation of it, in smaller type, in italics.  “I didn’t notice that part,” I said.
    “You didn’t notice it?”
    “I was a bit bedazzled, struck by the coincidence of my finding just what I think I need on Henry’s table.”
    “So you didn’t notice the illustration?”
    I did now.  A man looked fondly at a table lamp with a base that seemed to be made from a stuffed squirrel, his handiwork, evidently.
    “I told you, I was—” I began in my defense.
    “—bedazzled,” she said, and because she loves me she hugged me.
Squirrel Lamp
BECAUSE I AM THE MEMOIRIST, I am the principal player in the comedy that follows this preface, its groundwork, as Montaigne put it, but I am supported—if the groundwork of a book may said to be supported—by an able and eccentric cast.  Foremost amoung them are Albertine Gaudet, Matthew Barber, and B. W. Beath.

ALBERTINE GAUDET is my wife.  I have heard her referred to as my long-suffering wife.  She is sleeping beside me while I compose this paragraph in my head.  We met while we were in high school, shortly after I returned from a summer in New Mexico, winging back to Babbington in a small plane that I had built in the family garage.  She did not fall in love with me at first sight, though I was already in love with her before I met her, having seen her image in a drawing, admired her from afar, and listened to the praise of a friend who also loved her.  When we met, she was being pursued by a number of eager boys and young men who are all now, I venture, captains of industry and finance, assiduously plundering their employees’ retirement funds.  To make her mine, to get her to accept me as hers, I had to woo and win her, had to seduce and convince her.  I told her that I would take care of her, promised her a rich life, attempted to stand on my head to make her laugh, and told her that when we were together she would always have a piano.

MATTHEW BARBER was my high-school classmate.  I sometimes claim to have known him since we were boys in grammar school, but that’s not true.  Matthew was an enigma.  If I had been asked when I knew him whether he was the saddest boy I had ever known, I would have said that he was.  He seemed uniformly and predictably miserable, so much the very type of the pessimist that he would willingly endure being satirized as such.  To the humorous exchanges within our group he would even contribute an exaggerated note of gloom that never failed to get a laugh.  Not only has Matthew occupied me during my recent morning memoir hours, but he awakened me recently, in the middle of the night, as a player in a nightmare.  In the nightmare, I seemed to be a livery car driver or a taxi driver—
    “Taxi.  A taxi driver.”
    “Okay.  A taxi driver.”
    In the dream—nightmare—I was driving an unruly group of kids, rich and arrogant kids, and one middle-aged man who resembled Matthew.
    “Resembled Matthew?  Was Matthew.  This happened to me.  You were not the driver.  Believe me, you were not the driver.  Let me tell it—”
    “All right, I will let you tell it.”
    “Oh, thank you very much.  Will you please get that tone out of your voice?”
    “That tone of compassionate understanding.”
    “I’m sorry.  It’s just that I feel—”
    “Sorry for me?”
    “Why?  I don’t ask for it.  I don’t want it.  Why do you have to feel sorry for me?”
    “Because I think that you are what I might have become if I hadn’t met Albertine, hadn’t wooed her, hadn’t won her.”

BERTRAM W. BEATH is what Matthew might have become if he hadn’t had a conscience. 
    “That, I think, is not entirely fair.”
    “Be my guest.”
    “It is not that I haven’t a conscience; it is simply that I own the secret to striding through the world as its master—I take that back—as if I were its master, which is enough—the master of its knocks and slights, the disappointments and offenses that eventually get the best of most of the people I see, turning them into fearful cowards who no longer think to master the world but only hope to make it through the next day without looking too foolish, suffering too greatly, or losing too badly.”
    “And what is that secret?”

STRUCTURALLY, this book is arranged to mimic a mistaken memory.  Many years ago, I found in a library a book called Oysters and All About Them.  I was fascinated by the information in the book, but its organization intrigued me even more.  The author, John R. Philpots, had first produced a slim volume with its title making the extravagant claim of completeness.  Not long after the book had been released into the world, its readers hastened to point out to Philpots how very far short of “all about them” his book fell.  No slacker, Philpots got to work on a second revised edition.  In it, he included the entire first edition, unaltered, but he wrapped that edition between an extensive preface describing the responses of readers and an extensive set of appendices in which he corrected errors and expanded the information he had originally provided.  He sent the second revised edition into the world, and it met a fate like that of its precursor.  Readers flooded Philpots with letters correcting and enlarging what they had found in the second edition.  So, Philpots produced a third, assembling it in the same way he had assembled the second.  At its center was the entire second edition (and at the center of that was the entire first edition, remember) wrapped within a preface and appendices.  The edition I found in the libary was, as I recall, the fourth or fifth.  It was a fat volume, the result of Philpots’s adding successive layers of text in each edition, as an oyster adds layers and layers of nacre on the irritating grain of sand that is the inspiration for its oyster.  The full title of this edition was Oysters and All About Them: being a complete history of the titular subject, exhaustive on all points of necessary and curious information from the earliest writers to those of the present time, with numerous additions, facts, and notes.
    I was so fascinated by the book and its organization that I asked a librarian whether I might buy it.
    “Buy it?” she squeaked.
    “Yes,” I replied brightly.
    “Sir,” she said, her voice icy, “this is a library, not a bookstore.  We do not sell books; we lend them.”
    “Of course,” I said, “but if you look at the slip in the back of the book you will see that I am the first person to have borrowed it since 1911.”
    “That is of no consequence,” she said, “no consequence at all.”
    I didn’t ask again, nor did I steal the book, though I should have.  A few months later, I felt the need to consult it again, and found that it was not on the shelf where I expected to find it.  Had someone else taken it out?  Astonishing.  I asked to have it put on reserve for me.  A librarian, not the one who had been so offended by my offer to buy it, looked it up in the newly computerized card catalog.
    “Oops,” he said, “you’re a couple of days too late.”
    “Too late?”
    “It was de-accessioned last week.”
    “Removed from the shelves.  Removed from the library’s holdings.  Sold.”
    “Yes, at our Big Book Bargain Bonanza sale, last weekend.”
    “But—this is a library, not a bookstore.”
    “It’s a new idea of our head librarian’s—cull the collection and raise some money for new purchases by selling some of the deadwood.”
    “Nothing important.  Old books that hardly anyone ever borrows.  Out-of-date reference works.  That sort of thing.”
    “Are you sure someone bought it?”
    “How can you be so sure?”
    “Because at the end of the sale a decorator bought everything that was left.”
    “A decorator?”
    “A guy named Bagshaw.  Specializes in filling empty shelves with books.  They give a room that lived-in look, you know.”
    “Right.  I know.”
    I assumed that I would never see the book again.  From time to time I recalled it, fondly, and with the wistfulness we feel for the things we’ve lost, and I ruminated on its unusual organization, at least as I remembered it.
    Then, one rainy afternoon not more than a few months before I began working on this book, Albertine and I took refuge in a bar in our neighborhood called Books ’n’ Booze.  The walls of this bar are lined with shelves full of old books.  With a pastis in hand, I toured the shelves, and, as you’ve already guessed, I came upon a copy of Oysters and All About Them.  It was the fourth edition, in two enormous volumes, totaling more than thirteen hundred pages, but it wasn’t organized as I had remembered it, in layers, like a pearl.  I suppose that, over the years, my memory of the organization of Philpots’s book became distorted by my anticipation of my own: this one, in which the text is in three layers.  Thus, within the mind at least, the future can alter the past.
Structure of this Well-Meaning Book
FIGURE 1: This book is arranged in concentric layers, like a pearl, but not quite like Oysters and All About Them.

Peter Leroy
New York City
December 6, 2003

Oysters and All About Them

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Copyright © 2004 by Eric Kraft

Passionate Spectator 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 author. 

St. Martin’s Press will publish Passionate Spectator in the summer of 2004.

For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Kraft’s indefatigable agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.

The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.






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