Preface: Looking for Matthew Barber
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YEARS I have spent a good part of every day living apart from the present
moment, living in my memory or in my imagination. In those hours I have
found some of the greatest pleasure in my life, but I’ve also found pain
there; sometimes memory and imagination gang up on me, and they become
monstrous, ferocious, not a gift but a curse.
For example: about a year and a half ago, I was body-surfing and caught a wave badly. I came up spluttering and choking, with the salty taste of death by drowning, and found myself thinking of my old schoolmate Matthew Barber. I hadn’t thought of him for years, but I found that once he had re-entered my mind I couldn’t stop thinking about him until I had written this book.
I had lost track of Matthew many years earlier; in fact, after we graduated from high school we never saw each other again, although we exchanged letters a couple of times during college, and he telephoned me one night in our senior year, not long before graduation. He sounded drunk, which struck me as odd, because I’d never seen him take a drink and couldn’t picture him drinking enough to lose control of himself.
“How are you, Matthew?” I asked.
He answered, automatically, “Oh, fine,” but from that “Oh, fine” he took a step downward to “Well, not so hot, to tell the truth,” and that began a descending recitation, from disappointment to doubt to disillusionment, disaffection, darkness, depression, doom, despair.
“They only taught me things,” he complained. “They didn’t divulge any secrets. I thought they would. But they didn’t. No divulging. No divulging at all. So—what was the point? If this wasn’t the first step on the path to that vast and verdant plain of understanding where once I hoped to graze, then what was the point of my coming here?”
“Well—” I said.
He went on without a pause: “Having expected to start out on the way to enlightenment, I have found only—a deepening darkness—a widening abyss of misunderstanding.”
“Gosh,” I said.
“Some days I don’t see the point of getting out of bed.”
This remark brought to my mind, with astonishing vividness, a weekend I had spent with a clever red-haired girl from my molluscan biology class, but I knew that this wasn’t the time to bring it up.
“Oh, wait, wait,” he said. “I did learn something. You ready?”
“You might want to take notes.”
“Okay. Here goes. You know what a frustrated system is?”
“Yes!” I said proudly. “I do.”
I waited, but he said nothing.
“Well?” he said after a while.
“Oh. Sorry. It’s a mathematical system, a matrix, say, in which the elements or the relationships among them or both are defined in such a way that not all the conditions can ever be met. For instance—”
“That’s all right. That’s all right. You’ve got it. Well here’s a frustrated system for you. You ready?”
“It’s the attempt to do more than two of the following three things. You ready?”
“I’m ready. I can’t do more than two of the following three things.”
“Yes. You. Me. One. One cannot do more than two of the following three things: Live in the world, be happy, and have a conscience.”
He lapsed into a phlegmy laugh that made me think he might have been drinking for some time.
MY BODY-SURFING scare had reminded of an episode in my childhood friendship
with Matthew, one that I would much rather have forgotten. In the following
days, he kept popping into my thoughts like an advertising jingle. Almost
against my will, I found myself wondering about him, and then trying to
construct a likely life for him, based on the boy I had known: a dour little
fellow, pale and fretful, convinced that most people are contemptible,
that most things will turn out badly. It didn’t take long for me to develop
a profile for him as he might be in the present: a businessman, vice president
of something, recently divorced, graying, obsessed with sex but sexually
frustrated, a man with dreads and regrets dogging his heels.
I HADN’T FOUND Matthew, but I had developed a feeling for the kind of
life he might be living there in Boston and I think that, as a result,
I understood him better. Of course, there was still much more I wanted
to know. I wanted to know how he spent his time, day to day, minute to
minute. I would stand in my workroom looking out into the fog on the bay
and ask myself, “What will become of him? What is he doing right now? What
watchwords does he live by? What are his favorite foods?” Wanting to know
those things led me to the writing of this book.
OFTEN, while I was writing, I felt that I was struggling with Matthew,
trying to pull him in a direction he didn’t want to go, and finally I gave
up and let him go his own way, just as I had had to do those many years
before, in the episode I mentioned earlier. It happened one summer when
we were boys at summer camp together. There we took a course of instruction
in lifesaving. Matthew was not a strong swimmer. I was. In the final test,
each boy had to swim from shore to the middle of a small lake and bring
back a victim, another camper who had paddled out in a canoe, thrown himself
into the water, and begun thrashing convincingly. The instructor impressed
on all of us the likelihood that the victim would resist help, and he urged
the boys playing victims to resist fiercely, to work themselves up to a
witless panic. Matthew played victim to my lifesaver. By the time I reached
him, treading water had tired him. The panic he simulated was very convincing.
He fought me with a furious irrationality that I couldn’t tell from the
real thing. I couldn’t get a grip on him, but he certainly got a grip on
me. He pulled me under, and I was taken by surprise, caught without a breath.
When I fought free of him and regained the surface, I was gasping, spluttering,
and humiliated. A maniacal fire flamed in Matthew’s eyes, and he reached
for me again. I turned away from him and swam back to shore. The instructor
pulled Matthew into his rowboat. Neither of us ever got our lifesaving
June 23, 1989
you are about to begin
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Copyright © 1990 by Eric Kraft
Reservations Recommended 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.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail Alec “Nick” Rafter, the author’s earnest agent.
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.