Book excerpt

Report from the Interior

Paul Auster; Read by the author

Macmillan Audio

REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR


 
In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers. The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents’ car was a grinning mouth with many teeth. Pens were airships. Coins were flying saucers. The branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.
There was no problem in believing that the man in the moon was an actual man. You could see his face looking down at you from the night sky, and without question it was the face of a man. Little matter that this man had no body—he was still a man as far as you were concerned, and the possibility that there might be a contradiction in all this never once entered your thoughts. At the same time, it seemed perfectly credible that a cow could jump over the moon. And that a dish could run away with a spoon.
Your earliest thoughts, remnants of how you lived inside yourself as a small boy. You can remember only some of it, isolated bits and pieces, brief flashes of recognition that surge up in you unexpectedly at random moments—brought on by the smell of something, or the touch of something, or the way the light falls on something in the here and now of adulthood. At least you think you can remember, you believe you remember, but perhaps you are not remembering at all, or remembering only a later remembrance of what you think you thought in that distant time which is all but lost to you now.
January 3, 2012, exactly one year to the day after you started composing your last book, your now-finished winter journal. It was one thing to write about your body, to catalogue the manifold knocks and pleasures experienced by your physical self, but exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task—perhaps an impossible one. Still, you feel compelled to give it a try. Not because you find yourself a rare or exceptional object of study, but precisely because you don’t, because you think of yourself as anyone, as everyone.
The only proof you have that your memories are not entirely deceptive is the fact that you still occasionally fall into the old ways of thinking. Vestiges have lingered well into your sixties, the animism of early childhood has not been fully purged from your mind, and each summer, as you lie on your back in the grass, you look up at the drifting clouds and watch them turn into faces, into birds and animals, into states and countries and imaginary kingdoms. The grilles of cars still make you think of teeth, and the corkscrew is still a dancing ballerina. In spite of the outward evidence, you are still who you were, even if you are no longer the same person.
In thinking about where you want to go with this, you have decided not to cross the boundary of twelve, for after the age of twelve you were no longer a child, adolescence was looming, glimmers of adulthood had already begun to flicker in your brain, and you were transformed into a different kind of being from the small person whose life was a constant plunge into the new, who every day did something for the first time, even several things, or many things, and it is this slow progress from ignorance toward something less than ignorance that concerns you now. Who were you, little man? How did you become a person who could think, and if you could think, where did your thoughts take you? Dig up the old stories, scratch around for whatever you can find, then hold up the shards to the light and have a look at them. Do that. Try to do that.
The world was of course flat. When someone tried to explain to you that the earth was a sphere, a planet orbiting the sun with eight other planets in something called a solar system, you couldn’t grasp what the older boy was saying. If the earth was round, then everyone below the equator would fall off, since it was inconceivable that a person could live his life upside down. The older boy tried to explain the concept of gravity to you, but that was beyond your grasp as well. You imagined millions of people plunging headlong through the darkness of an infinite, all-devouring night. If the earth was indeed round, you said to yourself, then the only safe place to be was the North Pole.
No doubt influenced by the cartoons you loved to watch, you thought there was a pole jutting out from the North Pole. Similar to one of those striped, revolving columns that stood in front of barbershops.
Stars, on the other hand, were inexplicable. Not holes in the sky, not candles, not electric lights, not anything that resembled what you knew. The immensity of the black air overhead, the vastness of the space that stood between you and those small luminosities, was something that resisted all understanding. Benign and beautiful presences hovering in the night, there because they were there and for no other reason. The work of God’s hand, yes, but what in the world had he been thinking?
Your circumstances at the time were as follows: midcentury America; mother and father; tricycles, bicycles, and wagons; radios and black-and-white televisions; standard-shift cars; two small apartments and then a house in the suburbs; fragile health early on, then normal boyhood strength; public school; a family from the striving middle class; a town of fifteen thousand populated by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, all white except for a smattering of black people, but no Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims; a little sister and eight first cousins; comic books; Rootie Kazootie and Pinky Lee; “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; Campbell’s soup, Wonder bread, and canned peas; souped-up cars (hot rods) and cigarettes for twenty-three cents a pack; a little world inside the big world, which was the entire world for you back then, since the big world was not yet visible.
Armed with a pitchfork, an angry Farmer Gray runs across a cornfield in pursuit of Felix the Cat. Neither one of them can talk, but their actions are accompanied by a steady clang of jaunty, high-speed music, and as you watch the two of them engage in yet another battle of their never-ending war, you are convinced they are real, that these raggedly drawn black-and-white figures are no less alive than you are. They appear every afternoon on a television program called Junior Frolics, hosted by a man named Fred Sayles, who is known to you simply as Uncle Fred, the silver-haired gatekeeper to this land of marvels, and because you understand nothing about the production of animated films, cannot even begin to fathom the process by which drawings are made to move, you figure there must be some sort of alternate universe in which characters like Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat can exist—not as pen scratches dancing across a television screen, but as fully embodied, three-dimensional creatures as large as adults. Logic demands that they be large, since the people who appear on television are always larger than their images on-screen, and logic also demands that they belong to an alternate universe, since the universe you live in is not populated by cartoon characters, much as you might wish it was. One day when you are five years old, your mother announces that she will be taking you and your friend Billy to the studio in Newark where Junior Frolics is broadcast. You will get to see Uncle Fred in person, she tells you, and be a part of the show. All this is exciting to you, inordinately exciting, but even more exciting is the thought that finally, after months of speculation, you will be able to set eyes on Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat. At long last you will discover what they really look like. In your mind, you see the action unfolding on an enormous stage, a stage the size of a football field, as the crotchety old farmer and the wily black cat chase each other back and forth in one of their epic skirmishes. On the appointed day, however, none of it happens as you thought it would. The studio is small, Uncle Fred has makeup on his face, and after you are given a bag of mints to keep you company during the show, you take your seat in the grandstand with Billy and the other children. You look down at what should be a stage, but which in fact is nothing more than the concrete floor of the studio, and what you see there is a television set. Not even a special television set, but one no bigger or smaller than the set you have at home. The farmer and the cat are nowhere in the vicinity. After Uncle Fred welcomes the audience to the show, he introduces the first cartoon. The television comes on, and there are Farmer Gray and Felix the Cat, bouncing around in the same way they always have, still trapped inside the box, still as small as they ever were. You are thoroughly confused. What error have you made? you ask yourself. Where has your thinking gone wrong? The real is so defiantly at odds with the imagined, you can’t help feeling that a nasty trick has been played on you. Stunned with disappointment, you can barely bring yourself to look at the show. Afterward, walking back to the car with Billy and your mother, you toss away the mints in disgust.
Grass and trees, insects and birds, small animals, and the sounds of those animals as their invisible bodies thrashed through the surrounding bushes. You were five and a half when your family left the cramped garden apartment in Union and installed itself in the old white house on Irving Avenue in South Orange. Not a big house, but the first house your parents had ever lived in, which made it your first house as well, and even though the interior was not spacious, the yard behind the house seemed vast to you, for in fact it was two yards, the first one a small grassy area directly behind the house, bordered by your mother’s crescent-shaped flower garden, and then, because a white wooden garage stood just beyond the flowers, bisecting the property into independent terrains, there was a second yard behind it, the back backyard, which was wilder and bigger than the front backyard, a secluded realm in which you conducted your most intense investigations into the flora and fauna of your new kingdom. The only sign of man back there was your father’s vegetable garden, which was essentially a tomato garden, planted not long after your family moved into the house in 1952, and every year for the twenty-six and a half years that remained of his life, your father spent his summers cultivating tomatoes, the reddest, plumpest New Jersey tomatoes anyone had ever seen, baskets overflowing with tomatoes every August, so many tomatoes that he would have to give them away before they went bad. Your father’s garden, running along a side of the garage in the back backyard. His patch of ground, but your world—and there you lived until you were twelve.
Robins, finches, blue jays, orioles, scarlet tanagers, crows, sparrows, wrens, cardinals, blackbirds, and an occasional bluebird. Birds were no less strange to you than stars, and because their true home was in the air, you felt that birds and stars belonged to the same family. The incomprehensible gift of being able to fly, not to mention the multitude of bright and dull colors, fit subjects for study and observation, but what intrigued you most about them were the sounds they made, a different language spoken by each kind of bird, whether tuneful songs or harsh, abrasive cries, and early on you were convinced that they were talking to one another, that these sounds were articulated words of a special bird language, and just as there were human beings of different colors who spoke an infinite number of languages, so too with the airborne creatures who sometimes hopped around on the grass in your back backyard, each robin talking to his fellow robins in a language with its own vocabulary and grammatical rules, as comprehensible to them as English was to you.
In the summer: splitting a blade of grass down the middle and whistling through it; capturing fireflies at night and walking around with your magic, glowing jar. In the fall: sticking the pods that fell from the maple trees onto your nose; picking up acorns from the ground and throwing them as far as you could—deep into the bushes and out of sight. Acorns were delicacies coveted by the squirrels, and since squirrels were the animals you admired most—their speed! their death-defying jumps through the branches of the oaks overhead!—you watched them carefully as they dug little holes and buried acorns in the ground. Your mother told you they were saving the acorns for the lean months of winter, but the truth was that not once did you ever see a squirrel dig up an acorn in winter. You concluded that they dug holes for the pure pleasure of digging, that they were mad for digging and simply couldn’t stop themselves.
Until you were five or six, perhaps even seven, you thought the words human being were pronounced human bean. You found it mystifying that humanity should be represented by such a small, common vegetable, but somehow, twisting around your thoughts to accommodate this misunderstanding, you decided that the very smallness of the bean was what made it significant, that we all start out in our mother’s womb no larger than a bean, and therefore the bean was the truest, most powerful symbol of life itself.
The God who was everywhere and reigned over everything was not a force of goodness or love but of fear. God was guilt. God was the commander of the celestial mind police, the unseen, all-powerful one who could invade your head and listen to your thoughts, who could hear you talking to yourself and translate the silence into words. God was always watching, always listening, and therefore you had to be on your best behavior at all times. If not, horrendous punishments would come blasting down upon you, unspeakable torments, incarceration in the darkest dungeon, condemned to live on bread and water for the rest of your days. By the time you were old enough to go to school, you learned that any act of rebellion would be crushed. You watched your friends undermine the rules with cunning and brilliance, invent new and ever more devious forms of mayhem behind the backs of the teachers and continually get away with it, whereas you, whenever you succumbed to temptation and participated in these antics, were always caught and punished. Without fail. No talent for mischief, alas, and as you imagined your angry God mocking you with a burst of contemptuous laughter, you realized that you had to be good—or else.
Six years old. Standing in your room one Saturday morning, having just dressed yourself and tied your shoes (such a big boy now, such a capable boy), all ready for action, about to go downstairs and begin the day, and as you stood there in the light of the early spring morning, you were engulfed by a feeling of happiness, an ecstatic, unbridled sense of well-being and joy, and an instant later you said to yourself: There is nothing better than being six years old, six is far and away the best age anyone can be. You remember thinking this as clearly as you remember what you did three seconds ago, it is still blazing inside you fifty-nine years after that morning, undiminished in its clarity, as bright as any one of the thousands or millions or tens of millions of memories you have managed to retain. What had happened to cause such an overpowering feeling? Impossible to know, but you suspect it had something to do with the birth of self-consciousness, that thing that happens to children at around the age of six, when the inner voice awakens and the ability to think a thought and tell yourself you are thinking that thought begins. Our lives enter a new dimension at that point, for that is the moment when we acquire the ability to tell our stories to ourselves, to begin the uninterrupted narrative that continues until the day we die. Until that morning, you just were. Now you knew that you were. You could think about being alive, and once you could do that, you could fully savor the fact of your own existence, which is to say, you could tell yourself how good it was to be alive.
1953. Still six years old, some days or weeks after that transcendent illumination, another turning point in your inner progress, which happened to take place in a movie theater somewhere in New Jersey. You had been to the movies just two or three times before that, in each case an animated film for children (Pinocchio and Cinderella spring to mind), but films with real people in them had been available to you only on television, principally low-budget Westerns from the thirties and forties, Hopalong Cassidy, Gabby Hayes, Buster Crabbe, and Al “Fuzzy” St. John, clunky old shoot-’em-ups in which the heroes wore white hats and the villains had black mustaches, all of which you thoroughly enjoyed and believed in with fervent conviction. Then, at some point during the year you turned six, you were taken by someone to a film that was shown at night—no doubt your parents, although you have no memory of them being there. It was your first movie experience that was not a Saturday matinee, not a Disney cartoon, not an antique black-and-white Western—but a new film in color that had been made for grown-ups. You remember the immensity of the crowded theater, the spookiness of sitting in the dark when the lights went out, a feeling of anticipation and unease, as if you were both there and not there at the same time, no longer inside your own body, in the way one disappears from oneself in the grip of a dream. The film was The War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H. G. Wells, lauded at the time as a breakthrough work in the realm of special effects—more elaborate, more convincing, more advanced than any film that had come before it. So you have read in recent years, but you knew nothing about that in 1953, you were merely a six-year-old boy watching a battalion of Martians invade the earth, and with the largest of large screens looming before you, the colors felt more vivid than any colors you had seen before, so lustrous, so clear, so intense that your eyes ached. Stone-round metal spaceships landed out of the night sky, one by one the lids of these flying machines would open, and slowly a Martian would emerge from within, a preternaturally tall insect-like figure with stick arms and eerily long fingers. The Martian would fix his gaze on an earthling, zero in on him with his grotesque, bulbous eyes, and an instant later there would be a flash of light. Seconds after that, the earthling would be gone. Obliterated, dematerialized, reduced to a shadow on the ground, and then the shadow would vanish as well, as if that person had never been there, had never even been alive. Oddly enough, you don’t remember being scared. Transfixed is probably the word that best captures what was happening to you, a sense of awe, as if the spectacle had hypnotized you into a state of numbed rapture. Then something terrible happened, something far more terrible than the deaths or obliterations of the soldiers who had tried to kill the Martians with their useless weapons. Perhaps these military men had been wrong to assume the invaders had come with hostile intentions, perhaps the Martians were simply defending themselves as any other creatures would if they found themselves under attack. You were willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt, in any case, for it seemed wrong to you that the humans should have allowed their fear of the unknown to turn so quickly into violence. Then came the man of peace. He was the father of the leading lady, the young and beautiful girlfriend or wife of the leading man, and this father was a pastor or minister of some kind, a man of God, and in a calm and soothing voice he counseled those around him to approach the aliens with kindness and friendship, to come to them with a love of God in their hearts. To prove his point, the brave pastor-father started walking toward one of the ships, holding up a Bible in one hand and a cross in the other, telling the Martians they had nothing to fear, that we of the earth wanted to live in harmony with everyone in the universe. His mouth was trembling with emotion, his eyes were lit up with the power of his faith, and then, as he came within a few feet of the ship, the lid opened, a stick-like Martian appeared, and before the pastor-father could take another step, there was a flash of light, and the bearer of the holy word was turned into a shadow. Soon after that, not even a shadow—turned into nothing at all. God, the all-powerful one, had no power. In the face of evil, God was as helpless as the most helpless man, and those who believed in him were doomed. Such was the lesson you learned that night from The War of the Worlds. It was a jolt you have never fully recovered from.
Forgive others, always forgive others—but never yourself. Say please and thank you. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Don’t brag. Never say unkind things about a person behind his back. Remember to put your dirty clothes in the hamper. Turn out the lights before you leave a room. Look people in the eye when you talk to them. Don’t talk back to your parents. Wash your hands with soap and make sure to scrub under your nails. Never tell lies, never steal, never hit your little sister. Shake hands firmly. Be home by five o’clock. Brush your teeth before going to bed. And above all remember: don’t walk under ladders, avoid black cats, and never let your feet touch the cracks in sidewalks.
You worried about the unfortunate ones, the downtrodden, the poor, and even though you were too young to understand anything about politics or the economy, to comprehend how crushing the forces of capitalism can be on the ones who have little or nothing, you had only to lift your head and look around you to realize that the world was unjust, that some people suffered more than others, that the word equal was in fact a relative term. It probably had something to do with your early exposure to the black slums of Newark and Jersey City, the Friday evenings when you would make the rounds with your father as he collected the rent from his tenants, the rare middle-class boy who had a chance to enter the apartments of the poor and desperately poor, to see and smell the conditions of poverty, the tired women and their children with only an occasional man in sight, and because your father’s black tenants were always exceedingly kind to you, you wondered why these good people had to live with so little, so much less than you had, you so snug in your cozy suburban house, and they in their barren rooms with broken furniture or barely any furniture at all. It wasn’t a question of race for you, at least not then it wasn’t, since you felt comfortable among your father’s black tenants and didn’t care whether their skin was black or white, it all came down to a question of money, of not having enough money, of not having the kind of work to earn them enough money to live in a house like yours. Later on, when you were a bit older and started reading American history, at a moment in American history that happened to coincide with the flowering of the civil rights movement, you were able to understand a good deal more about what you had witnessed as a child of six and seven, but back then, in the obscure days of your dawning consciousness, you understood nothing. Life was kind to some and cruel to others, and your heart ached because of it.
Then, too, there were the starving children of India. This was more abstract to you, more difficult to grasp because more distant and alien, but nevertheless it exerted a powerful influence over your imagination. Half-naked children without enough to eat, emaciated limbs as thin as flutes, shoeless, dressed in rags, wandering through vast, crowded cities begging for crusts of bread. That was the vision you saw every time your mother talked about those children, which never happened anywhere except at the dinner table, for that was the standard ploy of all American mothers in the 1950s, who incessantly referred to the malnourished, destitute children of India in order to shame their own children into cleaning their plates, and how often you wished you could invite an Indian child to your house to share your dinner with you, for the truth was that you were a picky eater when you were small, no doubt the result of a faulty digestive system that afflicted you up to the age of three and a half or four, and there were certain foods that you couldn’t abide, that made you ill just to look at them, and each time you failed to finish off what had been served to you, you would think about the boys and girls of India and feel riven with guilt.
You can’t remember being read to, nor can you remember learning how to read. At most, you can recall talking to your mother about some of the characters you were fond of, characters from books, books she therefore must have read to you, but you have no memory of holding those books in your hands, no memory of sitting beside your mother or lying beside her as she pointed to the illustrations and read the words of the stories out loud to you. You cannot hear her voice, you cannot feel her body next to yours. If you strain hard enough, however, closing your eyes long enough to put yourself in a kind of semi-trance, you can just barely manage to summon up the impact certain fairy tales had on you, in particular “Hansel and Gretel,” which was the one that frightened you most, but also “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Rapunzel,” along with dim recollections of looking at pictures of Dumbo, Winnie the Pooh, and a little dalmatian named Peewee. But the story you cared about most, the one you still know more or less by heart, which means that it must have been read to you many dozens of times, was Peter Rabbit, the tale of poor naughty Peter, the wayward son of old Mrs. Rabbit, and his misadventures in Mr. McGregor’s vegetable patch. As you flip through a copy of the book now, you are astonished by how familiar it is to you, every detail of every painting, nearly every word of the text, especially the chilling words from old Mrs. Rabbit on the second page: “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” No wonder the story had such an effect on you. Charming and bucolic as the setting might be, Peter has not gone off on some lighthearted afternoon romp. By sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s garden, he is boldly risking his own death, stupidly risking his own death, and as you study the contents of the book now, you can imagine how intensely you must have feared for Peter’s life—and how deeply you rejoiced at his escape. A memory that is not a memory, and yet it still lives on in you. When your daughter was born twenty-four years ago, one of the presents she received was a china cup decorated with two illustrations from Beatrix Potter books. The cup somehow managed to survive the perils of her infancy and childhood, and for the past fifteen years you have been using it to drink your tea in the morning. Just one month short of your sixty-fifth birthday, and every morning you drink from a cup designed for children, a Peter Rabbit cup. You tell yourself that you prefer this cup to all other cups in the house because of its perfect size. Smaller than a mug, larger than a traditional teacup, with a pleasing curve around the lip at the top, which feels comfortable against your own lips and allows the tea to go down your throat without spilling. A practical cup, then, an essential cup, but at the same time you would not be telling the truth if you claimed to be indifferent to the pictures that adorn it. You enjoy beginning the day with Peter Rabbit, your old friend from earliest childhood, from a time so distant that no conscious memories belong to it, and you live in dread of the morning when the cup will slip out of your hand and break.
At some point in your adolescence, your mother told you that you could identify the letters of the alphabet by the time you were three or four. You don’t know if this assertion can be believed, since your mother tended to exaggerate whenever she talked about your youthful accomplishments, and the fact that you were put in the middle reading group when you started the first grade would seem to suggest that you were not as precocious as your mother thought you were. See Dick run. See Jane run. You were six years old, and your most vivid memory from that time places you at a desk that was set apart from the other children, a single desk at the back of the room, where you had been temporarily exiled for misbehaving in class (either talking to someone when you were supposed to be silent or as a result of one of the many punishments you received because of your ineptitude at making mischief), and as you sat at your solitary desk paging through a book that must have been printed in the 1920s (the boys in the illustrations were wearing knickers), your teacher came over to you, a kind young woman with thick, freckled arms named Miss Dorsey, or Dorsi, or perhaps Mrs. Dorsey or Dorsi, and put her hand on your shoulder, touching you gently, even tenderly, which surprised you at first but felt ever so good, and then she bent down and whispered in your ear, telling you that she was encouraged by the progress you had been making, that your work had improved dramatically, and therefore she had decided to shift you over to the top reading group. You must have been getting better, then. Whatever difficulties you had encountered in the early weeks of the school year were behind you now, and yet, when you retrieve the only other clear memory you have held on to from those days of learning how to read and write, you can do little more than shake your head in bafflement. You don’t know if this incident took place before or after your promotion to the highest reading group, but you distinctly recall that you came to school a bit late that morning because of a doctor’s appointment and that the first lesson of the day was already in progress. You slipped into your regular seat beside Malcolm Franklin, a large, hulking boy with exceptionally broad shoulders who was supposedly related to Benjamin Franklin, a fact or non-fact that always impressed you. Miss or Mrs. Dorsey-Dorsi was standing at the blackboard in front of the room, instructing the class on how to print the letter w. Each pupil, hunched over his or her desk with a pencil in hand, was carefully imitating her by writing out a row of w’s. When you looked to your left to see how Benjamin Franklin’s relative was faring with the assignment, you were amused to discover that your classmate wasn’t pausing to separate his w’s (wwww) but was linking them all together (wwww). You were intrigued by how bold and interesting this elongated letter looked on the page, and even though you knew perfectly well that a real w had only four strokes, you rashly decided that you preferred Malcolm’s version, and so, rather than do the assignment correctly, you copied your friend’s example, willfully sabotaging the exercise and proving, once and for all, that in spite of the progress you had made, you were still a world-class dunderhead.
There was a time in your life, perhaps before six or after six—the chronology has blurred—when you believed the alphabet contained two extra letters, two secret letters that were known only to you. A backwards L: . And an upside-down A: .
The best thing about the grammar school you attended, which lasted from kindergarten to the end of the sixth grade, was that no homework was ever assigned. The administrators who ran the local board of education were followers of John Dewey, the philosopher who had changed American teaching methods with his liberal, human approach to childhood development, and you were the beneficiary of Dewey’s wisdom, a boy who was allowed to run free the moment the final bell sounded and school was done for the day, free to play with your friends, free to go home and read, free to do nothing. You are immensely grateful to those unknown gentlemen for keeping your boyhood intact, for not burdening you with unnecessary busywork, for having the intelligence to understand that children can take just so much, and then they must be left to their own devices. They proved that everything that needs to be learned can be learned within the confines of school, for you and your classmates received good primary educations under that system, not always with the most inventive teachers, perhaps, but competent for all that, and they drilled the three R’s into you with indelible results, and when you think about your own two children, who grew up in an age of confusion and anxiety about pedagogical matters, you remember how they were subjected to grinding, unbearably tedious homework obligations night after night, often needing their parents’ help in order to finish their assignments, and year after year, as you watched their bodies droop and their eyes begin to shut, you felt sorry for them, saddened that so many hours of their young lives were being thrown away in the service of a bankrupt idea.
There were few books in your house. The formal educations of both your parents had stopped at the end of high school, and neither one of them had any interest in reading. There was a decent public library in the town where you lived, however, and you went there often, checking out two or three or four books a week. By the time you were eight, you had acquired the habit of reading novels, for the most part mediocre ones, stories written and published for young people in the early fifties, countless volumes in the Hardy Boys series, for example, which you later learned had been created by someone who lived in Maplewood, the town next to yours, but the ones you liked best were novels about sports, in particular Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series, which followed the high school adventures of heroic Chip and his friend Biggie Cohen as they triumphed in one closely fought contest after another, games that always ended with a last-second touchdown pass, a half-court shot at the final buzzer, or a walk-off home run in the bottom of the eleventh inning. You also remember a gripping novel called Flying Spikes, about an aging, over-the-hill ex–major leaguer trying for one last shot at glory in the low minor leagues, as well as numerous nonfiction works about your favorite sport, such as My Greatest Day in Baseball and books about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and the young Willie Mays. Biographies gave you almost as much pleasure as novels did, and you read them with passionate curiosity, especially the lives of people from the distant past, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, and that man of multiple talents, the ancestor or not-ancestor of your former classmate, Benjamin Franklin. Landmark Books—you remember those well, your grammar school library was filled with them—but even more engaging were the hardcover books from Bobbs-Merrill with the orange boards and spines, a vast collection of biographies with stark black silhouette illustrations interspersed among the pages of text. You read dozens of them, if not scores. And then there was the book your mother’s mother gave you as a present, which soon became one of your most cherished possessions, a thick volume with the title Of Courage and Valor (written by an author named Strong and published by the Hart Book Company in 1955), a compendium of over fifty short biographies of the gallant, virtuous dead, including David (defeating Goliath), Queen Esther, Horatius at the bridge, Androcles and the lion, William Tell, John Smith and Pocahontas, Sir Walter Raleigh, Nathan Hale, Sacajawea, Simón Bolívar, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, and Emma Lazarus. For your eighth birthday, that same beloved grandmother gave you a multi-volume edition of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. The language of Kidnapped and Treasure Island was too difficult for you at that age (you remember, for example, stumbling over the word fatigue the first time you encountered it in print and pronouncing it to yourself as fat-a-gew), but you manfully struggled through the less bulky Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even if most of it went sailing clear over your head as well. You adored the much simpler A Child’s Garden of Verses, however, and because you knew that Stevenson was a grown man when those poems were written, you were impressed by how deftly and persuasively he employed the first person throughout the book, pretending to write from the point of view of a small child, and you understand now, suddenly, that this was your first glimpse into the hidden wheelworks of literary creation, the mystifying process by which a person can leap into a mind that is not his own. The following year, you wrote your first poem, directly inspired by Stevenson, since he was the only poet you had read, a wretched piece of dried-out snot that began with the couplet: Spring is here, / Give a cheer! Thankfully, you have forgotten the rest, but what you do remember is the happiness that rushed through you as you composed what was, and undoubtedly still is, the worst poem ever written, for the time of year was indeed early spring, and as you walked alone across the newly resurgent grass in Grove Park and felt the warmth of the sun upon your face, you were in an exultant mood, and you felt the need to express that exaltation in words, in written, rhyming words. A pity that your rhymes were so impoverished, but no matter, what counted then was the impulse, the effort, the heightened sense of who you were and how deeply you felt you belonged to the world around you as your pencil inched across the page and you eked out your miserable verses. That same spring, for the first time in your life, you bought a book with your own money. You had had your eye on it for some weeks or months before that, but it took a while for you to save up the necessary cash ($3.95 is the figure that comes back to you now) in order to walk home with the gigantic Modern Library edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete poems and stories. Poe was too difficult for you as well, too florid and complex a writer for your nine-year-old brain to grasp, but even if you understood only a small fraction of what you were reading, you loved the sound of the words in your head, the thickness of the language, the exotic gloom that permeated Poe’s long, baroque sentences. Within a year, most of the difficulties had vanished, and by the time you were ten, you had made your next important discovery: Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson, the dear companions of your solitary hours, that strange pair of Dr. Dull Common Sense and Mr. Eccentric Mastermind, and although you followed the ins and outs of their numerous cases with avid attention, what delighted you most were their conversations, the invigorating back-and-forth of opposing sensibilities, in particular one exchange that so startled you, so vehemently overturned everything you had been taught to think about the world, that the revelation went on troubling you and challenging you for years to come. Watson, the practical man of science, tells Holmes about the solar system—the same solar system you had struggled so hard to comprehend when you were younger—explaining that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun in a precise and orderly fashion, and Holmes, the arrogant and unpredictable Mr. Know-It-All, promptly tells Watson that he has no interest in learning these things, that such knowledge is an utter waste of time and he will do everything in his power to forget what he has just been told. You were a ten-year-old fourth grader when you read that passage, perhaps an eleven-year-old fifth grader, and until then you had never heard anyone argue against the pursuit of learning, especially someone of Holmes’s stature, a man who was recognized as one of the great thinkers of the century, and here he was telling his friend that he didn’t care. In your world, you were supposed to care, you were supposed to show an interest in all realms of human knowledge, to study math as well as penmanship, music as well as science, and your much-admired Holmes was saying no, some things were more important than others, and the unimportant things should be tossed away and forgotten, since they served no purpose except to clutter one’s mind with useless bits of nothing. Some years later, when you found yourself losing interest in science and math, you recalled Holmes’s words—and used them to defend your indifference to those subjects. An idiotic position, no doubt, but you nevertheless embraced it. Further proof, perhaps, that fiction can indeed poison the mind.
The most celebrated figure from your part of the world was Thomas Edison, who had been dead for just sixteen years when you were born. Edison’s laboratory was in West Orange, not far from your house in adjacent South Orange, and because it had been turned into a museum after the inventor’s death, a national landmark, you visited it several times on school trips when you were a child, reverently paying homage to the Wizard of Menlo Park, who was responsible for more than a thousand inventions, including the incandescent lightbulb, the phonograph, and the movies, which to your mind made Edison one of the most important men who had ever lived, the number one scientist in human history. After a tour of the lab, visitors would be taken outside to a building called the Black Maria, a large tar-paper shack that had been the first film studio in the world, and there you and your classmates would watch a projection of The Great Train Robbery, the first feature film ever made. You felt that you had entered the innermost sanctum of genius, a holy shrine. Yes, Sherlock Holmes was your favorite thinker back then, a fearless exemplar of intellectual probity, the one who unveiled to you the miracle and the power of systematic, rational deduction, but Holmes was no more than a figment, an imaginary being who existed only in words, whereas Edison had been real, a flesh-and-blood man, and because his inventions had been created so close to where you lived, almost within shouting distance of your house, you felt a special connection to Edison, a singular intensity of admiration, if not whole-hog, out-and-out worship. You read at least two biographies of your hero before you were ten (a Landmark book first, then one of those orange books with the silhouette illustrations), saw television broadcasts of the two films that had been made about him—Young Tom Edison (with Mickey Rooney), Edison the Man (with Spencer Tracy)—and for some reason (it strikes you as preposterous now), you imagined there was something significant about the fact that both your birthday and Edison’s birthday fell in early February and, even more significant, that you had been born exactly one hundred years after Edison (minus a week). But best of all, most important of all, the thing that solidified your bond with Edison to the point of profoundest kinship, was the discovery that the man who cut your hair had once been Edison’s personal barber. His name was Rocco, a short, not-so-young man who wielded his comb and scissors in a shop just beyond the edge of the Seton Hall College campus, which was only a few blocks from your house. This was the mid-fifties, the late fifties, the era of the flattop and the crew cut, of white bucks and white socks and saddle shoes, of Keds sneakers and stiff, stiff jeans, and since you wore your hair short in the same way nearly every other boy did at the time, visits to the barbershop were frequent, on average twice a month, which meant that every other week throughout your childhood you sat in Rocco’s chair looking at a large reproduction of a portrait of Edison that hung on the wall just to the left of the mirror, a picture with a handwritten note stuck into the lower right-hand corner of the frame that read: To my friend Rocco: Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration—Thomas A. Edison. Rocco was the link that tied you directly to Edison, for the hands that had once touched the inventor’s head were now touching your head, and who was to say that the thoughts inside Edison’s head had not traveled into Rocco’s fingers, and because those fingers were now touching you, was it not reasonable to assume that some of those thoughts might now be sinking into your head? You didn’t believe any of this, of course, but you liked to pretend you did, and each time you sat in Rocco’s chair, you enjoyed playing this game of magical thought transference, as if you, who were destined to invent nothing, who would demonstrate not the smallest aptitude for things mechanical in years to come, were the legitimate heir of Edison’s mind. Then, to your astonishment, your father quietly informed you one day that he had worked in Edison’s lab after graduating from high school. Nineteen twenty-nine, his first full-time job, one of the many young men who had toiled under the master at Menlo Park. Nothing more than that. Perhaps he was trying to spare your feelings by not telling you the rest of the story, but the mere fact that Edison had been a part of your family’s history, which meant that he was now a part of your history as well, quickly trumped Rocco’s fingers as the most important link to the great man. You were immensely proud of your father. Surely this was the most vital piece of information he had ever shared about himself, and you never tired of passing that information on to your friends. My father worked for Edison. Meaning, you would now suppose, that your remote and uncommunicative father was no longer a complete cipher to you, that he was really someone, after all, a person who had made a contribution to the fundamental business of bettering the world. It wasn’t until you were fourteen that your father told you the second half of the story. The job with Edison had lasted only a few days, you now learned—not because your father hadn’t been doing well, but because Edison had found out he was Jewish, and since no Jews were allowed in the sacred precincts of Menlo Park, the old man summoned your father to his office and fired him on the spot. Your idol turned out to have been a rabid, hate-filled anti-Semite, a well-known fact that had not been included in any of the books you read about him.
Nevertheless, living heroes held far more sway over you than dead ones, even such exalted figures as Edison, Lincoln, and the young shepherd David, who slew the mighty Goliath with a single stone. Like all small boys, you wanted your father to be a hero, but your notion of heroism was too narrowly defined back then to grant your father a place in the pantheon. In your mind, heroism had to do with courage in battle, it was a question of how a person conducted himself in the midst of war, and your father was excluded from consideration because he hadn’t fought in the war, the war being the Second World War, which had ended just eighteen months before you were born. The fathers of most of your friends had been soldiers, they had served the cause in one way or another, and when the little gang you belonged to gathered to stage mock battles in your suburban backyards, pretending to be fighting in Europe (against the Nazis) or on some island in the Pacific (against the Japanese), your friends often showed up with various pieces of military equipment that had been given to them by their fathers (helmets, canteens, metal cups, cartridge belts, binoculars) in order to make the games feel more authentic. You, however, always came empty-handed. Later on, you learned that your father had been exempted from military service because he was in the wire business, which the government had deemed essential to the war effort. That always felt a bit lame to you, but the truth was that your father was older than the other fathers, already thirty when America entered the war, which meant he might not have been drafted in any case. You were just five and six and seven when you played soldier with your friends, much too young to understand anything about your father’s wartime situation, and so you began to question him about why he had no equipment to lend you for your games, perhaps even to pester him, and because your father could not bring himself to tell you that he hadn’t served in the army (was he ashamed—or was it simply that he felt you would be disappointed?), he concocted a ruse to satisfy your wishes—and also, perhaps, to elevate himself in your eyes, to be seen as a hero—but the trick backfired on him and wound up disappointing you, just as your father had feared the truth would disappoint you. One night, he stole into your room after you had been put to bed. He thought you were asleep, but you weren’t, your eyes were still open, and without saying a word you watched your father put two or three objects on your desk and then tiptoe out of the room. In the morning, you discovered that the objects were worn-out specimens of military gear—only one of which you can still see with any certainty: a tin canteen encased in thick green canvas. At breakfast, your father told you that he had dug up some of his old stuff from the war, but you weren’t fooled, you knew in your heart that those things had never belonged to him, that he had bought them the previous afternoon in an army surplus store, and although you said nothing, pretending to be happy with your gifts, you hated your father for lying to you like that. Now, all these years later, you feel only pity.
By contrast, there was the counselor at the day camp you attended during the summer when you were five, a young man named Lenny, no more than twenty-three or twenty-four years old, much liked by all the boys in his charge, slight of build, funny, warm, strongly opposed to harsh discipline, who had recently come home to New Jersey after serving as a soldier in Korea. You knew that a war was being fought over there, but the details were entirely obscure to you, and as far as you can remember, Lenny never talked about his experiences in combat. It was your mother who told you about them, she only twenty-seven at the time and therefore a contemporary of Lenny’s, and one afternoon when she came to fetch you, the two of them had a talk while you were gathering up your things, and when you and your mother were driving home in the car together, you could see how upset she was, more shaken than at any time you could remember (which surely accounts for why the incident has stayed with you all these years). She began telling you about frostbite, the intolerable cold of the Korean winters and the inadequate boots worn by the American soldiers, the badly designed boots that could do nothing to protect the feet of the infantrymen, causing frostbite, which blackened the toes and often led to amputation. Lenny, she said, poor Lenny had gone through all that, and now that your mother was explaining this to you, you realized that Lenny’s hands had also suffered from the cold, for you had noticed there was something wrong with the top joints of his fingers, that they were harder and more wrinkled than normal adult fingers, and what you had assumed to be a genetic defect of some kind you now understood was the result of war. Much as you had always liked him, Lenny now rose in your estimation to the rank of exalted person.
If your father wasn’t a hero to you, couldn’t be a hero to you, that didn’t mean you gave up searching for heroes elsewhere. Buster Crabbe and other movie cowboys served as early models, establishing a code of masculine honor to be studied and emulated, the man of few words who never looked for trouble but who would respond with daring and cunning whenever trouble found him, the man who upheld justice with quiet, self-effacing dignity and was willing to risk his life in the struggle between good and evil. Women could be heroic, too, at times even more courageous than men, but women were never your models for the simple reason that you were a boy, not a girl, and it was your destiny to grow up to become a man. By the time you were seven, the cowboys had given way to athletes, primarily baseball and football players, and while it puzzles you now that you should have thought that excelling at ball games could have taught you anything about how to live your life, there it was, for by now you had become a passionate young sportsman yourself, a boy who had turned these pastimes into the very center of his existence, and when you saw how the great ones performed under the pressure of do-or-die moments in stadiums thronged with fifty or sixty thousand people, you felt they were the incontestable heroes of your world. From courage under fire to skill under fire, the ability to thread a bullet pass through heavy coverage into the hands of a receiver or to lash a double to right-center field when the hit-and-run is on, physical prowess now instead of moral grandeur, or perhaps physical virtues translated into moral grandeur, but again, there it was, and you nurtured these admirations of yours all through the middle years of your childhood. Before you turned eight, you had already written your first fan letter, inviting Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, the top professional football player of the day, to attend your upcoming birthday party in New Jersey. To your everlasting surprise, Graham wrote back to you, sending a short, typewritten letter on official Cleveland Browns stationery. Needless to say, he declined the invitation, telling you that he had other obligations that morning, but the graciousness of his response mitigated the sting of disappointment—for even though you’d known it was a long shot, a part of you had thought he might actually come, and you had played out the scene of his arrival a hundred times in your head. Then, some months after that, you wrote to Bobby S., the captain and quarterback of the local high school football team, telling him what a magnificent player you thought he was, and because you were such a runt back then, which meant that your letter must have bordered on the ridiculous, filled with spelling errors and inane malapropisms, Bobby S. took the trouble to write back to you, no doubt touched to learn that he had such a young fan, and now that the football season had come to an end, he invited you to a basketball game as his guest (he played football in the autumn, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring—a three-sport superstar), instructing you to come down to the floor during warm-ups to identify yourself, which you did, and then Bobby S. found a spot for you on the bench, where you watched the game with the team. Bobby S. was all of seventeen or eighteen at the time, no more than an adolescent, but to you he was a full-grown man, a giant, as were all the other players on the squad. You watched the game in a blur of happiness, sitting in that old high school gym that had been built in the 1920s, both jangled and inspirited by the noise of the crowd around you, awed by the beauty of the cheerleaders who came prancing onto the floor during time-outs, rooting for your man Bobby S., who had made all this possible for you, but of the game itself you remember nothing, not a single shot, rebound, or stolen pass—only the fact that you were there, overjoyed to be sitting on the bench with the high school team, feeling as if you had stepped into the pages of a Chip Hilton novel.
A friend of your parents’, Roy B., had played third base for the Newark Bears, the legendary minor league team that had once been part of the New York Yankees system. Nicknamed Whoops—for shouting out that word whenever he made an error in the field—he never made it to the major leagues, but he had played with and against any number of future all-stars, and since everyone liked the fast-talking, effervescent Whoops, a squat fireplug of a man who owned a men’s discount clothing store out on Route 22, he was still in touch with many of his old ballplayer friends. He and his wife, Dolly, had three children, all girls, none of whom had any interest in baseball, and because he knew how much you cared about the game, both as a player and as a fan, he took you under his wing as a kind of surrogate son or nephew, a boy in any case, to share his baseball past with. One weekday night in the spring of 1956, just as you were about to go to bed, the telephone rang and, lo and behold, there was Phil Rizzuto on the other end of the line, the one and only Scooter, the Yankees’ shortstop from 1941 until his retirement earlier that month, asking if you were Paul, Whoops’s young friend. I’ve heard you’re a terrific infielder, he said, speaking in that famously jovial voice of his, and I just wanted to say hello and tell you to keep up the good work. You had been caught off guard, you barely knew what to say, you were too flummoxed and tongue-tied to give more than one-syllable answers to Rizzuto’s questions, but this was your first conversation with a legitimate hero, and even though it lasted no more than a couple of minutes, you nevertheless felt honored by that unexpected call, ennobled by your brush with the great man. Then, a week or two later, a postcard arrived in the mail. On the front, a color photograph of the interior of Whoops’s clothing store: rack after rack of men’s suits under the glare of fluorescent lights, ghost-like suits with no bodies in them, an army of the missing. On the back, a handwritten message: “Dear Paul, Hurry and grow up. The Cards can use a good third baseman. Yours, Stan Musial.” Phil Rizzuto had been one thing, an excellent player whose career was now behind him, but Musial was one of the immortals, a .330 lifetime hitter who ranked as the National League equivalent of Ted Williams, a player still in his prime, Stan the Man, the left-handed slugger with the curved stance and lightning-quick bat, and you imagined him strolling into Whoops’s store one afternoon to say hello to his old friend and the ever-vigilant Whoops asking Musial to write a few words to his little protégé, a short message for the kid, and now those words were sitting in your hands, which made you feel as if a god had reached out and touched you on the forehead. There was more, however, at least one more act of kindness from the good-hearted Whoops, a final display of generosity that surpassed all the other gifts he had bestowed on you. How would you like to meet Whitey Ford? he asked you one day. It was still 1956, but mid-October by then, not long after the end of the World Series. Of course you would like to meet Whitey Ford, you answered, you would love to meet Whitey Ford, who was the ace pitcher of the champion Yankees, the pitcher with the highest winning percentage in the history of the game, the short, brilliant lefty who had just completed his finest season. What person in his right mind would not want to meet Whitey Ford? And so it was arranged: Whoops and Whitey would stop by your house one afternoon next week, sometime between three-thirty and four, late enough to be certain you would be back from school. You had no idea what to expect, but you hoped the visit would be a long one, with Whoops and Whitey sitting around the living room with you for several hours talking baseball, during which Whitey would divulge the subtlest, most hidden secrets about the art of pitching, for in looking at you he would see straight into your soul and understand that, young as you might have been, you were someone worthy of being entrusted with that forbidden knowledge. On the appointed day, you rushed home from school, which was just a short distance from your house, and waited, waited for what must have been an hour and a half but felt as if it were a week, fretfully pacing around the rooms on the ground floor, all alone with your thoughts, your mother and father both off at work, your five-year-old sister God knows where, alone in the little clapboard house on Irving Avenue, growing more and more nervous about the supreme encounter, wondering if Whoops and Whitey would actually show up, fearing they had forgotten the rendezvous, or had been delayed by unforeseen circumstances, or had been killed in a car crash, and then, finally, when you were beginning to despair that Whitey Ford would ever set foot in your house, the doorbell rang. You opened the door, and there on the front steps was the five-foot-six-inch Whoops and the five-foot-ten-inch Yankee pitcher. A big smile from Whoops, followed by a terse but friendly handshake from the maestro. You invited them in, but Whoops or Whitey (impossible to remember which one) said they were running late and had only dropped by for a quick hello. You did your best to hide your disappointment, understanding that Whitey Ford would not in fact be setting foot in your house and that no secret knowledge would be imparted to you that day. The three of you stood there talking for what amounted to four minutes at most, which should have been enough to satisfy you, and surely would have been enough if you had not begun to suspect that the Whitey Ford standing on the front steps of your house was not the real Whitey Ford. He was the right size, his voice had the proper Queens accent, but something about his face looked different from the pictures you had seen of him, less handsome somehow, the round cheeks less round than they should have been, and even though his hair was blond, as Whitey’s hair was, it was cut in a severe flattop, whereas in all the photos you had seen of Whitey his hair was longer, combed back in a kind of modified pompadour. You wondered if the real Whitey Ford had backed out of the visit and that Whoops, not wanting to let you down, had produced this more or less reasonable facsimile of Whitey as a substitute. To quiet your doubts, you began asking Whitey or not-Whitey questions about his record of the past season. Nineteen and six, he said, which was the correct answer. Two point four seven, which was also the correct answer, but still you couldn’t shake the thought that a not–Whitey Ford might have done some homework before the visit so as not to be tripped up by a wiseass nine-year-old kid, and when he thrust out his right arm to shake your hand good-bye, you weren’t sure if you were shaking Whitey Ford’s hand or the hand of someone else. You still don’t know. For the first time in your life, an experience had led you into a zone of absolute ambiguity. A question had been raised, and it could not be answered.
Boredom must not be overlooked as a source of contemplation and reverie, the hundreds of hours of your early childhood when you found yourself alone, uninspired, at loose ends, too listless or distracted to want to play with your little trucks and cars, to take the trouble to set up your miniature cowboys and Indians, the green and red plastic figures you would spread out on the floor of your room in order to send them into imaginary assaults and ambushes, or to start building something with your Lincoln Logs or your Erector set (which you never liked anyway, no doubt because of your ineptitude with mechanical things), feeling no impulse to draw (at which you were also painfully inept and derived little pleasure from) or search for your crayons to fill in another page of one of your stupid coloring books, and because it was raining outside or too cold to leave the house, you would languish in a mopey, ill-humored torpor, still too young to read, still too young to call up someone on the telephone, pining for a friend or a playmate to keep you company, most often sitting by the window and watching the rain slide down the glass, wishing you owned a horse, preferably a palomino with an ornate Western saddle, or if not a horse then a dog, a highly intelligent dog who could be trained to understand every nuance of human spe Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Winter Journal, Sunset Park, Invisible, The Book of Illusions, and The New York Trilogy, among many other works. He has been awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature, the Prix Médicis Étranger, the Independent Spirit Award, and the Premio Napoli. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.