Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday Afternoon at Riverside Memorial Chapel: Remembering Ted Solotaroff

It’s September 1967 and you’re a fucked-up (except you wouldn’t use the term) 16-year-old boy, your hand in your pocket holding onto the ten dollar bill your grandpa gave you on Sunday just for being you, standing in front of a huge wall of paperbacks maybe six feet high at The Book Worm, your favorite hole-in-the-wall bookstore, on Flatbush Avenue just south of the Dutch Reformed Church.

There are numerous riches before you, and then you spot it: New American Review #1, put out by Signet (you generally like Bantam books best, then Signet, then Fawcett, then Dell, then Pocket Books and Ballantine), costing 95 cents, its kind of boring cover announcing some of its contents. It’s kind of like a magazine, only in book form. You open it and there’s a page of a story called “The Jewish Blues” by Philip Roth and as you read it, your heart beats fast and you feel a little dizzy.

You riffle the pages and there’s this other story, “Faith in a Tree,” by a writer you’ve never heard of called Grace Paley about a woman in Washington Square Park. You know then and there you’re going to buy this book but you look further and your heart really starts beating fast when you check out this article by Benjamin DeMott defending homosexual writers like the ones the former New York Times drama critic Stanley Kauffmann attacked, the one your English teacher, Mr. O’Hanlon, in your six months in an Upper West Side private school last year, wanted the class to discuss. And then there’s Stanley Kauffmann himself writing another article, explaining why the Times was stupid enough to fire him.

In another story, this guy Ronald Sukenick, weird name, is writing something about hippies flying a kite in the East River, and there's someone called William H. Gass's "Heart of the Heart of the Country" - did you read that right? There’s also poems by Robert Graves, who you’ve heard of, and Anne Sexton, who seems really cool, and John Ashbery, who you don’t get, and Louise Gluck, who’s just incredible. Wow, this whole book is incredible. Magazine? You didn’t say “whatever” then but you would have, and you put it in your left hand with the other three books you’ve already selected and later, waiting outside the drugstore on Flatbush for the B41 bus to Veterans Ave./East 71st St. home, you take this New American Review out of the Book Worm bag and start reading the introduction by the editor, Theodore Solotaroff.

For the next few years, New American Review, and then just plain American Review, is going to teach you everything about writing and literature that you don’t get from stuff in the New York state high school English curriculum like Silas Marner, Giants in the Earth, and even stuff you like, like R.U.R. and stories by Katherine Mansfield and Irwin Shaw.

You’re going to read more amazing stuff there by Philip Roth like his story “On the Air,” and Donald Barthelme’s “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning,” doing something you’d never seen done in a story before, and this lady Kate Millett on how D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer write weird stuff about women. And Harold Brodkey's story about first love, or sex, and A. Alvarez on suicide, especially Sylvia Plath's, and so much more.

The reviewer in The New York Times Book Review will say the stories are all depressing and they make him not want to like people and that story writers should go back to writing like someone you’ve never heard of, but for now you love what N.A.R. editor Ted Solotaroff has brought into your fucked-up-Brooklyn-Jewish maybe-homosexual anxiety-attack-ridden neurotic teenage life.

Later, you will met Ted Solotaroff just once and he’ll also respond nicely to your putting him, or actually his wife, at the end of your title story in your 1982 collection Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, published originally in an Austin litmag called Interstate, a story which ends:
After writing a story, I have a TV dinner usually (I never learned my mother’s cooking secrets) and write letters or make telephone calls. After finishing this story, I got out the Manhattan telephone directory and dialed the number of Theodore Solotaroff, editor of the American Review. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: May I speak to Mr. Solotaroff?
Mrs. Solotaroff: This is Mrs. Solotaroff.
Me: Mr. Solotaroff, please.
Mrs. Solotaroff: He’s not home now.
Me: Well, you can tell him that I’ve just written a masterpiece and he will print it and….
Mrs. Solotaroff: Please submit it to his office, not to his home. His office is 666 Fifth….
Me: Yes, I know. This phone call will make you famous too.
Mrs. Solotaroff (laughing): Okay. Good night.
Then I hung up and finished writing the story by including my phone conversation at the end of it.
Now I’m going to bed. I’ll sleep well, knowing that I’ve done another good day’s writing and that people everywhere will undoubtedly enjoy my story of Lincoln’s doctor’s dog.

And here you are, it’s August 2008, more than 40 years since you first read anything written or edited by Ted Solotaroff and you’re standing in a row in the middle of the second-floor chapel at The Riverside, just behind Sidney Offit, who you haven’t seen since some Authors Guild meeting in the 1980s but who you recognized immediately by the bowtie.

A few rows behind you is Sue Miller, and across the aisle is Philip Roth, looking ageless, and at the front is Max Apple – whose “Oranging of America,” that intoxicating story about the mythic Howard Johnson left you breathless when you first devoured it in American Review 19 as a 23-year-old grad student. . . . Max Apple is now reciting more prosaic words, only the first two of which you know well enough to recite along with him:
yiskadal v’yiskadash sh’meh rabah . . .

You look around and there are other people you sort of recognize, some by name, some not, from the old New York literary world that you once longed to enter. The youngish people, like the lawyers sitting next to you, tend to be friends of Solotaroff's sons or stepchildren or are younger relatives. Perhaps there are some young editors here, but you knew from when you first saw the little obituary notice over the weekend that few, if any, of the litbloggers would mention Solotaroff because most of them were either not alive or not reading adult books in the 1960s and 1970s.

But in Park Slope last month, visiting old friends, a non-literary couple, she a lawyer, he a junior-high teacher, you saw other old friends on the shelf: those classic issues of N.A.R./A.R. that were touchstones for you.

You've heard Stanley Moss say that Ted Solotaroff was the only man who ever joined the Navy to see the University of Chicago and then read his "Rainbows and Circumcision" and you've heard the literary critic Bob Solotaroff, Ted's younger brother by ten years, choke up when he told how Ted rescued him and their sister from the horribly abusive home described in Ted's memoir Truth Comes in Blows, and you've heard Maura Spiegel, Ted's stepdaughter-in-law, read excerpts from his essays, including from "Writing in the Cold," some great advice for young writers you remember but not well enough on how to lose your narcissism in search of the greater truth, and from "What Stories Do for Us," a great essay.

And you've listened to Ted's sons talk about him, from Paul telling how his father would spend hours with him in a damp bathroom with hot water gushing for hours as Paul suffered with asthma and Isaac making everyone laugh as he told about writing "Hector Leaves Home," a story about an Upper West Side mouse, with his father and brother when he was seven in the summer of '77 for a terrible Rolling Stone Press anthology of kids' stories by writers you wouldn't want to write for kids, like Mailer and Kesey.

And you've heard Gina Heiserman, Ted's stepdaughter, talk about how he not only took care of writers but how he was a caretaker for his ill wife Virginia, her mother, and then you've heard Gina read a Yeats poem Ted and his wife loved:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

And you hear the words: It's been a wonderful life

And as you exit the chapel, Offit and Roth talking together ahead of you, others going to the reception at someone's Central Park West apartment, you lose yourself in the crowd in front of the fruit stands at Fairway on Broadway and remember this advice Ted Solotaroff gave to more than one young writer:
I would say don't be faked out by "Literature" -- write about what you know or feel strongly about: don't worry about whether it's worthy of "Literature" or not. Let literature judge that for itself. I often tell young writers that I think the best way to prepare themselves to write is to write a journal and develop a style that's very personal, as you can with a journal because no one's looking over your shoulder except yourself. That kind of training--writing without any pressure--is excellent for developing personal style.

Ted Solotaroff meant a lot to many writers. He'll be missed.

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