My real life—or what I think of as my real life—began in fiction.
It was late March 1959. Earlier that month, I had turned fifteen, an occasion I had celebrated by nearly killing myself with a bottle of whiskey. In the bedroom of one of my friends, with a shot glass at the ready, I had cracked the seal on a fifth of Seagram’s 7 Canadian whiskey. My bottle, purchased for me with my own money from the Colony Liquor Store on Eighty-second Street, in Jackson Heights, by an older friend.
I screwed the cap off the glass-threaded mouth of the bottle and put my nose to it. It smelled strong and scary. This was stuff men drank in taverns. Up on the avenues and side streets, in the shadows of the looming elevated train tracks, they sat along dark wooden bars and ordered shots of it, glass of water on the side, pack of unfiltered cigarettes and book of matches to the other side, nest of dollars before them anchored with a few coins—quarters, dimes, nickels. The men sat on stools, their backs to the world, and faced the lighted back-bar mirror, the gleaming ranks of bottles. Carefully they lifted the little brimming glass to their lips and knocked it back, grunted, clacked the empty glass on the bar, with a nod ordered a refill from the gruff but friendly bartender, a tough-faced priest in this world that counterbalanced the world of churches and Mass, holy sacraments. This was the sacrament of real life—take and drink.
I poured a shot. Three friends were in the room with me. Two of them had half-quart cans of Rheingold beer, the other a Pepsi bottle filled with the cooking wine he’d filched from his mother’s kitchen. But I was ambitious. I wanted nothing less than whiskey.
On my friend’s 45-rpm record player was a stack of singles—Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns, the Cleftones, Moonglows, the Cardinals, Smokey Joe’s Café. Poor doomed Johnny Ace, dead at twenty-five playing games with a loaded pistol, pledging his love. And a record by Jimmy Liggins & His 3-D Music called Drunk: “Mean old bottle they call moonshine / red, red wine so mellow and fine . . . Drunk!”
I lifted the shot to my lips—You can do this!—and knocked it back, straight down. It burned like holy hell. Hot, bitter, sour, rough. It scorched my mouth, my gullet, my belly. It tasted like manhood. I gritted my teeth, glared at the bottle.
You can do this.
I poured another shot. The glass of the bottleneck made a nice clink against the rim of the thick shot glass. The liquor gurgled into the glass. Up to my lips and thrown back. Easy. Nothing to it.
The music was sounding good!
Seventeen shots, the entire fifth, in half an hour.
Later that night, my friends helped me home through the snow, a March blizzard. Blurrily, I recall crawling up onto a mound of snow to make some kind of speech before toppling and giggling. They got me up on my feet again. One of them fished my side-door key out of my pants pocket. They tried to smuggle me into my basement, but my father heard the commotion, intercepted me just as I started heaving over the rail of the basement stairway. My friends took off fast, and my father helped me up to my room.
He sat beside my bed all night, holding the bucket, helping me sit up and puke into it, gripping my arm to give me courage as I moaned, tasted bile, gall, wretched up the foul vapors that remained in the pit of my clenching stomach.
“So sorry,” I muttered, spitting.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You’ll be okay.”
In the morning, he took away the bucket, brought me ginger ale and saltine crackers, opened the window to chase the stink with cold winter air. My mother wanted nothing to do with me, but my father looked not unkindly at me, doubled up in my bed with shame, body and spirit aching, and he said quietly, “Now you’ve tried that. An experiment. Now you know what it is. You’ve learned your lesson.”
The intense shame I felt that day faded slowly in the days and weeks that followed. Now, more than fifty years later, when I think back upon the kindness my father showed me, caring for me throughout that terrible night, I can only guess at how intense his own shame might have been. Or perhaps, despite being an alcoholic, he managed to remain blind to it. As a fifteen-year-old, I myself was blind to everything but my own shame—shame at the secret, unmanly lack of self-control I had been made to believe I should have over the natural passion of my body. Somehow I had swallowed the whole fiction, all the fictions of mortal sin, of confession and absolution and purifying the body for holy Communion. Whatever possessed me to take seriously the admonitions of men who wore black dresses and had taken formal vows to deny the normal yearnings of their blood I do not know, but seriously I took them. I feared an eternity of flaming punishment, feared losing the love of God—as though it weren’t God who had created the porn-shop window display of my young mind to tempt me into keeping the human race going. Most Saturday afternoons I stepped in behind the dusty curtain of a dark closet and murmured through a screen, revealing to the shadowy priest how many times my self-control had failed that week, how many times I had defiled the sacred temple of my own body, to be answered in my quivering misery by the shout of the priest, enraged in his hypocrisy, “How many times? You’re not even trying, you weakling!”
But I was a hypocrite, too. I lived a secret life with my friends where we spoke a secret obscene language, shared fantasies and lies about the girls we knew, exaggerated our exploits, our incursions into the sweet territory of their bodies at dances, in the schoolyard, in the borrowed backseats of cars parked in driveways or in the last row of the balcony in local movie theaters. Or I sneaked down late at night to dig into the back of my father’s lowest desk drawer, where he kept a couple of books that had some black-and-white shots of burlesque queens and silent-film stills—one of Barbara Stanwyck, a famous actress, almost completely naked, just wearing some kind of cups over her breasts and a long scarf between her thighs, a feather on her head. Another was from the old silent-movie version of Dante’s Inferno, with a bunch of naked people, including a great-looking woman, wearing nothing at all, not a stitch. You could see her ass, the sides of her breasts, smooth thighs. There were men, too, devils with whips. If this was hell, it looked a hell of a lot more desirable than heaven! I gorged my eyes on the forbidden pictures, then carefully returned the books to their hiding place, sneaked back to my room with fuel to heat my fantasies as I defiled the temple once again. Those books were much better than the women’s underwear ads in the New York Times Magazine, which my father complained loudly were indecent. I knew the secrets of his lowest desk drawer, but never questioned the hypocrisy.
That’s just how it was. You lived two lives.
There were so many lies. Church and family and country, too. I didn’t know what was true—the face you showed the world or the one you hid? Maybe one was true during the day and the other at night. Maybe neither was true. Maybe nothing was true. For example, our happy family. “Your father is an important man, vice president of a bank.” We were special. We were so special that no one could come into our house—no parties, no dinner guests, no overnight visits from friends. Years later I would understand this was not uncommon for the family of an alcoholic. But I didn’t know to ask why. You didn’t ask. That’s just how it was.
One evening late in March of that year, a few weeks after the whiskey experiment, I sat behind the closed door of my little bedroom, still feeling chastened. I did not want to see my friends. I did not want to see anybody. I did not know what I wanted. It was around half past eight. My homework was done. Nothing on TV. The house was quiet. My sister was at church, off making her Monday-evening novena to the Blessed Mother. She was in her mid-twenties and was the person I liked most in the world. She had been married, but the marriage had gone bad—he wasn’t good enough for her, my father said—and she’d returned home. (Which meant that was it for her. A Catholic married once—and only death undid that.) I loved my sister. We could talk. The only great-looking, kind woman I knew whom I could really talk to. Just not about dirty stuff. She hated dirty stuff.
But she was at church, and that evening my mother was in her room, as always at that hour, sitting at her vanity, performing her nightly ritual of creaming her face and her hands, massaging her scalp.
My parent’s bedroom was divided in two, each end like a separate room, each with its bed, its bureau, its little bookcase, on my father’s side a chair and writing table, on my mother’s her vanity. There was a telephone extension on my father’s table, and I was allowed to make private calls from it, so people in the living room couldn’t listen in. I remember once chatting on that phone with a girl I knew, and she asked where I was sitting. I said, “On my father’s bed,” and she laughed. “Your father’s bed! Your father doesn’t have his own bed, does he?” I had grown up on Legion of Decency movies, where married men and women each had a separate bed with a night table in between; it had never occurred to me until that moment that some couples slept in the same bed, that some people considered it normal to do so.
I knew that my father, meanwhile, sat in his armchair at the corner of the living room, surrounded by his many bookcases, reading. My father read a great deal, and he wrote poetry. He had even published two of his poems, one in the New York Times. Mostly when he was home he sat in his armchair and read or at his desk in the living room and wrote poems with a sharpened yellow pencil on yellow legal pads he took from the bank, or looked at his coin collection. Or else he sat at the dining room table or the kitchen table with a bottle and a shot glass and a pack of Camels, maybe listening to his Irish records. Or he napped on the sofa, snoring so you could hear it throughout the house and muttering in his sleep. Sometimes his muttering turned into a shout. I remember once, maybe more than once, his shouting out in his sleep, “It’s a bunch of crap! You hear me? Bunch of crap!” Or he would slip on a suit jacket over his flannel shirt and stride briskly up to the avenue to one of the local taverns—Ward’s or Ryan’s or the Drum—and sit at the bar with the other men, backs to the world, drinking shots of rye, smoking cigarettes, telling stories in hoarse voices and laughing.
But on this particular night he was sober, reading in his blue armchair, legs crossed, smoking a Camel, drinking Hoffman’s ginger ale. Only when I think back on it from decades in the future does it occur to me that he might also have learned a lesson from my whiskey experiment. Now I know how lucky I was—that drinking that much whiskey so fast can kill you. Or, if I’d been alone and wandered out, drunk as I was, into that blizzard, I might have passed out somewhere and frozen to death. It occurs to me that the possibility might have scared him sober. For a while.
But if he was sober and reading, I was restless, wanting something but not knowing what. I stepped out of my room into the upstairs hall, looked at all the closed doors—to my parents’ room, my sister’s, the bathroom, the linen closet. I wandered down the angled wooden staircase, past the framed picture of Pope Pius XII, hooked nose, esthetic face, eyes glittering from behind wire spectacles, the Vicar of Christ on earth, infallible in matters of faith and morals, who had taken a “prudent” position regarding the Holocaust. That face, staring humorlessly from the wall, was enough to kill a hard-on before it half started.
At the doorway to the living room, I looked in on my father, asked what he was reading. Some historical novel. Sounded boring. I asked if he had something he would recommend for me to read. He laid the book, splayed open, on the arm of his chair, stood up and browsed along the shelves of his glass-doored bookcases, one against each of three walls, paused, opened the door of one and slid out a red book with a black spine, a thick hardback.
“You might like this one,” he said. “Give it a try.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a novel. Give it a try.”
In my room again, I shut the door behind me, lay on my bedspread, pillow bunched beneath my head, and read the title on the spine: Crime and Punishment. Sounded boring. I skipped the author’s name as unpronounceable, opened the cover. It was translated from the Russian and had an introduction by someone named Clifton Fadiman. Clifton! I thought, with a smirk, but I read the first sentence of the introduction: “Unless he has been thoroughly briefed, the English-speaking reader who enters Crime and Punishment for the first time may well believe he has strayed into a lunatic asylum.”
That sounded promising. I scanned ahead, read another sentence: “The attentive reader at last admits that the world of this book is no mere creation of an overheated brain. We recognize the author’s intuitive knowledge of the night side of human beings, of their unconscious drives, of those furious capacities for emotion which are ordinarily inhibited by the universal censor we call society.”
Now I could feel something in me stirring—the night side of human beings! the universal censor we call society! I had never heard anything like this at all. It was completely foreign to anything I had ever been exposed to, but just those two sentences seemed to promise a revelation that might change my life.
Eagerly I flipped to the first chapter and began to read:
On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. Bridge. He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady lived in the floor below and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed . . . For some time he had been in an overstrained, irritable condition . . . He had become so completely absorbed in himself and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting not only his landlady, but anyone at all . . . to be stopped on the stairs, to be forced to listen to trivial, irrelevant gossip.
I was breathless with fascination. This was a window to another world, escape from the life that I suddenly realized had been oppressing me for years, the life of hypocrisy and lies. Raskolnikov entertained thoughts I did not even know were in my mind. Not that I wanted to kill anybody, no. But he made me understand that the strange private world of my own mind was perhaps a place I might enter and explore, that I might discover and learn to understand the hidden world inside me by carefully observing the world depicted in words between the covers of this century-old book.
Often I had enjoyed reading a book, liked to read, but this was an entirely new experience—as Fadiman had written in the introduction, it was like wandering into a lunatic asylum, but the lunatics made more sense than the people around me who were supposed to be sane and normal.
This was fiction, a novel, but it was more real than anything I had experienced in my life, more true.
By 3:00 a.m., my eyes were blurring. I couldn’t read more, clicked off my lamp and slept. When my mother woke me for school at the usual time next morning, seven, I told her I was sick.
All that day I read, all that evening, all that night, into the early hours of morning.
Fiction had come for me. The real world would never be enough again.
My father belonged to some poetry society where he used to go every so often with a few poems that would be read anonymously to the group. I pictured them all sitting around a long wooden table in a hotel conference room the way the members of his coin club had done the time he took me to one of their meetings. The coin-club members had each stood up one by one and talked about the coins they had brought with them to show that evening. My father leaned over to me and murmured that I didn’t have to do that, but I wanted to. When my turn came, I rose to my feet—a twelve-year-old little man in a charcoal-gray suit, white shirt, and maroon necktie, chubby kid with horn-rimmed glasses—cleared my throat as my father used to do before speaking, and described the silver half dime and nickel three-cent piece I had brought with me in tiny cardboard frames with glassine windows.
The coin-club members, during a break in the proceedings, approached me to compliment my presentation, asked to see my coins, and clucked encouragingly over them.
A few weeks later my father showed me the minutes of that meeting, printed in the club bulletin, where my report on my coins was included. It was nice to see my name in print.
The poetry society apparently was something else. There, your poems were read out by the society secretary. No one knew who had written them, so all felt free to express criticism, even ridicule. My father came home once, tense and scowling, and I heard him tell my mother that, by jingo, one of the “critics” had said about his poem, “I can just see the author with his little rhyming dictionary fumbling after words.” Apparently everyone around the table had agreed.
My father took down a bottle from the pantry shelf and poured a shot, threw it back. “But you know what?” he added. “One fellow there stood up and he said, ‘You don’t like that poem? Where’s my hat? Good night, gentlemen!’ And he walked out the door.” My father poured another shot, paused with it halfway to his lips. “Said he was never coming back, either.”
He got my sister to type up his poems, one per page in a black poetry-book-sized loose-leaf binder, and he stuck a label on the cover on which was printed:
George Ryan Kennedy
Later I would understand that as a sad attempt to satisfy his painful, unfulfilled yearning for another life, the life of a writer rather than of a banker. I would understand because I inherited that yearning from him. No one has expressed the pain for a writer of not being published more clearly than Job, when he laments, “Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book!”
Just about two years passed between the night I strayed into the benevolent lunatic asylum of Crime and Punishment and the night I decided that I wanted to be a writer myself. In the meantime, fiction had become my constant companion. I always had a novel with me. I read on the subway to and from school, forty-five minutes each way between Queens and Brooklyn. I read during breaks in my after-school job, assisting Anthony A. Antoniou, a local shoemaker. I read in the evenings, in the mornings over breakfast, on the jakes, in the bath. Hard as it may be to believe, I even read sometimes at parties and hanging around with friends in the schoolyard.
Some friends and schoolmates viewed my absorption as an affectation. In those days it was uncool to carry your schoolbooks in any kind of bag or briefcase; you carried them in a stack beneath your arm: I remember a guy in my class once eyeing the thick spine of a Dostoyevsky biography I’d gotten for my seventeenth birthday, nestled between my history and math texts. He snorted. “Figure it looks good around campus, huh, Kennedy?” I had no idea what he was talking about. Another time, a beautiful Ecuadorian girl named Rebecca Merino, who hung around with us in the neighborhood schoolyard, saw me lugging around a Heritage Club hardback of The Brothers Karamazov and squinted with disbelief.
“What is that you carry there? A book for school?”
“No, it’s a novel I’m reading.”
“You are reading that thing for yourself? How many page?”
I flipped to the back and said, “Seven hundred fifty-two.”
She crossed herself. “A que no!”
But I wasn’t reading to get girls. Partly, maybe, I was reading because I didn’t have a girl, or because when I did have a girl, it was never enough. Nothing was enough to make up for the insufficiency of life. Only books came close.
One evening in my room with a fat anthology of short stories, I happened to read a story by someone named Katherine Mansfield. It was titled “Miss Brill” and was very short, only five and a half pages. Miss Brill is an old woman whose main pleasure in life is dressing up to go out to the public gardens on Sundays, and the people in the gardens are like her family, although she doesn’t really know or speak to any of them. But she listens to snatches of conversation around her and feels as though she is involved, and the light is beautiful and makes her feel she wants to sing, as though everyone is about to sing, as she sits on her special bench, discreetly observing all the people around her. Then a beautifully dressed boy and girl sit down nearby, clearly in love, and Miss Brill hears them muttering devastatingly unkind things about her, about her appearance, about why she even bothers to come to the public gardens. And Miss Brill returns home to her little dark room and sits for a long time and thinks she hears something crying.
So hurt did I feel by this story that I flung the book across my little room and sat there for a long time on the edge of my bed, furious that I was unable to do anything to help or comfort this poor lonely old woman or to reprimand the young couple who had been so thoughtless, who had with a few cruel, careless words snatched away her only joy in life.
It seemed to me that Katherine Mansfield was responsible for this. At least I could contact her. I could muster whatever power of words was available to me and write her a letter, scolding her, telling her off for creating this lamentable situation. I retrieved the book from where it had landed beneath my rickety writing table, flipped it open to find out where I could get ahold of this brutish writer, and learned that Katherine Mansfield had been born in 1888 and had died in 1923. She had been dead for thirty-eight years.
All at once it seemed to me that this writer had reached out from beyond the grave to grab my heart and squeeze a profound, hidden sorrow from it. There was no one to blame, no one to scold or tell off. There was only me and the story, the injured old woman, the thoughtless young boy and girl. Then I began to understand. This story was an illumination of life. It went beneath the surface and made it possible for us to see, to comprehend the meaning of things, the meaning of this isolated event one Sunday afternoon in the public gardens, how we hurt one another without a thought. It had made that moment of pain eternal, an eternal reminder, an eternal understanding.
And I realized that this was what I wanted, the only thing I wanted to do. To write. To develop this power to make people see, to make myself see.
Immediately I sat down at my wobbly little desk with a notebook and pen, and I began to write. It was a story about an old woman, Constance, who lived alone in a dilapidated mansion in Brooklyn. She and her sister, Edith, had never married, but had stayed home with their father, who had assured them they would never want for anything and would never have to work, for work was beneath their station as ladies. So they were not educated to any profession, could do nothing practical. It was unnecessary for them. In time, their father died, but they inherited what was left of his fortune. It was not a great deal, but by being frugal, they could manage. They closed off much of the great house in which they had been born and lived all their lives. They could not afford to heat all those rooms. But in the kitchen was an old woodstove, and they broke up the furniture in the other rooms and burned it for warmth and to cook, and they collected newspapers, which they stored in great piles throughout the house to use as fuel when the furniture was all gone. They lived in the kitchen and slept in a little side room, and they hoarded canned food and watched the last of their money dwindle and wondered what they would do.
Then, one morning, Edith did not get up. It was a bitter, cold February day. Constance was convinced that Edith had influenza and needed to rest beneath the covers so she did not disturb her. She went about her day as usual, went out collecting newspapers, bought yesterday’s leftover bread from the bakery with her last few pennies, came back to the house. Edith was still in bed beneath the covers. It was so cold and there was so little wood for the stove and so little bread that Constance decided not to light the stove or to eat. She would save the little they had left for tomorrow to share with Edith. She decided to crawl into her bed across from her sister. She kept her fine coat on, frayed now with the years, but still it was so cold. Perhaps she should get up and light the stove after all. She would ask her sister’s advice. “Edith,” she whispered across the room, but her sister did not answer. It was so late, so dark, so cold, that she could not face the task of getting up, breaking wood, finding matches. So she closed her eyes and waited for sleep to come.
Basically, it was an account of what had happened to my mother’s two old maiden aunts, who had been found the year before frozen to death in their beds in their dead father’s big house in Brooklyn. So I had not made up the story, but I was vaguely aware that, with a little help and inspiration from Katherine Mansfield, I had imagined the last day in the life of the last sister. It was not really a story, rather a vignette, a slice of life. Still, I felt I had discovered a power within myself. But what would anybody else think of it? Next day when my father was at work, I helped myself to his Remington manual typewriter, and using the touch-typing skills that Brother Charles had taught us in school the year before, I put the story into typescript at the breathtaking speed of thirty-five words per minute. It hardly filled four pages, double-spaced. I gave it a title, too, a simple one, “Constance.” This was pure fiction, for my mother’s aunt’s name was Florence.
After dinner that night, when my father had stationed himself in his armchair with ginger ale and Camels and a historical novel, I looked in on him and told him I had written something.
“You did? What?”
“A short story.”
“Well, let’s see it.”
I couldn’t bear to sit there and watch him read it so I crept back up to my room and shut the door, sat on the bed, sat on the chair, paced, thought, Who am I trying to kid? But then I remembered the way I’d felt when I was writing those pages. It was as though I had entered another dimension, as though the world had disappeared, as though I had disappeared, as though as long as my pen was on the page scratching across the lines, recording the words that arose from somewhere inside me, I had entered another place, a weightless place, and that when I was finished, when I came back to the real everyday world, something new existed there, something I myself had created.
There was a tap on the door.
I knew it was my father. I didn’t want to hear what he would say. I didn’t want to hear him say “Not bad, kiddo.” Or “Keep at it, sonny boy.” Because without being fully aware of it, somehow I knew that what he saw on those four sheets of paper I’d given him was only half the story. That was only the product. The other half was the writing of it—what I would decades later come to know as the process. What I would later understand, in a very real sense, as the more important half.
I opened the door.
My father looked in at me, his brown eyes, his big belly and big warm face, his thinning silver-chestnut hair, his dentures smiling beneath his red-gray mustache. He was fifty-five years old. No age. How could I have ever guessed that in three years he would be dead, his dream of writing unsatisfied, that when the doctor told him, “Quit drinking, George, or it’ll kill you, fast,” he would choose death?
All I knew at that moment as we stood looking at each other across the threshold of my room was what I hoped he might say to me.
And he did. He smacked the pages in his hand and said, “This is terrific!”
Later that day, or perhaps the next, I overheard him from the next room saying to my sister, “Did you read Tom’s story? That kid has really got it!”
My father was tipsy at my high school graduation, later that spring, as he and my mother and sister watched me walk slowly across the stage—as we had been admonished to do during rehearsal—to receive the diploma and a handshake from Brother Peter, the vice principal, who had never said two words to me during the past four years. Yes, he did say two words once, about a year before, when he glowered at my gold and black houndstooth slacks and snapped, “Foppish attire!” But now on the stage he looked into my eyes and startled me by saying quietly, “Kennedy, that was an excellent composition you wrote for your Regents exam. We expect great things from you.”
Also graduating that day was the fellow who that year had founded the school opera club—membership two—a chubby boy named Rudolph Giuliani. I don’t know what Brother Peter expected from Rudi, but I was dazzled that the sourpuss, dodo-nosed brother had smiled and finally recognized me—recognized my work.
After the ceremony my father invited the family out to eat in a restaurant called the Hof Brau, on Broadway in Elmhurst, where we were served by a waiter named Emil, who wore black livery. My father ordered a beer for me, explaining to Emil that I was old enough. In fact, I was just seventeen and would have preferred a Coke, but the occasion seemed to call for something more festive. I could see from my father’s eyes that, in keeping with the occasion, he’d been liberally into the rye, but he toasted me with Heineken.
Then he said, “You know, son, you received that diploma with real dignity. I was proud of you.” His eyes turned wistful. “I remember the day I graduated. That was the year my dad died.” He shook his head and abruptly looked into my eyes. “I didn’t feel I had that dignity.”
I didn’t feel I had it, either. Dignity was not my first priority. That September I started at the City College of New York, even joined the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps—what was I thinking!—and had a course load that included economics, calculus, physics, Latin, PT, and composition—all basic required courses at that time. I’d had four years of Latin in high school, but needed a fifth, and I needed another year of science. The only course I had that interested me at all was composition. Then I found out I could switch Latin for Greek literature in English translation. So at least I would have one literature course. Physics could as well have been Russian for me, so I switched to astronomy, which was a little more bearable.
But basically all I wanted to do was read and write, and basically that was all I did. I read most of Dostoyevsky, most of John Steinbeck and Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis, some of Hemingway, Turgenev, Camus, Gide, Jack London, Gilgamesh, hundreds of short stories and poems. I had little guidance. My reading was what you might call eclectic—or, rather, coincidental. What I happened upon, I read.
My composition professor, an old guy named Lefferts, took an interest in me because of my background in Latin, and he found out that I wanted to be a writer and was on the verge of becoming an apostate Catholic. So he urged me to write an essay on Divine Providence and to read Graham Greene and James Joyce. That was when I discovered Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It had been written about early-twentieth-century Dublin, published nearly fifty years before I read it, but as far as I was concerned it might as well have been written yesterday about Irish Catholic, barely post-McCarthy Queens.
Then I was reading the closing discourse between Stephen Dedalus and Cranley, and I must have been a very weird seventeen-year-old, because I was enthralled by it: “Look here, Cranly, Stephen said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.”
And Stephen continued: “I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity, too.”
Professor Lefferts had urged me to keep a journal and to write in it every day, even if only a single sentence. “It will loosen up your style. And who knows? Perhaps in a year or two it might even become a book.”
And I did that. I filled many thick spiral notebooks with thoughts, quotes, stories, ponderings, doubts, ecstasies, descriptions, dialogues with imaginary people (including an old black man who would calm me at my moments of worst despair), and fears.
My primary question became the question of what I feared.
How bizarre it seems now to think of myself in a regulation Class A U.S. Army uniform and spit-shined low quarters marching around Lewisohn Stadium like some Hitler youth with a bunch of adolescent officer candidates, pondering, while I tried to keep in step, whether I feared making a lifelong mistake, or even one as long as eternity.
Then I met Jack. Kerouac, that is. I came at him obliquely, happening upon a copy of Maggie Cassidy with a lurid cover in some drugstore rack, and it made my heart break royally. And led me to On the Road, The Subterraneans, and beyond.
And then I knew what I had to do. I had to write books, because we’re all going to die, because nobody—nobody—knows what’s going to happen to anybody. I had to do what Kerouac said, to “struggle in the dark with the enormity of my soul, trying desperately to be a great rememberer redeeming life from darkness.” I had to get away, as Kerouac had done, and write the books. Go west and write the books. It was so clear. What could be more clear?
That night I told my father I needed to speak to him. I told him that the only thing I wanted to do in the world was to write, that school was driving me crazy, that I had to get away. To get away and write.
He looked at me and his strong brown eyes were brimming with sorrow. He said, “You know, son. I always wanted to write. Maybe you should take the chance and do it. Okay.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
Now I was really scared. Now I had permission. Sometimes permission is the scariest thing in the world.
That was the end of 1961. My plan was to get a job, save some money, and get out on the road. Like Stephen, I no longer feared making a mistake—at first. Years would pass. Decades. And I began to understand that I might have made a mistake, a great mistake, a lifelong one. It would be twenty years before I published my first story. But I had finally found the place where my stories came from. It never became easier to write them, but it became easier to find my way back to that place—to live there—and many more stories would follow in the years to come.
Thomas E. Kennedy’s more than 30 books include most recently the novels of the Copenhagen Quartet: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen (2013), and Beneath the Neon Egg (2014), all from Bloomsbury. His stories, essays, and translations have appeared in many journals, including The Southern Review, New Letters, Epoch, the New Yorker on-line, Esquire Weekly, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, and many others. His writing has won a National Magazine Award, two Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Award, a Charles Angoff Award, in 2016 the Danish national award, the Dan Turèll Prize, for the body of his original work and his translations from the Danish, and other prizes. He teaches in the Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA Program.