The Destiny Thief
“As a writer, you aren’t anybody until you become somebody.”
“I am the same man I was when I was a struggling nobody . . . still a writer trying to find his way through a maze. Should I be anything else?”
Some time ago I had a lengthy telephone conversation with a man I’ll call David. I’d known him nearly forty years earlier at the University of Arizona, where we shared a fiction workshop taught by the writer Robert C. S. Downs, who encouraged both of us, but David especially. At the time I was finishing up my PhD in American literature, so when I asked Downs about taking a workshop, I assumed he’d put me in one at the graduate level, but he didn’t. My prose, he explained, was full of jargon and intellectual pretension. Most writers had about a thousand pages of shitty prose in them, he went on, and these have to be expelled before they can hope to write seriously. “In your case,” he added, “make it two thousand.” And so, pushing thirty, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a workshop full of twenty-year-olds, many of whom were better writers than I was.
David was working on a novel about a rock-and-roll band, and having once played in a band myself, I was envious of both his subject matter and his bold talent and even more jealous of the fact that at age twenty he’d already figured out what he wanted to do with his life, whereas I’d wasted the better part of a decade pursuing an advanced degree I no longer really wanted. What I didn’t know about David was what a rough time he was having outside the classroom. His mother, whom he’d dearly loved, had recently died of cancer, and his father was an emotional tyrant. David himself had very little money and was drinking heavily. Indeed, the fiction workshop—his dream of becoming a novelist one day—was just about all that was holding him together. Then, near the end of the semester, he got in trouble, courtesy of his poet girlfriend. She’d been assigned six poems, and the day before they were due she hadn’t written a single line. When she told David she was thinking about dropping the course, he said, “Nonsense. We’ll write them now. How hard can it be?” So they sat down and did just that, the girlfriend writing three poems, David the other three.
They both thought the results were pretty good, but the girlfriend was unprepared for the praise lavished on the poems, in particular the one David had written about his mother. After class, she made the mistake of confiding to a classmate that all of the poems had been written the night before, half of them by her boyfriend. When her friend reported the infraction, both she and David were hauled before Downs, the director of creative writing, to explain themselves. The girlfriend arrived at the meeting determined to defend the work as her own. David, they agreed beforehand, would admit only to offering advice. But this wasn’t Downs’s first experience with academic dishonesty, and instead of asking if she’d written the poems in question, he quoted the best line from the whole batch of poems and asked if she’d written it; she immediately broke down.
Since she’d come clean and it was her first offense, Downs said he’d recommend a D in the course but no mark on her record. He then turned to his star fiction writer and said, “Good poems.” David sighed, accepting the compliment, proud to have written the line that his mentor so admired, but fearful of what came next. The dishonesty charge was the least of it, he confessed. He was out of money and about to be evicted from the shithole where he was living. He’d dropped the rest of his courses earlier in the term, and though he hated the idea, there was nothing to do but return home in defeat. He hadn’t intended to tell Downs any of this, but there he was, spilling his guts about how much the workshop meant to him and how much he hated the idea of not completing it. When he asked what his grade would be, Downs said he’d be getting the A he’d earned and added, perhaps to bolster his spirits, that it would likely be the only one in the class. Apparently we were not a stellar group. “What about Rick?” David asked. After all, I was a grad student. Downs shrugged. “Rick doesn’t want to be a writer. He wants to be a teacher.” (He was wrong about that, but he couldn’t have known. After getting the PhD, I did plan on applying for teaching positions.)
Now fast-forward to 2002. For both David and me a lot has happened. He’s eventually finished his undergraduate degree, then gone on to graduate school for an MFA in poetry, not fiction. He has married, had kids, is teaching college to support his writing habit and has become middle-aged. He’s continued to struggle periodically with alcohol but remained functional, enjoyed success as a poet and become something of a legend among his students. Along the way he’s finished that rock-and-roll novel, but frustrated by his inability to find an agent, finally published it himself. Maybe his life isn’t the one he imagined back in Tucson, but for the most part he’s been pretty happy.
Until one day he picks up the University of Arizona alumni magazine and discovers that a student from his undergraduate workshop (who did indeed get a B) has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. According to the article, the prizewinner taught for a while before quitting to write full-time. David feels something inside him come untethered—and really, who could blame him? Somehow he and I have swapped destinies. He is the teacher, I the writer. He wants someone to explain the cosmic mechanism by which such a cruel joke could be perpetrated. In fact, he’d like me to explain.
As if I’d know.
I’ve written a lot about destiny in my fiction, not because I understand it, but because I’d like to. If David was puzzled by the narrative arc of our lives, he wasn’t alone. At the risk of sounding falsely modest, I have to say I’m not aware of anyone—teacher, family member, friend—who predicted anything like the great good fortune that has befallen me in the writing career that I came to fairly late. Some years ago I ran into an old girlfriend who said she’d been following my work with both pleasure and mystification. “I always thought you were a nice enough guy,” she told me, clearly trying to puzzle it through and not wanting to hurt my feelings, “but I never dreamed you had books in you.” I know exactly how she felt. I can’t explain it even now. Anyone who’s interested in my early life can have a look at my memoir Elsewhere, though for the purposes of this discussion a thumbnail sketch will suffice. I lived the first eighteen years of my life in Gloversville, a poor mill town in upstate New York. Raised Catholic, I was for many years an altar boy. My parents separated when I was a kid, so I was brought up by my nervous mother, who hated where we lived, and by my grandparents, who owned the house we lived in. If my mother was adamant about anything, it was that, as an American, I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I was as good as anybody. I was always to remember this in case anyone had the temerity to suggest otherwise.
My mostly absent father had come to a whole different set of conclusions. He was part of the Normandy invasion and returned from the war with a personal philosophy that fit neatly onto his favorite coffee mug, which I still have: here’s to you as good as you are and here’s to me, as bad as i am, but as good as you are and as bad as i am, i’m as good as you are, as bad as i am. It was, now that I think about it, the joke version of my mother’s mantra, and to complete this gag the mug’s handle was on the inside of the cylinder. Call it an object lesson: that being as good as anybody might not be of much use if you had to go through life with a basic design flaw. For my father, being born poor was just such a flaw. Having a name that ended in a vowel was another.
But never mind, my mother said. In addition to America, she believed in education and its ability to negate any of these flaws. My high school was tiny, and without expending much effort I flourished there. I had enough of my father’s easy charm to talk most people into giving me what I wanted; and on the others I could employ my mother’s tidal persistence, her innate ability to nick away at people until they gave me what I was after, just to be rid of me. The University of Arizona was twice the size of my hometown, though, and what a rude awakening that was. My first day there I went to the registrar’s office, hoping to do something out of sequence, probably register early for classes, and was met by a grim woman who sized me up at a glance. Holding up a hand to stop me midexplanation, she said, “Have you matriculated?” The question stopped me cold. I didn’t want to admit I had no idea what the word meant. Her tone made it sound rather personal, almost sexual, but that couldn’t be, could it? I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right, though, so I said no, not recently, but I was willing to if it was strictly necessary. Tomorrow, I was told sternly. I was a freshman and would matriculate with the rest of my class tomorrow and not before. What I was asking for, she explained, was special treatment, and I wasn’t going to get it, not from her.
My roommate that first semester was a boy from a tiny Arizona mining town that he was clearly homesick for already, less than twenty-four hours after leaving it. He couldn’t tell me enough about the place, which was apparently perfect in every respect. He seemed to have little interest in his classes, and as the semester wore on he had a devil of a time making friends. He wanted to pledge a fraternity, but none would have him. Back home he had a girlfriend, but at the university the girls he asked out gave him the once-over and said no in a way that made him understand he was wrong to have asked. At first he did poorly in his classes, which seemed to surprise him, but then he did worse; finally the dean of students requested an interview, at which it was decided that he’d be happier at a junior college closer to home. I was glad when he left and not just because it meant I’d have our room to myself for the rest of the term; in the brief time we’d shared it, I’d come to loathe him viscerally, though at the time I didn’t understand why. Now it couldn’t be clearer. Looking at him, his face alive with angry zits, was like looking in the mirror.
And so, badly shaken and far from home, I set about developing a strategy for surviving at an institution determined to make me understand while I might be as good as anybody, I was certainly no better. The gist of my plan was this: I would (1) pretend to know things I didn’t rather than risk the humiliation of ignorance and (2) conceal, as far as humanly possible, who I was and where I came from. I’d figure out what I was supposed to like and admire, and would do so even when I didn’t. In other words, I would lie through my teeth about everything. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only liar there. College is, after all, where we go to reinvent ourselves, to sever our ties with the past, to become the person we always wanted to be and were prevented from being by people who knew better. Actually, none of this is quite as bad as it sounds. Many years later, giving a commencement address at the college where my younger daughter was graduating, I would compare going to college to entering the witness-protection program. You’re supposed to try on a new identity or two. Indeed, it would not only defeat the purpose, it would be downright dangerous to leave the program easily recognizable as the person who’d entered it.
Anyway, I changed. I took my classes more seriously than I’d done in high school, not out of any abstract love of learning but rather because the competition was stiffer, and I figured the more I actually knew, the less I’d have to pretend to know. I ditched all the “stylish” clothes I’d brought with me from the East and dressed in western jeans with button flies. I had to be taught that these worked better if you buttoned from the bottom up, not from the top down. There was a lot to learn, but I was gradually able to blend in. When asked where I was from, I substituted “upstate New York” for “Gloversville,” a deft maneuver that allowed me to trade embarrassment over my origins, a new experience, for guilt, which, having been raised Catholic, I was used to. Summers, when I returned to Gloversville to work road construction with my father, were the toughest. Because in truth I was very happy to be back home and living in the house where I’d grown up, where people knew the old me. I hadn’t realized just how much I loved my grandparents until I saw them again that first summer, and in their company I felt the sting of my dogged efforts at reinvention out west. I began to understand that in denying where I was from, I was also denying them and the many sacrifices they’d made for my mother and me.
I’d made my choice, though, and there was no going back. I was becoming someone else. Someone better. However high the cost, I’d pay it.
Copyright © 2018 by Richard Russo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.