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Pennies Striking Dust 

The short, almost happy life of the Los Angeles Writing Club

Thursday, Aug 7 2003
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Page 3 of 6

At least that is the story Clive almost wrote. Because there were sloppy parts, too — almost anachronistically offhanded, as if Clive weren’t really trying, or we weren’t worth it. Whole pages of dialogue were smushed together without paragraphing. End quote marks bumped into the next opening quote marks. And the crucial surprise was detectable, I thought, maybe a half-page too soon. Clive could have fixed all this in an extra half-hour or two. Why didn’t he?

 

By week three we had our own in-joke tradition: that of the scripted, slightly hammy oral critique. Clive’s delivery was part academic, part BBC entertainment anchor: He kept referring to the exotic setting of my Super Bowl story (for the assignment “The Bully Speaks”) as “an American football match.”

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We were at Macy and Hollis’ house in Fox Hills, with Formica and great slab steppingstones and beams and light: an oasis with designer kitchens. A famous writer might live in this house, but only if he got famous before buying it. The talented Macy had angel-fine red hair and marvelous freckly skin and wore cute Capri pants — a vision not of men’s advertising but of women’s, the sort of childlike beauty who wins a husband and designer furniture by preserving her complexion and her heart. She was showing me the yard, because Hollis was still tapping away at the last of his critiques. Hollis, I think, was either barefoot or in a robe — he looked like a boyish Hefner. Clive asked some interesting questions about the landscaping with his hands behind his back until Hollis emerged, papers flapping in one hand, waving hello with the other.

My bully-story narrator had been a new-breed football player who violently, remorselessly disgraced his older opponent, one of the game’s legendary gentlemen. Hollis dove right into his suave critique. “Right out of the bucket,” he said, in a lusty cackle, “this guy grabbed me with his no-apologies philosophy.”

He even read some of my lines out loud, passing them around like the most outrageous contraband.

“Folded over him like I was packing a bag!”

“Full beers flying!”

Then Macy’s crit: a deft, approving squeeze. She pointed out my story’s “enchanting and manly phrases.” Two separate times, not to analyze this too closely, she interjected the stylishly potent dangler “Love it.” Memorably: “I’m getting a feel for the Alan Rifkin style — love it.” My own full name rubbing up against the words feel, style and love, with only a couple of flimsy prepositions and articles between them, is a very good sentence, a sentence worth keeping, a sentence I would walk home to put under my pillow while forgetting my car.

We hit some trouble discussing Clive’s piece. That was a confusing development, because Clive’s bully story, if possible, was even more brilliant than his Harvard one. A philosophical joy ride in the voice of a criminal psychologist who plumbs the heart of evil in a barroom after hours, it surpassed all of us, surpassed Mailer, surpassed De Lillo — all of us said so. But we confessed, too, that we had struggled just slightly to keep some of Clive’s characters straight, because within the story, the characters themselves were telling a story. Which meant that there were quotes within the quotes. And all the quote marks were the funny British kind, so that the outside quotes were single ones, and the inside quotes were double ones. Clive had started the story, actually, with a triple inversion — in effect, a quoted quoted quote.

“How do you mean?” Clive said when we pointed this out.

“Well, the quotes within quotes,” I said. “That, along with the British style — it just raised the level of difficulty for me. As a reader.”

Clive tried to swallow this input. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”

We all searched ourselves. Hearing what?

He looked both betrayed and disbelieving. “I feel a little as if I were black and you’d called me a nigger,” he said.

Macy and Hollis were having none of that. They stood their ground, firm and world-weary, as if pushing their alcoholic uncle back into his chair. All the while I kept flailing to rephrase myself. (What happened to the onus of retaining focus? As the evening’s chairperson, by alphabetic progression, it was on me. For I cite Clive: “It is not appropriate for the reviewed to interrupt . . . nor is it appropriate for other members of the group to interject . . . This is very important. On rare occasions, and then only unwillingly, the chairperson may interrupt to keep focus or to arbitrate if the discourse becomes unruly.”)

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