Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems
, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters. New York, New York: It was right there on the title pages—the place from which the books and magazines emanated, home of all the publishers, the address of The New Yorker
and The Paris Review
, where Hemingway had punched O’Hara and Ginsberg seduced Kerouac, Hellman sued McCarthy and Mailer had punched everybody, where—or so they imagined—earnest editorial assistants and aspiring novelists smoked cigarettes in cafés while reciting Dylan Thomas, who’d taken his last breath in St. Vincent’s Hospital after drinking seventeen whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern, which was still serving drinks to the tourists and the young litterateurs who flocked here to raise a glass to the memory of the Welsh bard. These dreamers were people of the book; they loved the sacred New York texts: The House of Mirth
, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
et al., but also all the marginalia: the romance and the attendant mythology—the affairs and addictions, the feuds and fistfights. Like everyone else in their lousy high school, they’d read The Catcher in the Rye
, but unlike everyone else they’d really felt
it—it spoke to them in their own language—and they secretly conceived the ambition to one day move to New York and write a novel called Where the Ducks Go in Winter
or maybe just The Ducks in Winter
Russell Calloway had been one of them, a suburban Michigander who had an epiphany after his ninth-grade teacher assigned Thomas’s “Fern Hill” in honors English, who subsequently vowed to devote his life to poetry until A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
changed his religion to fiction. Russell went east to Brown, determined to acquire the skills to write the great American novel, but after reading Ulysses
—which seemed to render most of what came afterward anticlimactic—and comparing his own fledgling stories with those written by his Brown classmate Jeff Pierce, he decided he was a more plausible Maxwell Perkins than a Fitzgerald or Hemingway. After a postgraduate year at Oxford he moved to the city and eventually landed a coveted position opening mail and answering the phone for legendary editor Harold Stone, in his leisure hours prowling the used bookstores along Fourth Avenue in the Village, haunting the bars at the Lion’s Head and Elaine’s, catching glimpses of graying literary lions at the front tables. And if the realities of urban life and the publishing business had sometimes bruised his romantic sensibilities, he never relinquished his vision of Manhattan as the mecca of American literature, or of himself as an acolyte, even a priest, of the written word. One delirious night a few months after he arrived in the city, he accompanied an invited guest to a Paris Review
party in George Plimpton’s town house, where he shot pool with Mailer and fended off the lisping advances of Truman Capote after snorting coke with him in the bathroom.
Though the city after three decades seemed in many ways diminished from the capital of his youth, Russell Calloway had never quite fallen out of love with it, nor with his sense of his own place here. The backdrop of Manhattan, it seemed to him, gave every gesture an added grandeur, a metropolitan gravitas.
Copyright © 2016 by Jay McInerney. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.