I called him back the next afternoon at 2:28, again for just a minute; again I left a message; we never spoke again. Doubtless the message concerned nothing much of consequence, maybe something I said I’d follow up on or maybe I merely wanted to talk. Maybe I wanted more of what I’d had the day before: gossip, commiseration, flattery. But he hadn’t picked up: he was outside walking among the other crappy trailers, chatting with the cat lady who lived in the double-wide opposite him, or perhaps he’d gotten a ride into Asheville for an appointment with the psychiatrist who orchestrated his battery of medications: Depakote, Lamictal, Neurontin, Risperdal, and Seroquel, separately or in concert depending on the pitch of his mood, thrumming or stagnant or shattered but, in any case, haunted. Or he might merely be lying on his couch, not answering, too sapped and bled out to lift the receiver. Knowing that likelihood, I tried not to take it personally; at times he was hardly a person to himself at all.
Together, though, we were above all else mutual narcissists. When we looked in the mirror we saw, of course, ourselves, but also each other: divorced middle-aged men; once “promising” authors who’d run out of gas; men in trouble with women; depressives and maniacs in and out of various therapies and drug regimens; men bewitched by certain nostalgias embodied in music, landscape, and especially books; but most of all men who wrote or wanted to get themselves writing again and couldn’t.
I would like to claim this amounted to a great friendship, that we supported and protected and encouraged one another even if we could never quite save each other. Certainly I couldn’t save him. I didn’t even know he was dead until eighteen months after the fact. But that is in the nature of writers. The book you are writing—or failing to write—is indistinguishable from yourself; is always the main and pretty much only thing. It precludes the extreme sorts of compassion friendship can require: inconvenience, even sacrifice, or loyalty. As Fitzgerald said of his friend Hemingway, “Ernest would always give a helping hand to a man on a ledge a little higher up.” Hemingway, to be sure, was a championship bully and interpersonal larcenist. But I myself promised Jeff (that was his name) for four years straight that I would come visit him. Yet I never did, even as he was fired from the menial jobs that were his lot, was checked in and out of psychiatric wards, dashed his heart against one woman or another, lost his credit, his car, and his home, all the while laying down miles of ink, albeit in notebooks rather than actual manuscripts; sketches, outlines, and proposals rather than stories; words rather than writing. I did finally go to Asheville and to the trailer just outside of town two years after he’d died, but only when I thought I might get a piece of writing for myself out of it.
I intend for that to sound frank and unsparing—I mean for it to mean that for you, the reader—but the truth, the emotional, felt truth, is elsewhere, somewhere altogether less dramatic and perhaps less meaningful, at least in the way I intend. Which is not to say I’m being untruthful or insincere, or even that I’m valuing style over substance, in creating an impression. I am merely trying to make things interesting.
So let me stipulate that I feel bad that Jeff is dead and that I wish I had done any number of things differently while he was alive; that if I am not quite ashamed of myself, I have many regrets; that if I am not exactly guilty of anything I am not innocent either. And if I cannot say what or why that condition is, I would like to try to describe how it was and how it is or, rather, remains.
But Jeff described that approach just as well, unbeknownst to me and on that same day we’d talked for the last time. He wrote in his journal, “Do not need to understand it to write about it—how is the interesting question, not why. As long as you can say how it was, what it was like.” I know this because I persuaded Jeff’s mother to let me see all the papers and notebooks he left behind, and that was in his entry for July 17. From my own archive of e-mails I also know we talked that day about agents and editors: later that evening I contacted my agent with the address of the editor of Jeff’s first and only book; the editor had moved to a new publishing house and Jeff must have thought he might be a good prospect for the novel I was then trying to place. I in turn prompted Jeff to buy some books (Julia Blackburn’s The Three of Us, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries), not that it required much effort to persuade him to do so. Over one manic weekend during an efflorescence of his bipolar disease, he’d ordered $1,500 worth of books and CDs from Amazon. Amazon took them back (I think he’d volunteered to send an explanatory note from his psychiatrist), but even in his most levelheaded moments he could not forgo buying books or making lists of ones he wanted or loading up his online shopping basket with another dozen titles. Jeff believed in “models,” in the template, or at least inspiration he hoped to find in someone else’s book for his own books. And if it wasn’t in one book, maybe it would be in the next one, or perhaps the one after that; would be the lucky bet in his Amazon queue, the daily double, and he could see his way beyond the notebook and into the tale, the work, the thing itself. My approach was different: I wanted my books to be self-generating—I feared contamination or didn’t want to be in anyone’s debt—and in any case I was never as broke as Jeff nearly always was. I could support my own habit and at times I enabled his. In his journal entry for July 17, he’d noted the titles of the books I’d recommended and I know from his own e-mail archive (to which his mother also gave me access) that he ordered one of them that same evening.
It pleases me that he thought enough of me and our conversations to not only jot down the books I liked, but (I also see in his journals) to take down some of the advice I offered. For example, after that list of books he wrote “being preoccupied with the scaffolding rather than the substance” and I know I said this because it is something I still say to writing students today; that often the conceits or opening lines and paragraphs or epigraphs that seem so essential at the start are things the writer needs to clear her throat, to launch herself into the work, and, having served their purpose, can then be jettisoned. And now I read the journal page again and I also realize that it was not Jeff but I who must have said “how is the interesting question”; that the remark is written directly above the list of books, among the things I said that day.
So I said it and Jeff rendered it again in his scrolled and pitching, precise and headlong cursive italic. He’d have been in the trailer, on his couch or at his desk, the cats (one tabby, one piebald) dozing, the tolling of the crickets outside taut and sheer. He would have had music on (maybe the Byrds singing Dylan’s “My Back Pages”) and that would have mellowed the heat, defused the piercing light through the window even as evening fell, and he would have been consoled by it; and maybe by putting down the words that had passed between us, the veil of Seroquel and all the rest lifted for a moment.
Nothing, though, came unstuck. The journal pages from the weeks that followed tell how Jeff tacked between a novel (called Bend) and a memoir of his childhood (This Boy, That Town, These Mountains) and now and again a third thing would heave into view, a sequel to his one great success, Where the Roots Reach for Water. That book had been a memoir of his lifelong depression and the relief he got by giving up SSRIs, finding faith, and marrying a compassionate and understanding woman. But after publication, after the reviews and awards, the faith ebbed, the marriage withered, and it turned out depression was really a misdiagnosis. He was bipolar, and profoundly so. Medications and hospitalizations saved his life, or at least stopped him from ending it himself. By the summer of 2010, he’d attained a kind of equilibrium and he began to imagine he could write about that. He thought he’d call the book Balance; he’d sketch and outline hard for a few days, but then turn back to the novel or the childhood memoir or merge two projects: why not deploy the first chapter of Bend as a prelude to Balance? Or he’d think about writing poetry. He was friends with a poet who’d won a Pulitzer Prize and Jeff would e-mail him and more or less ask, “How do you write poems?” and the poet would reply, cordially but with gentle evasion; he wouldn’t or couldn’t say.
My own advice didn’t get him anywhere and hadn’t, truth be told, gotten me very far either: my desk and notebooks were a mirror image of Jeff’s; seventy-five pages of a stalled-out novel, two first drafts of personal essays that I fancied might metamorphose into a book, and a previous novel I couldn’t sell or even place with an agent. At the time we talked, I thought mine was a different case from his, not so far gone. My circumstances would change (be restored to what they’d been during my own instant of success) any day by way of a phone call or e-mail from New York. Now, three years on, I see there was no difference between us; that there still isn’t—the phone call or e-mail hasn’t come—except that I am alive to grasp the fact of it.
That recognition hasn’t taught me much. I still offer advice and lately I’ve been suggesting to my students that they attempt what I call a “thought experiment.” Suppose, I like to say, everything were different, not just the circumstances but the categories; suppose the problem were entirely elsewhere, no longer where or what you thought; and now you call it by a different name, address it as something new and startling, and both it and you are transfigured.
So: suppose Jeff and I were not quite so defeated by our incapacity to form the words we needed, or perhaps we’d come to think it wasn’t words we wanted at all. Because one more phrase will make no difference in the galaxy of sentences that constellated our worlds, even if that phrase was precisely, stunningly congruent with how this or another thing seems to us. And maybe that thing never required us—never asked us—to write about it anyway, but only to be loved, attended to, loved not for what or why it is, but how it is. All that and more could be accomplished in utter silence. Jeff and I could rest then; he could have rested, not craved so much and frustrated himself so much, and survived (which is to say simply remained just here, just now, wherever near Asheville that is) and his presence attended to, perhaps by me. That, beyond all the books I might ever write, would be plenty to desire.
Here’s the last thing he wrote after we’d talked on July 17:
What I have reached is nowhere near redemption or rebirth, it is acceptance. And having arrived here, I realize this is where I’ve gone wanting for nearly fifty years.He would have written that sitting on his couch just before or after he clicked the Amazon order button (I think he would have liked the book, if he ever read it; there was always more than he could ever get to). And it was on that couch that the cat lady from the next trailer over saw him through his window two months later, apparently asleep. She knocked on the door repeatedly and, when there was no response, banged on it hard—“I beat on it as hard as I could,” she told me when I came to Asheville—and then she called 911. The EMT came and the sheriff and then the coroner. The next day someone from the county arrived to secure the trailer and his personal effects. “His cats were locked in there,” she’d tell me. “I’d managed to put some food inside for them earlier and I told the county people I’d adopt them but they said they had to go to the pound: that was the rules. And I begged and begged, but they took them away—those poor babies. Jeff loved those babies. Seems to me that was the very cruelest part of all.”
I thought about that last thing she’d said and dismissed it: what was it compared to Jeff’s being dead, or a book, his or mine; the one I might just then begin? But then I write a little in my journal, envying his italic hand. I conduct a thought experiment, and think, yes, why not; why shouldn’t it be that way, the pitiful how of it, exactly so?