NYPL Podcast: Joan Didion on Writing and Revising

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Hunter S. Thompson, Doomed Love at the Taco Stand (2001)

TIME asked HUNTER S. THOMPSON, a former copyboy here who went on to an even more exciting career as a gonzo journalist, to report from the set of the movie being made of his 1971 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp plays Thompson and the author appears in a cameo role. Thompson, who this year published a volume of collected letters called The Proud Highway, ended up taking Depp’s car and checkbook on a romantic adventure. Fasten your seat belts…

Oct. 11th (HOLLYWOOD)

Going to Hollywood is a dangerous high-pressure gig for most people, under any circumstances. It is like pumping hot steam into thousands of different-size boilers. The laws of physics mandate that some will explode before others–although all of them will explode sooner or later unless somebody cuts off the steam.

I love steam myself, and I have learned to survive under savage and unnatural pressures. I am a steam freak. Hollywood is chicken feed to me. I can take it or leave it. I have been here before, many times. On some days it seems like I have lived at the Chateau Marmont for half my life. There is blood on these walls, and some of it is mine. Last night I sliced off the tips of two fingers and bled so profusely in the elevator that they had to take it out of service.

But nobody complained. I am not just liked at the Chateau, I am well-liked. I have important people thrown out or black-listed on a whim. Nobody from the Schwarzenegger organization, for instance, can even get a drink at the Chateau. They are verboten. There is a ghastly political factor in doing any business with Hollywood. You can’t get by without five or six personal staff people–and at least one personal astrologer.

I have always hated astrologers, and I like to have sport with them. They are harmless quacks in the main, but some of them get ambitious and turn predatory, especially in Hollywood. In Venice Beach I ran into a man who claimed to be Johnny Depp’s astrologer. “I consult with him constantly,” he told me. “We are never far away. I have many famous clients.” He produced a yellow business card and gave it to me. “I can do things for you,” he said. “I am a player.”

I took his card and examined it carefully for a moment, as if I couldn’t quite read the small print. But I knew he was lying, so I leaned toward him and slapped him sharply in the nuts. Not hard, but very quickly, using the back of my hand and my fingers like a bullwhip, yet very discreetly.

He let out a hiss and went limp, unable to speak or breathe. I smiled casually and kept on talking to him as if nothing had happened. “You filthy little creep,” I said to him. “I am Johnny Depp!”

Outside on the boulevard I saw a half-naked young girl on roller skates being mauled by two huge dogs. They were Great Danes, apparently running loose. Both had their paws on her shoulder, and the gray one had her head in its mouth. But there was no noise, and nobody seemed to notice.

I grabbed a fork off the bar and rushed outside to help her, giving the bogus astrologer another slap in the nuts on my way out. When I got to the street, the dogs were still mauling the girl. I stabbed the big one in the ribs with my fork, which sank deep into the tissue. The beast yelped crazily and ran off with its tail between its legs. The other one quickly released its grip on the girl’s head and snarled at me. I slashed at it with the fork, and that was enough for the brute. It backed off and slunk away toward Muscle Beach.

I took the girl back to the Buffalo Club and applied aloe to her wounds. The astrologer was gone, and we had the lounge to ourselves. Her name was Heidi, she said, and she had just arrived in L.A. to seek work as a dancer. It was the third time in 10 days she’d been attacked by wild dogs on the Venice boardwalk, and she was ready to quit L.A., and so was I. The pace was getting to me. I was not bored, and I still had work to do, but it was definitely time to get out of town. I had to be in Big Sur in three days, and then to a medical conference in Pebble Beach. She was a very pretty girl, about 30, with elegant legs and a wicked kind of intelligence about her, but she was also very naive about Hollywood. I saw at once that she would be extremely helpful on my trip north.

I listened to her for a while, then I offered her a job as my assistant, which I badly needed. She accepted, and we drove back to the Chateau in Depp’s Porsche. As we pulled up the ramp to the underground garage, the attendants backed off and signaled me in. Depp’s henchmen had left word that nobody could touch the car except me. I parked it expertly, barely missing a red BMW 840Ci, and we went up the elevator to my suite.

I reached for my checkbook, but it was missing, so I used one of Depp’s that I’d found in the glove compartment of his car. I wrote her a healthy advance and signed Depp’s name to it. “What the hell?” I said to her. “He’s running around out there with my checkbook right now, probably racking up all kinds of bills.”

That was the tone of my workdays in Hollywood: violence, joy and constant Mexican music. At one club I played the bass recorder for several hours with the band. We spent a lot of time drinking gin and lemonade on the balcony, entertaining movie people and the ever present scribe from Rolling Stone magazine…

You bet, bubba, I was taking care of business. It was like the Too Much Fun Club. I had the Cadillac and a green Mustang in the garage, in addition to the Carerra 4 Porsche, but we could only drive one of them up the coast. It was an uptown problem.

Depp, meanwhile, was driving around town in my car, the Red Shark, and passing himself off as me. It was part of the movie, he said, but it gave me the creeps.

Finally it got to be too much, so we loaded up the Northstar Cadillac and fled. Why not? I thought. The girl had proved to be a tremendous help, and besides, I was beginning to like her.

Oct. 12th (PISMO BEACH)

The sun was going down as we left Malibu and headed north on 101, running smoothly through Oxnard and along the ocean to Santa Barbara. My companion was a little nervous about my speed, so I gave her some gin to calm her down. Soon she relaxed against me, and I put my arm around her. Roseanne Cash was on the radio, singing about the seven-year ache, and the traffic was opening up.

As we approached the Lompoc exit, I mentioned that Lompoc was the site of a federal penitentiary and I once had some friends over there.

“Oh?” she said. “Who were they?”

“Prisoners,” I said. “Nothing serious. That’s where Ed was.”

She stiffened and moved away from me, but I turned up the music and we settled back to drive and watch the moon come up. What the hell? I thought. Just another young couple on the road to the American Dream.

Things started to get weird when I noticed Pismo Beach coming up. I was on the cell phone with Benicio del Toro, the famous Puerto Rican actor, telling him about the time I was violently jailed in Pismo Beach and how it was making me nervous to even pass a road sign with that name on it. “Yeah,” I was saying, “it was horrible. They beat me on the back of my legs. It was a case of mistaken identity.” I smiled at my assistant, not wanting to alarm her, but I saw that she was going into a fetal crouch and her fingers were clutching the straps of her seat belt.

Just then we passed two police cars parked on the side of the road, and I saw that we were going a hundred and three.

“Slow down!” Heidi was screaming. “Slow down! We’ll be arrested. I can’t stand it!” She was sobbing and clawing at the air.

“Nonsense,” I said. “Those were not police. My radar didn’t go off.” I reached over to pat her on the arm, but she bit me and I had to pull over. The only exit led to a dangerous-looking section of Pismo Beach, but I took it anyway.

It was just about midnight when we parked under the streetlight in front of the empty Mexican place on Main Street. Heidi was having a nervous breakdown. There was too much talk about jails and police and prisons, she said. She felt like she was already in chains.

I left the car in a crosswalk and hurried inside to get a taco. The girl behind the register warned me to get my car off the street because the police were about to swoop down on the gang of thugs milling around in front of the taco place. “They just had a fight with the cops,” she said. “Now I’m afraid somebody is going to get killed.”

We were parked right behind the doomed mob, so I hurried out to roust Heidi and move the car to safety. Then we went back inside very gently and sat down in a booth at the rear of the room. I put my arm around Heidi and tried to calm her down. She wanted gin, and luckily I still had a pint flask full of it in my fleece-lined jacket pocket. She drank greedily, then fell back in the booth and grinned. “Well, so much for that,” she chirped. “I guess I really went crazy, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” I said. “You were out of control. It was like dealing with a vampire.”

She smiled and grasped my thigh. “I am a vampire,” she said. “We have many a mile to go before we sleep. I am hungry.”

“Indeed,” I said. “We will have to fill up on tacos before we go any farther. I too am extremely hungry.”

Just then the waitress arrived to take our order. The mob of young Chicanos outside had disappeared very suddenly, roaring off into the night in a brace of white pickup trucks. They were a good-natured bunch, mainly teenagers with huge shoulders wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys and heads like half-shaved coconuts. They were not afraid of the cops, but they left anyway.

The waitress was hugely relieved. “Thank God,” she said. “Now Manuel can live one more night. I was afraid they would kill him. We have only been married three weeks.” She began sobbing, and I could see she was about to crack. I introduced myself as Johnny Depp, but I saw the name meant nothing to her. Her name was Maria. She was 17 years old and had lied about her age to get the job. She was the manager and Manuel was the cook. He was almost 21. Every night strange men hovered around the taco stand and mumbled about killing him.

Maria sat down in the booth between us, and we both put our arms around her. She shuddered and collapsed against Heidi, kissing her gently on the cheek. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Nobody is going to be killed tonight. This is the night of the full moon. Some people will die tonight, but not us. I am protected.”

Which was true. I am a Triple Moon Child, and tonight was the Hunter’s Moon. I pulled the waitress closer to me and spoke soothingly. “You have nothing to fear, little one,” I told her. “No power on earth can harm me tonight. I walk with the King.”

She smiled and kissed me gratefully on my wrist. Manuel stared balefully at us from his perch in the kitchen, saying nothing. “Rest easy,” I called out to him. “Nobody is going to kill you tonight.”

“Stop saying that!” Heidi snapped, as Manuel sunk further into himself. “Can’t you see he’s afraid?” Maria began crying again, but I jerked her to her feet. “Get a grip on yourself,” I said sharply. “We need more beer and some pork tacos to go. I have to drive the whole coast tonight.”

“That’s right,” said my companion. “We’re on a honeymoon trip. We’re in a hurry.” She laughed and reached for my wallet. “Come on, big boy,” she cooed. “Don’t try to cheat. Just give it to me.”

“Watch yourself,” I snarled, slapping her hand away from my pocket. “You’ve been acting weird ever since we left L.A. We’ll be in serious trouble if you go sideways on me again.”

She grinned and stretched her arms lazily above her head, poking her elegant little breasts up in the air at me like some memory from an old Marilyn Monroe calendar and rolling her palms in the air.

“Sideways?” she said. “What difference does it make? Let’s get out of here. We’re late.”

I paid the bill quickly and watched Maria disappear into the kitchen. Manuel was nowhere in sight. Just as I stepped into the street, I noticed two police cars coming at us from different directions. Then another one slowed down right in front of the taco stand.

“Don’t worry,” I said to Heidi. “They’re not looking for us.”

I seized her by the leg and rushed her into the Cadillac. There was a lot of yelling as we pulled away through the circling traffic and back out onto Highway 101.

My mind was very much on my work as we sped north along the coast to Big Sur. We were into open country now, running straight up the coast about a mile from the ocean on a two-lane blacktop road across the dunes with no clouds in the sky and a full moon blazing down on the Pacific. It was a perfect night to be driving a fast car on an empty road along the edge of the ocean with a half-mad beautiful woman asleep on the white leather seats and Lyle Lovett crooning doggerel about screwheads who go out to sea with shotguns and ponies in small rowboats just to get some kind of warped revenge on a white man with bad habits who was only trying to do them a favor in the first place.

You bet. My mind was wandering, thinking about Lyle. I was just with him in Hollywood. We both had roles in my movie, but Lyle had a trailer and I didn’t. I had to settle for half of Depp’s trailer, along with his C4 Porsche and his wig, so I could look more like myself when I drove around Beverly Hills and stared at people when we rolled to a halt at stoplights on Rodeo Drive.

Oct. 13th (BIG SUR)

I lost control of the Cadillac about halfway down the slope. The road was slick with pine needles, and the eucalyptus trees were getting closer together. The girl laughed as I tried to aim the car through the darkness with huge tree trunks looming up in the headlights and the bright white moon on the ocean out in front of us. It was like driving on ice, going straight toward the abyss.

We shot past a darkened house and past a parked Jeep, then crashed into a waterfall high above the sea. I got out of the car and sat down on a rock, then lit up the marijuana pipe. “Well,” I said to Heidi, “this is it. We must have taken a wrong turn.”

She laughed and sucked on some moss. Then she sat down across from me on a log. “You’re funny,” she said. “You’re very strange–and you don’t know why, do you?”

I shook my head softly and drank some gin.

“No,” I said. “I’m stupid.”

“It’s because you have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend,” she whispered. “That is why you have problems.” She patted me on the knee. “Yes. That is why people giggle with fear every time you come into a room. That is why you rescued me from those dogs in Venice.”

I stared out to sea and said nothing for a while. But somehow I knew she was right. Yes sir, I said slowly to myself, I have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend. No wonder they can’t understand me.

This is a hard dollar, on most days, and not many people can stand it. Indeed. If the greatest mania of all is passion: and if I am a natural slave to passion: and if the balance between my brain and my soul and my body is as wild and delicate as the skin of a Ming vase–

Well, that explains a lot of things, doesn’t it? We need look no further. Yes sir, and people wonder why I seem to look at them strangely. Or why my personal etiquette often seems makeshift and contradictory, even clinically insane… Hell, I don’t miss those whispers, those soft groans of fear when I enter a civilized room. I know what they’re thinking, and I know exactly why. They are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that I am a teenage girl trapped in the body of a 60-year-old career criminal who has already died 16 times. Sixteen, all documented. I have been crushed and beaten and shocked and drowned and poisoned and stabbed and shot and smothered and set on fire by my own bombs…

All these things have happened, and probably they will happen again. I have learned a few tricks along the way, a few random skills and simple avoidance techniques–but mainly it has been luck, I think, and a keen attention to karma, along with my natural girlish charm.

(To be continued.)

David Sedaris, It’s Catching (2005)

My friend Patsy was telling me a story. “So I’m at the movie theatre,” she said, “and I’ve got my coat all neatly laid out against the back of my seat, when this guy comes along—” And here I stopped her, because I’ve always wondered about this coat business. When I’m in a theatre, I either fold mine in my lap or throw it over my armrest, but Patsy tends to spread hers out, acting as if the seat back were cold, and she couldn’t possibly enjoy herself while it was suffering.

“Why do you do that?” I asked, and she looked at me, saying, “Germs, silly. All kinds of people have had their heads against that seat back. Doesn’t that just give you the creeps?” And I admitted that it had never occurred to me.

“Well, you’d never lie on a hotel bedspread, would you?” she asked, and again: why not? I might not put it in my mouth, but to stretch out and make a few phone calls—I do it all the time.

“But you wash the phone first, right?”

“Umm. No.”

“Well, that is just . . . dangerous,” she said.

In a similar vein, I was at the grocery store with my sister Lisa and noticed her pushing the cart with her forearms.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said. “You don’t ever want to touch the handle of a grocery cart with your bare hands. These things are crawling with germs.”

Is it just Americans, or does everyone think this way? In Paris once, I went to my neighborhood supermarket and saw a man shopping with his cockatiel, which was the size of a teen-age eagle and stood perched on the handle of his cart.

“See?” Lisa said. “There’s no telling what foot diseases that bird might have.” She had a point, but it’s not like everyone takes a cockatiel to the grocery store. A lifetime of shopping, and this was the first exotic bird I’d ever seen browsing the meat counter.

The only preventive thing I do is wash clothes after buying them in a thrift shop—this after catching crabs from a pair of used pants. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and probably would have itched myself all the way to the bone had a friend not taken me to a drugstore, where I got a bottle of something called Quell. After applying it, I raked through my pubic hair with a special nit comb, and what I came away with was a real eye-opener: these little monsters who’d been feasting for weeks on my flesh. I guess they’re what Patsy imagines when she looks at a theatre seat, what Lisa sees lurking on the handle of a grocery cart.

They’re minor, though, compared with what Hugh had. He was eight years old and living in the Congo, when he noticed a red spot on his leg; nothing huge—a mosquito bite, he figured. The following day, the spot became more painful, and the day after that he looked down and saw a worm poking out.

A few weeks later, the same thing happened to Maw Hamrick, which is what I call Hugh’s mother, Joan, and though her worm was a bit shorter, I think it’s much worse in terms of trauma or whatnot. If I was a child and saw something creeping out of a hole in my mother’s leg, I would march to the nearest orphanage and put myself up for adoption. I would burn all pictures of her, destroy anything she had ever given me, and start all over because that is just disgusting. A dad can be crawling with parasites and somehow it’s O.K., but on a mom, or any woman, really, it’s unforgivable.

“Well, that’s sort of chauvinistic of you, don’t you think?” Maw Hamrick said. She’d come to Paris for Christmas, as had Lisa and her husband, Bob. The gifts had all been opened, and Maw was collecting the used wrapping paper off the floor and ironing it flat with her hands.

“It was just a guinea worm, people got them all the time.” She looked toward the kitchen, where Hugh was doing something to a goose. “Honey, where do you want me to put this paper?”

“Burn it,” Hugh said.

“Oh, but it’s so pretty. Are you sure you won’t want to use it again?”

“Burn it,” Hugh repeated.

“What’s this about a worm?” Lisa asked. She was lying on the sofa with a blanket over her, still groggy from her nap.

“Joan here had a worm living inside her leg,” I said, and Maw Hamrick threw a sheet of wrapping paper into the fire, saying, “Oh, I wouldn’t call that living.”

“But it was inside of you?” Lisa said, and I could see her wheels turning: Have I ever used the toilet after this woman? Have I ever touched her coffee cup, or eaten off her plate? How soon can I get tested? Are the hospitals open on Christmas Day, or will I have to wait until tomorrow?

“It was a long time ago,” Joan said.

“Like, how long?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know—1968, maybe.”

My sister nodded, the way someone does when they’re doing math in their head. “Right,” she said, and I regretted having brought it up. She was no longer looking at Maw Hamrick but through her, seeing what an X-ray machine might: the stark puzzle of bones and, teeming within it, the thousands of worms who did not leave home in 1968. I used to see the same thing, but after fifteen years or so I got over it, and now I just see Maw Hamrick. Maw Hamrick ironing, Maw Hamrick doing the dishes, Maw Hamrick taking out the trash. She wants to be a good house guest, and is always looking for something to do.

“Can I maybe . . . ?” she asks, and before she’s finished I answer yes, by all means.

“Did you tell my mother to crawl on her hands and knees across the living-room floor?” Hugh asks, and I say, “Well, no, not exactly. I just suggested that if she was going to dust the baseboards that would be the best way to do it.”

When Maw Hamrick’s around, I don’t lift a finger. All my chores go automatically to her, and I just sit in a rocker, lifting my feet every now and then so she can pass the vacuum. It’s incredibly relaxing, but it doesn’t look very good, especially if she’s doing something strenuous, carrying furniture to the basement, for instance, which, again, was completely her idea. I just mentioned in passing that we rarely used the dresser, and that one of these days someone should take it downstairs. I didn’t mean her, exactly, though at age seventy-three she’s a lot stronger than Hugh gives her credit for. Coming from Kentucky, she’s used to a hard day’s work. Choppin’, totin’, all those activities with a dropped “g”: the way I figure, these things are in her genes.

It’s only a problem when other people are around, and they see this slight, white-haired woman with sweat running down her forehead. Lisa and Bob, for instance, who were staying in Patsy’s empty apartment. Every night they’d come over for dinner, and Maw Hamrick would hang up their coats before ironing the napkins and setting the table. Then she’d serve drinks and head into the kitchen to help Hugh.

“You really lucked out,” Lisa said, sighing, as Joan rushed to empty my ashtray. Her mother-in-law had recently moved into an assisted-living development, and was having a hard time adjusting. The word “senior” is demeaning to her, so she’s asking to be referred to as a graying tiger, which makes her sound like a retired karate teacher. Lisa lowered her voice. “I’d much rather have a mother-in-law who was eaten by worms.”

“Well, they didn’t technically eat her,” I said.

“Then what were they living on? Are you telling me they brought their own food?”

I guessed she was right, but what do guinea worms eat? Certainly not fat, or they’d never have gone to Joan, who weighs ninety pounds, tops, and can still fit into her prom gown. Not muscle, or she’d never be able to take over my chores. Do they drink blood? Drill holes in bone and sop up the marrow? I meant to ask, but when Maw Hamrick returned to the living room the topic immediately turned to cholesterol, Lisa saying, “I don’t mean to pry, Joan, but what is your level?”

It was one of those conversations I was destined to be left out of. Not only have I never been tested; I’m not sure what cholesterol actually is. I hear the word and imagine a pale gravy, made by hand, with lumps in it.

“Have you tried fish oil?” Lisa asked. “That brought Bob’s level from three-eighty to two-twenty. Before that, he was on Lipitor.” My sister knows the name and corresponding medication for every disease known to man, an impressive feat given that she’s completely self-taught. Congenital ichthyosis, myositis ossificans, spondylolisthesis, calling for Celebrex, Flexeril, oxycodone hydrochloride. I joked that she’d never bought a magazine in her life, that she reads them for free in doctors’ waiting rooms, and she asked what my cholesterol level was. “You better see a doctor, Mister, because you’re not as young as you think you are. And while you’re there you might want to have those moles looked at.”

It was nothing I wanted to think about, especially on Christmas, a fire in the fireplace, the apartment smelling of goose. “Let’s talk about accidents, instead,” I said. “Heard of any good ones?”

“Well, it’s not exactly an accident,” Lisa said, “but did you know that every year five thousand children are startled to death?” It was a difficult concept to grasp, so she threw off her blanket and acted it out. “Say a little girl is running down the hall, playing with her parents, and the dad pops up from behind a corner saying ‘Boo!’ or ‘Gotcha!’ or whatever. Well, it turns out that that child can actually collapse and die.”

“I don’t like that one bit,” Maw Hamrick said.

“Well, no, neither do I,” Lisa said. “I’m just saying that it happens at least five thousand times a year.”

“In America or the world over?” Joan asked, and my sister called to her husband in the other room. “Bob, are five thousand children a year startled to death in the United States or in the entire world put together?” He didn’t answer, so Lisa decided it was just the United States. “And those are just the reported cases,” she said. “A lot of parents probably don’t want to own up to it, so their children’s deaths are attributed to something else.”

“Those poor children,” Maw Hamrick said.

“And the parents!” Lisa added. “Can you imagine?”

Both groups are tragic, but I was wondering about the surviving children, or, even worse, the replacements, raised in an atmosphere of preventive sobriety.

“All right, now, Caitlin 2, when we get home a great many people are going to jump out from behind the furniture and yell, ‘Happy birthday!’ I’m telling you now because I don’t want you to get too worked up about it.”

No surprises, no practical jokes, nothing unexpected, but a parent can’t control everything, and there’s still the outside world to contend with, a world of backfiring cars and their human equivalents.

Maybe one day you’ll look down and see a worm, waving its blind, wrinkled head from a hatch it has bored in your leg. If that won’t stop your heart, I don’t know what will, but Hugh and his mother seem to have survived. Thrived, even. The Hamricks are made of stronger stuff than me. That’s why I let them cook the goose, move the furniture, launder the hideous creatures from my secondhand clothing. If anything were to startle them to death, it would be my offer to pitch in, and so I settle back on the sofa with my sister and wave my coffee cup in the air, signalling for another refill.

 

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/08/01/050801sh_shouts?printable=true&currentPage=all#ixzz2yLuxfNnn

David Foster Wallace, What Words Really Mean (2004)

When the American writer David Foster Wallace died four years ago, he left behind the following fragments: notes towards a dictionary all of his own

Utilize

A noxious puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter; rather, using utilize makes you seem either like a pompous twit or like someone so insecure that she’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look sophisticated. The same is true for the noun utilization, for vehicle as used for car, for residence as used for house, for presentlyat present,at this time, and at the present time as used for now, and so on. What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.

Pulchritude

A paradoxical noun because it refers to a kind of beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adj. formpulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutivebig, foreign, fancy(adj.), classycolloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for real things and real things themselves.

Mucous

An adjective, not synonymous with the noun mucus. It’s worth noting this not only because the two words are fun but because so many people don’t know the difference. Mucus means the unmentionable stuff itself.Mucous refers to (1) something that makes or secretes mucus, as in “The next morning, his mucous membranes were in rocky shape indeed,” or (2) something that consists of or resembles mucus, as in “The mucous consistency of its eggs kept the diner’s breakfast trade minimal.”

Myriad

As an adj., myriad means (1) an indefinitely large number of something (“The Local Group comprises myriad galaxies”) or (2) made up of a great many diverse elements (“the myriad plant life of Amazonia”). As a noun, it’s used with an article and of to mean a large number (“The new CFO faced a myriad of cash-flow problems”). What’s odd is that some authorities consider only the adjective usage correct — there’s about a 50-50 chance that a given copy editor will query a myriad of — even though the noun usage has a much longer history. It was only in 19th-century poetry that myriad started being used as an adj. So it’s a bit of a stumper. It’s tempting to recommend avoiding the noun usage so that no readers will be bugged, but at the same time it’s true that any reader who’s bugged by a myriad of is both persnickety and wrong — and you can usually rebut snooty teachers, copy editors, et al. by directing them to Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives teemed forth.”

Unique

This is one of a class of adjectives, sometimes called “uncomparables”, that can be a little tricky. Among other uncomparables are precise,exactcorrectentireaccuratepreferableinevitablepossiblefalse; there are probably two dozen in all. These adjectives all describe absolute, non-negotiable states: something is either false or it’s not; something is either inevitable or it’s not. Many writers get careless and try to modify uncomparables with comparatives like more and less or intensives like very. But if you really think about them, the core assertions in sentences like “War is becoming increasingly inevitable as Middle East tensions rise”; “Their cost estimate was more accurate than the other firms’”; and “As a mortician, he has a very unique attitude” are nonsense. If something is inevitable, it is bound to happen; it cannot be bound to happen and then somehow even more bound to happen.Unique already means one-of-a-kind, so the adj. phrase very unique is at best redundant and at worst stupid, like “audible to the ear” or “rectangular in shape”. You can blame the culture of marketing for some of this difficulty. As the number and rhetorical volume of US ads increase, we become inured to hyperbolic language, which then forces marketers to load superlatives and uncomparables with high-octane modifiers (special – very special – Super-special! – Mega-Special!!), and so on. A deeper issue implicit in the problem of uncomparables is the dissimilarities between Standard Written English and the language of advertising. Advertising English, which probably deserves to be studied as its own dialect, operates under different syntactic rules than SWE, mainly because AE’s goals and assumptions are different. Sentences like “We offer a totally unique dining experience”; “Come on down and receive your free gift”; and “Save up to 50 per cent… and more!” are perfectly OK in Advertising English — but this is because Advertising English is aimed at people who are not paying close attention. If your audience is by definition involuntary, distracted and numbed, then free gift and totally unique stand a better chance of penetrating — and simple penetration is what AE is all about. One axiom of Standard Written English is that your reader is paying close attention and expects you to have done the same.

Focus

Focus is now the noun of choice for expressing what people used to mean by concentration (“Sampras’s on-court focus was phenomenal”) and priority (“Our focus is on serving the needs of our customers”). As an adj., it seems often to serve as an approving synonym for driven ormonomaniacal: “He’s the most focused warehouse manager we’ve ever had.” As a verb, it seems isomorphic with the older to concentrate: “Focus, people!”; “The Democrats hope that the campaign will focus on the economy”; “We need to focus on finding solutions instead of blaming each other”. Given the speed with which to focus has supplanted to concentrate, it’s a little surprising that nobody objects to its somewhat jargony New Age feel — but nobody seems to. Maybe it’s because the word is only one of many film and drama terms that have entered mainstream usage in the last decade, e.g., to foreground (= to feature, to give top priority to); to background (= to downplay, to relegate to the back burner); scenario (= an outline of some hypothetical sequence of events), and so on.

Fervent

A beautiful and expressive word that combines the phonological charms of verve and fever. Lots of writers, though, think fervent is synonymous with fervid, and most dictionary defs. don’t do much to disabuse them. The truth is that there’s a hierarchical trio of zeal-type adjectives, all with roots in the Latin verb fervere (= to boil). Even though fervent can also mean extremely hot, glowing (as in “Fingering his ascot, Aubrey gazed abstractedly at the brazier’s fervent coals”), it’s actually just the baseline term; fervent is basically synonymous with ardent. Fervid is the next level up; it connotes even more passion/devotion/eagerness than fervent. At the top is perfervid, which means extravagantly, rabidly, uncontrollably zealous or impassioned. Perfervid deserves to be used more, not only for its internal alliteration and metrical pizzazz but because its deployment usually shows that the writer knows the differences between the three fervere words.

Feckless

A totally great adjective. Feckless primarily means deficient in efficacy, i.e., lacking vigor or determination, feeble; but it can also mean careless, profligate, irresponsible. It appears most often now in connection with wastoid youths, bloated bureaucracies — anyone who’s culpable for his own haplessness. The great thing about using feckless is that it lets you be extremely dismissive and mean without sounding mean; you just sound witty and classy. The word’s also fun to read because of the soft eassonance and the sound — the triply assonant noun form is even more fun.

Noma

This medical noun signifies an especially icky ulcerous infection of the mouth or genitals. Because the condition most commonly strikes children living in abject poverty/squalor, it’s a bit like scrofula. And just as the adj. scrofulous has gradually extended its sense to mean “corrupt, degenerate, gnarly”, so nomal seems ripe for similar extension; it could serve as a slightly obscure or erudite synonym for “scrofulous, repulsive, pathetically gross, grossly pathetic”… you get the idea.

Hairy

There are maybe more descriptors for various kinds of hair and hairiness than any other word-set in English, and some of them are extremely strange and fun. The more pedestrian terms like shaggy,unshornbushycoiffed, and so on we’ll figure you already know. The adj. barbigerous is an extremely uptown synonym for beardedCirroseand cirrous, from the Latin cirrus meaning “curl” or “fringe” (as in cirrus clouds), can both be used to refer to somebody’s curly or tufty or wispy/feathery hair — Nicolas Cage’s hair in Adaptation is cirrose. Crinitemeans “hairy or possessed of a hair-like appendage”, though it’s mainly a botanical term and would be a bit eccentric applied to a person.Crinose, though, is a people-adj. that means “having a lot of hair”, especially in the sense of one’s hair being really long. The related nouncrinosity is antiquated but not obsolete and can be used to refer to somebody’s hair in an amusingly donnish way, as in Madonna’s normally platinum crinosity is now a maternal brownGlabrous, which is the loveliest of all hair-related adjectives, means having no hair (on a given part) at all. Please note that glabrous means more baby’s-bottom-hairless than bald or shaved, though if you wanted to describe a bald person in an ironically fancy way you could talk about his glabrous domeor something. Hirsute is probably the most familiar upmarket synonym for hairy, totally at home in any kind of formal writing. Like that of many hair-related adjectives, hirsute’s original use was in botany (where it means “covered with coarse or bristly hairs”), but in regular usage its definition is much more general. Hispid means “covered with stiff or rough little hairs” and could apply to a military pate or unshaved jaw.Hispidulous is mainly just a puffed-up form of hispid and should be avoided. Lanate and lanated mean “having or being composed of woolly hairs”. A prettier and slightly more familiar way to describe woolly hair is with the adjective flocculent. (There’s also floccose, but this is used mainly of odd little hairy fruits like kiwi and quince.) Then there are thepil-based words, all derived from the Latin pilus (= hair). Pilose, another fairly common adj., means “covered with fine soft hair”. Last but not least is the noun pilimiction, which names a hopefully very rare medical disorder “in which piliform or hair-like bodies are passed in the urine”. Outside of maybe describing some kind of terribly excruciated facial expression as pilimictive, however, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream use for pilimictionTomentose means “covered with dense little matted hairs” — baby chimps, hobbits’ feet and Robin Williams are alltomentoseUlotrichous, which is properly classed with lannate andflocculent, is an old term for “crisply woolly hair”. Be advised that it is also, if not exactly a racist adj., certainly a racial one — AC Haddon’sRaces of Man, from the early 1900s, classified races according to three basic hair types: leiotrichous (straight), cymotrichous (wavy) andulotrichous.

Now go do the right thing.

This is an edited extract from “Both Flesh and Not”, by David Foster Wallace, published by Hamish Hamilton at £20.

“Twenty-Four Word Notes” was originally published in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus Copyright © 2004, 2008, 2012 Oxford University Press

Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936)

THE MARVELOUS THING IS THAT IT’S painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

“They’ve been there since the day the truck broke down,” he said. “Today’s the first time any have lit on the ground. I watched the way they sailed very carefully at first in case I ever wanted to use them in a story. That’s funny now.””I wish you wouldn’t,” she said.

“I’m only talking,” he said. “It’s much easier if I talk. But I don’t want to bother you.”

“You know it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It’s that I’ve gotten so very nervous not being able to do anything. I think we might make it as easy as we can until the plane comes.”

“Or until the plane doesn’t come.”

“Please tell me what I can do. There must be something I can do.

“You can take the leg off and that might stop it, though I doubt it. Or you can shoot me. You’re a good shot now. I taught you to shoot, didn’t I?”

“Please don’t talk that way. Couldn’t I read to you?”

“Read what?”

“Anything in the book that we haven’t read.”

“I can’t listen to it,” he said.” Talking is the easiest. We quarrel and that makes the time pass.”

“I don’t quarrel. I never want to quarrel. Let’s not quarrel any more. No matter how nervous we get. Maybe they will be back with another truck today. Maybe the plane will come.”

“I don’t want to move,” the man said. “There is no sense in moving now except to make it easier for you.”

“That’s cowardly.”

“Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names? What’s the use of clanging me?”

“You’re not going to die.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m dying now. Ask those bastards.” He looked over to where the huge, filthy birds sat, their naked heads sunk in the hunched feathers. A fourth planed down, to run quick-legged and then waddle slowly toward the others.

“They are around every camp. You never notice them. You can’t die if you don’t give up.”

“Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool.”

“You might think about some one else.”

“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “that’s been my trade.”

He lay then and was quiet for a while and looked across the heat shimmer of the plain to the edge of the bush. There were a few Tommies that showed minute and white against the yellow and, far off, he saw a herd of zebra, white against the green of the bush. This was a pleasant camp under big trees against a hill, with good water, and close by, a nearly dry water hole where sand grouse flighted in the mornings.

“Wouldn’t you like me to read?” she asked. She was sitting on a canvas chair beside his cot. “There’s a breeze coming up.

“No thanks.”

“Maybe the truck will come.”

“I don’t give a damn about the truck.”

“I do.”

“You give a damn about so many things that I don’t.”

“Not so many, Harry.”

“What about a drink?”

“It’s supposed to be bad for you. It said in Black’s to avoid all alcohol.

You shouldn’t drink.”

“Molo!” he shouted.

“Yes Bwana.”

“Bring whiskey-soda.”

“Yes Bwana.”

“You shouldn’t,” she said. “That’s what I mean by giving up. It says it’s

bad for you. I know it’s bad for you.”

“No,” he said. “It’s good for me.”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance

to finish it. So this was the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since

the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the

horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity.

For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was

strange how easy being tired enough made it.

Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.

“I wish we’d never come,” the woman said. She was looking at him holding the glass and biting her lip. “You never would have gotten anything like this in Paris. You always said you loved Paris. We could have stayed in Paris or gone anywhere. I’d have gone anywhere. I said I’d go anywhere you wanted. If you wanted to shoot we could have gone shooting in Hungary and been comfortable.”

“Your bloody money,” he said.

“That’s not fair,” she said. “It was always yours as much as mine. I left everything and I went wherever you wanted to go and I’ve done what you wanted to do But I wish we’d never come here.”

“You said you loved it.”

“I did when you were all right. But now I hate it. I don’t see why that had to happen to your leg. What have we done to have that happen to us?”

“I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn’t pay any attention to it because I never infect. Then, later, when it got bad, it was probably using that weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene.” He looked at her, “What else'”

“I don’t mean that.”

“If we would have hired a good mechanic instead of a half-baked Kikuyu driver, he would have checked the oil and never burned out that bearing in the truck.”

“I don’t mean that.”

“If you hadn’t left your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury Saratoga, Palm Beach people to take me on ” *’Why, I loved you. That’s not fair. I love you now. I’ll always love you Don’t you love me?”

“No,” said the man. “I don’t think so. I never have.”

“Harry, what are you saying? You’re out of your head.”

“No. I haven’t any head to go out of.”

“Don’t drink that,” she said. “Darling, please don’t drink that. We have to do everything we can.”

“You do it,” he said. “I’m tired.”

Now in his mind he saw a railway station at Karagatch and he was standing with his pack and that was the headlight of the Simplon-Offent cutting the dark now and he was leaving Thrace then after the retreat. That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaffa and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the Secretary repeating to the other girls, No, you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.

It was snow too that fell all Christmas week that year up in the Gauertal, that year they lived in the woodcutter’s house with the big square porcelain stove that filled half the room, and they slept on mattresses filled with beech leaves, the time the deserter came with his feet bloody in the snow. He said the police were right behind him and they gave him woolen socks and held the gendarmes talking until the tracks had drifted over.

In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the Weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran down the glacier above the Madlenerhaus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.

They were snow-bound a week in the Madlenerhaus that time in the blizzard playing cards in the smoke by the lantern light and the stakes were higher all the time as Herr Lent lost more. Finally he lost it all. Everything, the Skischule money and all the season’s profit and then his capital. He could see him with his long nose, picking up the cards and then opening, “Sans Voir.” There was always gambling then. When there was no snow you gambled and when there was too much you gambled. He thought of all the time in his life he had spent gambling.

But he had never written a line of that, nor of that cold, bright Christmas day with the mountains showing across the plain that Barker had flown across the lines to bomb the Austrian officers’ leave train, machine-gunning them as they scattered and ran. He remembered Barker afterwards coming into the mess and starting to tell about it. And how quiet it got and then somebody saying, ”You bloody murderous bastard.”

Those were the same Austrians they killed then that he skied with later. No not the same. Hans, that he skied with all that year, had been in the Kaiser Jagers and when they went hunting hares together up the little valley above the saw-mill they had talked of the fighting on Pasubio and of the attack on Perticara and Asalone and he had never written a word of that. Nor of Monte Corona, nor the Sette Communi, nor of Arsiero.

How many winters had he lived in the Vorarlberg and the Arlberg? It was four and then he remembered the man who had the fox to sell when they had walked into Bludenz, that time to buy presents, and the cherry-pit taste of good kirsch, the fast-slipping rush of running powder-snow on crust, singing ”Hi! Ho! said Rolly!’ ‘ as you ran down the last stretch to the steep drop, taking it straight, then running the orchard in three turns and out across the ditch and onto the icy road behind the inn. Knocking your bindings loose, kicking the skis free and leaning them up against the wooden wall of the inn, the lamplight coming from the window, where inside, in the smoky, new-wine smelling warmth, they were playing the accordion.

“Where did we stay in Paris?” he asked the woman who was sitting by him in a canvas chair, now, in Africa.

“At the Crillon. You know that.”

“Why do I know that?”

“That’s where we always stayed.”

“No. Not always.”

“There and at the Pavillion Henri-Quatre in St. Germain. You said you loved it there.”

“Love is a dunghill,” said Harry. “And I’m the cock that gets on it to crow.”

“If you have to go away,” she said, “is it absolutely necessary to kill off everything you leave behind? I mean do you have to take away everything? Do you have to kill your horse, and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?”

“Yes,” he said. “Your damned money was my armour. My Sword and my Armour.”

“Don’t.”

“All right. I’ll stop that. I don’t want to hurt you.’

“It’s a little bit late now.”

“All right then. I’ll go on hurting you. It’s more amusing. The only thing I ever really liked to do with you I can’t do now.”

“No, that’s not true. You liked to do many things and everything you wanted to do I did.”

“Oh, for Christ sake stop bragging, will you?”

He looked at her and saw her crying.

“Listen,” he said. “Do you think that it is fun to do this? I don’t know why I’m doing it. It’s trying to kill to keep yourself alive, I imagine. I was all right when we started talking. I didn’t mean to start this, and now I’m crazy as a coot and being as cruel to you as I can be. Don’t pay any attention, darling, to what I say. I love you, really. You know I love you. I’ve never loved any one else the way I love you.”

He slipped into the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by.

“You’re sweet to me.”

“You bitch,” he said. “You rich bitch. That’s poetry. I’m full of poetry now. Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry.”

“Stop it. Harry, why do you have to turn into a devil now?”

“I don’t like to leave anything,” the man said. “I don’t like to leave things behind.”

* * *

It was evening now and he had been asleep. The sun was gone behind the hill and there was a shadow all across the plain and the small animals were feeding close to camp; quick dropping heads and switching tails, he watched them keeping well out away from the bush now. The birds no longer waited on the ground. They were all perched heavily in a tree. There were many more of them. His personal boy was sitting by the bed.

“Memsahib’s gone to shoot,” the boy said. “Does Bwana want?”

“Nothing.”

She had gone to kill a piece of meat and, knowing how he liked to watch the game, she had gone well away so she would not disturb this little pocket of the plain that he could see. She was always thoughtful, he thought. On anything she knew about, or had read, or that she had ever heard.

It was not her fault that when he went to her he was already over. How could a woman know that you meant nothing that you said; that you spoke only from habit and to be comfortable? After he no longer meant what he said, his lies were more successful with women than when he had told them the truth.

It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.

You kept from thinking and it was all marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it. But, in yourself, you said that you would write about these people; about the very rich; that you were really not of them but a spy in their country; that you would leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of. But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all. The people he knew now were all much more comfortable when he did not work. Africa was where he had been happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come out here to start again. They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought that he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.

She had liked it. She said she loved it. She loved anything that was exciting, that involved a change of scene, where there were new people and where things were pleasant. And he had felt the illusion of returning strength of will to work. Now if this was how it ended, and he knew it was, he must not turn like some snake biting itself because its back was broken. It wasn’t this woman’s fault. If it had not been she it would have been another. If he lived by a lie he should try to die by it. He heard a shot beyond the hill.

She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What was this? A catalogue of old books? What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil. It was strange, too, wasn’t it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one? But when he no longer was in love, when he was only lying, as to this woman, now, who had the most money of all, who had all the money there was, who had had a husband and children, who had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and who loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession; it was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved.

We must all be cut out for what we do, he thought. However you make your living is where your talent lies. He had sold vitality, in one form or another, all his life and when your affections are not too involved you give much better value for the money. He had found that out but he would never write that, now, either. No, he would not write that, although it was well worth writing.

Now she came in sight, walking across the open toward the camp. She was wearing jodphurs and carrying her rifle. The two boys had a Tommie slung and they were coming along behind her. She was still a good-looking woman, he thought, and she had a pleasant body. She had a great talent and appreciation for the bed, she was not pretty, but he liked her face, she read enormously, liked to ride and shoot and, certainly, she drank too much. Her husband had died when she was still a comparatively young woman and for a while she had devoted herself to her two just-grown children, who did not need her and were embarrassed at having her about, to her stable of horses, to books, and to bottles. She liked to read in the evening before dinner and she drank Scotch and soda while she read. By dinner she was fairly drunk and after a bottle of wine at dinner she was usually drunk enough to sleep.

That was before the lovers. After she had the lovers she did not drink so much because she did not have to be drunk to sleep. But the lovers bored her. She had been married to a man who had never bored her and these people bored her very much.

Then one of her two children was killed in a plane crash and after that was over she did not want the lovers, and drink being no anaesthetic she had to make another life. Suddenly, she had been acutely frightened of being alone. But she wanted some one that she respected with her.

It had begun very simply. She liked what he wrote and she had always envied the life he led. She thought he did exactly what he wanted to. The steps by which she had acquired him and the way in which she had finally fallen in love with him were all part of a regular progression in which she had built herself a new life and he had traded away what remained of his old life.

He had traded it for security, for comfort too, there was no denying that, and for what else? He did not know. She would have bought him anything he wanted. He knew that. She was a damned nice woman too. He would as soon be in bed with her as any one; rather with her, because she was richer, because she was very pleasant and appreciative and because she never made scenes. And now this life that she had built again was coming to a term because he had not used iodine two weeks ago when a thorn had scratched his knee as they moved forward trying to photograph a herd of waterbuck standing, their heads up, peering while their nostrils searched the air, their ears spread wide to hear the first noise that would send them rushing into the bush. They had bolted, too, before he got the picture.

Here she came now. He turned his head on the cot to look toward her. “Hello,” he said.

“I shot a Tommy ram,” she told him. “He’ll make you good broth and I’ll have them mash some potatoes with the Klim. How do you feel?”

“Much better.”

“Isn’t that lovely? You know I thought perhaps you would. You were sleeping when I left.”

“I had a good sleep. Did you walk far?”

“No. Just around behind the hill. I made quite a good shot on the Tommy.”

“You shoot marvellously, you know.”

“I love it. I’ve loved Africa. Really. If you’re all right it’s the most fun that I’ve ever had. You don’t know the fun it’s been to shoot with you. I’ve loved the country.”

“I love it too.”

“Darling, you don’t know how marvellous it is to see you feeling better. I couldn’t stand it when you felt that way. You won’t talk to me like that again, will you? Promise me?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t remember what I said.”

“You don’t have to destroy me. Do you? I’m only a middle-aged woman who loves you and wants to do what you want to do. I’ve been destroyed two or three times already. You wouldn’t want to destroy me again, would you?”

“I’d like to destroy you a few times in bed,” he said.

“Yes. That’s the good destruction. That’s the way we’re made to be destroyed. The plane will be here tomorrow.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m sure. It’s bound to come. The boys have the wood all ready and the grass to make the smudge. I went down and looked at it again today. There’s plenty of room to land and we have the smudges ready at both ends.”

“What makes you think it will come tomorrow?”

“I’m sure it will. It’s overdue now. Then, in town, they will fix up your leg and then we will have some good destruction. Not that dreadful talking kind.”

“Should we have a drink? The sun is down.”

“Do you think you should?”

“I’m having one.”

“We’ll have one together. Molo, letti dui whiskey-soda!” she called.

“You’d better put on your mosquito boots,” he told her.

“I’ll wait till I bathe . . .”

While it grew dark they drank and just before it was dark and there was no longer enough light to shoot, a hyena crossed the open on his way around the hill.

“That bastard crosses there every night,” the man said. “Every night for two weeks.”

“He’s the one makes the noise at night. I don’t mind it. They’re a filthy animal though.”

Drinking together, with no pain now except the discomfort of lying in the one position, the boys lighting a fire, its shadow jumping on the tents, he could feel the return of acquiescence in this life of pleasant surrender. She was very good to him. He had been cruel and unjust in the afternoon. She was a fine woman, marvellous really. And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die.

It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden, evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.

“What is it, Harry?” she asked him.

“Nothing,” he said. “You had better move over to the other side. To windward.”

“Did Molo change the dressing?”

“Yes. I’m just using the boric now.”

“How do you feel?”

“A little wobbly.”

“I’m going in to bathe,” she said. “I’ll be right out. I’ll eat with you and then we’ll put the cot in.”

So, he said to himself, we did well to stop the quarrelling. He had never quarrelled much with this woman, while with the women that he loved he had quarrelled so much they had finally, always, with the corrosion of the quarrelling, killed what they had together. He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out.

He thought about alone in Constantinople that time, having quarrelled in Paris before he had gone out. He had whored the whole time and then, when that was over, and he had failed to kill his loneliness, but only made it worse, he had written her, the first one, the one who left him, a letter telling her how he had never been able to kill it … How when he thought he saw her outside the Regence one time it made him go all faint and sick inside, and that he would follow a woman who looked like her in some way, along the Boulevard, afraid to see it was not she, afraid to lose the feeling it gave him. How every one he had slept with had only made him miss her more. How what she had done could never matter since he knew he could not cure himself of loving her. He wrote this letter at the Club, cold sober, and mailed it to New York asking her to write him at the of fice in Paris. That seemed safe. And that night missing her so much it made him feel hollow sick inside, he wandered up past Maxim’s, picked a girl up and took her out to supper. He had gone to a place to dance with her afterward, she danced badly, and left her for a hot Armenian slut, that swung her belly against him so it almost scalded. He took her away from a British gunner subaltern after a row. The gunner asked him outside and they fought in the street on the cobbles in the dark. He’d hit him twice, hard, on the side of the jaw and when he didn’t go down he knew he was in for a fight. The gunner hit him in the body, then beside his eye. He swung with his left again and landed and the gunner fell on him and grabbed his coat and tore the sleeve off and he clubbed him twice behind the ear and then smashed him with his right as he pushed him away. When the gunner went down his head hit first and he ran with the girl because they heard the M.P. ‘s coming. They got into a taxi and drove out to Rimmily Hissa along the Bosphorus, and around, and back in the cool night and went to bed and she felt as over-ripe as she looked but smooth, rose-petal, syrupy, smooth-bellied, big-breasted and needed no pillow under her buttocks, and he left her before she was awake looking blousy enough in the first daylight and turned up at the Pera Palace with a black eye, carrying his coat because one sleeve was missing.

That same night he left for Anatolia and he remembered, later on that trip, riding all day through fields of the poppies that they raised for opium and how strange it made you feel, finally, and all the distances seemed wrong, to where they had made the attack with the newly arrived Constantine officers, that did not know a god-damned thing, and the artillery had fired into the troops and the British observer had cried like a child.

That was the day he’d first seen dead men wearing white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompons on them. The Turks had come steadily and lumpily and he had seen the skirted men running and the of ficers shooting into them and running then themselves and he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies and they stopped behind some rocks and there were the Turks coming as lumpily as ever. Later he had seen the things that he could never think of and later still he had seen much worse. So when he got back to Paris that time he could not talk about it or stand to have it mentioned. And there in the cafe as he passed was that American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement with a Roumanian who said his name was Tristan Tzara, who always wore a monocle and had a headache, and, back at the apartment with his wife that now he loved again, the quarrel all over, the madness all over, glad to be home, the office sent his mail up to the flat. So then the letter in answer to the one he’d written came in on a platter one morning and when he saw the hand writing he went cold all over and tried to slip the letter underneath another. But his wife said, ”Who is that letter from, dear?” and that was the end of the beginning of that.

He remembered the good times with them all, and the quarrels. They always picked the finest places to have the quarrels. And why had they always quarrelled when he was feeling best? He had never written any of that because, at first, he never wanted to hurt any one and then it seemed as though there was enough to write without it. But he had always thought that he would write it finally. There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.

“How do you feel?” she said. She had come out from the tent now after her bath.

“All right.”

“Could you eat now?” He saw Molo behind her with the folding table and the other boy with the dishes.

“I want to write,” he said.

“You ought to take some broth to keep your strength up.”

“I’m going to die tonight,” he said. “I don’t need my strength up.”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Harry, please,” she said.

“Why don’t you use your nose? I’m rotted half way up my thigh now. What the hell should I fool with broth for? Molo bring whiskey-soda.”

“Please take the broth,” she said gently.

“All right.”

The broth was too hot. He had to hold it in the cup until it cooled enough to take it and then he just got it down without gagging.

“You’re a fine woman,” he said. “Don’t pay any attention to me.”

She looked at him with her well-known, well-loved face from Spur and Town & Country, only a little the worse for drink, only a little the worse for bed, but Town & Country never showed those good breasts and those useful thighs and those lightly small-of-back-caressing hands, and as he looked and saw her well-known pleasant smile, he felt death come again.

in.

This time there was no rush. It was a puff, as of a wind that makes a candle flicker and the flame go tall.

“They can bring my net out later and hang it from the tree and build the fire up. I’m not going in the tent tonight. It’s not worth moving. It’s a clear night. There won’t be any rain.”

So this was how you died, in whispers that you did not hear. Well, there would be no more quarrelling. He could promise that. The one experience that he had never had he was not going to spoil now. He probably would. You spoiled everything. But perhaps he wouldn’t.

“You can’t take dictation, can you?”

“I never learned,” she told him.

“That’s all right.”

There wasn’t time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right.

There was a log house, chinked white with mortar, on a hill above the lake. There was a bell on a pole by the door to call the people in to meals. Behind the house were fields and behind the fields was the timber. A line of lombardy poplars ran from the house to the dock. Other poplars ran along the point. A road went up to the hills along the edge of the timber and along that road he picked blackberries. Then that log house was burned down and all the guns that had been on deer foot racks above the open fire place were burned and afterwards their barrels, with the lead melted in the magazines, and the stocks burned away, lay out on the heap of ashes that were used to make lye for the big iron soap kettles, and you asked Grandfather if you could have them to play with, and he said, no. You see they were his guns still and he never bought any others. Nor did he hunt any more. The house was rebuilt in the same place out of lumber now and painted white and from its porch you saw the poplars and the lake beyond; but there were never any more guns. The barrels of the guns that had hung on the deer feet on the wall of the log house lay out there on the heap of ashes and no one ever touched them.

In the Black Forest, after the war, we rented a trout stream and there were two ways to walk to it. One was down the valley from Triberg and around the valley road in the shade of the trees that bordered the white road, and then up a side road that went up through the hills past many small farms, with the big Schwarzwald houses, until that road crossed the stream. That was where our fishing began.

The other way was to climb steeply up to the edge of the woods and then go across the top of the hills through the pine woods, and then out to the edge of a meadow and down across this meadow to the bridge. There were birches along the stream and it was not big, but narrow, clear and fast, with pools where it had cut under the roots of the birches. At the Hotel in Triberg the proprietor had a fine season. It was very pleasant and we were all great friends. The next year came the inflation and the money he had made the year before was not enough to buy supplies to open the hotel and he hanged himself. You could dictate that, but you could not dictate the Place Contrescarpe where the flower sellers dyed their flowers in the street and the dye ran over the paving where the autobus started and the old men and the women, always drunk on wine and bad mare; and the children with their noses running in the cold; the smell of dirty sweat and poverty and drunkenness at the Cafe’ des Amateurs and the whores at the Bal Musette they lived above. The concierge who entertained the trooper of the Garde Republicaine in her loge, his horse-hair-plumed helmet on a chair. The locataire across the hall whose husband was a bicycle racer and her joy that morning at the cremerie when she had opened L’Auto and seen where he placed third in Paris-Tours, his first big race. She had blushed and laughed and then gone upstairs crying with the yellow sporting paper in her hand. The husband of the woman who ran the Bal Musette drove a taxi and when he, Harry, had to take an early plane the husband knocked upon the door to wake him and they each drank a glass of white wine at the zinc of the bar before they started. He knew his neighbors in that quarter then because they all were poor.

Around that Place there were two kinds; the drunkards and the sportifs. The drunkards killed their poverty that way; the sportifs took it out in exercise. They were the descendants of the Communards and it was no struggle for them to know their politics. They knew who had shot their fathers, their relatives, their brothers, and their friends when the Versailles troops came in and took the town after the Commune and executed any one they could catch with calloused hands, or who wore a cap, or carried any other sign he was a working man. And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.

From the apartment you could only see the wood and coal man’s place. He sold wine too, bad wine. The golden horse’s head outside the Boucherie Chevaline where the carcasses hung yellow gold and red in the open window, and the green painted co-operative where they bought their wine; good wine and cheap. The rest was plaster walls and the windows of the neighbors. The neighbors who, at night, when some one lay drunk in the street, moaning and groaning in that typical French ivresse that you were propaganded to believe did not exist, would open their windows and then the murmur of talk.

”Where is the policeman? When you don’t want him the bugger is always there. He’s sleeping with some concierge. Get the Agent. ” Till some one threw a bucket of water from a window and the moaning stopped. ”What’s that? Water. Ah, that’s intelligent.” And the windows shutting. Marie, his femme de menage, protesting against the eight-hour day saying, ”If a husband works until six he gets only a riffle drunk on the way home and does not waste too much. If he works only until five he is drunk every night and one has no money. It is the wife of the working man who suffers from this shortening of hours. ‘

“Wouldn’t you like some more broth?” the woman asked him now.

“No, thank you very much. It is awfully good.”

“Try just a little.”

“I would like a whiskey-soda.”

“It’s not good for you.”

“No. It’s bad for me. Cole Porter wrote the words and the music. This knowledge that you’re going mad for me.”

“You know I like you to drink.”

“Oh yes. Only it’s bad for me.”

When she goes, he thought, I’ll have all I want. Not all I want but all there is. Ayee he was tired. Too tired. He was going to sleep a little while. He lay still and death was not there. It must have gone around another street. It went in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements.

No, he had never written about Paris. Not the Paris that he cared about. But what about the rest that he had never written?

What about the ranch and the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa. The trail went up into the hills and the cattle in the summer were shy as deer. The bawling and the steady noise and slow moving mass raising a dust as you brought them down in the fall. And behind the mountains, the clear sharpness of the peak in the evening light and, riding down along the trail in the moonlight, bright across the valley. Now he remembered coming down through the timber in the dark holding the horse’s tail when you could not see and all the stories that he meant to write.

About the half-wit chore boy who was left at the ranch that time and told not to let any one get any hay, and that old bastard from the Forks who had beaten the boy when he had worked for him stopping to get some feed. The boy refusing and the old man saying he would beat him again. The boy got the rifle from the kitchen and shot him when he tried to come into the barn and when they came back to the ranch he’d been dead a week, frozen in the corral, and the dogs had eaten part of him. But what was left you packed on a sled wrapped in a blanket and roped on and you got the boy to help you haul it, and the two of you took it out over the road on skis, and sixty miles down to town to turn the boy over. He having no idea that he would be arrested. Thinking he had done his duty and that you were his friend and he would be rewarded. He’d helped to haul the old man in so everybody could know how bad the old man had been and how he’d tried to steal some feed that didn’t belong to him, and when the sheriff put the handcuffs on the boy he couldn’t believe it. Then he’d started to cry. That was one story he had saved to write. He knew at least twenty good stories from out there and he had never written one. Why?

“You tell them why,” he said.

“Why what, dear?”

“Why nothing.”

She didn’t drink so much, now, since she had him. But if he lived he would never write about her, he knew that now. Nor about any of them. The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamourous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

He had been contemptuous of those who wrecked. You did not have to like it because you understood it. He could beat anything, he thought, because no thing could hurt him if he did not care.

All right. Now he would not care for death. One thing he had always dreaded was the pain. He could stand pain as well as any man, until it went on too long, and wore him out, but here he had something that had hurt frightfully and just when he had felt it breaking him, the pain had stopped.

He remembered long ago when Williamson, the bombing officer, had been hit by a stick bomb some one in a German patrol had thrown as he was coming in through the wire that night and, screaming, had begged every one to kill him. He was a fat man, very brave, and a good officer, although addicted to fantastic shows. But that night he was caught in the wire, with a flare lighting him up and his bowels spilled out into the wire, so when they brought him in, alive, they had to cut him loose. Shoot me, Harry. For Christ sake shoot me. They had had an argument one time about our Lord never sending you anything you could not bear and some one’s theory had been that meant that at a certain time the pain passed you out automatically. But he had always remembered Williamson, that night. Nothing passed out Williamson until he gave him all his morphine tablets that he had always saved to use himself and then they did not work right away.

Still this now, that he had, was very easy; and if it was no worse as it went on there was nothing to worry about. Except that he would rather be in better company.

He thought a little about the company that he would like to have.

No, he thought, when everything you do, you do too long, and do too late, you can’t expect to find the people still there. The people all are gone. The party’s over and you are with your hostess now.

I’m getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought.

“It’s a bore,” he said out loud.

“What is, my dear?”

“Anything you do too bloody long.”

He looked at her face between him and the fire. She was leaning back in the chair and the firelight shone on her pleasantly lined face and he could see that she was sleepy. He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire.

“I’ve been writing,” he said. “But I got tired.”

“Do you think you will be able to sleep?”

“Pretty sure. Why don’t you turn in?”

“I like to sit here with you.”

“Do you feel anything strange?” he asked her.

“No. Just a little sleepy.”

“I do,” he said.

He had just felt death come by again.

“You know the only thing I’ve never lost is curiosity,” he said to her.

“You’ve never lost anything. You’re the most complete man I’ve ever known.”

“Christ,” he said. “How little a woman knows. What is that? Your intuition?”

Because, just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath.

“Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull,” he told her. “It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena.”

It had moved up on him now, but it had no shape any more. It simply occupied space.

“Tell it to go away.”

It did not go away but moved a little closer.

“You’ve got a hell of a breath,” he told it. “You stinking bastard.”

It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move or speak, he heard the woman say, “Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent.”

He could not speak to tell her to make it go away and it crouched now, heavier, so he could not breathe. And then, while they lifted the cot, suddenly it was all right and the weight went from his chest.

It was morning and had been morning for some time and he heard the plane. It showed very tiny and then made a wide circle and the boys ran out and lit the fires, using kerosene, and piled on grass so there were two big smudges at each end of the level place and the morning breeze blew them toward the camp and the plane circled twice more, low this time, and then glided down and levelled off and landed smoothly and, coming walking toward him, was old Compton in slacks, a tweed jacket and a brown felt hat.

“What’s the matter, old cock?” Compton said.

“Bad leg,” he told him. “Will you have some breakfast?”

“Thanks. I’ll just have some tea. It’s the Puss Moth you know. I won’t be able to take the Memsahib. There’s only room for one. Your lorry is on the way.”

Helen had taken Compton aside and was speaking to him. Compton came back more cheery than ever.

“We’ll get you right in,” he said. “I’ll be back for the Mem. Now I’m afraid I’ll have to stop at Arusha to refuel. We’d better get going.”

“What about the tea?”

“I don’t really care about it, you know.”

The boys had picked up the cot and carried it around the green tents and down along the rock and out onto the plain and along past the smudges that were burning brightly now, the grass all consumed, and the wind fanning the fire, to the little plane. It was difficult getting him in, but once in he lay back in the leather seat, and the leg was stuck straight out to one side of the seat where Compton sat. Compton started the motor and got in. He waved to Helen and to the boys and, as the clatter moved into the old familiar roar, they swung around with Compie watching for warthog holes and roared, bumping, along the stretch between the fires and with the last bump rose and he saw them all standing below, waving, and the camp beside the hill, flattening now, and the plain spreading, clumps of trees, and the bush flattening, while the game trails ran now smoothly to the dry waterholes, and there was a new water that he had never known of. The zebra, small rounded backs now, and the wildebeeste, big-headed dots seeming to climb as they moved in long fingers across the plain, now scattering as the shadow came toward them, they were tiny now, and the movement had no gallop, and the plain as far as you could see, gray-yellow now and ahead old Compie’s tweed back and the brown felt hat. Then they were over the first hills and the wildebeeste were trailing up them, and then they were over mountains with sudden depths of green-rising forest and the solid bamboo slopes, and then the heavy forest again, sculptured into peaks and hollows until they crossed, and hills sloped down and then another plain, hot now, and purple brown, bumpy with heat and Compie looking back to see how he was riding. Then there were other mountains dark ahead.

And then instead of going on to Arusha they turned left, he evidently figured that they had the gas, and looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in at ii blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming, up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.

Just then the hyena stopped whimpering in the night and started to make a strange, human, almost crying sound. The woman heard it and, stirred uneasily. She did not wake. In her dream she was at the house on Long Island and it was the night before her daughter’s debut. Somehow her father was there and he had been very rude. Then the noise the hyena made was so loud she woke and for a moment she did not know where she was and she was very afraid. Then she took the flashlight and shone it on the other cot that they had carried in after Harry had gone to sleep. She could see his bulk under the mosquito bar but somehow he had gotten his leg out and it hung down alongside the cot. The dressings had all come down and she could not look at it.

“Molo,” she called, “Molo! Molo!”

Then she said, “Harry, Harry!” Then her voice rising, “Harry! Please. Oh Harry!”

There was no answer and she could not hear him breathing.

Outside the tent the hyena made the same strange noise that had awakened her. But she did not hear him for the beating of her heart.

Art Garfunkel’s Reading List

Art Garfunkel’s Reading List

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature– Ernest Hemingway

An excerpt from Georg Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning—in sense—and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a centre of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’