The envelope arrived like manna dropping from the heavens, landing in the middle of my young and yearning life. I had just finished medical school, and had already decided, in good, Chekhovian fashion, that while medicine might be my lawful wife, literature was to be my mistress. I had sent one of my short stories to Nathan Zimkin, then the undisputed heir to the legacy of Saul Bellow, and at the height of his literary powers. “Stunned beyond words” might be an adequate description of what I felt, upon reading the master’s letter, which must have been finger-pecked on an old Smith-Corona. This was, of course, in the early ’80s, well before word processors became popular. Zimkin, true to his laconic writing style, had been terse and precise:
Dear Dr. Ackerman,
Thank you for your short story, “Hyman Gleeber Buys a Friend.” It has real possibilities, marred only by use of the phrase, “a tough nut to crack,” which you could easily do without. Why not stop by some time, and we can discuss your broader literary goals. When I’m not in London, I’m here in Cornwell, Conn., 06758, usually from June to September. Looking forward.
I had just finished reading Zimkin’s most recent novel, “The Vilna Gaon,” which had left me reeling with a kind of vertigo: a dizzying mix of gape-mouthed awe and gnawing envy. My own scribbling seemed, by comparison, little more than hen-scratching, and I could not console myself by the vast difference in our ages and histories: Zimkin, a Pulitzer Prize winner in his mid-70s; and me, a literary novice, barely 26. To make matters worse, my father had died of renal cancer only a month before I received Zimkin’s letter, and I had only begun dealing with my anger and grief, rummaging through the boxes of unfiled papers, old tax returns and sports memorabilia, which my mother had asked me to sort out.
I had driven the two-and-a-half hours from Boston to Cornwell in a driving rain, and was already running late for our planned lunch. I had fretted for hours on a piddling matter of protocol: Should I bring a bottle of wine? A box of pastry? Maybe something more befitting the stature of a literary god, like a first edition of I.L. Peretz’s short stories? I finally settled on a leather-bound edition of the works of Anton Chekhov, published in 1929.
For the entire length of the trip, my brain was struggling, toggling, between Eros and Thanatos: between my living literary icon and my dead father. The box of memorabilia had smelled of old cowhide: the redolence of my father’s 1950s Gus Zernial baseball glove—his prize possession. The rich mustiness of that odor brought back memories of my childhood attempts to “play ball”—my father’s beloved sport—and the muttered paternal verdict when I was 12: “Jesus, the kid throws like a damn girl.” My face reddened as I recalled hiding under the bleachers in Kibbe Park, until my older brother found me.
I showed up 20 minutes late, drenched like a sewer rat, having trudged a good quarter-mile without an umbrella along the washed-out dirt road that led to Zimkin’s tiny clapboard cottage. I had expected something more impressive than the gray, forlorn dwelling that sat nearly obscured by a grove of maple trees. But given Zimkin’s famously ascetic habits, perhaps I should not have been surprised.
The man who greeted me at the door did not look like the Nathan Zimkin I had envisioned, based on his book-flap photos from the late ’70s. That Nathan Zimkin had the broad-shouldered build of a lumber jack and the long-bearded mien of an Old Testament prophet. The new Zimkin seemed scarily smaller, frailer, and shorn completely of the patriarchal beard.
“Ah,” he said, extending his hand to me, “So you made it, young Dr. Ackerman. I had begun to wonder. Good God, let’s get you dried off!” I couldn’t tell from Zimkin’s deeply furrowed brow and pursed lips whether he was angered by my late and drippy arrival; or whether, in some way I didn’t yet understand, this once titanic man had taken some kind of beating.
“I’m really sorry, Professor Zimkin,” I muttered—he was, at that time, a full professor of Judaic literature at the University of London—“My car got stuck in the mud a ways down that dirt road, and then…”
“It’s OK, Dr. Ackerman, I’ll get you a towel. Oh, and, better take those shoes off. What? Oh, yes, of course. Joel. And please, drop the professor business. It’s Nathan.”
With this little act of re-naming, I thought I detected the hint of a smile, a flash of warmth, and a slight unfurrowing of that famously broad brow. But it would prove nearly impossible for me to address this literary demi-god by his first name. For the rest of the afternoon, I avoided any form of address, except the occasional “sir.”
Zimkin’s cottage might have housed some Spartan general, for all its bare-boned austerity. The entire one-floor cottage could not have been more than 20’ by 30’, encompassing a small kitchen; a single bedroom; a tiny half-bath; and a sitting area that contained a tattered couch; two well-worn chairs; and a knotty-pine coffee table. A large, oaken bookshelf, filled to capacity, served as separation between the bedroom and sitting area. The place had a sweet and slightly pungent odor, with an undertone of some earthy smell that reminded me of fresh clay. I noticed a briar pipe sitting in a leather tray on the coffee table, though Zimkin did not light up the entire afternoon.
Over tuna fish sandwiches, potato salad, a plate of deli pickles and coffee strong enough for the spoon to stand up in the mug, our dialogue began. I was too nervous to initiate any questions, and contented myself with avoiding moronic responses to Zimkin’s queries.
“So, Joel, this story you sent me—“Hyman Gleeber Buys a Friend.” How did you come up with the idea for it?”
“Well,” I said, quickly gulping down a mouthful of tuna fish, “It was really the Talmud. I’m sure you know, sir, the tractate on ethics, the only one in the Talmud that is nothing but aggadah…”
“Pirke Avot. Of course.” I thought Zimkin looked slightly put off by what must have seemed a bit of chutzpah from someone young enough to be his grandson. “But,” he continued, smiling ever so slightly, “you’ll have to refresh my memory of the specific mishnah.”
I cleared my throat and tried to get up my nerve. Here I was, talking Talmud with a man who had written a prize-winning novel about the Talmudic master, the Gaon of Vilna!
“Well, Profess…I mean, um, sir, it’s the mishnah in chapter one that says, “Provide a teacher for yourself, buy yourself a friend, and judge every man favorably.”
Zimkin looked dubious. “Well, OK, but you are using a literal translation of ‘keneh lecha chaver.’ Most translations say, ‘Acquire for yourself a friend.’ But never mind—your translation works well in the story, which is really what counts.”
Our talk soon turned to Zimkin’s literary habits, which, I quickly learned, might challenge the fortitude of a Navy Seal.
“I get up every morning at 5:30, shave and shower,” he said. “It’s beautiful here when the sun rises around 7, and the rays seep through the sugar maples. I make a pot of strong coffee—I like the Italian roasts, sometimes the French—and I write for two hours without a break. I have a light breakfast at 8:30, usually a boiled egg and a piece of toast, with lots of salt on the egg, and the toast slightly burnt. Then I take a walk in the woods for about an hour. The pine scent and the soft pine needles under my feet—always, they restore me. Then I come back to the cottage and write for another three hours. By that time, I’m ready for lunch. Then…I…well, that is…I used to…”
At this point, Zimkin’s speech became halting. His face blanched. His mouth drew down at the corners and his jaw twitched. I could sense the struggle to master himself, to avoid making a scene—to appear weak in front of me. But the battle lasted only a few moments, and then the patriarch of old was back in control.
“You know, Joel,” he began again. “You know what? I’m a big, goddamn liar! And it’s not fair to you, as an aspiring writer. What I just told you—the rigor, the discipline. It’s been gone now for over a year. The book that got me the Pulitzer, you know—that book came out three years ago. Since then, it’s been empty brain syndrome. Nothing works anymore. The old writer’s tricks, the folk remedies for ‘writers’ block’—they all failed, and it all fell apart for me.”
Then, like a derecho blasting through, some fell wind within him turned Zimkin’s mood from pensive to furious. His face turned a kind of reddish purple, and a vein near his temple swelled.
“Who the hell do you think you are, anyway, Dr. Ackerman?” he shouted, as I pushed back my chair from the table, my heart in my shoes. “You write one good, goddamn story and you think you want to be a writer? Seriously? Do you have any idea the crap you will have to put up with as a writer? The abuse? The tirades about your work from critics who wouldn’t know metonymy from monopoly? Oh, my God, how the feminist critics tore me a new one, in their reviews of ‘The Vilna Gaon’!”
His voice changed tone and timbre, becoming shrill and mocking. “Zimkin doesn’t get women! Zimkin thinks all Jewish women are obedient little housewives, working their fingers to the bone so that their great, Talmudic genius-husbands can have hair-splitting arguments about the Evil Impulse, the yetzer hara!”
Zimkin paused for a moment, as if to prepare for the final blow. “But what would you know about all this, Dr. Ackerman? Your story—your depiction of Hyman Gleeber’s wife—pitch perfect! Pitch effing perfect! Jesus, boychik, you practically write like a woman!”
After my heart slowly drifted back behind my sternum, I rose silently from the table and took my dishes over to the sink. Neither of us said a word for a good five minutes. Zimkin washed, I dried. Wary of causing any more damage, I gently placed the clean dishes in the three-piece dish drainer that bore a faded tag reading “Bed, Bath & Beyond.”
The rain had stopped by then. I began mulling the challenge of getting my car out of the mud, and was about to mumble some kind of misbegotten apology and take my leave. Then Zimkin heaved a sigh and shrugged his meager shoulders. Finally, he spoke.
“Of course, Joel, I meant it in a good way. Your feel for what women go through, I mean. And we both know, historically, the women have gone through hell, at our hands. My two marriages, you know—they never worked out. And they were barren. I mean, not that we couldn’t have children. We just never got to the point where it made any sense. So, you see, Joel, there was a hole to fill, and it was just too deep. Writing filled it for a while—well, for 45 good years!—then the earth gave way like a giant sinkhole. Thank you, Joel, for throwing some nice, rich dirt in the hole this afternoon. And please, do keep writing.”
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