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    Original Essays | April 6, 2015

    Mary Norris: IMG Voracious

    In the summer of 2012, I got a contract for a book about language, based on my experiences of more than 30 years as a copy editor at The New Yorker.... Continue »

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2 Burnside Literature- A to Z

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Other titles in the Quasi-Novels series:

Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel


Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel Cover




       BECH HAD A NEW SIDEKICK. Her monicker was Robin. Rachel

          "Robin" Teagarten. Twenty-six, post-Jewish, frizzy big hair, figure on the

          short and solid side. She interfaced for him with an IBM PS/1 his

          publisher had talked him into buying. She set up the defaults, rearranged

          the icons, programmed the style formats, accessed the ANSI character

          sets--Bech was a stickler for foreign accents. When he answered a letter,

          she typed it for him from dictation. When he took a creative leap, she

          deciphered his handwriting and turned it into digitized code. Neither

          happened very often. Bech was of the Ernest Hemingway

          save-your-juices school. To fill the time, he and Robin slept together. He

          was seventy-four, but they worked with that. Seventy-four plus

          twenty-six was one hundred; divided by two, that was fifty, the prime of

          life. The energy of youth plus the wisdom of age. A team. A duo.

              They were in his snug aerie on Crosby Street. He was reading the

          Times at breakfast: caffeineless Folgers, calcium-reinforced D'Agostino

          orange juice, poppy-seed bagel lightly toasted. The crumbs and poppy

          seeds had scattered over the newspaper and into his lap but you don't

          get something for nothing, not on this hard planer. Bech announced to

          Robin, "Hey, Lucas Mishner is dead."

              A creamy satisfaction--the finest quality, made extra easy to spread by

          the toasty warmth--thickly covered his heart.

              "Who's Lucas Mishner?" Robin asked. She was deep in the D

          section--Business Day. She was a practical-minded broad with no

          experience of culture prior to 1975.

              "Once-powerful critic," Bech told her, biting off his phrases. "Late

          Partisan Review school. Used to condescend to appear in the Trib

          Book Review, when the Trib was still alive on this side of the Atlantic.

          Despised my stuff. Called it `superficially energetic but lacking in the true

          American fiber, the grit, the wrestle.' That's him talking, not me. The grit,

          the wrestle. Sanctimonious bastard. When The Chosen came out in '63,

          he wrote, `Strive and squirm as he will, Bech will never, never be

          touched by the American sublime.' The simple, smug, know-it-all son of

          a bitch. You know what his idea of the real stuff was? James Jones.

          James Jones and James Gould Cozzens."

              There Mishner's face was, in the Times, twenty years younger, with a

          fuzzy little rosebud smirk and a pathetic slicked-down comb-over like

          limp Venetian blinds throwing a shadow across the dome of his head.

          The thought of him dead filled Bech with creamy ease. He told Robin,

          "Lived way the hell up in Connecticut. Three wives, no flowers. Hadn't

          published for years. The rumor in the industry was he was gaga with

          alcoholic dementia."

              "You seem happy."


              "Why? You say he had stopped being a critic anyway."

              "Not in my head. He tried to hurt me. He did hurt me. Vengeance is


              "Who said that?"

              "The Lord. In the Bible. Wake up, Robin."

              "I thought it didn't sound like you," she admitted. "Stop hogging the

          Arts section. Let's see what's playing in the Village. I feel like a movie


              "I'm not reading the Arts section."

              "But it's under what you are reading."

              "I was going to get to it."

              "That's what I call hogging. Pass it over."

              He passed it over, with a pattering of poppy seeds on the

          polyurethaned teak dining table Robin had installed. For years he and his

          female guests had eaten at a low glass coffee table farther forward in the

          loft. The sun slanting in had been pretty, but eating all doubled up had

          been bad for their internal organs. Robin had got him to take vitamins,

          too, and the calcium-reinforced o.j. She thought it would straighten his

          spine. He was in his best shape in years. She had got him doing sit-ups

          and push-ups. He was hard and quick, for a man who'd had his Biblical

          three score and ten. He was ready for action. He liked the tone of his

          own body. He liked the cut of Robin's smooth broad jaw across the teak

          table. Her healthy big hair, her pushy plump lips, her little flattened nose.

          "One down," he told her, mysteriously.

              But she was reading the Arts section, the B section, and didn't hear.

          "Con Air, Face/Off," she read. This was the summer of 1997. "Air

          Force One, Men in Black. They're all violent. Disgusting."

              "Why are you afraid of a little violence?" he asked her. "Violence is

          our poetry now, now that sex has become fatally tainted."

              "Or Contact," Robin said. "From the reviews it's all about how the

          universe secretly loves us."

              "That'll be the day," snarled Bech. Though in fact the juices surging

          inside him bore a passing resemblance to those of love. Mishner dead put

          another inch on his prick.

              A week later, he was in the subway. The Rockefeller Center station

          on Sixth Avenue, the old IND line. The downtown platform was

          jammed. All those McGraw-Hill, Exxon, and Time-Life execs were

          rushing back to their wives in the Heights. Or going down to West 4th to

          have some herbal tea and put on drag for the evening. Monogamous

          transvestite executives were clogging the system. Bech was in a savage

          mood. He had been to MoMA, checking out the Constructivist

          film-poster show and the Project 60 room. The room featured three

          "ultra-hip," according to the new New Yorker, figurative painters: one

          who did "poisonous portraits of fashion victims," another who specialized

          in "things so boring that they verge on nonbeing," and a third who did

          "glossy, seductive portraits of pop stars and gay boys." None of them

          had been Bech's bag. Art had passed him by. Literature was passing him

          by. Music he had never gotten exactly with, not since USO record hops.

          Those cuddly little WACs from Ohio in their starched uniforms. That war

          had been over too soon, before he got to kill enough Germans.

              Down in the subway, in the flickering jaundiced light, three competing

          groups of electronic buskers--one country, one progressive jazz, and one

          doing Christian hip-hop--were competing, while a huge overhead voice

          unintelligibly burbled about cancellations and delays. In the cacophony,

          Bech spotted an English critic: Raymond Featherwaite, former

          Cambridge eminence lured to CUNY by American moolah. From his

          perch in the CUNY crenellations, using an antique matchlock arquebus,

          he had been snottily potting American writers for twenty years, courtesy

          of the ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books. Prolix and

          voulu, Featherwaite had called Bech's best-selling comeback book,

          Think Big, back in 1979. Inflation was peaking under Carter, the AIDS

          virus was sallying forth unidentified and unnamed, and here this limey

          carpetbagger was calling Bech's chef-d'oeuvre prolix and voulu. When,

          in the deflationary epoch supervised by Reagan, Bech had ventured a

          harmless collection of highly polished sketches and stories called Biding

          Time, Featherwaite had written, "One's spirits, however initially

          well-disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended

          reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of

          watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very

          little. The pleasures of microscopy pall."

              The combined decibels of the buskers drowned out, for all but the

          most attuned city ears, the approach of the train whose delay had been

          so indistinctly bruited. Featherwaite, like all these Brits who were

          breeding like woodlice in the rotting log piles of the New York literary

          industry, was no slouch at pushing ahead. Though there was hardly room

          to place one's shoes on the filthy concrete, he had shoved and wormed

          his way to the front of the crowd, right to the edge of the platform. His

          edgy profile, with its supercilious overbite and artfully projecting

          eyebrows, turned with arrogant expectancy toward the screamingly

          approaching D train, as though hailing a servile black London taxi or

          gilded Victorian brougham. Featherwaite affected a wispy-banged Nero

          haircut. There were rougelike touches of color on his cheekbones. The

          tidy English head bit into Bech's vision like a branding iron.

              Prolix, he thought, Voulu. He had had to look up voulu in his French

          dictionary. It put a sneering curse on Bech's entire oeuvre, for what, as

          Schopenhauer had asked, isn't willed?

              Bech was three bodies back in the crush, tightly immersed in the

          odors, clothes, accents, breaths, and balked wills of others. Two

          broad-backed bodies, padded with junk food and fermented malt,

          intervened between himself and Featherwaite, while others importunately

          pushed at his own back. As if suddenly shoved from behind, he lowered

          his shoulder and rammed into the body ahead of his; like dominoes, it

          and the next tipped the third, the stiff-backed Englishman, off the

          platform. In the next moment the train with the force of a flash flood

          poured into the station, drowning all other noise under a shrieking gush of

          tortured metal. Featherwaite's hand in the last second of his life had shot

          up and his head jerked back as if in sudden recognition of an old

          acquaintance. Then he had vanished.

              It was an instant's event, without time for the D-train driver to brake or

          a bystander to scream. Just one head pleasantly less in the compressed,

          malodorous mob. The man ahead of Bech, a ponderous black with

          bloodshot eyes, wearing a knit cap in the depths of summer, regained his

          balance and turned indignantly, but Bech, feigning a furious glance behind

          him, slipped sideways as the crowd arranged itself into funnels beside

          each door of the now halted train. A woman's raised voice--foreign,

          shrill--had begun to leak the horrible truth of what she had witnessed,

          and far away, beyond the turnstiles, a telepathic policeman's whistle was

          tweeting. But the crowd within the train was surging obliviously outward

          against the crowd trying to enter, and in the thick eddies of disgruntled

          and compressed humanity nimble, bookish, elderly Bech put more and

          more space between himself and his unwitting accomplices. He secreted

          himself a car's length away, hanging from a hand-burnished bar next to an

          ad publicizing free condoms and clean needles, with a dainty Oxford

          edition of Donne's poems pressed close to his face as the news of the

          unthinkable truth spread, and the whistles of distant authority drew

          nearer, and the train refused to move and was finally emptied of

          passengers, while the official voice overhead, louder and less intelligible

          than ever, shouted word of cancellation, of disaster, of evacuation

          without panic.





Obediently Bech left the stalled train, blood on its wheels, and climbed

          the metallic stairs sparkling with pulverized glass. His insides shuddered in

          tune with the shoving, near-panicked mob about him. He inhaled the

          outdoor air and Manhattan anonymity gratefully. Avenue of the

          Americas, a sign said, in stubborn upholding of an obsolete gesture of

          hemispheric good will. Bech walked south, then over to Seventh Avenue.

          Scrupulously he halted at each red light and deposited each handed-out


          BOTTOMLESS AFTER 6:30 P.M.!) in the next city trash receptacle.

          He descended into the Times Square station, where the old IRT system's

          innumerable tunnels mingled their misery in a vast subterranean maze of

          passageways, stairs, signs, and candy stands. He bought a Snickers bar

          and leaned against a white-tiled pillar to read where his little book had

          fallen open,

               Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

                  Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

                  For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow

               Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

          He caught an N train that took him to Broadway and Prince. Afternoon

          had sweetly turned to evening while he had been underground. The

          galleries were closing, the restaurants were opening. Robin was in the

          loft, keeping lasagna warm. "I thought MoMA closed at six," she said.

              "There was a tie-up in the Sixth Avenue subway. Nothing was running.

          I had to walk down to Times Square. I hated the stuff the museum had

          up. Violent, attention-getting."

              "Maybe there comes a time," she said, "when new art isn't for you, it's

          for somebody else. I wonder what caused the tie-up."

              "Nobody knew. Power failure. A shootout uptown. Some maniac," he

          added, wondering at his own words. His insides felt agitated, purged,

          scrubbed, yet not yet creamy. Perhaps the creaminess needed to wait

          until the morning Times. He feared he could not sleep, out of nervous

          anticipation, yet he toppled into dreams while Robin still read beneath a

          burning light, as if he had done a long day's worth of physical labor.


          SUBWAY MISHAP, the headline read. The story was low on the front

          page and jumped to the obituaries. The obit photo, taken decades ago,

          glamorized Featherwaite--head facing one way, shoulders another--so he

          resembled a younger, less impish brother of George Sanders. High brow,

          thin lips, cocky glass chin.... according to witnesses appeared to fling

          himself under the subway train as it approached the platform. ...

          colleagues at CUNY puzzled but agreed he had been under

          significant stress compiling permissions for his textbook of

          postmodern narrative strategies ... former wife, reached in London,

          allowed the deceased had been subject to mood swings and fits of

          creative despair ... the author of several youthful satirical novels

          and a single book of poems likened to those of Philip Larkin ...

          Robert Silvers of The New York Review expressed shock and termed

          Featherwaite "a valued and versatile contributor of unflinching

          critical integrity" ... born in Scunthorpe, Yorkshire, the third child

          and only son of a greengrocer and a part-time piano teacher ... and

          so on. A pesky little existence. "Ray Featherwaite is dead," Bech

          announced to Robin, trying to keep a tremble of triumph out of his voice.

              "Who was he?"

              "A critic. More minor than Mishner. English. Came from Yorkshire, in

          fact--I had never known that. Went to Cambridge on a scholarship. I

          had figured him for inherited wealth; he wanted you to think so."

              "That makes two critics this week," said Robin, preoccupied by the

          dense gray pages of stock prices.

              "Every third person in Manhattan is some kind of critic," Bech pointed

          out. He hoped the conversation would move on.

              "How did he die?"

              There was no way to hide it; she would be reading this section

          eventually. "Jumped under a subway train, oddly. Seems he'd been

          feeling low, trying to secure too many copyright permissions or

          something. These academics have a lot of stress. It's a tough world

          they're in--the faculty politics is brutal."

              "Oh?" Robin's eyes--bright, glossy, the living volatile brown of a slick

          moist pelt--had left the stock prices. "What subway line?"

              "Sixth Avenue, actually."

              "Maybe that was the tie-up you mentioned."

              "Could be. Very likely, in fact. Did I ever tell you that my father died in

          the subway, under the East River in his case? Made a terrible mess of

          rush hour."

              "Yes, Henry," Robin said, in the pointedly patient voice that let him

          know she was younger and clearer-headed. "You've told me more than



              "So why are your hands trembling? You can hardly hold your bagel."

          And his other hand, he noticed, was making the poppy seeds vibrate on

          the obituary page, as if a subway train were passing underneath.

              "Who knows?" he asked her. "I may be coming down with something.

          I went out like a light last night."

              "I'll say," said Robin, returning her eyes to the page. That summer the

          stock prices climbed up and up, breaking new records every day. It was


              "Sorry," he repeated. Ease was beginning to flow again within him. The

          past was sinking, every second, under fresher, obscuring layers of the

          recent past. "Did it make you feel neglected? A young woman needs her


              "No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with

          your mouth sagging open."

          [CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]

Product Details

A Quasi-Novel
Updike, John
New York :
Humorous Stories
Novelists, American
Jewish men
Novelists, American -- Fiction.
Black humor
Jewish fiction.
General Fiction
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.37x5.28x1.09 in. .85 lbs.

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