All of literature is connected. Listen.
Norb Vonnegut and I joined up recently in Manhattan at the Algonquin Hotel. Where else agreeably to conspire about the future of Algonquin Redux? We both appreciate literary confluence. There I told him this story, every word of it true and unembellished. “You have got to put that on AR,” he insisted.
Its cover blares this terrific blurb: “Wall Street. Washington. Intelligence. The Navigator gives you the smartest, wildest ride of your life.” — Norb Vonnegut, Author of The Trust.
Friends help friends. The content of the blurb is not the point of this story. Norb’s name on my cover is.
I had just given a copy of the ARC to my father Walt Pocalyko, who will be 88 in about three weeks. Still a lion, still a reader, he took one look at the cover and smiled broadly. Then he pointed at Norb’s name and asked me if that was Kurt Vonnegut’s son.
Only that’s not how he phrased the question.
“Wait,” Dad said. “Is that Bernie O’Hare’s buddy’s son?”
My father was a close friend of Bernard V. O’Hare (1923-1990), whom readers of Slaughterhouse-Five know from the poignant opening story-of-the-story. Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) finds his old Army buddy. They had been prisoners of war together. Real-life soldiers Kurt and Bernie experienced the actual firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 huddled in a slaughterhouse. During a visit to Pennsylvania to reconnect with Bernie while writing his World War II novel, Kurt encounters stern opprobrium from Bernie’s wife Mary. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies,” she accused him and her husband, “and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.” Kurt promises her that war won’t look wonderful in his book.
It didn’t. Slaughterhouse-Five may be the pinnacle of anti-war fiction. Its subtitle is The Children’s Crusade and the novel is dedicated to Mary O’Hare.
“No, Dad,” I replied. “Norb is not his son. Same family though. A big family. And he’s used to getting asked that question. He’s a distant cousin.”
“Did I ever tell you,” Walt continued, “how Kurt found Bernie?”
“Huh?” I said. From here on, Walt gets to tell his story and I’ll fill in some details.
“Bernie had been our solicitor for Bethlehem Township. This had to be in ’64, because I was just building our Lewis Avenue house, remember? You and your brother were kids. Bernie got himself elected district attorney for Northampton County the previous November. He was wrapping up his solicitor work that year, spring or summer. You were what? Nine? Too young to remember, really, how active I was in the township then. Boy those were great years.”
My father was on Bethlehem Township’s school board, its consolidated school board, then its auditor, zoning administrator, and municipal secretary throughout that decade.
“I used to go right over to the municipal building every afternoon when I finished at the Steel.”
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania the Steel was always preceded by the definite article and capitalized, even when spoken. In the summer of 1964 Walt was a financial manager there. He was 39 years old.
“This had to have been during one of our Saturday morning meetings. As I said, Bernie was still attending. The way I remember it, Connie Schubert came in to find me. I know you remember Connie, my secretary. She said that there’s a guy here looking for Bernie. I went out and met him. Such a nice, decent guy. We chatted for quite a while, and eventually he told me that he and Bernie were prisoners of war together. Now I remembered that Bernie had fought in the Bulge along with your Uncle Mike and your Uncle Pete, but until then I’d forgotten that he was captured and became a German POW. That’s where the two of them met.”
Literary history, Dad.
“Like a lot of us, those two kept in sporadic touch since the war. Bernie went on to law school in the late forties of course. That day, as best I know, was probably the first time that they had seen each other since ’45. Kurt located Bernie by coming to the municipal building, finding Connie and then me. So soon enough, Bernie comes out. It was not any kind of big emotional reunion, even after what? Nineteen years? None of us was that way. But those two were both obviously very happy to be there. Together. They had one hell of a bond. And they were really fine, good men.”
That way would mean . . . emotionally expressive about their combat experiences in World War II.
“The best part of those meetings was afterwards when we’d all reconvene at the Peacock.”
Roadhouse. Burned down the year Bernie died.
“By the time I got there Bernie and his army buddy already had a couple of beers in front of them and were just talking quietly. Talking. I knew other POWs like that. They had it the worst of all of us. We had a great afternoon after that, maybe eight or ten of us eating and smoking cigarettes and drinking and talking. Bernie’s buddy just became one of the gang for the day. And the funny thing is, Mike, he didn’t tell us he was a writer. I never knew that until you came home from college with his book. The one Bernie and Mary are in.”
This story comes full circle in The Navigator.
My favorite stunning reader moment in Slaughterhouse-Five is this: “An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, ‘There they go, there they go.’ He meant his brains. That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.”
The tribute meme in the prologue to my novel is this: Seconded in April 1945 to an intelligence operation liberating the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a B-24 navigator sees “the faces of the Englishmen and the other Americans flattened beyond belief in frozen stares that must, he recognized, exactly mirror his own.” I was vaguely conscious of Kurt Vonnegut excreting his brains when I wrote that line, more so 367 pages later when this reveal comes in my acknowledgements: When the fictional navigator saw those faces of men forever changed, “he was looking at Walt Pocalyko in real life.”
We’re back to the Algonquin Hotel. “They were amazing men,” Norb says to me quietly.
“They are amazing men,” I reply as Norb nods agreement.
And I mean it with love.
Peace, Bernie. Peace, Kurt.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
This morning I asked my wife, Mary, how old somebody is.
Mary said, “She’s like me but worse.”
Doug, great post yesterday about the Algonquin Round Table.
I started trolling around the web to find out which of the original Algonquin participants said what. I capped Dorothy Parker at two quotes, though her wit was prolific!
10. Edna Ferber: “A closed mind is a dying mind.”
9. Harold Ross: “I asked Ring Lardner the other day how he writes his short stories, and he said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces.”
8. Alexander Woollcott: “All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening.”
7. Heywood Broun: “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
6. Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
5. Franklin Pierce Adams: “Middle age occurs when you are too young to take up golf and too old to rush up to the net.”
4.Robert E. Sherwood: “Nobody expects him to be normal—he’s a bishop.”
3. Robert Benchley: “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.”
2. George S. Kaufman: “Epitaph for a dead waiter – God finally caught his eye.”
1. Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and she can’t say “No” in any of them.”
Did I miss one of your favorites?
Mention you’re joining the new Algonquin Round Table in some circles and you may get asked: Where are you going to find a 12th century suit of armor?
If you are asked such a question, I recommend you remain within that circle and begin dealing the cards. You’ve got yourself some live ones, as they say.
So what exactly are we writers breathing life back into after more than 80 years? A group who dubbed themselves “The Vicious Circle,” a party of writers, critics, actors, and just good old-fashion ball-breakers who gathered together daily at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City to eat, drink, be merry, and play with amongst themselves.
The Algonquin Round Table began as a practical joke (and now that I think about it, I may be taking part in one just by posting this). But anyway, it was 1919, when wisecracks weren’t just another symptom of passive-aggressiveness, but a national pastime. This group of Round Tablers got together to engage in discussions (which invariably included wisecracks, wordplay, and witticisms) that would ultimately be disseminated across the United States in the form of newspaper columns. Over a span of ten years, some of the finest and funniest people would appear at that table.
Charter members included the famed writer Dorothy Parker, humorist and actor Robert Benchley, columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, publicist John Peter Toohey, editor of The New Yorker Harold Ross, sportswriter Heywood Broun and his wife the feminist Ruth Hale, journalist Alexander Woollcott, and author Robert E. Sherwood.
Members of the Algonquin Round Table were known not only for their distinguished literary contributions, but for their sparkling wit. Long after the party ended in 1929, people continued to talk about how wonderful and/or god awful the Round Tablers were.
One regular member of the Algonquin Round Table was the comedian Harpo Marx. His brother Groucho, after a number of tries at the table, was known to be uncomfortable with all the viciousness. Groucho claimed that “the price of admission is a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto.”
My kind of place.
Of course, the group had its detractors. Some accused them of “logrolling” (disgusting, I know), asserting that the Round Table was just a bunch of self-serving artists exchanging praise for each others’ works and damning everyone and everything else. Today, that’s what blurbs are for.
The Round Tablers played charades, which may present a problem for us – at least until I learn how to Skype. They also played the “I can give you a sentence” game. Dorothy Parker was once given the word “horticulture.” Her sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
We don’t know where the 2012 Algonquin Round Table will lead us. With any luck, to 2013 and beyond. What we can promise each other and our readers is that we’ll do everything we can to amuse you with our words (and possibly some stolen videos). Daily, we will attempt to make you smile, maybe even make you laugh. Because there was a time when even the greatest writers didn’t take themselves as seriously as the weekend novelist does today. And we think it would be cathartic for all of us – writers and readers alike – to visit that time and place at least once a day.
So again, welcome to the Table. Price of admission: a serpent’s tongue and a half-concealed stiletto. Ladies get in free.