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.
“Do you know where I am?”
“It’s three in the morning,” croaks Son, his voice raspy from sleep.
“I make it … twenty-two minutes after three … London time.” Dad is calm, his voice commanding. His accent hints of a childhood down south. He is standing outside on the street corner, cell phone in one ear, finger in the other as cabbies scrape and squeal for post-Broadway fares.
“Can’t this wait? I have a test tomorrow morning.”
“At that fine center for higher learning where I’m paying your tuition, right?”
Son thinks, Uh-oh. Stretching, rubbing his eyes, he is awake now. He says nothing, bracing himself for the downward spiral about to begin.
Dad says nothing either. They are two men separated by 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean, five hours of time zone, and thirty-two years in age. But the silence between them cannot be quantified. It is a vast, infinite gulf of dead air time.
Finally, Son returns to the beginning, to Dad’s opening salvo. “I take it you’re in New York?”
“Hosting a dinner for my biggest client. Which begs the question: why am I calling while your mother and two other people, who indirectly underwrite your tuition at the London School of Economics, are patiently waiting for me to return?”
Son returns Dad’s sarcasm in kind. “The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Let me ask you something. Did you have a good time in Germany?”
I liked that. So much so that I googled “money porn” which, much to my dismay, generated a list of websites likely to leave your computer with gifts that keep giving. Know what I mean?
But I digress.
This story is pure money porn. I have taken some liberties with the dialogue and locations in order to protect the identities of Son and Dad. But the events are completely true, and I have written them as best as I remember what my friend said.
END OF INTERMISSION
“Err … Germany was okay.” No more retaliatory sarcasm from Son. He knows this conversation will not end well. Not sure why.
“I take it you enjoyed Oktoberfest?”
“If you like that sort of thing,” replies Son, attempting to sound contrite. Months ago he had reported to a friend, “Dude, it was the bomb.”
“Your flight was okay?”
“So let me ask you something. Did you go with anyone?”
“Couple of the guys.”
“Good,” says Dad. “That’s helpful. Now, while you and the guys were bouncing around the beer halls, is there any chance you had a few too many?”
“Not on purpose. It just kind of happens that way at Oktoberfest.”
“Right. And when you returned to London, did you ever develop a strange feeling in the pit of your stomach that you had left something behind? Anything?”
Son replies, “No.” But realizing he has spoken too quickly, he stretches the word into two syllables. “No” sounds somewhat southern, like his father’s pronunciation. “No-oh?”
“Let’s go back to the flight. ‘Uneventful’ if I recall correctly.”
“Can you please tell me what’s wrong?” Son glances at the woman in his bed. She is starting to stir. He hopes she does not wake and say something. No doubt Dad will hear.
“Can you remember how you and the guys got from the terminal to those beer halls?”
Son thinks. He really thinks.
Suddenly, a vague recollection morphs into an uncomfortable, horrifying moment of eureka recollection. Son says, “Oh sh**.”
“Right. Oh, sh**. I’m sitting here with your mother, my clients, and a restaurant bill I can’t pay. And you know why? I’m maxed out on my credit card all because the rental company charged me for the BMW you never returned.”
This is money porn gone bad.
Have you noticed how nobody wants to talk anymore? We’re texting. Or we’re e-mailing. We don’t answer our phones, and our outgoing calls funnel into the bowels of voice mail. My greeting says something like, “This phone is surgically attached to my hip.”
Alexander Graham Bell must be rolling over in his grave. It feels like society is embracing technologies that make us less efficient. I know all these advances are wearing out my eyes faster. Does anybody really want to read a novel on their iPhone? And as for the on-screen keyboards—forget about it. They make me feel like my fingers need to go on a diet.
Wouldn’t it be easier to dial however many numbers it takes to reach the other party and then do the twentieth century thing and speak to another human being? But no. We shoot around e-mails and texts with the new vocabulary of the twenty-first century: OMG, WTF, and countless other acronyms whose meanings BTSOOM. Sometimes, the symbols make me feel like we’re abandoning the English language to new-age hieroglyphics.
Confession time: I love when my daughter texts me a <3. I always intend to reply with a @}—\-,—, but I can never remember how.
It’s almost politically incorrect not to respond immediately. Which is ironic when you think about it, because writing consumes so much time. It’s so much faster to speak. Even on my quick e-mails and texts, I worry about spelling and verb tenses. I hate making mistakes. I proofread my words a hundred times before sending them off. And auto-correct is a feature that drives me nuts. I once sent a condolence note to my agent after his aunt died. Auto-correct turned the message into something that was totally inappropriate. Yikes.
I suppose texting and e-mailing have some advantages. It never fails to amaze me how my kids, thumbs blazing, can juggle sixteen conversations at one time. E-mails are convenient, when I don’t have time to talk. The truth, however, is that I still prefer speaking to people.
So, here’s what I propose for Tuesday, July 24. I’m driving all day, heading south on a book tour for The Trust. You can comment below. I’ll read and reply as soon as possible—which means when I’m not driving. But why don’t you pick up your phone instead and tell me what’s on your mind about anything? My number is 914-318-7000.
“I’ve had 14 managers over the last ten years. I’d call them an endangered species, except the supply is endless.” — THE TRUST (2012) by Norb Vonnegut
“The world doesn’t need another litigator to butcher the English language at $900 an hour.” — THE TRUST (2012) by Norb Vonnegut
Let me know what you think.
“Alcohol is Advil for stupidity.” — THE TRUST (2012) by Norb Vonnegut
Who likes audiobooks as much as I do?
When I was a stockbroker, braving my way through Manhattan’s kiss-and-yell traffic every morning, I listened to books on tape all the time. Hemingway, Irving, Wolfe–I grew to love cabbies giving me the finger. Jaywalkers thumbing their noses were no problem. And angry cops, the officers were a piece of cake.
It’s easy to wave a friendly goodbye when you’re concentrating on the latest from James Lee Burke and Will Patton. Bring on the detours, the flat tires, and the traffic snarls up and down the West Side Highway. There’s no experience better than listening to someone read you a story.
Now as a writer, I have grown to appreciate–make that really appreciate–the narrators who turn books into entertainment that outshines most of Hollywood’s new offerings. When’s the last time you lost yourself in one of those comic-book action movies that monopolize theater marquees?
I had the pleasure of working with “audie-winning” Robert Fass, who narrated The Gods of Greenwich. He is meticulous, in the best possible way, and drew on his travels through Iceland just to get the accent right for my novel.
Here’s a film clip from Robert, and me, about National Audiobook Month:
One last thing. No tribute to books on tape is complete without a mention of the American Foundation for the Blind (“AFB”). The AFB was the first organization to record books on time; they have given all of us a gift that far exceeds their mission to expand possibilities for those with vision loss.
Over the past week, I’ve been thinking about acronyms. Not sure why.
When I worked on Wall Street, I avoided them. The investment banks tried to simplify complex financial instruments with familiar sounding names that sometimes went too far: LYONs and TIGRs and BIMBOs, oh my. In my experience, any security that came with an acronym was toxic. But I digress.
I think it was my new novel, The Trust, which triggered my recent acronym kick. I asked an author friend, “May I send you an ARC?”
He said, “Sure, if you tell me what the hell an ARC is.”
“Advance reading copy. You know a galley.”
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: We were two authors, divided by a common acronym.
Shortly afterwards, I was talking with a friend from high school about a recent alumni dinner we both attended. I say “alumni,” but the event took place at the school. And there were an equal number of graduates and students during the evening in question.
Over dinner, the students at our table all discussed ED. Their conversations were heavy, foreboding, and mildly unsettling for the grads. They were talking about college admissions—Early Decision to be precise. We the distinguished alumni, guilty of watching too many pharmaceutical commercials, thought the topic was Erectile Dysfunction at first.
Again, and with apologies to GBS: We were two generations divided by a common acronym.
And just yesterday morning, my wife described an e-mail exchange between a mother and a daughter.
Daughter: “I got the job!”
Daughter: “Mom, do you know what WTF means?”
Mother: “Well, That’s Fantastic!!!”
Good thing they weren’t texting. That exchange could have gone FUBAR, big time. Texting is the major league of acronyms and miscellaneous abbreviations, right?
Are acronyms destroying the English language or making it more fun? Why don’t you grab a coffee from *$, that’s Starbucks and I know *$ is not an acronym, and tell me what you think.
BTW, TWHAB = This Won’t Hurt A Bit.