BIBLIOGRINDAdventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture
What Beauty (novel excerpts 1 & 2)
Here’s the second excerpt from “What Beauty” — available worldwide in a print edition and ebook (Smashwords in multiple e-reader platforms). To read the first excerpt, you must scroll down (the excerpts are not in any particular chronological order).
[From "What Beauty" — so says one reviewer, "I want to read this book. I must read this book." (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award). Author's Note: New York City plays a central role in this novel, and therefore the main character, Minus Orth, tells us what the city is like, is about, how it feels to him and to NY'ers.]
New York (NY) is a great city, a magnificent city. NY is big; it’s a crowded city. As it is known, New York City (NYC) doesn’t sleep. You’re never alone here. You’ll always find people on the streets, so you must get used to that or risk losing your sense of self. Although, without a friend beside you, NY can make you feel lonely. It is a hard city, like flint. NYC is a great big magnificent city with sharp edges.
Oddly then, from the air New York is much more imposing than when you walk its streets. Flying into NYC, Manhattan’s buildings look too tall to stand on their own. You can’t see the ground from the air because the buildings are so tightly packed together, like pencils in a cup. Without this sense of streets, no people or cars to give proportion, you lose the feeling that life moves below you as steadily as blood through veins. Likewise, the buildings reach up unevenly: black teeth in twilight, bloody fingers at sunrise, gold bars at sunset. Magnificent! The City from up high imposes itself on you, these uneven polygons of steel and glass and concrete. Yet, you can’t see definition in the buildings from the air anymore than you can the streets or people, even when you learn from the in-flight magazine that the Empire State Building used ten million bricks. No system exists from high up to gage the city’s breadth; its mass defies logic.
A hole has been cut in this pencil jar, this flat, unevenly topped rock. If you have a window seat on a plane and are lucky enough to fly over NY Harbor on a landing path to Kennedy Int’l, you’ll see this perfect green rectangular hole cut from moth gray. Central Park saves New Yorkers from going insane.
I can say all of this with measured confidence because I’m a Chicagoan. New York has wonderful tests of survival, though not, as Blue Eyes sings, “If you can make it here / you can make it anywhere!” Fuck that. Try Tokyo, where you don’t know the language. Try London, where traffic flows counter-intuitively to the American mind. Try Cairo, where sand blows through your closed lips and gets down into the crack of your ass, and a drink of tap water can kill you, one diarrhea flush at a time. By comparison, New York is a wonderful warm cocoon, a Petri dish of good tidings.
On the ground in New York City, the Avenues are wide, north-south routes. They leave no escape from the island-city for many miles. By contrast, the east-west Streets are narrow, cramped, and long; three times longer than the Aves, corner to corner. Residents used to warn visitors in the 1970s to avoid the Streets: if a mugger demands your wallet, you have far too long a distance to run to the nearest Avenue to yell for help (which you wouldn’t get anyway). The light, too, is different between the Aves & Strts: brighter as you walk north, toward the park, or south to the World Trade Center; dim and shadowy between the Hudson and East Rivers. All streets are in constant motion.
Unless you’ve grown up in The City, you can become nearsighted by its height. Distance is measured differently here than in the Midwest or Dixie or Big Sky country. Those regions’ sightlines stretch to a horizon so wide that you notice Earth’s curvature. All of that is lost in NYC. New York has a building fifty feet from any which way you look: in Mid-town, Gramercy, Hell’s Kitchen, Chinatown, Little Italy, The Barrio, Uptown or Downtown. Think of Wall Street and you get the picture.
You can find distance in NYC — by looking up. The buildings give you the feeling of leaning in on you, all around you, which is and is not necessarily an optical illusion. The sense of being a bug-in-a-jar hits you undiluted, and if the sun happens to be overhead, you want to run in case an evil kid kneels over the jar with a magnifying glass. This feeling is almost fun the first time it happens, when you look up at the buildings. Later, I noticed that only tourists and newcomers look up. Looking up is a good way to get run down by a bus. And people, always the people.
The opening chapter finds Minus Orth crossing paths with famous arts-social critic Karen Kosek (excerpt here), and now Minus gets the idea that he might want to meet her, by chance or with a little push:
[from WHAT BEAUTY, a novel of identity, obsession, and art]
“I met a woman the other day.”
The four dogs look at me as if I’ve pulled raw bacon from my pockets. I have with me Marshall the Ridgeback, Pan the Samoyed, Boilermaker the Alsatian, and Chief the Chesapeake. A messy color palate and mixed media of barks, dusty paws, dog breath, and wet noses.
We’ve walked north on the park path near enough to 5th Avenue to hear the rise and fall of morning traffic moving south toward Midtown. At the zoo entrance the foursome take me left through a loamy spring grass patch and all the way across the park to the far side of the Sheep Meadow. They stop for a rest in the sun, tongues out to lap at the warm air, wiggling through panted breaths, saliva dribbling from the edges. Through the trees behind us I can see the top of the carousel.
“Let me rephrase that. I ‘noticed’ a woman. She doesn’t know I exist. Not yet. What d’ya’ll think’a’dat?” My skip into a West Texas drawl doesn’t faze them.
Boiler makes a sound like he’s clearing his throat. He has smart eyes and an active jaw. He won’t “speak” for me on command, but I’m teaching him. The Petersons pay me extra money for each new trick Boiler brings home. I’ve been averaging twenty dollars tip per month. Already he’s as nimble and sly as the Artful Dodger, or a Chinese acrobat. If he had hands, I’m sure he could juggle four balls by now. The end of this road is in sight, however, because even the smartest dog can learn just so much.
Marshall, meanwhile, is sniffing Pan’s ass. Pan suddenly thinks a fly is trying to get some action, and his hips buckle. His snout moves around, teeth bared to warn. There’s a scuffle, but my own low bark is enough to make them separate like shy fighters in the ring. Chief still thinks I’m holding bacon.
“She’s disguised as a homeless woman. I have to find out why. She’s this great writer – I think she’s great, and was bold – and here she is, pretending to be an indigent scab. Beats me why.”
The canine quartet starts to dance in place, showing me their angst. I click my tongue and they turn as a team down the path. I give the leads a double tug that keeps them from dragging me like a bucked charioteer. A half-block later Boiler and Pan pull up. They’re in opposite hands to my leash arrangement, so while they sniff the ground in preparation to dump, I do a quick bracelet change with the leads. Marshall and Chief separate from the squatters. They come next to me, panting, tongues flapping like streamer flags in the wind.
The sunshine has brought dozens of people out to the Sheep Meadow. Blankets dot the scrabble lawn like a lot of dropped postage stamps. Girls have shed tops and sit in shorts, spaghetti straps, and sandals, while their boyfriends have gone topless but leave jeans on. A lot of white skin is on display, smelling of the Caribbean beach and coconut cocktails. Music rides the air. I hear a country tune, some hip-hop, and a slice of a Top 40 love ballad.
Pan and Boiler pinch off and start scratching at the earth. I let them clean their paws a moment, then tug them to my side and issue a command to the crew to sit tight. I carry pooh bags in my back pocket. Double-volume sandwich bags work best with these dogs; their dumps are twice the mass a human can drop. Marshall, Boiler, Pan, and Chief watch me while I crouch to clean up. Strolling tourists stop on the path to see what they see. I twist the bag ends into knots and grab the dog leads.
I say, “Let’s go, boys!” and they leap into a trot. I follow at a dead run because they deserve a bit of a jog, even if New York’s leash laws have become so punitive that big dogs rarely get the chance to run full stride without risking triple-digit fines.
Half of what I save on health club fees for all the exercise I get goes to treats and gifts for all my mutts (I’ve got three little dogs to walk in the afternoons). They all deserve the love. Extra love, by my estimation, because I’ve seen how their owners trouble themselves over their pets: kisses and neck rubs and rough-house play and dinner scraps hand-fed beneath the table. Their children see the dogs as friends, mostly, although I’ve noticed a couple of the kids couldn’t care less. These miscreant igits walk past their pet without a glance, while its tail wags in happy anticipation, only to be ignored. I’ve asked myself, “Who does this to a friend?” I can’t account for that kind of personality. Sometimes I don’t understand a kid’s world anymore.
With our bounding pace the crap bags dance in my hand. The smell becomes overpowering. I draw the leads to the right, towards a Dog Do-Do trash can near the Mall’s entrance. The boys bear right like they’re harnessed to a prairie schooner. I’m hardly a vision of athletic excellence, but I don’t fear a heart attack. This is despite the thumping I feel in my chest, accentuated by the backpack slapping my spine with each footfall. My knees want to buckle.
“Whoa up there!” Another tug on the leads encourages the mutts to slow down on sunny side of the Sheep Meadow’s tree line. The quartet looks at me with their sun-glazed eyes. “You’re going to kill me,” I tell them. I’m sure they want to answer. I lean over to hold my knees for support. Their chests heave like bellows. They nose in and I can smell meat breath and a pitter whiff of ass. “Good boys. Good dogs. Chief, I think you still owe me a dump.” I deposit the bags in the trash and stand to the side. We’re on the grass, the five of us. The sun is overhead and strong, which makes the shadows dark along the timberline. The fifty-foot Dutch elms arch across the Literary Walk, where life-size statues of dead white poets line a wide path leading to the Bethesda Fountain. Tourists are surprised to find Shakespeare and Byron keeping them company, along with other lesser-known Europeans.
The Bard’s sculpture is an odd piece for me. It shows a forty-ish man of letters – book in hand, fingers keeping place as the writer contemplates the world, his art, &etc – dressed in padded trunk breeches, galley hose, a straight trim jerkin, and a leather overcoat with plenty of sleeve and collar. Quite the urbane gentleman, we are to believe. Now this is significant. He’s neither young nor old; no wrinkles mar his male comeliness, though he owns to a half-bald pate that shines in bronze under the porous boughs. For me, this Shakespeare lacks resemblance to those few woodcuts attributing his historical appearance. The statue looks more like an actor who has played Shakespeare’s repertoire of characters. An ageless man standing testament to those timeless plays.
People pass through the arched trees, lots of smiling walkers, couples hand in hand, children gripping string-tied balloons bobbing above their heads. Their clothes remind me of the time I opened my first ten-tub watercolor kit.
Someone walking hurriedly sideswipes me even though I’m standing well onto the grass. It’s a woman. She makes no apology, doesn’t turn around, but continues her march around a group of halted tourists taking up the center of the path. I see her from the back, a vagrant, wearing two overcoats. The tails of the inner coat hang lower than the green pea coat squeezed over the top of multiple layers. The stink she leaves behind putrefies the air. This can’t be Karen Kosek, whose gray hair and upright walk I’d recognize again. Unless she has a wardrobe the likes of the Bard’s oeuvre, which I doubt. There’s something off in this one’s stink, though, because it’s nasty. Her shoes, too; some type of military boot with undone laces that drag along the ground. I look past her, out across the far side of the park, above the trees, at the windows in those high rises crowding Central Park West. Somewhere thereabouts, from one-in-ten-thousand chromium-reflected windows, I imagine Karen K stares down at all of us in the park. She laughs inside her charade, thinking she has fooled us. “Not all of us,” I say aloud. Chief and Boilermaker look up, noses twitching leftrightleft in flex-O-snout agility to sniff out fear and food morsels, or just a hand to lick. I give them my palms and they start in with rough-tongued laps.
“That’s right, boys,” I tell them. “Mizzz Kosek can’t fool everyone all the time. And I wonder if she can be fooled.” I see a route to a plan. Silver buttons shine from its center. My watch reads ten-thirty. If we walk the winding paths and clear out through Artisan’s Gate, where I can spray-wash their paws before heading across 59th Street, the boys will have gotten their money’s worth. “Here, you guys. Come – come now. Let’s go look at the big birds and then start on home. Sorry, boys. We’ll pick it up another day.”
They lead me toward Christophe Fratin’s Eagles and Prey. Fratin sculpted in sand-cast bronze. He made his career on animal sculpture, and often humanized his models. His Ape with Basket looks a lot like Bigfoot, out picking berries. By contrast, Eagles and Prey is a grand, enormous sculpture of the late animalier style. Two eagles with spread wings have pounced on a horned sheep. Talons tear through hide. The sheep’s face is the classic portrait of resignation to death’s struggle, all the fight sapped from its terrified eyes, its mouth agape for the approaching release. To what release, the animal is probably more certain than most humans sneaking up on retirement. Score one for America’s manifest destiny: an imperialist motif from a French artist.
I walk around the statue and wonder, in this brief moment of intellectual repose, if I should try sculpting animals. Hell, I already have a pack of models who would gladly, I think, hang around nibbling on kibble while I sketched them in various states of agitation. These mutts might look terribly sporting in bronze cast, frozen for all time on the heels of a rabbit, teeth bared and eyes flaring, tails curled with the strain of imminent capture. I can almost hear the rabbit’s heart thumping like raindrops on a corrugated awning. The reverie of imagination is enough for me, though, to the point where I’m already drained of enthusiasm. I’m not even sure if I like animalier, to speak the truth. Which is different, I feel certain, from admiring what beauty the work portrays.
I corral the dogs and chorus, “Look at the boyds, pups, look at the boyds.” My cobbled New Jersey accent isn’t something I use amongst my Jersey friends. Chief looks back for a moment. The others have their snouts to the ground. The dogs aren’t in the mood for more stopping. They know they’re headed home for a long day in a small room, closed off from their favored society. My backpack straps dig into my shoulders like harness ropes.
(©2011-2012 Mark Beyer)
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.