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Oh Lord, Save Me From New Grub Street

March 31, 1991|ROBERT WARD | Ward's novel, "Red Baker," won the PEN West Award as the best work of fiction for 1985. His new book, "The King of Cards," will be published next year

I was living in my girlfriend's apartment in Washington, D.C., which was so small that it looked like the place in which the Swede waits to die in "The Killers," and I had some horrible irritable bowel syndrome that felt like a baby's hand squeezing my intestines (from drink, the Doc said, but what did he know? I was sick from defeat, poverty, exhaustion, mind-numbing rejection from publishers--21 of them had just turned down my new novel. I drank to keep myself sane, as any right-thinking man would!).

And I had no money except what I could score off old editor pals at GQ and Rolling Stone who might give me a profile to do of some actor, for which I had to act humble and grateful but deep down inside a little dying animal voice is screaming, "Oh God, not another one of those"; I had already written soooo many profiles. I had even once been, God help me, a "hot" journalist, but that was three years and 10,000 hours of mind-numbing dull chitchat ago, and I couldn't even bear to start another lead, "Cher is resplendent in pink!"

And so here I was with my rejected book, a book I knew was a killer, and yet, and yet 21 rejections. One editor even called me and said, "We love it, Bob, but we can't buy it because it's about working-class people and they don't read books!" Oh Lord, this was a bad, bad time. I would stare down at my manuscript, all 400 pages of it, and think there has to be some way out of this, there has to be some escape, but what could it be?

After all, I was writing a book in 1983 about broken-down blue-collar guys from my old stomping grounds in Baltimore; what happens to them when the steel mill closes, and how their whole way of life--the life I knew in my past--was wiped out. Oh, nothing mattered to me as much as this book, and yet it seemed hopeless. This was the mid-'80s and Jayboy MacInerny was the King of the World with his sweet little wisp of a book about getting coked out in New York, and more power to him, he wasn't even a bad guy for a Yupster. But I knew that I was doomed, like Algren or somebody, to this death in life, no money, no home, unless I could write a script or something, get out of D.C., 'cause God knows I didn't have any fiction left in me just then. Man, I was beat. Flat. Dolorsville.

So in the mornings my girlfriend went off to work at National Public Radio and I lay in bed drinking cheap wine and smoking cigarettes and tried to make calls to my old editor pals but was too defeated to even dial the phone most of the time and by 11, I would fall into a melancholic stupor and I thought this was it, this was the end. Maybe, what the hell, I'd turn on the gas, like in the old Depression movies. ("He's all blue Sarge!" "Get the lawn bag, Riley!")

Instead, I dragged my ass to the typewriter and kept retooling my dying novel, and when I got too depressed to do even that, I started reading. Reading had saved my life before. Once in Haight-Ashbury when I was thinking about putting a gun to my head, I read "The Moviegoer" in the downtown library reading room and managed to pull through.

Yes, I needed to read. That was essential. Reading was purification, everything else diversion from the facts. It was diversion that was killing us. I was sure of that. So I started reading. I'd read all day, anything handy. I mean I was too wasted to go through the books to get to one I wanted. I'd just reach in and grab one off the shelf and open it. That's how I read all of "Fathers and Sons" by Turgenev, which brought tears to my eyes, and how I discovered the book that saved my life, more or less, "New Grub Street" by George Gissing.

I don't know why the book was in my library. I didn't remember buying it and I don't think it was my girlfriend's either. All I knew was that I started reading and I couldn't stop. It was as if God had pointed me to it. This had happened a few times in my life and it's why I believe in God, if you care to know, why I think he's watching us, though maybe not all the time, and maybe we break his heart too often. But I started reading and I couldn't stop.

The time is 1880. The place, London. Edwin Reardon is a serious writer in his 30s who's managed to produce a couple of artistic novels. One of them, "On Neutral Ground," has been somewhat of a small success, and for that brief time, Reardon is feted and meets a charming middle-class girl named Amy Yule. He knows he shouldn't marry her; she's young and thinks he is sensitive and talented, which he is, but he is also too sensitive, too brittle, headed for a lifetime of poverty. But she is in love and hopeful and he so needs hope that he marries her anyway, dooming them both to a poverty-stricken existence unless he can find some way out.

I would lie there in my unmade bed on those rainy Washington mornings and I would feel the creeping horrors come over me. It was as though Reardon was my fictional doppelganger. I read with a kind of ghoulish delight, and yet, yet also a sense of something else.

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