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Writers as rogues and role models

Do I Owe You Something?: A Memoir of the Literary Life; Michael Mewshaw; Louisiana University Press: 226 pp., $29.95

September 21, 2003|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review.

Early in his career, an aspiring novelist faces a moment when he must decide to take his vocation seriously or else remain a dreamer, unpublished and unconsidered.

Michael Mewshaw's occurred in the office of legendary Random House editor Albert Erskine. In "Do I Owe You Something?" he explains that he sent his first novel, "Man in Motion," to Erskine before learning who Erskine was:

"I heard Peter [Taylor] bought Faulkner's house in Charlottesville," Erskine tells Mewshaw, who had studied with Taylor at the University of Virginia. "I mean the one on Rugby Road, not the country place."

When Mewshaw isn't familiar with either place, Erskine explains that he wouldn't have known about them "if [I] hadn't edited Faulkner."

"My auditory faculties failed," Mewshaw recalls. "What was I doing here? What chance did I have with an editor who had worked with William Faulkner? An imbecile, I should have found out whom Erskine edited before dumping a first novel in his lap."

And yet, with the ghost of the master from Mississippi in the room, Mewshaw accepts the challenge to be worthy of Erskine, who also edited Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, James Michener and other greats. In the 1960s, Mewshaw was in his mid-20s, a restless, stubborn kid from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., with an appetite for storytelling. He couldn't stand the conventional 9-to-5. He tested his fiction skills on an application for AT&T's junior exec training program -- and was offered a job. Instead, with his wife, Linda, he set off to become a writer and to understand the writer's life as it has been lived by those he admires.

"Whatever else they proved to be," Mewshaw writes, "the novelists I finally got to know make up a rare bouquet of figures.... I learned hard lessons that wouldn't have come my way had I merely read their books."

That journey has lasted for some 30 years. A dizzying procession of luminaries -- James Jones, William Styron, George Garrett, Robert Penn Warren, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Anthony Burgess -- crosses these pages. Mewshaw is a globe-trotter, a literary Zelig, at ease in exotic locales like Tangier, where he met Paul Bowles (wreathed in the narcotic smoke of a kef-packed cigarette, distractedly musing on life and death), or in Capri, where he crossed swords with Graham Greene (who allowed an interview, then claimed Mewshaw had misreported the facts when it was published).

It's hard to understand Mewshaw's ardor for the literary life if it's based on the portraits collected here. Most of these writers are casualties of fame, afflicted by their egos and inflicting themselves on others. Penn Warren, one of few exceptions, recalled being destroyed by F. Scott Fitzgerald for praising "The Great Gatsby":

"He turned on me like a snake," he said. "He was sick of college kids talking nonsense about his book. I was crushed."

And the lessons Mewshaw learns are often discouraging to a devout disciple of Literature.

"It comes down to the initial pitch," Harold Robbins told him at dinner in his plush French Riviera villa. "That's what Faulkner never got through his head. Bill believed in finishing a book, hoping a publisher would pick it up.... When I walk into my editor's office, all I'll have [is] a concept. When I walk out, I'll have a check for a million dollars."

What saves "Do I Owe You Something?" from being a gallery of literary rogues, however, is the story of Mewshaw's progress from apprentice to craftsman. We don't feel much sympathy for Robbins or Greene, but we do for Mewshaw, who suffers endless revisions to his novels and tries to make a living freelancing journalism pieces -- only to have them rejected by various magazines.

What the Mewshaws do have in abundance, however, is freedom. They travel endlessly. We follow them to France, where they enjoy the generosity of Styron and Jones. (Staying with Jones is a penniless writer who is none other than Carlos Fuentes.) They visit Europe, North Africa and Central Asia; in Rome they see Sharon Stone and Mailer; in Tunisia, George Lucas bars them from his "Star Wars" movie set. Along the way, Mewshaw gathers material for novels like "The Toll," about a gun for hire who breaks an American out of a Moroccan jail, and the recent "Shelter From the Storm," in which an American treks across Central Asia in search of his kidnapped son-in-law.

Mewshaw's writing is graceful and nuanced; his portraits of Jones and Vidal are especially moving. Jones was blunt, bullish, socially clubfooted. When black critics attacked Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner" for showing Turner fantasizing about a white Southerner, Jones made what he thought was a valid defense: "Just think how many spades have a yen for white women." Styron, who was dining with him and Mewshaw, winced. Yet we also see Jones as a bighearted, generous soul, struggling with the criticism that his later work never measured up to "From Here to Eternity."

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