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A school of hard knocks for Mr. Webb

The 'Graduate' author returns to his characters, but his journey since the '60s has been difficult.

January 06, 2008|William Georgiades | Special to The Times

EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND — "Ok, here it is: 'The Graduate, Part 2'! Ben and Elaine are married still, living in a big, old, spooky house in Northern California somewhere. Mrs. Robinson, her aging mother, lives with them. She's had a stroke. And they've got a daughter in college -- Julia Roberts maybe. It'll be dark and weird and funny -- with a stroke." So said Buck Henry, the co-screenwriter of "The Graduate," to an indifferent studio executive in Robert Altman's "The Player."

The 1967 film "The Graduate" cemented the careers of screenwriter Henry, director Mike Nichols and star Dustin Hoffman. The one person who didn't fare so well was the author of the source material, Charles Webb. "The Graduate," based largely on his life, was Webb's first novel, published in 1963 when he was just 24. He received $20,000 for both the film rights and the future film rights to the characters.

On Tuesday, , St. Martins will release Webb's sequel to "The Graduate," "Home School." It is Webb's eighth novel but his first to revisit the best-known of his characters. The story unfolds in Hastings, N.Y., in the 1970s, and Mrs. Robinson does indeed come to live with Ben and Elaine as they battle the Westchester school board. It's a light, funny and satisfying book. As the book's editor, Paul Sidey, puts it, "The sequel is not quite the same in terms of being iconic, but it has all the wit and style of the original."

Yet the story behind the creation of "Home School" is as unlikely as any fiction. In April 2006, Jack Malvern, a reporter for the London Times, tracked Webb down to Hove, in Sussex, England. He discovered that Webb, at 66, was about to be evicted from his apartment and that he had written a sequel to "The Graduate" but was reluctant to publish it because the film rights to the characters were owned by Canal Plus. Sidey, an editor at Hutchinson Books in London, immediately reached out to Webb, and within a month a deal was in place. "I read about his plight, and I tracked him down," Sidey said, adding, "It is very easy for people of quality to slip through the cracks, especially in publishing." The book is dedicated to Malvern.

The reports on Webb's life read like a cautionary tale of early success -- he has moved almost constantly during his adult life, he has held a series of menial jobs to support himself, he's been homeless to the point that the check for his advance for "Home School" was mailed to him at a Salvation Army shelter, and he is still in debt while caring for his lifelong partner, who recently suffered a nervous breakdown. Despite the easygoing charm of his novels, one expects to meet a shivering wreck.

Instead, the living sequel to "The Graduate" greeted me not long ago at the train station at Eastbourne, a small town on the south coast of England. At 68, Webb is tall, thin and elegant, with a full head of gray hair, the picture of Southern California languid bonhomie set amid the drizzle and overcast skies of small town Britain. Gulls were flying overhead, the only sign that we were near the sea.

He asked if we could run an errand before talking, and we walked to the local supermarket where he spent $3 on produce (a sweet potato, broccoli and two apples) before calling for a taxi. He talked for a while about a play he is writing, concerning a celebrity journalist who slowly discovers that artists are the minority. He asked about virtual reality and second sight. We taxied to his current home, an old-age hostel of sorts.

Webb explained that the place has been a great help to him and his lifelong partner, a woman named Fred. "It's a lot like a college dorm, except people keep dying here. Two people have died in the last 10 days," he said with a shrug. He left me in the communal area -- a row of a dozen electric wheelchairs lines one wall -- to check on Fred. He came back down to tell me she was not feeling well enough for visitors today. Then he mentioned sunnily that he was wearing his "dead man walking jacket," an item he recently received from a "deceased farmer."

It's a perfectly pleasant and friendly facility, but one can't imagine Mike Nichols or Dustin Hoffman or Buck Henry even making a movie here, let alone residing here. The fact remains that the film version of "The Graduate" made over $120 million, that Webb received a flat fee of $20,000 for the rights to his book and his characters (in perpetuity) and an additional $10,000 after the initial success. And reading the original novel of "The Graduate," it is striking to see how much of the novel's dialogue ended up in the screenplay. Indelicate though it may be, surely he must at times wonder where his mansion is.

Credit where it's due

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