Dispatches | April 26, 2004

[By Charlie Green]

We stood on the Great Writer’s porch, shivering in the cold. He filled the doorway, appropriate for the awe we felt for him. By luck, I was visiting my brother, a student of the Great Writer, who had been invited with his friends to the Great Writer’s house to watch Cool Hand Luke. I tagged along, eighteen and recently awed by books of all sorts, especially those of our host. We stood like junior high boys at a dance, watching as the prettiest girl waited for a partner. “Well,” he said, “are you guys coming in or what?”

He gave us the tour, highlighting things of writerly interest—his bookshelves from floor to ceiling, fiction in alphabetical order; his most precious books, rare editions and signed copies from friends; and his office, where he worked. In his closet were manuscripts of his novels and story collections I had loved and remainders that hadn’t sold. “Cool,” someone intoned as if saying a catechism. “What’s cool about it?” he said. “I didn’t sell the damn things. Take ’em.” He promised to sign them before the night was over. I got a free copy—a first edition—of one of his earlier books. He then showed us his computer, where he wrote, and explained how he’d shifted from handwriting to typing to word processing his fiction, how he could no longer work apart from the computer. Someone asked if he had his distractions, and he showed us FreeCell, the cloyingly addictive computer card game. Then we watched him play. He seemed to forget us as we stared; my reverence began to fade. “So, when are we going to watch the movie?” I asked. He stopped and apologized but left the game on the screen.

Later, we watched Cool Hand Luke, which he said he had seen more than thirty times; I had never. Since, I’ve seen it several times. The Great Writer paused the film to present the scene in which Paul Newman’s Luke speaks to his bedridden mother, Arletta, played by Jo Van Fleet, about the fading of the family’s hopes. Our host explained how he would show this scene to his classes to demonstrate how good dialogue can be. We then watched the scene, which is remarkable not for its dialogue, but for the muted intensity both Newman and Jo Van Fleet bring to the scene and for the cinematography. I’ve seen the movie many times since, each time listening for what he heard in the dialogue, and I’ve always been unimpressed by the words. I’ve read much better fictional dialogue; how could the Great Writer have been so wrong?

Then the question only began to bother me; he had, after all given me a beer and would later serve me expensive scotch given to him by another writer friend of his. But in the intervening years as I’ve told the story many times to my friends—my brush with literary greatness—I’ve found him less and less of an inspiring figure. His fiction still amazes me, but I find myself wishing that the man lived up to his work.

I recognize the naïveté in that wish, but that doesn’t stop me from having it. We want our idols to be great in every aspect, and when they aren’t it reflects a weakness in ourselves. At a recent party for a visiting writer, a friend of mine observed that, if someone wrote our literary biographies, they would be pretty boring; we grade, read, write, and occasionally go out. We want our own lives to be great, as well as our writing; the observation that most writers don’t live great lives deflates some hope we have for what it means to be a writer. Writers tend to be closer to the real Luke in Cool Hand Luke, not the myth of greatness we like to imagine.

Despite that, I still remember the Great Writer closer to the myth, simply because I know his work better than I know him. He has distilled incredible fiction from a life that may not approach greatness, which is a kind of greatness in itself. Somewhere between the myth and the man, we can create great work. I still show off the book he gave me, even though he forgot to sign it.