Pushcart XL: Frederic Tuten, “Winter, 1965” from Bomb #129

In the few months before his story was to appear, he was treated differently at work and at his usual hangouts. The bartender at the White Horse Tavern, himself a yet unpublished novelist, called out his name when he entered the bar and had twice bought him a double shot of rye with a beer backer. He had changed in everyone’s eyes: He was soon to be a published writer.
And soon a serious editor at a distinguished literary publishing house who had read the story would write him, asking if he had a novel in the works. Which he had. And another one, as well, in a cardboard box on his closet shelf that had made the tour of slush piles as far as Boston. Only twenty-three, and soon, with the publication of his story in Partisan Review, he would enter the inner circle of New York intellectual life and be invited to cocktail parties where he, the youngster, and Bellows and Mary McCarthy, Lowell and Delmore would huddle together, getting brilliantly drunk and arguing the future of American Literature.

~~ Complete story available online at BOMB.

I very much enjoy reading Tuten’s stories, but I have never felt qualified to comment on them. He writes icebergs: stories that are two or three layers deeper than the surface story, and the surface story – French Impressionists, eccentric philosophers – are resonant enough in themselves, usually in octaves I haven’t yet learned to hear. His stories intrigue me, make me want to understand the entire world so I can follow along.

But here, he writes about an unsuccessful writer, giving me half a chance. For, while I’ve never been a successful writer, I sure as hell have been an unsuccessful one, and the trauma of the inciting incident hits me like the ground at the bottom of a thousand-foot cliff:

On the day the magazine was supposed to be on the stands, he rushed, heart pounding, to the newspaper shop on 6th Avenue and 12th that carried most of the major American literary magazines, pulled the issue of PR from the rack, opened it to the table of contents and found his name was not there. Then turning the pages one by one, he found that not only was his story not there, but neither was there any breath of him.
Maybe he was mistaken; maybe he had come on the wrong day. Maybe the delivery truck had got stuck in New Jersey. Maybe he had picked up an old issue. He scrutinized the magazine again: Winter, 1965—the date was right….

Ouch.

Lest you think I’m spoiling the story, all of the above occurs within the first few paragraphs. The story is in the setting (the not-yet-successful writer’s view of the 1964 New York literary atmosphere) and the reveal of the character so briefly sketched in the opening, a character who, although he drops literary names everywhere he goes, does not have a name of his own. You don’t get a name until you’re published.

As I’m prone to do when I’m over my head, I go looking for those who are more likely to be able to see what is beyond me – successful writers, of course. Peter Trachtenberg compares the story to a Chaplin film. Then there was the commentary that, although very brief, tapped me on the shoulder: fellow Mainer (!) Joseph Tomaras notes the writer’s chronic overreaching and “his fantasies of other people, women especially, more satisfying than his actual interactions with them”. Though I didn’t consciously recognize that quality, it may be a large part of what drew me to the story. I’ve always said I preferred second-hand life: to read about a country rather than to travel, to analyze culinary ingredients and techniques rather than learn high-end cheffery, to read stories rather than write them.

The story ends with a dedication to Tom McCarthy, with whom I’m unfamiliar. I feel like I could create an entire curriculum just by Tuten’s stories. In any case, I’m curious why the dedication is at the end, rather than the beginning. I also wonder if the story is autobiographical: Tuten is about the right age to have been a writer struggling to break into New York lit in 1965. The story has been selected for the 2016 O Henry prize anthology; I’ll have to see what the contributor note looks like when that’s published, if any clues there sate my curiosity. But in the end there’s always the story, which is plenty.

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