Sep. 8, 2003

Al and Beth

by Louis Simpson

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Poem: "Al and Beth," by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 (BOA Editions, Ltd.).

Al and Beth

My Uncle Al worked in a drugstore
three blocks above Times Square,
dispensing pills and cosmetics.
All day long crazy people
and thieves came into the store
, but nothing seemed to faze him.

His sister, Beth, was the opposite ...
romantic. She used to sing
on ships that sailed from New York
to Central and South America.
When the tourists came trailing back
on board with their maracas,
Beth would be in the Aztec Room
singing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
and "I Get a Kick out of You."

Once when I argued with Al
about something that America
was doing . . . "My country
right or wrong," he told me.
I suppose so, if you've come
from a village in Russia no one
ever heard of, with no drains,
and on saints' days the Cossacks
descend on you with the blessing
of the Church, to beat out your brains.

And when, after a fortnight
being seasick, there's the statue,
and buildings reaching up
to the sky. Streets full of people.
The clang of a bell, someone yelling
as you almost get run over.
More things happening every second
in New York, than Lutsk in a year.

Al lived on Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn,
all of his life, with the wife
his mother had picked out for him.
Beth never married. She was still waiting
for Mr. Right.

          Of such is the Kingdom
of Heaven. Say that I sent you.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Ann Beattie, born in Washington, D.C. (1947). She is known for her minimalist short stories about dysfunctional baby boomers in books like The Burning House (1982). Her most recent book is the novel The Doctor's House (2002). She said, "People forget years and remember moments."

It's the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious, born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956) about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide. Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills. She got the idea for the book in the middle of the night, and wrote it in 10 weeks. It was the first work of fiction she ever published. She based part of the book on a town secret about a woman who murdered her father, and when the book became a bestseller, the locals in her town were horrified. People showed up on her front lawn yelling obscenities and throwing rocks.

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. After he published his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), he was considered the best living American writer, and he was probably the most famous writer in the world. But he began to write less and less fiction in the 1930s. He went on long hunting and fishing expeditions. He became an intrepid journalist, covering the civil war in Spain. He moved to Cuba and organized a private spy network to uncover Nazi sympathizers. He patrolled the Gulf of Mexico in his fishing boat, looking for Nazi submarines, though he didn't find any. He covered the invasion of Normandy on D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and he was one of the only armed journalists fighting alongside the other soldiers. After participating in the war, he had a hard time getting back to writing. He said, "[It's] as though you had heard so much loud music you couldn't hear anything played delicately." He finally published his first novel in 10 years in 1950, Across the River and Into the Trees, about World War II. It got terrible reviews. Critics said that maybe he was overrated as a writer. Journalists started contacting him, asking to write his biography, as though he were already dead. Hemingway had been working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book, about different aspects of the sea. He got the idea for it while looking for submarines in his fishing boat. The book had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than 800 pages of The Sea Book and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea. He knew that the book was almost too short to be a novel, but he was tired of not publishing anything. The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't publish another novel in his lifetime.

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