Mar. 19, 2004

The Bath

by Russell Edson

FRIDAY, 19 MARCH, 2004
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Poem: "The Bath," by Russell Edson, from The Tormented Mirror (University of Pittsburgh Press).

The Bath

A man was taking a bath in a tub of turkey gravy; floating a rubber duck to while away eternity. Eating mashed potatoes, dipping forkfuls in his bath . . .
It was gorgeous, the whole thing, he thought, me in soak with a duck, having mashed potatoes and gravy, while out there a whole crazy world . . .

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Irving Wallace, born in Chicago, Illinois (1916). He was the son of Russian immigrants, and decided at a young age that he wanted to be a journalist. He sold his first article, "The Horse Laugh," to Horse and Jockey magazine when he was fifteen. After graduating from high school, he and some friends traveled to Honduras, hoping to be the first Americans to find the legendary "Fountain of Blood" hidden in a remote mountain jungle. He did find it, and wrote about it for several newspapers, but it turned out that the fountain's water was red because of mineral deposits. After working in Hollywood for a few years, he got an idea for a novel about the impact of a sex survey on suburban housewives in California. It became The Chapman Report (1960), and it was a huge bestseller, in part because it was so controversial. The book was made into a movie starring Jane Fonda in 1962.

Wallace went on to write a string of best-selling novels, including The Man (1964), about the first African-American president of the United States, and The Fan Club (1974), about the abduction and enslavement of a movie star. He also published many books of non-fiction, including The Nympho and Other Maniacs (1971), about women in history who have defied conventions. He was one of the best-selling authors of his lifetime. He died in 1990.

It's the birthday of playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, born in Detroit, Michigan (1963). He was the son of a truck driver and a hospital receptionist, and he became interested in morality at a young age. He went to church and Bible study, even though his parents didn't, and he chose to attend Brigham Young University even though he wasn't Mormon. He said, "I liked the challenge of going somewhere so strict. I found it refreshing. You weren't surrounded by people smoking and swearing. It was this wave of niceness." He later converted to Mormonism. While in college, he staged a production of David Mamet's play Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and he loved the strong reaction it got. He thought that the purpose of drama was to make people confront the ordinary evil that they usually didn't notice, and he started to write about misogynists, homophobes, and philanderers. He moved to New York and started producing plays. In 1992, during a performance of his play Filthy Talk for Troubled Times, he saw an audience member stand up and shout, "Kill the playwright!" LaBute said it was one of the best theater experiences he'd ever had.

In order to make his first movie, In the Company of Men (1997), he borrowed 25,000 dollars from two of his friends who had received insurance money from a car accident. He shot the movie in eleven days, with only two takes per scene. He submitted a black and white video version of the film to the Sundance Film Festival, and it was accepted. The film won the Filmmaker's Trophy and received a standing ovation. He's gone on to write several plays that he's turned into movies, including Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) and The Shape of Things (2003).

It's the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). He grew up in a crowded Jewish neighborhood, and he always loved listening to the conversations of his neighbors. He said, "In warm weather, people sat on the stoops and on beach chairs in the driveways. [At night] you'd be sweating, trying to sleep, and you'd hear them, you'd hear their conversation all the time, and it would be very comforting." At an early age, he began to rebel against the expectations of his community, where all the parents demanded that their kids would become successful doctors and lawyers without losing touch with their cultural roots. He said, "Newark [was] the battleground . . . between the European family of immigrants . . . who clung to the rigorous orthodoxy and the [American] children who wanted to be rid of all that because they sensed immediately that it was useless in this society."

After high school, he left Newark to go to college in Pennsylvania, because, he said, he wanted to see, "the rest of America." He went on to the University of Chicago to study English literature, and it was there that he began to write his first short stories. He published a few stories in small literary journals, and then in 1959 he published his story "Defender of the Faith" in The New Yorker magazine. When the magazine came out with his story in it, he said, "I'd open it and close it, and look at it from here and look at it from there, and read it, read it and then the words would just blast out of my mind and it all made no sense. It was terribly thrilling." But a few days later, his editor told him that the magazine had received hundreds of angry letters from Jewish readers, including one from the Anti-Defamation League, claiming that Roth had insulted the Jewish race by writing about a selfish and conniving Jewish character.

He published his first book, the collection of short stories Goodbye Columbus, in 1959, and it got good reviews and won several awards. But a few years later, he went to speak at a university in New York City, and the audience attacked him, shouting that he was writing anti-Semitic literature. When he tried to leave the stage, a crowd surrounded him, shouting and waving their fists, and he barely got away without being hurt. Later that night he said, "I'll never write about Jews again." He worked on a novel with no Jewish characters called When She Was Good (1967), but it wasn't any fun to write, and he realized that he couldn't give up on writing about his background. He figured that if everyone thought he was offensive, he might as well try to write a book that was as offensive as possible. He set out write a novel in the wild, obscene voice that he remembered from his childhood friends. He had started psychoanalysis at the time, and he got the idea of writing the book from the point of view of a patient on his psychoanalyst's couch.

That book became Portnoy's Complaint (1969), about Alexander Portnoy—his obsession with sex, and his struggles with his Jewish parents, especially his mother. It begins, "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." It was one of the most sexually explicit books ever published, and it became one of the best-selling books of the 1960s. Jewish critics attacked Roth for his portrayal of Jews, and others attacked him for his obscenity, but he had decided that he no longer cared if he offended his readers. He said, "I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you—it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists."

He has gone on to write many more novels, most of them narrated by a fictional writer named Nathan Zuckerman, including American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). His most recent novel is The Dying Animal (2001). Roth said, "The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress."

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