Back in the days when the Vietnam war was ending, I spent many hours in Seven-Eleven stores. I lived on Big Gulp root beers and cheese dogs with extra cheese. While waiting to be served, I liked to browse through the reading material. Today it's hard for young people to believe me when I tell them that serious literature was once hawked in such places, but it's true. I got my copy of Nabokov's ADA off a twirly rack in a grocery store.
One day, as the clerk went through the recondite process of melting the bricks of quiescently frozen cheese sauce for the dogs, I came upon a particularly well-pitched item. It was a classic application of the famous "four-P's" in qualitative marketing theory: Product, Place, Promotion, and Price. Many handsome copies of a novel, with embossed and perforated covers, coruscating with foil, were neatly tucked in a special cardboard display stand. Easy to assemble for franchise managers across the nation, this eye-catching promotional device had been ingeniously contrived to resemble a key symbol and central image in the text.
This was intended to give potential buyers, deep in the irrational part of their brains, a sense of what the product had to offer, without their having to read a word. It was almost a reptilian appeal, zooming directly through the aperture of the eyeball into those suggestible nodes and nodules of the central nervous system which, in my case that day, were suffused with lactose, glucose, and sodium nitrates.
I was naturally enchanted, and already engrossed in page three, when my cheese dog finally came steaming across the counter, trailing ropes and braids of extra cheese. The better to keep my fingers free for page ruffling, I balanced this confection on the top edge of the display stand. It dripped a molten orange on the product, but I was too absorbed to notice.
In size it was a fairly considerable object, assembled generously in order to give customers a sense that they were getting a substantial consumer item in return for their hard-earned cash. As an example of qualitative marketing strategy, this confection could not have been much better. It had been printed on thick paper, with wide margins and big type to inflate the page count.
Only a teenager at the time, I really liked it, because I understood every word and could negotiate each grammatical construction without undue effort. It seemed to be one of those universally appealing works of art that somehow manage to reach both the public at large and the book-reviewing apparatus of its time. According to the back cover, the author was the recipient of a major critical award, even though his thing was selling like hotcakes all across the continent. So it was with neither a trace of populist chagrin nor elitist guilt that I flipped through the chapters with my ketchuppy fingers.
"This is quite the novel," I said to myself. I took a deep draw on my Big Gulp root beer and examined the black-and-white portrait on the back cover. It revealed a man with depths of unfulfilled longing in his eyes, and a dark brown beard, well-trimmed.
Amazingly enough, this individual was at that very moment sojourning in my miserable town. To this day, nobody has ever been able to explain to my satisfaction such a celebrity's presence in our backwater enclave, at the very peak and explosion of his terrestrial fame. My best guess would be that the pressures of maintaining the pace of such an intense publicity campaign -- the acceptance speeches for honorary degrees, the interviews with Bob Cromie on PBS, the black-tie receptions at the White House, and so on, culminating in the shrine to his talent which was spread so appetizingly before me now -- had become too much for him, and he had, for the sake of his health, been compelled to escape, to hide out, as it were, in some provincial no-place, where such vitality-sucking hype remained at low intensities, and his public presence was cardboard, not incarnate.
Our town couldn't have been a happier choice. Even the most ambitious book tours never scheduled stops within hundreds of miles, the populace being, if not precisely illiterate, then disinclined to spend their money on literature -- certainly not hardback editions, the sale of which is the meat and potatoes of signings, authorial appearances and readings. And God knows our Main Street contained no bookstore worthy of accommodating the likes of him and a tableful of his mighty works.
I imagined that he had come for a salutary sojourn among our staid and, frankly, dull burghers, in order to get back in touch with his deep river of self, so essential to the novelist's silent, solitary craft. He was seeking peace and renewal among us simple and subliterate salts of the earth. Like a Hindu pilgrim, he must return to the Ganges to bathe. Our town was his ghat, our homely folk the burnt corpses he stepped over.
On the other hand, he could've been cruising for some sort of primitivistic kick that he imagined to be available here. But an intelligent man like him would have discovered his error in about twenty minutes and cleared out weeks ago. Somehow I doubted that an artist of such wide distribution and global sales would be content to waste his leisure time on the sort of thing I did for fun, such as hanging around Seven-Eleven parking lots till the wee hours - which is what I did after shoplifting our illustrious guest's novel.
It had taken a while for me to find a copy that wasn't soaked through with one snack substance or the other, both species as it were, because I had somehow managed to spill my sugary brown drink up and down the length of the handsome display. When the time came to steal one, I was not being very subtle making my selection, slopping the rejects in glutinous piles on the bright Seven-Eleven linoleum. Subtlety is not a young bohemian's forte.
At any rate, I was not stopped and searched on the way out. Perhaps the clerk didn't think it worthwhile to try, with me transcending by several inches the height gauge on the door jamb. Or maybe the clerk was a student of the Chinese author Lu Xun, who wrote, "Stealing books is not stealing."
Speaking of the Chinese, earlier that very month when they began to pirate the products of his soul on a gargantuan scale, our visiting author had waxed bitterly eloquent in denouncing such thievery from the pulpit of the electronic broadcast media. He was courageous enough to speak out, despite the protestations of certain leftward-leaning naifs in the press who pointed out that the Chinese could never afford his books at the regular price, anyway. They cited Faulkner's words to the effect that the true novelist's sole desire should be to "scratch his name on the door of eternity" without regard to the service charge that could be extracted in return for such scratching. These lefties also claimed that certain writers existed (maybe all dead now) who would be flattered to the point of mania to have members of such a vast and formidable civilization taking an interest in their books, regardless of the financial arrangement, or lack thereof, which had placed the latter in their hands.
These more than slightly pink commentators (many of whom were members of our author's charmed circle backeast) even got personal, and, as evidence of what they considered craven hypocrisy, called attention to the meticulous left-wing stance he always assumed in his published oeuvre -- as if storytellers haven't, from the very start of the practice, reserved the right to assume personas and depict Weltanschauungen not necessarily their own. How many readers really think, for example, that Milton the man resembled in any way--
Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
From heaven; for ev'n in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific.
It must have been a real crisis of conscience for our best-selling writer, with his chums poking cruel fun like that. But he wrestled with it and came down solidly on the side of the right. He backed himself up with a moving reference to the eighth paragraph of the horned prophet's stone code, intending to shame those Dengists and make them think twice about intellectual property rights as they pertain to international law.
Perhaps, if the clerk on duty at Seven-Eleven had been issued a radio or a television, and given the time to listen to the heartfelt plaints of this victim of robbery -- no, of soul-rape outright -- on the local PBS and NPR affiliate stations, he would have interposed his pink-jacketed person between me and the exit. Had this clerk mustered the courage, if not the conscience, to earn his wage and prevent our author from being deprived of his rightful ten percent royalty on the cover price of what was so palpably stuffed down the front waistband of my big funky underpants -- well, I think it's safe to say that the next eighteen hours of American literary history would have turned out quite differently, and I might not be writing this sad memoir today, more than a quarter century later.
As it was, I was allowed to leave the convenience store with my booty, and to loiter in its parking lot until the setting of Orion in the western sky. (Not that I saw it through the exhaust fumes of puckish insomniacs.)
Up until that night, I sometimes worried about not having enough big words in my own writing. But this pilfered volume had erased all my insecurities. I determined to seek out and introduce myself to the man on the back cover. I would scour the swanky quadrants of my town until I came upon, and bravely chatted up, this entity, this "hierophant of unapprehended inspiration," this "mirror of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." I sure as fuck hoped he would like my stuff.
And I had good reason to hope. In that epoch of American literary history, there were opportunities for writers to earn good money, such as two million dollars as an advance against royalties on copies sold. Such splendid figures often constituted the cornerstone of the publisher's entire ad campaign, which might even, in circumstances of extreme good fortune, include national television spots. Plus these writers, having been translated whole, like Elijah, to such heights, were guaranteed the chance to see their creations interpreted cinematically by skilled screenwriters and talented directors in the employ of major motion picture studios. It was a flowering of literature.
That "two million" (sufficient, if they were sesterces, to purchase two seats in the Roman Senate) happened to be the magic figure associated famously with our author. It had become proverbially part of his name. You could almost see that many zeroes when you looked in his dark brown eyes on the dust jacket. At any rate, I could, that night, see a multiplicity of ciphers, like doughnuts, strung from his lashes. And then those laden eyelids blinked, if not winked, at me.
In my imagination I saw the digital read-out on his corneas increase a quantum when his head unstuck itself from the glossy paper and looked flatly around at his environs: the glutinous mass-market paperback which I had been unconsciously rolling into an ever tighter tube around my cheese dog as a kind of protective sheath. I feared the novelist might be offended to see the result of his earnest lucubration, the product of his soul, of his very blood, so misused as a holder for snack food. But I saw nothing --except maybe another shift upward on his corneal display.
"Another price-unit will have to be vended," he announced in a miniature voice. "This copy will be unreadable when the cheddary stuff starts to curdle and rot. We can send this one to the Chinks." I heard golden chimes clanging in those little ears, such as would appetize the least erected spirit that fell from heaven. Or maybe I just heard the tin dingalings of a cash register. For a few seconds I was transported a few feet and several minutes back in time and space. I was back inside the Seven-Eleven. I was standing before the cardboard shrine to his talent, one of several hundred thousand identical promotional setups, from sea to shining sea.
If they'd bothered to fold one up and mail it all the way out here, the things must be half-assedly assembled and lopsidedly displayed in every seedy inbred trailer-trash fuck-hole clear across the Home of the Brave. It was a downright continental blitzkrieg of quality paperbacks.
Theretofore in American literary history, such all-out, hell-bent promotion campaigns had been reserved for what is known in the trade as "formulaic" fiction. But the famous writer's book was not about flying saucers or spies or natural disasters or geishas or vampires or husbands duly outgrown. It was an historical novel, that's true -- and, as such, factually edified while it entertained, which appealed to the vast majority of potential customers with only a narrow slot set aside for reading in their busy workaday schedules.
However, the book made up for this generic concession by conscientiously eschewing the self-indulgent prettiments of rhetorical adornment that deform so many bodice-rippers and period-pieces and other such tawdry lower middle-class romances. It hewed instead with great discipline to the Hemingwayesque line and the simple-declarative monosyllables of the much-esteemed "transparent style," which traces its roots, of course, to the old "Puritan plain style" of our author's native eastern seaboard: the method of those staunch colonials who, though Protestants, can be identified as his artistic forbears.
This utter readability, in combination with the author's expertly modulated, leftward-leaning politics (again uncharacteristic of a faux-aristocratic tradition, and calculated to please the upper echelons of the New York book reviewing apparatus), made for an unbeatable package. Therefore, unlike most novels of that particular formulaic sub-category, the thing I had just stolen and had wrapped around my cheese dog, our author's best-selling chef-d'oeuvre, had achieved high critical acclaim. It had won the National Book Award or something equally indicative of literary value. There was no time to dilly-dally.
As I peeled the seat of my dungarees from the concrete stoop and directed my steps toward the glitzy part of town, I murmured aloud, "I bet he won't mind autographing a stolen copy if I gently tear out the pages with the most cheese on them."