Stoops to Conquer
I live in a relatively affluent, highly literate neighborhood. I like to think I’m highly literate, but I’m certainly not affluent. I bought my apartment before Brooklyn became hip.
One advantage to living in a relatively affluent, highly literate neighborhood, especially one full of brownstones, is that people are always leaving interesting books on their stoops. I like the randomness and serendipity it adds to my reading life. Stoop finds have introduced me to such wonderful contemporary novelists as Julie Otsuka, Ottessa Moshfegh, and the Finnish comic crime writer Antti Tuomainen. I’ve also caught up on classics like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, as well as several sixties suspense thrillers by Charlotte Armstrong, a new name to me.
A few months ago I was walking on Montgomery Place, a block I briefly lived on before buying my current apartment. On a brownstone stoop I saw several paperbacks. There was a Cormac McCarthy novel—no thanks, not my bag; All The King’s Men, a great book I’ve already read twice; and a few Harlequin-style romances. I figured this stoop was a bust, but then I noticed a copy of my 2016 collection Autobiography Without Words.
The title of my book is a metaphor, of course, but when I opened the copy on the stoop it was literally without words. The cover was the same, with a photo of me as an adolescent clowning around with my friends, but the pages inside were blank. Well, not all of them.
After about 20 pages there was handwriting in cursive. It took me a while to get used to the handwriting, but when I was finally able to read the text I saw that it was a bunch of short stories. I read a few and thought they were quite good. Nothing like my writing, mind you, but excellent nonetheless. Truth be told, I thought these stories were better than my own. They were funnier when they were supposed to be funny, and more heartbreaking when they were meant to be heartbreaking. I gleaned that the writer was a man, more or less of my generation. Many of the stories were about childhood, just like mine, but if I thought I had a miserable childhood, it was nothing compared to this guy’s. He made Gorky’s childhood seem like a walk in the park.
I was baffled. What could have happened?
I figured there must have been a misprint; somehow blank pages were bound in the cover for my book and apparently sold to an unsuspecting reader. Since few bookstores will deign to carry my books these days, most sales are online, so the potential reader couldn’t have discovered the problem until the book arrived in the mail.
But why didn’t this person return the book for a refund? Did he actually take the title literally?
And what then inspired him to start writing stories on the pages? Don’t get me wrong, I think of writing as a form of collaboration with the reader, and I was glad to see this reader actively engaging in that collaboration. I just needed to make my peace with the unexpected situation.
Who was this reader, this writer? Did he live in this brownstone? Should I ring the buzzers and try to find him?
But even if I did find him, what would I say? It might be awkward, no?
I decided to move on. I took the book home and read the rest in one sitting.
I remained baffled, but I decided to put it out of my mind.
Shortly thereafter, I started getting emails from literary magazines. It seemed that whoever had written these stories had sent them out for publication under my name. There were a few rejections, but most were acceptances, and from more high-profile journals than usually publish my work. Should I inform them that there was a misunderstanding? But why look a gift horse in the mouth? So I let them go to publication. After decades of trying, my name finally appeared in Granta, but the biggest coup was surely The New Yorker. Friends and acquaintances congratulated me on the new turn my work had taken. But my newfound modicum of fame didn’t last very long. After five or six publications, the counterfeit Peter Cherches stories dried up.
Still, maybe I could use this turn of events to my advantage. Maybe some of those journals that had never previously given me the time of day would start publishing my real stories. So I started sending my own work to these top-tier publications.
I got personalized rejections from all of them. Most took the same tack. They thanked me for my continued interest in their publication, but wondered why I had changed my style so drastically from the work they enjoyed so much.
Well, at least I had my fifteen minutes of minor literary fame, I consoled myself.
Then I bought a blank, unlined notebook, wrapped it in the cover of my subsequent book, Whistler’s Mother’s Son, and left it on that stoop on Montgomery Place.