This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

15 November 2004 — On the cigarette boat out to his private island, I thought about the irony of it all: Rick Moody, millionaire glamour–puss writer, holed up in fear on his private island. "They're trying to kill me!" he'd wailed on the phone. "You've got to help me!"

What good was all his filthy luchre doing him now?

He'd called on me for help before, secretly, of course, to get him out of various fixes and to help him with his ongoing spelling problem. But this time . . . .

I pulled out a cigarette but the guy driving the boat, who was wearing an outfit with epaulettes and a tricorn hat, stopped me. "You can't smoke here," he said. "But it's a cigarette boat," I said. "That may be true," he said, "but none of us really know what that means." "I see," I lied. I decided not to argue.

When I got there I found the place crawling with security, a bunch of heavy set guys with ear pieces and Uzis slung over their shoulders. It was a big place, dark, creepy, with a moat and a drawbridge. Moody was inside surrounded by toadies peeling grapes for him. He leapt up and grabbed me by the lapels and said, "You gotta help me! You gotta get me out of this! Those women at the Times—Caryn James, Laura Miller, Deborah Solomon—they're trying to kill me! I mean, when Michiko Kakutani gets out of her court–mandated anger management classes, I'm a dead man!""

I slapped him hard across the face. It was enjoyable so I did it again. "Snap out of it!" I told him. "Now start from the beginning. What the hell happened?"

"I don't know!" he cried. "I thought we were doing what they said. I mean, they said not to pick more than one token book from a small or independent press, because that would decentralize power and be good for the book business on the whole, which they just can't have, because everybody knows that diversity just blows . . ."

"Okay, you got that right. Go on."

". . . they said not to pick anything avant–garde or, you know, transgressive, or, well, interesting . . . "

"Yeah yeah. Why expand the notion of popular readability? It's easier to just sell the same few kinds of books over and over again to the average robotron American, so forth and so on. Continue."

". . . and they said to pick five women from New York."

"Hold it," I said. "Stop right there—You thought they said five women from New York?"

"Well, yeah," he said. "I mean, why would they want five men from New York. It's always five men from New York."

I just looked at him and shook my head.

"You mean—" He slapped a hand to his forehead. "Oh my god—they said men! I mis–heard them!"

"Exactly. What's more, you picked five women with a short story aesthetic. I mean, were you drunk? Women, with an eye toward concision, poetry, thoughtful observation—sweet Jesus, were you trying to just kill Mother Literature?"

He moaned and sank to his knees. "It was supposed to go to Roth, wasn't it?" he said.

"Of course it was supposed to go to Roth, you numbskull," I told him. "It's just like when you got that Guggenheim for 35K even though you're a skillionaire, or when you gave your millionaire pal J–Franz the NEA—who needed it less? What book, what writer, what publisher, needed it less?"

He was in tears by then, in a heap on the floor. I didn't have the heart to tell him it was all over for him, that the next time he wrote a really bad book, the critics were going to say it was bad this time.

The poor bastard was on his own. There was nothing I could do for him.

I left him there, prostrate on the floor and moaning, "The horror . . . the horror . . . ."

I went and got back on the cigarette boat. I think even his staff knew the jig was up. They were all smoking as we cast off from the dock. But I took no comfort in this. I knew the worst was yet to come. After all, one of those damned low–selling, short–story–writing women was going to win that award. And there were still a few more women at the New York Times who hadn't sounded off about it yet.

Mother of God, I thought as the cigarette boat headed out into the dark water. The horror . . . the horror . . . . It was going to be the end of literature as we know it. And it was all Rick Moody's fault.

Rick Moody is the worst judge of his generation.

Previous column; BOOKS V. BUSH ... What did the book business have to say about presidential politics? Plenty.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.