White on White
o sooner had the great success of Think Big sunk into the general social consciousness along the upper East Side than engraved invitations had begun to arrive at the Bechs' Ossining house. After Bech moved out, Bea in her scrupulous blue handwriting would forward these creamy stiff envelopes, including those addressed to "Mr. and Mrs.," to Bech's two drab sublet rooms on West Seventy-second Street. (Bech had taken these rooms in haste, renting from a disreputable friend of Flaggerty's, and though he deplored the tattered old acid-trip decor--straw mats, fringed hassocks--he was surprised by how much better he slept here than in bucolic splendor, surrounded by cubic yards of creaking, solid-black space for whose repair and upkeep he had become at least half responsible.) Many of his invitations he dropped into the plastic wastebasket, after lovingly thumbing them as examples of the engraver's art and the stationer's trade; but he tended to accept those that carried with them the merest lint or stray thread of old personal connection. His marriage having dissolved around him like the airy walls of a completed novel, anyone who knew Bech "when" interested him, as a clue to his past and hence to his future.
Mr. ani Mrs. Henderson Hyde, III
Colortron Photographics, Inc.
request the pleasure of your company
at a party, honouring the publication of
White on White
by Angus Desmouches, esquire
on Friday, the thirteenth of April
at six o'clock
Bech remembered being photographed by the young and eager Angus Desmouches for Flair, long defunct, in the mid-Fifties, when Travel Light was coming out, to a trifling stir. The youthful photographer had himself looked at first sight as if seen through a wide-angle lens, his broad, tan, somehow Aztec face and wide head of wiry black hair dwindling to a pinched waist and tiny, tireless feet; clicking and clucking, he had pursued Bech up and down the vales and bike paths of Prospect Park, and then for contrast had taken him by subway to lower Manhattan and posed him stony-faced among granite skyscrapers. Bech had scarcely been back to the financial district in the decades since, though now he had a lawyer there, who, with much well-reimbursed head-wagging, was trying to disentangle him and his recent financial gains from Bea and her own tough crew of head-waggers. In a little bookshop huddled low in the gloom of Wall Street Bech had flipped through a smudged display copy of White on White ($128.50 before Christmas, $150 thereafter): finely focused platinum prints of a cigarette butt on a plain white saucer, a white kitten on a polar-bear rug, an egg amid feathers, a naked female foot on a tumbled bedsheet, a lump of sugar held in bared teeth, a gob of what might be semen on the margin of a book, a white-hot iron plunged into snow.
Bech went to the party. The butler at the door of the apartment looked like a dancer in one of the old M-G-M musical extravaganzas, in his white tie, creamy tails, and wing collar. The walls beyond him had been draped in bleached muslin; the apartment's regular furniture had been replaced with white wicker and with great sailcloth pillows; boughs and dried flowers spray-painted white had been substituted for green plants; most remarkably, in the area of the duplex where the ceiling formed a dome twenty feet high, a chalky piano and harp shared a platform with a tall vertical tank full of fluttering, ogling albino tropical fish. Angus Desmouches bustled forward, seemingly little changed--the same brown pug face and gladsome homosexual energy--except that his crown of black hair, sticking out stiff as if impregnated with drying paste, had gone stark white. So stark Bech guessed it had been dyed rather than aged that color; his eyebrows matched, it was too perfect. The years had piled celebrity and wealth upon the little photographer but not added an inch to his waist. He looked resplendent in a satin plantation suit. Bech felt dowdy in an off-white linen jacket, white Levi's, and tennis shoes he had made a separate trip out to Ossining to retrieve.
"Gad, it's good to press your flesh," Desmouches exclaimed, seeming in every cubic centimeter of his own flesh to mean it. "How long ago was that, anyway?"
"Nineteen fifty-five," Bech said. "Not even twenty-five years ago. Just yesterday."
"You were such a sweet subject, I remember that. So patient and funny and wise. I got some delicious angles on especially the downtown take, but the foolish, foolish magazine didn't use any of it, they just ran a boring head-and-shoulders under some weeping willow. I've always been afraid you blamed me."
"No blame," Bech said. "Absolutely no blame in this business. Speaking of which, that's some book of yours."
The other man's miniature but muscular hands fluttered skyward in simultaneous supplication and disavowal. "The idea came to me when I dropped an aspirin in the bathtub and couldn't find it for the longest time. The idea, you know, of exploring how little contrast you could have and still have a photograph." His hands pressed as if at a pane of glass beside him. "Of taking something to the limit."
"You did it," Bech told the air, for Desmouches like a scarf up a magician's sleeve had been whisked away, to greet other guests in this white-on-white shuffle. Bech was sorry he had come. The house in Ossining had been empty, Donald off at school and Bea off at her new job, being a part-time church secretary under some steeple up toward Brewster. Max had been there, curled up on the cold front porch, and had wrapped his mouth around Bech's hand and tried to drag him in the front door. The door was locked, and Bech no longer had a key. He knew how to get in through the cellar bulkhead, past the smelly oil tanks. The house, empty, seemed an immense, vulnerable shell, a Titanic throttled down to delay its rendezvous with the iceberg. Its emptiness did not, oddly, much welcome him. In the brainlessly short memories of these chairs and askew rugs he was already forgotten; minute changes on all sides testified to his absence. Bea's clothes hung in her closet like cool cloth knives seen on edge, and in the way his remaining shoes and his tennis racket had been left tumbled on the floor of his own closet he read a touch of disdain. He turned up the thermostat a degree, lest the pipes freeze, before sneaking back out through the cellar and walking the two miles to the train station, through the slanting downtown, where he had always felt like a strolling minstrel.
The drinks served at this party were not white, nor was the bartender. An ebony hand passed him the golden bourbon. The host and hostess came and briefly cooed their pleasure at Bech's company. Henderson Hyde may have been a third but he came from some gritty town in the Midwest and had the ebullient urbanity of those who have wrapped themselves in Manhattan as in a sumptuous cloak. His wife, too, was the third--a former model whose prized slenderness was with age becoming gaunt. Her great lipglossed smile stretched too many tendons in her neck; designer dresses hung on her a trifle awkwardly, now that they were truly hers; her tenure as wife had reached the expensive stage. Tonight's gown, composed of innumerable crescent slices as of quartz, suggested the robe of an ice-maiden helper that Santa had taken on while rosy-checked Mrs. Claus looked the other way. Until he had married Bea, Bech had imagined that Whitsuntide had something to do with Christmas. Not at all, it turned out. And there was an entire week called Holy Week, corresponding to the seven days of Pesach. They were in it, actually.
"Smash of a book," said Hyde, giving the flesh above Bech's elbow a comradely squeeze as expertly as a doctor taps the nerves below your kneecap.
"You got through it?" Bech asked, startled. His funny bone tingled.
Mrs. Hyde intervened. "I told him all about it," she said. "He couldn't get to sleep for all my chuckling beside him as I read it. That scene with the cameramen!"
"It's top of the list I'm going to get to on the Island this summer. Christ, the books keep piling up," Hyde snarled. He was wearing, Bech only now noticed in the sea of white, a brilliant bulky turban and a caftan embroidered with the logo of his network.
"It's hard to read anything," Bech admitted, "if you're gainfully employed."
Somebody had begun to tinkle the piano: "The White Cliffs of Dover." There'll be bluebirds over...
"So sorry your wife couldn't be with us," Hyde's wife said in parting.
"Yeah, well," Bech said, not wanting to explain, and expecting they knew enough anyway. "Easy come, easy go." He had meant this to be soothing, but an alarmed look flitted across Mrs. Hyde III's gracious but overelastic features.
The harp joined in, and the melody became "White Christmas." Just like the ones we used to know... A man of his acquaintance, a fellow writer, the liberal thinker Maurie Leonard, came up to him. Maurie, though tall, and thick through the shoulders and chest, had such terrible, deskbound posture that all effect of force was limited to his voice, which emerged as an urgent rasp. Metal on metal. Mind on matter. "Some digs, huh?" he said. "You know how Hyde made his money, don'tcha?" More than a liberal, a radical whose twice-weekly columns were deplored by elected officials and whose bound essays were removed from the shelves of public-school libraries, Maurie yet took an innocent prideful glee in the awful workings of capitalism.
"No. How?" Bech asked.
"Game shows!" Maurie ground the words out through a mirth that pressed his cheeks up tight against his eyes, whose sockets were as wrinkled as walnuts. "Hyde-Jinks, Hyde-'n'-seek. Haven't you heard of 'em? Christ, you just wrote a whole book about the TV industry!"
"That was fiction," Bech said.
Maurie, too, exerted pressure on the flesh above Bech's elbow, muttering confidentially, "You wouldn't know it to look at the uptight little prick, but Hyde's a genius. He's like Hitler--the worst thing you can think of, he's there ahead of you already. Know what his latest gimmick is?"
"No," Bech said, beginning to wish that this passage were not in dialogue but in simple expository form.
"Mud wrestling!" Maurie rasped, and a dozen wrinkles fanned upward from each outer corner of his Tartarish, street-wise eyes. "In bikinis, right there on the boob tube. Not your usual hookers, either, but the girl next door; they come on the show with their husbands and mothers and goddamn gym teachers and talk about how they want to win for the hometown and Jesus and the American Legion and the next thing you see there they are, slugging another bimbo with a fistful of mud and taking a bite out of her ass. Christ, it's wonderful. One or two falls and they could be fucking stark naked. Wednesdays at five-thirty, just before the news, and then reruns Saturday midnight, for couples in bed. Bech, I defy you to watch without getting a hard-on."
This man loves America, Bech thought to himself, and he wr§tes as if he hates it. "Easy money," he said aloud.
"You can't imagine how much. If you think this place is O.K., you should see Hyde's Amagansett cottage. And the horse farm in Connecticut."
"So what I wrote was true," Bech said to himself.
"If anything, you understated," Leonard assured him, his very ears now involved in the spreading folds of happiness, so that his large furry lobes dimpled.
"How sad," said Bech. "What's the point of fiction?"
"It hastens the Revolution," Leonard proclaimed, and in farewell, with hoisted palm: "Next year in Jerusalem!"
Bech needed another drink. The piano and harp were doing "Frosty the Snowman," and then the harp alone took on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The room was filling up with whiteness like a steam bath. At the edge of the mob around the bar, a six-foot girl in a frilly Dior nightie gave Bech her empty glass and asked him to bring her back a Chablis spritzer. He did as he was told and when he resumed to stand beside her saw that she had on a chocolate-brown leotard beneath the nightie. Her hair was an unreal red, and heavy, falling to her shoulders in a waxen Ginger Rogers roll; her bangs were cut even with her straight black eyebrows. She was heavy all over, Bech noticed, but comely, with a marmoreal humorless gaze. "Whose wife are you?" Bech asked her.
"That's a chauvinistic approach."
"Just trying to be polite."
"Nobody's. Whose husband are you?"
"Nobody's. In a way."
"Yeah? Tell me the way."
"I'm still married, but we're split up."
"What split you up?"
"I don't know. I think I was bad for her ego. Women now I guess need to do something on their own. As you implied before."
"Yeah." Her pronunciation was dead level, hovering between agreement and a grunt.
"What do you do, then?"
"Aah. I been in a couple a Hendy's shows."
Ah. She was a mud wrestler. Maurie Leonard in his enthusiasm for the Revolution sometimes got a few specifics wrong. The mud wrestlers were hookers. The give-away-nothing eyes, the calm heft held erect as a soldier's body beneath the frills. "You win or lose?" Bech asked her. He had the idea that wrestlers always proceeded by script.
"We don't look at it that way, win or lose. It's more like a dance. We have a big laugh at the end, and usually dunk the referee. "
"I've always wondered, what happens if you get mud in your eyes?"
"You blink. You the writer?"
"One of the many."
"I saw you on Cavett. Nice. Smooth, but, you know, not too. You gonna stick around here long?"
"I was wondering," he said.
The girl turned her face slightly toward him--a thrilling sight, like the soft sweep of a lighthouse beam or the gentle nudging motion of a backhoe, so much smooth youth and health bunched at the base of her throat, where her nightie's lace hem clouded the issue. He felt her heavy gaze rest on the top of his head. "Maybe we could go out get a snack together afterward," she suggested. "After we circulate. I'm here to circulate."
"I am too, I guess," Bech said, his body locked numbingly around its new secret, a kind of cancer, a rampant multiplication. Men and women: what a grapple. New terms, same old pact. "Name's Lorna," his mud wrestler told him, and moved off, her leotard suspended like a muscular vase within the chiffon of her costume. He remembered Bea's soft nighties and the bottom dropped out of his excitement, leaving an acid taste. Better make the next drink weak, it looked like a long night.
"Shine On, Harvest Moon" had become the tune, and then one he hadn't heard since the days of Frankie Carle, "The Glow Worm." Glimmer, glimmer. The music enwrapped as with furling coils of tinsel ribbon the increasingly crowded room, or rooms; the party was expanding in the vast duplex to a boundary whereat one could glimpse those rooms stacked with the polychrome furniture that had been temporarily removed, rooms hung with paintings of rainbows and flayed nudes, bursts of color like those furious quasars hung at the outer limits of our telescopes. In the mass of churning whiteness the mud wrestlers stood firm, big sturdy girls wearing silver wigs and rabbit-fur vests and shimmery running shorts over those white tights nurses wear, or else white gowns like so many sleepwalking Lady Macbeths, or the sterilized pajamas and boxy caps of laboratory workers dealing with bacteria or miniaturized transistors; in the pallid seethe they stood out like caryatids.
Bech had to fight to get his bourbon. The piano and the harp were jostled in the middle of "Stardust" and went indignantly silent. Like a fuzzy sock being ejected by the tumble-dryer there was flung toward Bech the shapeless face of Vernon Klegg, the American Kafka, whose austere minimalist renderings of kitchen spats and dishevelled mobile homes were the rage of writers' conferences and federal and state arts councils. There was at the heart of Klegg's work a haunting enigma. Why were these heroines shrieking? Why were these heroes going bankrupt, their businesses sliding from neglect so resistlessly into ruin?
Why were these children so rude, so angry and estranged? The enigma gave Klegg's portrayal of the human situation a hollowness hailed as quintessentially American; he was published with great faithfulness in the Soviet Union, as yet another illustrator of the West's sure doom, and was a pet of the Left intelligentsia everywhere. Yet one did not have to be a very close friend of Klegg's to know that the riddling texture of his work sprang from a humble personal cause: except for that dawn hour of each day when, pained by hangover and recommencing thirst, Klegg composed with sharpened pencil and yellow-paper pad his few hundred beautifully minimal words - nouns, verbs, nouns - he was drunk. He was a helpless alcoholic from whom wives, households, faculty positions, and entire neighborhoods of baffled order slid with mysterious ease. Typically in a Klegg conte the hero would blandly discover himself to have in his hands a butcher knife, or the broken top fronds of a rubber plant, or the buttocks of a pubescent babysitter. Alcohol was rarely described in Klegg's world, and he may himself not have recognized it as the element that kept that world in perpetual centrifugal motion. He had a bloated face enlarged by a white bristle that in a circle on his chin was still dark, like a panda marking. In this environment he seemed not unsober. "Hear you turned down Dakota Sioux Tech," he told Bech.
"My wife advised me to."
"Didn't know you still had a wife."
"My God, Vern, I don't. I plumb forgot."
"It happens. My fourth decamped the other day, God knows why. She just went kind of crazy."
"Same with me," Bech said. "This modern age, it puts a lot of stress on women. Too many decisions."
"Lord love 'em," Klegg said. "Who are all these cunts standing around like cops?"
"Mud wrestlers. The newest thing. Wonderful women. They keep discipline."
"About time somebody did," Klegg said. "I've lost the bar."
"Follow the crowds," Bech told him, and himself rotated away from the other writer, to a realm where the bodies thinned, and he could breathe the intergalactic dust. A stately creature swaddled in terrycloth attracted him; her face was not merely white, it was painted white, so that her eyes with their lashes stared from within a kind of mask. She smiled in welcome, and her red inner lips and gums seemed to declare an inner face of blood.
"Hey," he answered.
"What juice you groovin' on?"
"Noble dispassion," he answered.
Her hands, Bech saw, were black, with lilac nails and palms. She was black, he realized. She was truth. The charm of liquor is not that it distorts perceptions. It does not. It merely lifts them free from their customary matrix of anxiety. America at heart is black, he saw. Snuggling into the jazz that sings to our bones, we feel that the Negro lives deprived and naked among us as the embodiment of truth, and that when the castle of credit cards collapses a black god will redeem us. The writer would have spoken more to this smiling apparition with the throat of black silk beneath her mask of rice, but Lorna, his first mud wrestler, sidled up to him and said, "You're not circulating." Her hair was as evenly, incandescently red as the glowing coil of the hot plate he cooked his lonely breakfasts on.
"Is it time to go?" he asked, like a child.
"Give it another half-hour. This is just fun for you, but Hendy makes us girls toe the line. If I skip off early it could affect my ratings."
"We don't want that."
"No we don't, ol' buddy." Before she went off again her body purposely and with only peripheral menace brushed Bech's; in the lightness of the contact her breast felt as hard as her hip. A word from Bech's deep past rose and occurred to him. Kurveh. The stranger who comes close.
The piano and harp were interrupted again, this time in the middle of "Stars Fell on Alabama." Henderson Hyde was up on the piano bench, making a speech about Angus Desmouches's extraordinary book. "... horizons.... not since Atget and Steichen... rolling back the limits of the photographic universe... " The albino fish in the vertical tank flurried and goggled, alarmed by the new vibrations. They were always in profile. On edge they looked like knives, like Bea's clothes in the closet. Why is a fish like a writer? Bech asked himself. Because both exist in only two dimensions. Since seeing through the black woman's white paint and obtaining for himself a fourth bourbon (neat: the party was running out of water), Bech felt the gift of clairvoyance growing within him. Surfaces parted; he had achieved X-ray vision. The white of this party was a hospital johnny beneath which lungs harbored dark patches and mud-packed arteries sluggishly pulsed. Now Angus Desmouches was up on the piano bench, saying he owed everything to his mother's sacrifices and to the nimbleness and sensitivity of his studio assistants too numerous to name. Not to mention the truly wonderful crew at Colortron Photographics. A limited number of signed copies of White on White could be purchased in the foyer, at the pre-Christmas price. Thank you. You're great people. Really great. The albino crowd flared and fluttered, looking for its next crumb. In the mass of white, heads and shoulders floated like photos on the back flaps of dust jackets. Bech recognized two authors, both younger than he, more prolix and polished, and saw right through them. Elegantly slim, diamond-laden Lucy Ebright, she of dazzling intellectual constructs and uncanny six-hundred-page forays into the remoter realms of history: in her work a momentous fluency passed veils of illusion before the reader's eyes everywhere but when, more and more rarely, her own threadbare Altoona girlhood was evoked. Then as it were a real cinder appeared at the heart of a great unburning fire of invention. For the one thing this beautiful conjurer of the wodd's riches truly understood was poverty; the humiliation of having to wear second-hand clothes, the inglorious pain of neglected teeth, the shame of watching one's grotesque parents grovel before the possessors of jobs and money--wherever such images arose, even in a psychoallegorical thriller set in the court of Kublai Khan, a jarring authenticity gave fluency pause, and the reader uncomfortably gazed upon raw truth: I was poor. Lucy was chatting, the sway of her long neck ever more aristocratic as her dreams succeeded in print, with the brilliant and engaging Seth Zimmerman, whose urbane comedies of sexual entanglement and moral confusion revealed to Bech's paternal clairvoyance a bitter, narrow, insistent message. I hate you all, Seth's comedies said, for forsaking Jesus. A Puritan nostalgia, an unreasonable longing for the barbaric promise of eternal light beyond the slate-marked grave, a fury at all unfaith including his own gave Zimmerman's well-carpentered plots their uncentered intensity and his playful candor its hostile cool. Both rising writers came up to Bech and in all sincerity said how much they had adored Think Big.
"I just wished it was even longer," Lucy said in her lazy, nasal voice.
"I wished it was even dirtier," Seth said, snorting in self-appreciation.
"Aw, shucks," said Bech. Loving his colleagues for their alabaster attire and for having like him climbed by sheer desperate wits and acquired typing skill up out of the dreary quotidian into this apartment on high, he nevertheless kept dodging glances between their shoulders to see if his new friend in her nightie and wig were approaching to carry him off. The piano and harp, running out of white, had turned to "Red Sails in the Sunset" and then "Blue Skies." Radiant America; where else but here? Still, Bech, sifting the gathering with his inspired gaze, was not quite satisfied. Another word occurred to him. Treyf, he thought. Unclean.
Excerpted from The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike. Copyright © 2001 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.