boldtype

cover  
 
  title  
 



















pullquote








































































pullquote

 


My name is Gerald Howard and I was Rob Bingham's editor at Doubleday for his forthcoming novel Lightning on the Sun, which we'll publish next April. Now, like the relationship between psychotherapist and patient--or perhaps even more fittingly, dentist and patient--the author-editor relationship is one of intense but extremely delimited intimacy. There are many, many people in this church who knew Rob Bingham much better than I did and spent far more time with him. But as his editor I received a privileged glimpse of Rob as a writer and artist that only his previous editor at Doubleday, Bruce Tracy, his editor at The New Yorker, Deb Garrison and his literary agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, were able to experience. I'd like to share something of what I knew about Rob as a writer because of the comfort and inspiration it might offer in a sad time.

Rob Bingham came on my editorial radar screen with the appearance in The New Yorker of his story "The Target Audience". As I read that outstandingly edgy story, so full of ultra-contemporary mendacity, I felt that I'd stumbled onto an important and unerring sensibility. I believe I wrote Rob a letter or perhaps called him, but whatever I did, it resulted in my eventually considering his short story collection Pure Slaughter Value for my previous employer, Norton. We had a good meeting in my office, I told him I found a couple of stories completely unforgivable--of course they stayed in. But money spoke and Bruce Tracy at Doubleday signed up Rob for the collection and for a somewhat sketchily proposed novel about Westerners in contemporary Cambodia. Then the publishing shuffle did its providential work as Bruce moved to Villard and I moved to Doubleday, thereby becoming his slightly accidental editor. It had, frankly, a somewhat karmic feel to it.

It was the late spring of this year, then, that Rob delivered to me the first draft of a novel then titled The Bats. I read it and I was terrifically impressed by how convincingly Rob had fleshed out his scenario of flawed, complex and, to be frank, not terribly admirable Gen-X characters caught up in the coils of Cambodian politics and their own machinations. It seemed to me that he had absorbed the literary legacy of Graham Greene and Robert Stone and come very close to making it his own. His characters were all afflicted with the terrible disease of knowingness--knowingness about the unkind and corrupt ways of the world and about human weaknesses and failings, particularly their own. What they didn't know was how to make themselves content or happy.

An impressive first draft, as I say, but one that also needed a fair amount of work to become the book it really potentially could be. So I set to work to edit it. Some things were easily fixable, some things were fixable with some modest re-writing, but I was faced finally with the uncomfortable conviction that the ending of this draft was so bleak and unrelieved that it didn't work at all. But, having said that--which I did to Rob on the phone--I was then faced with the difficult issue that I had no idea what to suggest as an alternative. I could outline the nature of the problem but not solve it. That was up to Rob to accomplish and it was a daunting conceptual task.

So one morning Rob came by my office and I went over my notes with him. It was good working session but the seemingly insoluble issue of the ending, once acknowledged just sat there between us, indigestible, minatory and insistently present, no matter how assiduously we talked around it. We wrapped up work and strolled around the corner to a bistro for lunch--and the problem strolled along with us and seated itself squarely between us for the duration of the meal, refusing to go away. Talk about the uninvited guest!

And then as the coffee came I semi-idly brought up this disturbing incident from Rob's time as a journalist in Cambodia. Two Westerners had been taken hostage by a band of soldiers loosely or putatively affiliated with the Khmer Rouge. This was a common enough occurrence, almost always fixable with the quiet transfer of the right sum of cash. This time, however, the press, particularly the world and the American press, got onto the incident and it quickly mushroomed into a high profile international story, with all the pressure that implies. Diplomats suddenly became involved, stern dictats were issued to feed the maw of a ravening press corps, all of which was the worst possible thing that could have happened to those two people. They suddenly became too hot to handle, almost radioactive, and so the guerillas took the only path open to them: they shot the westerners and left their bodies by the side of a road. Rob covered this story and he felt complicit in its sorry outcome. I knew this, and it had figured in the earliest precis of the novel.

So I said to Rob, more or less making conversation, that I thought it was too bad this incident didn't figure in the book, since his feeling about it ran so deep. As I said this we looked at one another across the table and a genuine "Aha!" moment occurred of startling speed. Suddenly, the problem of the ending morphed into a solution that, as we talked, felt more and more not simply workable, but inevitable and exactly right. In twenty years as a book editor, I have never experienced as similarly inspiring a vindication of that dubious institution, the editorial lunch.

Here's the picture I want to leave you with: the solution found, that book didn't just revise itself. Rob had to go back and totally rewrite the final fifth of the book to realize our lunch time epiphany. It was, along with all the other changes I'd tasked him with, a daunting job of revision, and he pulled it off like a master. Jennifer Walsh and I read that revised manuscript with glee and awe and pride in Rob. He dug down deep, he put his nose to the grindstone and his shoulder to the wheel and got the job done magnificently. The press is going to serve up many differing portraits of Rob Bingham in the days and weeks to come, but this is the one I have in my head and am determined to put across: Rob as a hard-working and inspired literary artist. The book that came to be titled Lightning on the Sun is a novel of depth and worldliness and understanding of our flawed natures that no other writer of his generation could have pulled off. When Doubleday publishes it next April the world will see Rob Bingham for what he was: a novelist of immense talent whose death is a terrible loss to American writing. But he left us a tremendous and important book, and that is something in which we should all take pride and comfort.

 
author's page
Bold Type
Bold Type
Bold Type