Good evening, friends, acolytes, students, and citizens of New York. My name is Neal Pollack. I am the Greatest Living American Writer. Tonight, I begin my nationwide speaking tour to tell the young people of America how I claimed that title, held on to it, and gradually codified it through a savvy mixture of corporate synergy and brutal, bone-crushing all-star wrestling action. You are fortunate to be present at the fragrant dawn of a great literary lecture series.
Naturally, because of my exalted status and because of the extra-high level of pheromones I exude, women and men of various levels of attractiveness often ask me questions, both when I am on airplanes and on the street. The questions can be lumped into two general categories. One, will you please make love to me, preferably in the next fifteen minutes? Two, how did you arrive at your current position atop the Mount McKinley of American letters?
To the first question, my answer is yes, of course I would love to have sex with you, but let me check my voice mail first. The second answer is more complicated, though I generally tell people that it is easy to become successful if you put naked pictures of yourself on the Internet, read your email every five minutes, and have wealthy, prominent friends who find you amusing.
The unsatisfied and the wicked then ask why I pursue the literary life; perhaps also how, but why most of all, and they ask correctly. As you know, I have lost many friends and contracted several venereal diseases during my current ascent to the top of this ladder of words, but the hidden costs of fame are more than outweighed by its outrageous benefits. Whereas two years ago I was an ordinary journalist, a mere gutter striver in a provincial grub street of the soul, I am now Dolly Parton’s best friend. People from The Netherlands want to interview me. I have become a homeowner, a boat owner, and part owner of the United States Basketball League. But none of these, while they are certainly juicy perks, is a reason in itself.
No, I became a writer for one simple reason: I am in love with literature.
I love the way it feels against my skin and the way it smells in the morning before it showers, the way the sunlight makes its hair gleam in the crisp, clean Colorado sunshine, its little literary laugh, and the way it also knows when I’m sad and when I need a neck rub. Any sacrifice in the world is not enough to sustain a love like the one I have for literature, a love that has been hard fought, hard-won, and hard to hold.
Literature and I met at a pool hall on the Lower East Side, a place named for a famous painter who is now dead. It was hanging out with its friends art and music, and I was hanging out with Benicio del Toro and Derek Jeter. Our eyes locked immediately.
“So,” said literature, “what have you been reading?”
“I’ve been reading you all my life,” I said.
From there, our friends faded into a fuzzy background montage. I complained to literature about the difficulty of being a freelance magazine writer in New York, about its uncaring world of deadlines and insipid service journalism, and literature understood. Literature told me about an installation it was doing at a performance space in Williamsburg, and invited me to come along to a party, which would have a Brazilian DJ, go-go dancers, and a good number of VH-1 employees dressed, somewhat ironically, as genetically modified sheep.
From there, we whirled in the winds of romance. I took literature to Prospect Park to watch authentic Caribbean Americans participate in their lunch-eating rituals. Literature took me to a poetry slam in the Bronx, where the sidewalks are alive with the words of the people. We ate cilantro-flavored cellophane noodles for days on end. When we kissed, it was usually against the iron fence of an East Village church, and our bodies tingled with significance.
One morning, literature and I lay in bed, smoking. We had been up shooting heroin much of the night, and we were spent.
“I need some money,” literature said.
“Baby, we don’t need money,” I said. “We got each other.”
“Fuck you,” said my love, “I need some fucking money NOW!”
Literature had revealed its dark side. I spent days walking from 53rd Street to 57th Street and back again, trying to sell my paperback rights. Sometimes, I even ventured down to Chelsea, for coffee. And each day, I would come home with nothing more than a residual check in hand.
Literature was usually lying on the floor wrapped in a filthy-smelling blanket. My apartment was strewn with garbage and bits of sculpture, long abandoned. No one had done dishes in weeks. The cats howled with hunger. Obviously, something had to give.
“Listen, babe,” I said, “why don’t we get away for a few days.”
Toby Wolff had rented a house on Cape Cod with the editors of the New York Times Book Review and had invited us to come along. I told literature that the air would be good for both of us, and also Rick Bass would be there for a few days.
“I don’t need any fucking air,” said literature. “I need money, and I need drugs.”
That night, while literature slept off a pint of Mad Dog, I stuffed all its belongings into a bag that I’d received for judging the documentary competition at Sundance. I lifted literature off my bed. I could not believe how much weight it had lost since those heady, early days, when the world was young and we met Lou Reed for lunch once a week. Gently, I placed literature and its possessions in the hall, and called to have my locks changed. In the morning, I could hear the pounding and the screams, followed by the rapping and the whispers, and then nothing.
You may say my behavior was cruel, and it certainly was that and more. But there was no way I was going to let my love for literature ruin my literary career. I had too much pride, and too much ambition, for that.
I still keep my love right here, in my breast pocket, next to my National Book Critics Circle Award. It is always with me, and always an inspiration. Still, the day I let literature go was the day I became a writer for real. And if you really love literature, you will do the same, because from the burning fire of our literary passions, the world will be created anew, perceptions of time and space will be forever altered, or at least we will get invited to Bread Loaf and Yaddo and make a few thousand bucks as visiting professors at Carleton College.
This, then, is my message to you.