Chapter 1

Online text version of American Pastoral, Ch. 1
Page cuts and page numbers refer to the 1998 Vintage edition (compulsory for agrégation candidates)


I

Paradise Remembered1

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Chapter 1

The Swede. During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city's old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete. The name was magical; so was the anomalous face. Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our preponderantly Jewish public high school, none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe as Seymour Irving Levov.
The Swede starred as end in football, center in basketball, and first baseman in baseball. Only the basketball team was ever any good—twice winning the city championship while he was its leading scorer—but as long as the Swede excelled, the fate of our sports teams didn't matter much to a student body whose elders, largely undereducated and overburdened, venerated academic achievement above all else. Physical aggression, even camouflaged by athletic uniforms and official rules and intended to do no harm to Jews, was not a traditional source of pleasure in our community— advanced degrees were. Nonetheless, through the Swede, the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world, the fantasy of sports fans everywhere: almost like Gentiles (as they


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imagined Gentiles), our families could forget the way things actually work and make an athletic performance the repository of all their hopes. Primarily, they could forget the war.
The elevation of Swede Levov into the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews can best be explained, I think, by the war against the Germans and the Japanese and the fears that it fostered. With the Swede indomitable on the playing field, the meaningless surface of life provided a bizarre, delusionary kind of sustenance, the happy release into a Swedian innocence, for those who lived in dread of never seeing their sons or their brothers or their husbands again.
And how did this affect him—the glorification, the sanctification, of every hook shot he sank, every pass he leaped up and caught, every line drive he rifled for a double down the leftfield line? Is this what made him that staid and stone-faced boy? Or was the mature-seeming sobriety the outward manifestation of an arduous inward struggle to keep in check the narcissism that an entire community was ladling with love? The high school cheerleaders had a cheer for the Swede. Unlike the other cheers, meant to inspire the whole team or to galvanize the spectators, this was a rhythmic, foot-stomping tribute to the Swede alone, enthusiasm for his perfection undiluted and unabashed. The cheer rocked the gym at basketball games every time he took a rebound or scored a point, swept through our side of City Stadium at football games any time he gained a yard or intercepted a pass. Even at the sparsely attended home baseball games up at Irvington Park, where there was no cheerleading squad eagerly kneeling at the sidelines, you could hear it thinly chanted by the handful of Weequahic stalwarts in the wooden stands not only when the Swede came up to bat but when he made no more than a routine putout at first base. It was a cheer that consisted of eight syllables, three of them his name, and it went, Bah bahbah! Bah bah bah … bahbah! and the tempo, at football games particularly, accelerated with each repetition until, at the peak of frenzied adoration, an explosion of skirt-billowing cartwheels was ecstatically discharged and the orange gym bloom


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ers of ten sturdy little cheerleaders flickered like fireworks before our marveling eyes … and not for love of you or me but of the wonderful Swede. "Swede Levov! It rhymes with … 'The Love'!… Swede Levov! It rhymes with … 'The Love'! … Swede Levov! It rhymes with … 'The Love'!"
Yes, everywhere he looked, people were in love with him. The candy store owners we boys pestered called the rest of us "Hey-you-no!" or "Kid-cut-it-out!"; him they called, respectfully, "Swede." Parents smiled and benignly addressed him as "Seymour." The chattering girls he passed on the street would ostentatiously swoon, and the bravest would holler after him, "Come back, come back, Levov of my life! " And he let it happen, walked about the neighborhood in possession of all that love, looking as though he didn't feel a thing. Contrary to whatever daydreams the rest of us may have had about the enhancing effect on ourselves of total, uncritical, idolatrous adulation, the love thrust upon the Swede seemed actually to deprive him of feeling. In this boy embraced as a symbol of hope by so many—as the embodiment of the strength, the resolve, the emboldened valor that would prevail to return our high school's servicemen home unscathed from Midway, Salerno, Cherbourg, the Solomons, the Aleutians, Tarawa—there appeared to be not a drop of wit or irony to interfere with his golden gift for responsibility.
But wit or irony is like a hitch in his swing for a kid like the Swede, irony being a human consolation and beside the point if you're getting your way as a god. Either there was a whole side to his personality that he was suppressing or that was as yet asleep or, more likely, there wasn't. His aloofness, his seeming passivity as the desired object of all this asexual lovemaking, made him appear, if not divine, a distinguished cut above the more primordial humanity of just about everybody else at the school. He was fettered to history, an instrument of history, esteemed with a passion that might never have been if he'd broken the Weequahic basketball record—by scoring twenty-seven points against Barringer—on a day other than the sad, sad day in 1943 when fifty-eight Flying


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Fortresses were shot down by Luftwaffe fighter planes, two fell victim to flak, and five more crashed after crossing the English coast on their way back from bombing Germany.
The Swede's younger brother was my classmate, Jerry Levov, a scrawny, small-headed, oddly over-flexible boy built along the lines of a licorice stick, something of a mathematical wizard, and the January 1950 valedictorian. Though Jerry never really had a friendship with anyone, in his imperious, irascible way, he took an interest in me over the years, and that was how I wound up, from the age of ten, regularly getting beaten by him at Ping-Pong in the finished basement of the Levovs' one-family house, on the corner of Wyndmoor and Keer—the word "finished" indicating that it was paneled in knotty pine, domesticated, and not, as Jerry seemed to think, that the basement was the perfect place for finishing off another kid.
The explosiveness of Jerry's aggression at a Ping-Pong table exceeded his brother's in any sport. A Ping-Pong ball is, brilliantly, sized and shaped so that it cannot take out your eye. I would not otherwise have played in Jerry Levov's basement. If it weren't for the opportunity to tell people that I knew my way around Swede Levov's house, nobody could have got me down into that basement, defenseless but for a small wooden paddle. Nothing that weighs as little as a Ping-Pong ball can be lethal, yet when Jerry whacked that thing murder couldn't have been far from his mind. It never occurred to me that his violent display might have something to do with what it was like for him to be the kid brother of Swede Levov. Since I couldn't imagine anything better than being the Swede's brother—short of being the Swede himself—I failed to understand that for Jerry it might be difficult to imagine anything worse.
The Swede's bedroom—which I never dared enter but would pause to gaze into when I used the toilet outside Jerry's room—was tucked under the eaves at the back of the house. With its slanted ceiling and dormer Windows and Weequahic pennants on the walls, it looked like what I thought of as a real boy's room. From the two Windows that opened out over the back lawn you could see the roof


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of the Levovs' garage, where the Swede as a grade school kid practiced hitting in the wintertime by swinging at a baseball taped to a cord hung from a rafter—an idea he might have got from a baseball novel by John R. Tunis called The Kid from Tomkinsville2. I came to that book and to other of Tunis's baseball books—Iron Duke, The Duke Decides, Champion's Choice, Keystone Kids, Rookie of the Year—by spotting them on the builtin shelf beside the Swede's bed, all lined up alphabetically between two solid bronze bookends that had been a bar mitzvah gift, miniaturized replicas of Rodin's "The Thinker." Immediately I went to the library to borrow all the Tunis books I could find and started with The Kid from Tomkinsville, a grim, gripping book to a boy, simply written, stiff in places but direct and dignified, about the Kid, Roy Tucker, a clean-cut young pitcher from the rural Connecticut hills whose father dies when he is four and whose mother dies when he is four and who helps his grandmother make ends meet by working the family farm during the day and working at night in town at "MacKenzie's drugstore on the corner of South Main."
The book, published in 1940, had black-and-white drawings that, with just a little expressionistic distortion and just enough anatomical skill, cannily pictorialize the hardness of the Kid's life, back before the game of baseball was illuminated with a million statistics, back when it was about the mysteries of earthly fate, when major leaguers looked less like big healthy kids and more like lean and hungry workingmen. The drawings seemed conceived out of the dark austerities of Depression America. Every ten pages or so, to succinctly depict a dramatic physical moment in the story—"He was able to put a little steam in it," "It was over the fence," "Razzie limped to the dugout"—there is a blackish, ink-heavy rendering of a scrawny, shadowf-aced ballplayer starkly silhouetted on a blank page, isolated, like the world's most lonesome soul, from both nature and man, or set in a stippled simulation of ballpark grass, dragging beneath him the skinny statuette of a wormlike shadow. He is unglamorous even in a baseball uniform; if he is the pitcher, his gloved hand looks like a paw; and what image after image


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makes graphically clear is that playing up in the majors, heroic though it may seem, is yet another form of backbreaking, unremunerative labor.
The Kid from Tomkinsville could as well have been called The Lamb from Tomkinsville, even The Lamb from Tomkinsville Led to the Slaughter. In the Kid's career as the sparkplug newcomer to a lastplace Brooklyn Dodger club, each triumph is rewarded with a punishing disappointment or a crushing accident. The staunch attachment that develops between the lonely, homesick Kid and the Dodgers' veteran catcher, Dave Leonard, who successfully teaches him the ways of the big leagues and who, "with his steady brown eyes behind the plate," shepherds him through a no-hitter, comes brutally undone six weeks into the season, when the old-timer is dropped overnight from the club's rester. "Here was a speed they didn't often mention in baseball: the speed with which a player rises—and goes down." Then, after the Kid wins his fifteenth con-secutive game—a rookie record that no pitcher in either league has ever exceeded—he's accidentally knocked off his feet in the shower by boisterous teammates who are horsing around after the great victory, and the elbow injury sustained in the fall leaves him unable ever to pitch again. He rides the bench for the rest of the year, pinch-hitting because of his strength at the plate, and then, over the snowy winter—back home in Connecticut spending days on the farm and evenings at the drugstore, well known now but really Grandma's boy all over again—he works diligently by himself on Dave Leonard's directive to keep his swing level ("A tendency to keep his right shoulder down, to swing up, was his worst fault"), suspending a bail from a string out in the barn and whacking at it on cold winter mornings with "his beloved bat" until he has worked himself into a sweat. '"Crack…' The clean sweet sound of a bat squarely meeting a ball." By the next season he is ready to return to the Dodgers as a speedy right fielder, bats .325 in the second spot, and leads his team down to the wire as a contender. On the last day of the season, in a game against the Giants, who are in first place by only half a game, the Kid kindles the Dodgers'


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hitting attack, and in the bottom of the fourteenth—with two down, two men on, and the Dodgers ahead on a run scored by the Kid with his audacious, characteristically muscular base-running— he makes the final game-saving play, a running catch smack up against the right centerfield wall. That tremendous daredevil feat sends the Dodgers into the World Series and leaves him "writhing in agony on the green turf of deep right center." Tunis concludes like this: "Dusk descended upon a mass of players, on a huge crowd pouring onto the field, on a couple of men carrying an inert form through the mob on a stretcher… . There was a clap of thunder. Rain descended upon the Polo Grounds." Descended, descended, a clap of thunder, and thus ends the boys' Book of Job.
I was ten and I had never read anything like it. The cruelty of life. The injustice of it. I could not believe it. The reprehensible member of the Dodgers is Razzie Nugent, a great pitcher but a drunk and a hothead, a violent bully fiercely jealous of the Kid. And yet it is not Razzie carried off "inert" on a stretcher but the best of them ail, the farm orphan called the Kid, modest, serious, chaste, loyal, naive, undiscourageable, hardworking, soft-spoken, courageous, a brilliant athlete, a beautiful, austere boy. Needless to say, I thought of the Swede and the Kid as one and wondered how the Swede could bear to read this book that had left me near tears and unable to sleep. Had I had the courage to address him, I would have asked if he thought the ending meant the Kid was finished or whether it meant the possibility of yet another comeback. The word "inert" terrified me. Was the Kid killed by the last catch of the year? Did the Swede know? Did he care? Did it occur to him that if disaster could strike down the Kid from Tomkinsville, it could corne and strike the great Swede down too? Or was a book about a sweet star savagely and unjustly punished—a book about a greatly gifted innocent whose worst fault is a tendency to keep his right shoulder down and swing up but whom the thundering heavens destroy nonetheless—simply a book between those "Thinker" bookends up on his shelf?


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Keer Avenue was where the rich Jews lived—or rich they seemed to most of the families who rented apartments in the two, three, and four-family dwellings with the brick stoops integral to our afterschool sporting life: the crap games, the blackjack, and the stoopball, endless until the cheap rubber bail hurled mercilessly against the steps went pop and split at the seam. Here, on this grid of locust-tree-lined streets into which the Lyons farm had been partitioned during the boom years of the early twenties, the first post-immigrant generation of Newark's Jews had regrouped into a community that took its inspiration more from the mainstream of American life than from the Polish shtetl their Yiddishspeaking parents had recreated around Prince Street in the impoverished Third Ward. The Keer Avenue Jews, with their finished basements, their screened-in porches, their flagstone front steps, seemed to be at the forefront, laying claim like audacious pioneers to the normalizing American amenities. And at the vanguard of the vanguard were the Levovs, who had bestowed upon us our very own Swede, a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get.
The Levovs themselves, Lou and Sylvia, were parents neither more nor less recognizably American than my own Jersey-born Jewish mother and father, no more or less refined, well spoken, or cultivated. And that to me was a big surprise. Other than the one-family Keer Avenue house, there was no division between us like the one between the peasants and the aristocracy I was learning about at school. Mrs. Levov was, like my own mother, a tidy housekeeper, impeccably well mannered, a nice-looking woman tremendously considerate of everyone's feelings, with a way of making her sons feel important—one of the many women of that era who never dreamed of being free of the great domestic enterprise centered on the children. From their mother both Levov boys had inherited the long bones and fair hair, though since her hair was redder, frizzier, and her skin still youthfully freckled, she looked less startlingly Aryan than they did, less vivid a genetic oddity among the faces in our streets.
The father was no more than five seven or eight—a spidery man


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even more agitated than the father whose anxieties were shaping my own. Mr. Levov was one of those slumreared Jewish fathers whose roughhewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn't as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.
The way it fell out, my father was a chiropodist whose office was for years our living room and who made enough money for our family to get by on but no more, while Mr. Levov got rich manufacturing ladies' gloves. His own father—Swede Levov's grandfather— had come to Newark from the old country in the 18905 and found work fleshing sheepskins fresh from the lime vat, the lone Jew alongside the roughest of Newark's Slav, Irish, and Italian immigrants in the Nuttman Street tannery of the patent-leather tycoon T. P. Howell, then the name in the city's oldest and biggest industry, the tanning and manufacture of leather goods. The most important thing in making leather is water—skins spinning in big drums of water, drums spewing out befouled water, pipes gushing with cool and hot water, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. If there's soft water, good water, you can make beer and you can make leather, and Newark made both—big breweries, big tanneries, and, for the immigrant, lots of wet, smelly, crushing work.
The son Lou—Swede Levov's father—went to work in the tannery after leaving school at fourteen to help support the family of nine and became adept not only at dyeing buckskin by laying on the clay dye with a fiat, stiff brush but also at sorting and grading skins. The tannery that stank of both the slaughterhouse and the chemical plant from the soaking of flesh and the cooking of flesh and the dehairing and pickling and degreasing of hides,


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where round the clock in the summertime the blowers drying the thousands and thousands of hanging skins raised the temperature in the low-ceilinged dry room to a hundred and twenty degrees, where the vast vat rooms were dark as caves and flooded with swill, where brutish workingmen, heavily aproned, armed with hooks and staves, dragging and pushing overloaded wagons, wringing and hanging waterlogged skins, were driven like animals through the laborious storm that was a twelve-hour shift—a filthy, stinking place awash with water dyed red and black and blue and green, with hunks of skin all over the floor, everywhere pits of grease, hills of salt, barrels of solvent—this was Lou Levov's high school and college. What was amazing was not how tough he turned out. What was amazing was how civil he could sometimes still manage to be.
From Howell & Co. he graduated in his early twenties to found, with two of his brothers, a small handbag outfit specializing in alligator skins contracted from R. G. Salomon, Newark's king of cordovan leather and leader in the tanning of alligator; for a time the business looked as if it might flourish, but after the crash the company went under, bankrupting the three hustling, audacious Levovs. Newark Maid Leatherware started up a few years later, with Lou Levov, now on his own, buying seconds in leather goods—imperfect handbags, gloves, and belts—and selling them out of a pushcart on weekends and door-to-door at night. Down Neck— the semipeninsular protuberance that is easternmost Newark, where each fresh wave of immigrants first settled, the lowlands bounded to the north and east by the Passaic River and to the south by the salt marshes—there were Italians who'd been glovers in the old country and they began doing piecework for him in their homes. Out of the skins he supplied they cut and sewed ladies' gloves that he peddled around the state. By the time the war broke out, he had a collective of Italian families cutting and stitching kid gloves in a small loft on West Market Street. It was a marginal business, no real money, until, in 1942, the bonanza: a black, lined sheepskin dress glove, ordered by the Women's Army Corps. He


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leased the old umbrella factory, a smoke-darkened brick pile fifty years old and four stories high on Central Avenue and 2nd Street, and very shortly purchased it outright, leasing the top floor to a zipper company. Newark Maid began pumping out gloves, and every two or three days the truck backed up and took them away.
A cause for jubilation even greater than the government contract was the Bamberger account. Newark Maid cracked Bamberger's, and then became the major manufacturer of their fine ladies' gloves, because of an unlikely encounter between Lou Levov and Louis Bamberger. At a ceremonial dinner for Meyer Ellenstein, a city commissioner since 1933 and the only Jew ever to be mayor of Newark, some higher-up from Bam's, hearing that Swede Levov's father was present, came over to congratulate him on his boy's selection by the Newark News as an all-county center in basketball. Alert to the opportunity of a lifetime—the opportunity to cut through all obstructions and go right to the top—Lou Levov brazenly talked his way into an introduction, right there at the Ellenstein dinner, to the legendary L. Bamberger himself, founder of Newark's most prestigious department store and the philanthropist who'd given the city its museum, a powerful personage as meaningful to local Jews as Bernard Baruch was meaningful to Jews around the country for his close association with FDR. According to the gossip that permeated the neighborhood, although Bamberger barely did more than shake Lou Levov's hand and quiz him (about the Swede) for a couple of minutes at most, Lou Levov had dared to say to his face, "Mr. Bamberger, we've got the quality, we've got the price—why can't we sell you people gloves?" And before the month was out, Bam's had placed an order with Newark Maid, its first, for five hundred dozen pairs.
By the end of the war, Newark Maid had established itself—in no small part because of Swede Levov's athletic achievement—as one of the most respected names in ladies' gloves south of Gloversville, New York, the center of the glove trade, where Lou Levov shipped his hides by rail, through Fultonville, to be tanned by the best glove tannery in the business. Little more than a decade later, with the


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opening of a factory in Puerto Rico in 1958, the Swede would himself become the young president of the company, commuting every morning down to Central Avenue from his home some thirty-odd miles west of Newark, out past the suburbs—a shortrange pioneer living on a hundred-acre farm on a back road in the sparsely habitated hills beyond Morristown, in wealthy, rural Old Rimrock, New Jersey, a long way from the tannery floor where Grandfather Levov had begun in America, paring away from the true skin the rubbery flesh that had ghoulishly swelled to twice its thickness in the great lime vats.
The day after graduating Weequahic in June '45, the Swede had joined the Marine Corps, eager to be in on the fighting that ended the war. It was rumored that his parents were beside themselves and did everything to talk him out of the marines and get him into the navy. Even if he surmounted the notorious Marine Corps anti-Semitism, did he imagine himself surviving the invasion of Japan? But the Swede would not be dissuaded from meeting the manly, patriotic challenge—secretly set for himself just after Pearl Harbor—of going off to fight as one of the toughest of the tough should the country still be at war when he graduated high school. He was just finishing up his boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina—where the scuttlebutt was that the marines were to hit the Japanese beaches on March 1, 1946—when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a result, the Swede got to spend the rest of his hitch as a "recreation specialist" right there on Parris Island. He ran the calisthenic drill for his battalion for half an hour before breakfast every morning, arranged for the boxing smokers to entertain the recruits a couple of nights a week, and the bulk of the time played for the base team against armed forces teams throughout the South, basketball all winter long, baseball all summer long. He was stationed down in South Carolina about a year when he became engaged to an Irish Catholic girl whose father, a marine major and a onetime Purdue football coach, had procured him the cushy job as drill instructor in order to keep him at Parris Island to play bail. Several months before the Swede's


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discharge, his own father made a trip to Parris Island, stayed for a full week, near the base at the hôtel in Beaufort, and departed only when the engagement to Miss Dunleavy had been broken off. The Swede returned home in '47 to enroll at Upsala College,, in East Orange, at twenty unencumbered by a Gentile wife and all the more glamorously heroic for having made his mark as a Jewish marine—a drill instructor no less, and at arguably the cruelest military training camp anywhere in the world. Marines are made at boot camp, and Seymour Irving Levov had helped to make them.
We knew all this because the mystique of the Swede lived on in the corridors and classrooms of the high school, where I was by then a student. I remember two or three times one spring trek-king out with friends to Viking Field in East Orange to watch the Upsala baseball team play a Saturday home game. Their star cleanup hitter and first baseman was the Swede. Three home runs one day against Muhlenberg. Whenever we saw a man in the stands wearing a suit and a hat we would whisper to one another, "A scout, a scout!" I was away at college when I heard from a schoolyard pal still living in the neighborhood that the Swede had been offered a contract with a Double A Giant farm club but had turned it down to join his father's company instead. Later I learned through my parents about the Swede's marriage to Miss New Jersey. Be-fore competing at Atlantic City for the 1949 Miss America title, she had been Miss Union County, and before that Spring Queen at Upsala. From Elizabeth. A shiksa. Dawn Dwyer. He'd done it.
One night in the summer of 1985, while visiting New York, I went out to see the Mets play the Astros, and while circling the stadium with my friends, looking for the gate to our seats, I saw the Swede, thirty-six years older than when I'd watched him play bail for Upsala. He wore a white shirt, a striped tie, and a charcoal-gray summer suit, and he was still terrifically handsome. The golden hair was a shade or two darker but not any thinner; no longer was cut short but fell rather fully over his ears and down to his collar.


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In this suit that fit him so exquisitely he seemed even taller and leaner than I remembered him in the uniform of one sport or another. The woman with us noticed him first. "Who is that? That's— that's … Is that John Lindsay?" she asked. "No," I said. "My God. You know who that is? It's Swede Levov." I told my friends, "That's the Swede!"
A skinny, fair-haired boy of about seven or eight was walking alongside the Swede, a kid under a Mets cap pounding away at a first baseman's mitt that dangled, as had the Swede's, from his left hand. The two, clearly a father and his son, were laughing about something together when I approached and introduced myself. "I knew your brother at Weequahic."
"You're Zuckerman?" he replied, vigorously shaking my hand. "The author?"
"I'm Zuckerman the author."
"Sure, you were Jerry's great pal."
"I don't think Jerry had great pals. He was too brilliant for pals. He just used to beat my pants off at Ping-Pong down in your basement. Beating me at Ping-Pong was very important to Jerry."
"So you're the guy. My mother says, 'And he was such a nice, quiet child when he came to the house.' You know who this is?" the Swede said to the boy. "The guy who wrote those books. Nathan Zuckerman."
Mystified, the boy shrugged and muttered, "Hi."
"This is my son Chris."
"These are friends," I said, sweeping an arm out to introduce the three people with me. "And this man," I said to them, "is the greatest athlete in the history of Weequahic High. A real artist in three sports. Played first base like Hernandez—thinking. A line-drive doubles hitter. Do you know that?" I said to his son. "Your dad was our Hernandez."
"Hernandez's a lefty," he replied.
"Well, that's the only difference," I said to the little literalist, and put out my hand again to his father. "Nice to see you, Swede."
"You bet. Take it easy, Skip."


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"Remember me to your brother," I said.
He laughed, we parted, and someone was saying to me, "Well, well, the greatest athlete in the history of Weequahic High called you Skip.'"
"I know. I can't believe it." And I did feel almost as wonderfully singled out as I had the one time before, at the age of ten, when the Swede had got so personal as to recognize me by the playground nickname l'd acquired because of two grades I skipped in grade school.
Midway through the first inning, the woman with us turned to me and said, "You should have seen your face—you might as well have told us he was Zeus. I saw just what you looked like as a boy."
The following letter reached me by way of my publisher a couple of weeks before Memorial Day, 1995.
Dear Skip Zuckerman:
I apologize for any inconvenience this letter may cause you. You may not remember our meeting at Shea Stadium. I was with my oldest son (now a first-year college student) and you were out with some friends to see the Mets. That was ten years ago, the era of Carter-Gooden-Hernandez, when you could still watch the Mets. You can't anymore.
I am writing to ask if we might meet sometime to talk. I'd be delighted to take you to dinner in New York if you would permit me.
I'm taking the liberty of proposing a meeting because of something I have been thinking about since my father died last year. He was ninety-six. He was his feisty, combative self right down to the end. That made it all the harder to see him go, despite his advanced age.
I would like to talk about him and his life. I have been trying to write a tribute to him, to be published privately for friends, family, and business associates. Most everybody thought of my father as indestructible, a thick-skinned man on a short fuse. That was far from the truth. Not everyone


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knew how much he suffered because of the shocks that befell his loved ones.
Please be assured that I will understand if you haven't time to respond.
Sincerely,
Seymour "Swede" Levov, WHS1945

Had anyone else asked if he could talk to me about a tribute he was writing to his father, I would have wished him luck and kept my nose out of it. But there were compelling reasons for my getting off a note to the Swede—within the hour—to say that I was at his disposal. The first was Swede Levov wants to meet me. Ridiculously, perhaps, at the onset of old age, I had only to see his signature at the foot of the letter to be swamped by memories of him, both on and off the field, that were some fifty years old and yet still captivating. I remembered going up every day to the playing field to watch football practice the year that the Swede first agreed to join the team. He was already a highscoring hookshot artist on the basketball court, but no one knew he could be just as magical on the football field until the coach pressed him into duty as an end and our losing team, though still at the bottom of the city league, was putting up one, two, even three touchdowns a game, all scored on passes to the Swede. Fifty or sixty kids gathered along the sidelines at practice to watch the Swede—in a battered leather helmet and the brown jersey numbered, in orange, 11—working out with the varsity against the JVs. The varsity quarterback, Lefty Leventhal, ran pass play after pass play (“Le-ven-thalto Le-vov! Le-ven-thalto Le-vov!” was an anapest that could always get us going back in the heyday of the Swede), and the task of the JV squad, playing defense, was to stop Swede Levov from scoring every time. I'm over sixty, not exactly someone with the outlook on life that he'd had as a boy, and yet the boy's beguilement has never wholly evaporated, for to this day I haven't forgotten the Swede, after being smothered by tacklers, climbing slowly to his feet, shaking himself off, casting an upward, remonstrative glance at the darkening fall sky, sighing rue


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fully, and then trotting undamaged back to the huddle. When he scored, that was one kind of glory, and when he got tackled and piled on hard, and just stood up and shook it off, that was another kind of glory, even in a scrimmage.
And then one day I shared in that glory. I was ten, never before touched by greatness, and would have been as beneath the Swede's attention as anyone else along the sidelines had it not been for Jerry Levov. Jerry had recently taken me on board as a friend; though I was hard put to believe it, the Swede must have noticed me around their house. And so late on a fall afternoon in 1943, when he got slammed to the ground by the whole of the JV team after catching a short Leventhal bullet and the coach abruptly blew the whistle signaling that was it for the day, the Swede, tentatively flexing an elbow while half running and half limping off the field, spotted me among the other kids, and called over, "Basketball was never like this, Skip."
The god (himself all of sixteen) had carried me up into athletes' heaven. The adored had acknowledged the adoring. Of course, with athletes as with movie idols, each worshiper imagines that he or she has a secret, personal link, but this was one forged openly by the most unostentatious of stars and before a hushed congregation of competitive kids—an amazing experience, and I was thrilled. I blushed, I was thrilled, I probably thought of nothing else for the rest of the week. The mock jock self-pity, the manly generosity, the princely graciousness, the athlete's self-pleasure so abundant that a portion can be freely given to the crowd—this munificence not only overwhelmed me and wafted through me because it had come wrapped in my nickname but became fixed in my mind as an embodiment of something grander even than his talent for sports: the talent for "being himself," the capacity to be this strange engulfing force and yet to have a voice and a smile unsullied by even a flicker of superiority—the natural modesty of someone for whom there were no obstacles, who appeared never to have to struggle to clear a space for himself. I don't imagine I'm the only grown man who was a Jewish kid aspiring to be an all-American kid during


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the patriotic war years—when our entire neighborhood's wartime hope seemed to converge in the marvelous body of the Swede— who's carried with him through life recollections of this gifted boy's unsurpassable style.
The Jewishness that he wore so lightly as one of the tall, blond athletic winners must have spoken to us too—in our idolizing the Swede and his unconscious oneness with America, I suppose there was a tinge of shame and self-rejection. Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighborhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns. Where was the Jew in him? You couldn't find it and yet you knew it was there. Where was the irrationality in him? Where was the crybaby in him? Where were the wayward temptations? No guile. No artifice. No mischief. all that he had eliminated to achieve his perfection. No striving, no ambivalence, no doubleness—just the style, the natural physical refinement of a star.
Only … what did he do for subjectivity? What was the Swede's subjectivity? There had to be a substratum, but its composition was unimaginable.
That was the second reason I answered his letter—the substratum. What sort of mental existence had been his? What, if anything, had ever threatened to destabilize the Swede's trajectory? No one gets through unmarked by brooding, grief, confusion, and loss. Even those who had it all as kids sooner or later get the average share of misery, if not sometimes more. There had to have been consciousness and there had to have been blight. Yet I could not picture the form taken by either, could not desimplify him even now: in the residuum of adolescent imagination I was still convinced that for the Swede it had to have been painfree all the way.
But what had he been alluding to in that careful, courteous letter


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when, speaking of the late father, a man not as thick-skinned as people thought, he wrote, "Not everyone knew how much he suffered because of the shocks that befell his loved ones"? No, the Swede had suffered a shock. And it was suffering the shock that he wanted to talk about. It wasn't the father's life, it was his own that he wanted revealed.
I was wrong.
We met at an Italian restaurant in the West Forties where the Swede had for years been taking his family whenever they came over to New York for a Broadway show or to watch the Knicks at the Garden, and I understood right off that I wasn't going to get anywhere near the substratum. Everybody at Vincent's knew him by name—Vincent himself, Vincent's wife, Louie the maître d', Carlo the bartender, Billy our waiter, everybody knew Mr. Levov and everybody asked after the missus and the boys. It turned out that when his parents were alive he used to bring them to celebrate an anniversary or a birthday at Vincent's. No, I thought, he's invited me here to reveal only that he is as admired on West 49th Street as he was on Chancelier Avenue.
Vincent's is one of those oldish Italian restaurants tucked into the midtown West Side streets between Madison Square Garden and the Plaza, small restaurants three tables wide and four chandeliers deep, with decor and menus that have changed hardly at all since before arugula was discovered. There was a ballgame on the TV set by the small bar, and a customer every once in a while would get up, go look for a minute, ask the bartender the score, ask how Mattingly was doing, and head back to his meal. The chairs were upholstered in electric-turquoise plastic, the floor was tiled in speckled salmon, one wall was mirrored, the chandeliers were fake brass, and for decoration there was a five-foot-tall bright red pepper grinder standing in one corner like a Giacometti (a gift, said the Swede, to Vincent from his hometown in Italy); counterbalancing it in the opposite corner, on a stand like statuary, stood a stout jeroboam of Barolo. A table piled with jars of Vincent's Marinara


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Sauce was just across from the bowl of free after-dinner mints beside Mrs. Vincent's register; on the dessert cart was the napoleon, the tiramisù, the layer cake, the apple tart, and the sugared strawberries; and behind our table, on the wall, were the autographed photographs ("Best regards to Vincent and Anne") of Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Namath, Liza Minelli, Kaye Ballard, Gene Kelly, Jack Carter, Phil Rizzuto, and Johnny and Joanna Carson. There should have been one of the Swede, of course, and there would have been if we were still fighting the Germans and the Japanese and across the street were Weequahic High.
Our waiter, Billy, a small, heavyset bald man with a boxer's flattened nose, didn't have to ask what the Swede wanted to eat. For over thirty years the Swede had been ordering from Billy the house specialty, ziti à la Vincent, preceded by clams posillipo. "Best baked ziti in New York," the Swede told me, but I ordered my own old-fashioned favorite, the chicken cacciatore, "off the bone" at Billy's suggestion. While writing up our order, Billy told the Swede that Tony Bennett had been in the evening before. For a man with Billy's compact build, a man you might have imagined lugging around a weightier burden all his life than a plate of ziti, Billy's voice—high-pitched and intense, taut from some distress too long endured—was unexpected and a real treat. "See where your friend is sitting? See his chair, Mr. Levov? Tony Bennett sat in that chair." To me he said, "You know what Tony Bennett says when people come up to his table and introduce themselves to him? He says, 'Nice to see you.' And you're in his seat."
That ended the entertainment. It was work from there on out.
He had brought photographs of his three boys to show me, and from the appetizer through to dessert virtually all conversation was about eighteen-year-old Chris, sixteen-year-old Steve, and fourteen-year-old Kent. Which boy was better at lacrosse than at baseball but was being pressured by a coach … which was as good at soccer as at football but couldn't decide … which was the diving champion who had also broken school records in butterfly and


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backstroke. All three were hardworking students, A's and B's; one was "into" the sciences, another was more "community-minded," while the third … etc. There was one photograph of the boys with their mother, a good-looking fortyish blonde, advertising manager for a Morris County weekly. But she hadn't begun her career, the Swede was quick to add, until their youngest had entered second grade. The boys were lucky to have a mom who still put staying at home and raising kids ahead of…
I was impressed, as the meal wore on, by how assured he seemed of everything commonplace he said, and how everything he said was suffused by his good nature. I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he bas instead of a being, I thought, is blandness—the guy's radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him. Several times during the meal I didn't think I was going to make it, didn't think I'd get to dessert if he was going to keep praising his family and praising his family … until I began to wonder if it wasn't that he was incognito but that he was mad.
Something was on top of him that had called a halt to him. Something had turned him into a human platitude. Something had warned him: You must not run counter to anything.
The Swede, some six or seven years my senior, was close to seventy, and yet he was no less splendid-looking for the crevices at the corners of his eyes and, beneath the promontory of cheekbones, a little more hollowing out than classic standards of ruggedness required. I chalked up the gauntness to a regimen of serious jogging or tennis, until near the end of the meal I found out that he'd had prostate surgery during the winter and was only beginning to regain the weight he'd lost. I don't know if it was learning that he'd suffered an affliction or his confessing to one that most surprised rne. I even wondered if it might not be his recent experience of the surgery and its aftereffects that was feeding my sense of someone who was not mentally sound.
At one point I interrupted and, trying not to appear in any way


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desperate, asked about the business, what it was like these days running a factory in Newark. That's how I discovered that Newark Maid hadn't been in Newark since the early seventies. Virtually the whole industry had moved offshore: the unions had made it more and more difficult for a manufacturer to make any money, you could hardly find people to do that kind of piecework anymore, or to do it the way you wanted it done, and elsewhere there was an availability of workers who could be trained nearly to the standards that had obtained in the glove industry forty and fifty years ago. His family had kept their operation going in Newark for quite a long time; out of duty to longstanding employees, most of whom were black, the Swede had hung on for some six years after the '67 riots, held on in the face of industry-wide economic realities and his father's imprecations as long as he possibly could, but when he was unable to stop the erosion of the workmanship, which had deteriorated steadily since the riots, he'd given up, managing to get out more or less unharmed by the city's collapse. all the Newark Maid factory had suffered in the four days of rioting were some broken Windows, though fifty yards from the gate to his loading dock, out on West Market, two other buildings had been gutted by fire and abandoned.
"Taxes, corruption, and race. My old man's litany. Anybody at all, people from all over the country who couldn't care less about the fate of Newark, made no difference to him—whether it was down in Miami Beach at the condo, on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, they'd get an earful about his beloved old Newark, butchered to death by taxes, corruption, and race. My father was one of those Prince Street guys who loved that city all his life. What happened to Newark broke his heart.
"It's the worst city in the world, Skip," the Swede was telling me. "Used to be the city where they manufactured everything. Now it’s the car-theft capital of the world. Did you know that? Not the most gruesome of the gruesome developments but it's awful enough. The thieves live mostly in our old neighborhood. Black kids. Forty cars stolen in Newark every twenty-four hours. That's the statistic.


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Something, isn't it? And they're murder weapons— once they're stolen, they're flying missiles. The target is anybody in the street, old people, toddlers, doesn't matter. Out in front of our factory was the Indianapolis Speedway to them. That's another reason we left. Four, five kids drooping out the Windows, eighty miles an hour— right on Central Avenue. When my father bought the factory, there were trolley cars on Central Avenue. Further down were the auto showrooms. Central Cadillac. LaSalle. There was a factory where somebody was making something in every side street. Now there's a liquor store in every street — a liquor store, a pizza stand, and a seedy storefront church. Everything else in ruins or boarded up. But when my father bought the factory, a stone's throw away Kiler made watercoolers, Fortgang made fire alarms, Lasky made corsets, Robbins made pillows, Honig made pen points — Christ, I sound like my father. But he was right — The joint's jumpin',' he used to say. The major industry now is car theft. Sit at a light in Newark, anywhere in Newark, and all you're doing is looking around you. Bergen near Lyons is where I got rammed. Remember Henry's, 'the Sweet Shop,' next to the Park Theater? Well, right there, where Henry's used to be. Took my first high school date to Henry's for a soda. In a booth there. Arlene Danziger. Took her for a black-and-white soda after the movie. But a black-and-white doesn't mean a soda anymore on Bergen Street. It means the worst kind of hatred in the world. A car coming the wrong way on a one-way street and they ram me. Four kids drooping out the Windows. Two of them get out, laughing, joking, and point a gun at my head. I hand over the keys and one of them takes off in my car. Right in front of what used to be Henry's. It's something horrible. They ram cop cars !" in broad daylight. Front-end collisions. To explode the air bags. Doughnuting. Heard of doughnuting? Doing doughnuts? You haven't heard about this? This is what they steal the cars for. Top speed, they slam on the brakes, yank the emergency brake, twist the steering wheel, and the car starts spinning. Wheeling the car in circles at tremendous speeds. Killing pedestrians means nothing to them. Killing motorists means nothing to them. Killing themselves


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means nothing to them. The skid marks are enough to frighten you. They killed a woman right out in front of our place, same week my car was stolen. Doing a doughnut. I witnessed this. I was leaving for the day. Tremendous speed. The car groaning. Ungodly screeching. It was terrifying. It made my blood run cold. Just driving her own car out of 2nd Street, and this woman, young black woman, gets it. Mother of three kids. Two days later it's one of my own employees. A black guy. But they don't care, black, white doesn't matter to them. They'll kill anyone. Fellow named Clark Tyler, my shipping guy—ail he's doing is pulling out of our lot to go home. Twelve hours of surgery, four months in a hospital. Permanent disability. Head injuries, internal injuries, broken pelvis, broken shoulder, fractured spine. A high-speed chase, crazy kid in a stolen car and the cops are chasing him, and the kid plows right into him, crushes the driver's side door, and that's it for Clark. Eighty miles an hour down Central Avenue. The car thief is twelve years old. To see over the wheel he has to roll up the floor mats to sit on. Six months in Jamesburg and he's back behind the wheel of another stolen car. No, that was it for me, too. My car's robbed at gunpoint, they cripple Clark, the woman gets killed—that week did it. That was enough."
Newark Maid manufactured now exclusively in Puerto Rico. For a while, after leaving Newark, he'd contracted with the Communist government in Czechoslovakia and divided the work between his own factory in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and a Czech glove factory in Brno. However, when a plant that suited him went up for sale in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, over near Mayagùez, he'd bailed out on the Czechs, whose bureaucracy had been irritating from the start, and unified his manufacturing operation by purchasing a second Puerto Rico facility, another good-sized factory, moved in the machinery, started a training program, and hired an additional three hundred people. By the eighties, though, even Puerto Rico began to grow expensive and about everybody but Newark Maid fled to wherever in the Far East the labor force was abundant and cheap, to the Philippines first, then Korea and Taiwan, and now to China.


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Even baseball gloves, the most American glove of ail, which used to be made by friends of his father's, the Denkerts up in Johnstown, New York, for a long time now had been manufactured in Korea. When the first guy left Gloversville, New York, in '52 or '53 and went to the Philippines to make gloves, they laughed at him, as though he were going to the moon. But when he died, around 1978, he had a factory there with four thousand workers and the whole industry had gone essentially from Gloversville to the Philippines. Up in Gloversville, when the Second World War began, there must have been ninety glove factories, big and small. Today there isn't a one—ail of them out of business or importers from abroad, "people who don't know a fourchette from a thumb," the Swede said. "They're business people, they know if they need a hundred thousand pair of this and two hundred thousand pair of that in so many colors and so many sizes, but they don't know the details on how to get it done." "What's a fourchette?" I asked. "The part of the glove between the fingers. Those small oblong pieces be-tween the fingers, they're die-cut along with the thumbs—those are the fourchettes. Today you've got a lot of underqualified people, probably don't know half what I knew when I was five, and they're making some pretty big decisions. A guy buying deerskin, which can run up to maybe three dollars and fifty cents a foot for a garment grade, he's buying this fine garment-grade deerskin to cut a little palm patch to go on a pair of ski gloves. I talked to him just the other day. A novelty part, runs about five inches by one inch, and he pays three fifty a foot where he could have paid a dollar fifty a foot and come out a long, long ways ahead. You multiply this over a large order, you're talking a hundred-thousand-dollar mistake, and he never knew it. He could have put a hundred grand in his pocket."
The Swede found himself hanging on in P.R., he explained, the way he had hung on in Newark, in large part because he had trained a lot of good people to do the intricate work of making a glove carefully and meticulously, people who could give him what Newark Maid had demanded in quality going back to his father's


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days; but also, he had to admit, staying on because his family so much enjoyed the vacation home he'd built some fifteen years ago on the Caribbean coast, not very far from the Ponce plant. The life the kids lived there they just loved … and off he went again, Kent, Chris, Steve, waterskiing, sailing, scuba diving, catamaraning … and though it was clear from all he had just been telling me that this guy could be engaging if he wanted to be, he didn't appear to have any judgment at all as to what was and wasn't interesting about his world. Or, for reasons I couldn't understand, he didn't want his world to be interesting. I would have given anything to get him back to Kiler, Fortgang, Lasky, Robbins, and Honig, back to the fourchettes and the details of how to get a good glove done, even back to the guy who'd paid three fifty a foot for the wrong grade of deerskin for a novelty part, but once he was off and running there was no civil way I could find to shift his focus for a second time from the achievements of his boys on land and sea.
While we waited for dessert, the Swede let pass that he was indulging himself in a fattening zabaglione on top of the ziti only because, after having had his prostate removed a couple of months back, he was still some ten pounds underweight.
"The operation went okay?"
"Just fine," he replied.
"A couple friends of mine," I said, "didn't emerge from that surgery as they'd hoped to. That operation can be a real catastrophe for a man, even if they get the cancer out."
"Yes, that happens, I know."
"One wound up impotent," I said. "The other's impotent and incontinent. Fellows my age. It's been rough for them. Desolating. It can leave you in diapers."
The person I had referred to as "the other" was me. I'd had the surgery in Boston, and—except for confiding in a Boston friend who had helped me through the ordeal till I was back on my feet—when I returned to the house where I live alone, two and a half hours west of Boston, in the Berkshires, I had thought it best to


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keep to myself both the fact that I'd had cancer and the ways it had left me impaired.
"Well," said the Swede, "I got off easy, I guess."
"I'd say you did," I replied amiably enough, thinking that this big jeroboam of self-contentment really was in possession of all he ever had wanted. To respect everything one is supposed to respect; to protest nothing; never to be inconvenienced by self-distrust; never to be enmeshed in obsession, tortured by incapacity, poisoned by resentment, driven by anger … life just unraveling for the Swede like a fluffy bail of yarn.
This line of thinking brought me back to his letter, his request for professional advice about the tribute to his father that he was trying to write. I wasn't myself going to bring up the tribute, and yet the puzzle remained not only as to why he didn't but as to why, if he didn't, he had written me about it in the first place. I could only conclude—given what I now knew of this life neither overly rich in contrasts nor troubled too much by contradiction—that the letter and ils contents had to do with the operation, with something uncharacteristic that arose in him afterward, some surprising new emotion that had come to the fore. Yes, I thought, the letter grew out of Swede Levov's belated discovery of what it means to be not healthy but sick, to be not strong but weak; what it means to not look great—what physical shame is, what humiliation is, what the gruesome is, what extinction is, what it is like to ask "Why?" Betrayed all at once by a wonderful body that had furnished him only with assurance and had constituted the bulk of his advantage over others, he had momentarily lost his equilibrium and had clutched at me, of all people, as a means of grasping his dead father and calling up the father's power to protect him. For a moment his nerve was shattered, and this man who, as far as I could tell, used himself mainly to conceal himself had been transformed into an impulsive, devitalized being in dire need of a blessing. Death had burst into the dream of his life (as, for the second time in ten years, it had burst into mine), and the things that disquiet men our age disquieted even him.


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I wondered if he was willing any longer to recall the sickbed vulnerability that had made certain inevitabilities as real for him as the exterior of his family's life, to remember the shadow that had insinuated itself like a virulent icing between the layers and layers of contentment. Yet he'd showed up for our dinner date. Did that mean the unendurable wasn't blotted out, the safeguards weren't back in place, the emergency wasn't yet over? Or was showing up and going blithely on about everything that was endurable his way of purging the last of his fears? The more I thought about this simple-seeming soul sitting across from me eating zabaglione and exuding sincerity, the farther from him my thinking carried me. The man within the man was scarcely perceptible to me. I could not make sense of him. I couldn't imagine him at ail, having come down with my own strain of the Swede's disorder: the inability to draw conclusions about anything but exteriors. Rooting around trying to figure this guy out is ridiculous, I told myself. This is the jar you cannot open. This guy cannot be cracked by thinking. That's the mystery of his mystery. It's like trying to get something out of Michelangelo's David.
I'd given him my number in my letter—why hadn't he called to break the date if he was no longer deformed by the prospect of death? Once it was all back to how it had always been, once he'd recovered that special luminosity that had never failed to win whatever he wanted, what use did he have for me? No, his letter, I thought, cannot be the whole story—if it were, he wouldn't have come. Something remains of the rash urge to change things. Something that overtook him in the hospital is still there. An unexamined existence no longer serves his needs. He wants something recorded. That's why he's turned to me: to record what might otherwise be forgotten. Omitted and forgotten. What could it be?
Or maybe he was just a happy man. Happy people exist too. Why shouldn't they? all the scattershot speculation about the Swede's motives was only my professional impatience, my trying to imbue Swede Levov with something like the tendentious meaning Tolstoy assigned to Ivan Ilych, so belittled by the author in the uncharitable


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story in which he sets out to heartlessly expose, in clinical terms, what it is to be ordinary. Ivan Ilych is the well-placed highcourt official who leads "a decorous life approved of by society" and who on his deathbed, in the depths of his unceasing agony and terror, thinks, '"Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done.'" Ivan Ilych's life, writes Tolstoy, summarizing, right at the outset, his judgment of the presiding judge with the delightful St. Petersburg house and a handsome salary of three thousand rubles a year and friends all of good social position, had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. Maybe so. Maybe in Russia in 1886. But in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, in 1995, when the Ivan Ilyches come trooping back to lunch at the clubhouse after their morning round of golf and start to crow, "It doesn't get any better than this," they may be a lot closer to the truth than Leo Tolstoy ever was.
Swede Levov's life, for all I knew, had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain. "Is Jerry gay?" I suddenly asked. "My brother?" The Swede laughed. "You're kidding." Maybe I was and had asked the question out of mischief, to alleviate the boredom. Yet I did happen to be remembering that line the Swede had written me about how much his father "suffered because of the shocks that befell his loved ones," which led me to wondering again what he'd been alluding to, which spontaneously reminded me of the humiliation Jerry had brought upon himself in our junior year of high school when he attempted to win the heart of a strikingly unexceptional girl in our class who you wouldn't have thought required a production to get her to kiss you.
As a Valentine present, Jerry made a coat for her out of hamster skins, a hundred and seventy-five hamster skins that he cured in the sun and then sewed together with a curved sewing needle pilfered from his father's factory, where the idea dawned on him. The high school biology department had been given a gift of some three hundred hamsters for the purpose of dissection, and Jerry diligently finagled to collect the skins from the biology students; his oddness and his genius made credible the story he told about "a


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scientific experiment" he was conducting at home. He finagled next to find out the girl's height, he designed a pattern, and then, after he got most of the stink out of the hides—or thought he had—by drying them in the sun on the roof of his garage, he meticulously sewed the skins together, finishing the coat off with a silk lining made out of a section of a white parachute, an imperfect parachute his brother had sent home to him as a memento from the marine air base in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where the Parris Island team won the last game of the season for the Marine Corps baseball championship. The only person Jerry told about the coat was me, the Ping-Pong stooge. He was going to send it to the girl in a Bamberger's coat box of his mother's, wrapped in lavender tissue paper and tied with velvet ribbon. But when the coat was finished, it was so stiff—because of the idiotic way he'd dried the skins, his father would later explain—that he couldn't get it to fold up in the box.
Across from the Swede in Vincent's restaurant, I suddenly recalled seeing it in the basement: this big thing sitting on the floor with sleeves. Today, I was thinking, it would win all kinds of prizes at the Whitney Museum, but back in Newark in 1949 nobody knew dick about what great art was and Jerry and I racked our brains trying to figure out what he could do to get the coat into the box. He was set on that box because she would think, when she began to open it, that it contained an expensive coat from Bam's. I was thinking of what she would think when she saw that wasn't what it contained; I was thinking that surely it didn't take such hard work to gain the attention of a chubby girl with bad skin and no boyfriend. But I cooperated with Jerry because he had a cyclonic personality you either fled or yielded to and because he was Swede Levov's brother and I was in Swede Levov's house and everywhere you looked were Swede Levov's trophies. Eventually Jerry tore the entire coat apart and re-sewed it so that the stitching lay straight across the chest, creating a hinge of sorts where the coat could be bent and placed in the box. I helped him—it was like sewing a suit of armor. Atop the coat he placed a heart that he cut out of card


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board and painted his name on in Gothic letters, and the package was sent parcel post. It had taken him three months to transform an improbable idea into nutty reality. Brief by human standards.
She screamed when she opened the box. "She had a fit," her girlfriends said. Jerry's father also had a fit. "This is what you do with the parachute your brother sent you? You cut it up? You cut up a parachute?" Jerry was too humiliated to tell him that it was to get the girl to fall into his arms and kiss him the way Lana Turner kissed Clark Gable. I happened to be there when his father went after him for curing the skins in the midday sun. "A skin must be preserved properly. Properly! And properly is not in the sun—you must dry a skin in the shade. You don't want them sunburned, damn it! Can I teach you once and for all, Jerome, how to preserve a skin?" And that he proceeded to do, in a boil at first, barely able to contain his frustration with his own son's ineptitude as a leather worker, explaining to both of us what they had taught the traders to do to the sheepskins in Ethiopia before they shipped them to Newark Maid to be contracted out to the tanner. "You can salt it, but salt's expensive. Especially in Africa, very, very expensive. And they steal the salt there. These people don't have salt. You have to put poison into the salt over there so they won't steal it. Other way is to pack the skin up, various ways, either on a board or on a frame, you tie it, and make little cuts, tie it up and dry it in the shade. In the shade, boys. That's what we call flint-dried skin. Sprinkle a little flint on it, keeps it from deteriorating, prevents the bugs from entering—" Much to my own relief, the outrage had given way surprisingly fast to a patient, if tedious, pedagogical assault, which seemed to gall Jerry even more than being blown down by his father's huffing and puffing. It could well have been that very day when Jerry swore to himself never to go near his father's business.
To deal with malodorous skins, Jerry had doused the coat with his mother's perfume, but by the time the coat was delivered by the postman it had begun to stink as it had intermittently all along, and the girl was so revolted when she opened the box, so insulted and


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horrified, that she never spoke to Jerry again. According to the other girls, she thought he had gone out and hunted and killed all those tiny beasts and then sent them to her because of her blemished skin. Jerry was in a rage when he got the news and, in the midst of our next Ping-Pong game, cursed her and called all girls fucking idiots. If he hadn't before had the courage to ask anyone out on a date, he never tried after that and was one of only three boys who didn't show up at the senior prom. The other two were what we identified as "sissies." And that was why I now asked the Swede a question about Jerry that I would never have dreamed of asking in 1949, when I had no clear idea what a homosexual was and couldn't imagine that anybody I knew could be one. At the time I thought Jerry was Jerry, a genius, with obsessive naïveté and colossal innocence about girls. In those days, that explained it all. Maybe it still does. But I was really looking to see what, if anything, could roil the innocence of this regal Swede—and to prevent myself from being so rude as to fall asleep on him—so I asked him, "Is Jerry gay?"
"As a kid there was always something secretive about Jerry," I said. "There were never any girls, never close friends, always something about him, even besides his brains, that set him apart…."
The Swede nodded, looking at me as though he understood my deeper meaning as no human being ever had before, and because of this probing stare that I would swear saw nothing, all this giving that gave nothing and gave away nothing, I had no idea where his thoughts might be or if he even had "thoughts." When, momentarily, I stopped speaking, I sensed that my words, rather than falling into the net of the other person's awareness, got linked up with nothing in his brain, went in there and vanished. Something about the harmless eyes—the promise they made that he could never do anything other than what was right—was becoming annoying to me, which has to be why I next brought up his letter instead of keeping my mouth shut until the bill came and I could get away from him for another fifty years so that when 2045 rolled around I might actually look forward to seeing him again.


(35)
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.
"When you wrote me about your father, and the shocks he'd suffered, it occurred to me that maybe Jerry had been the shock. Your old man wouldn't have been any better than mine at coming to grips with a queer son."


(36)
The Swede smiled the smile that refused to be superior, that was meant to reassure me that nothing in him ever could or would want to resist me, that signaled to me that, adored as he was, he was no better than me, even perhaps a bit of a nobody beside me. "Well, fortunately for my father, he didn't have to. Jerry was the-son-the-doctor. He couldn't have been prouder of anyone than he was of Jerry."
"Jerry's a physician?"
"In Miami. Cardiac surgeon. Million bucks a year." "Married? Jerry married?"
The smile again. The vulnerability in that smile was the surprising element—the vulnerability of our record-breaking muscleman faced with all the crudeness it takes to stay alive. The smile's refusal to recognize, let alone to sanction in himself, the savage obstinacy that seven decades of surviving requires of a man. As though anyone over ten believes you can subjugate with a smile, even one that kind and warm, all the things that are out to get you, with a smile hold it all together when the strong arm of the unforeseen comes crashing down on your head. Once again I began to think that he might be mentally unsound, that this smile could perhaps be an indication of derangement. There was no shame in it—and that was the worst of it. The smile wasn't insincere. He wasn't imitating anything. This caricature was it, arrived at spontaneously after a lifetime of working himself deeper and deeper into… what? The idea of himself neighborhood stardom had wreathed him in— had that mummified the Swede as a boy forever? It was as though he had abolished from his world everything that didn't suit him— not only deceit, violence, mockery, and ruthlessness but anything remotely coarse-grained, any threat of contingency, that dreadful harbinger of helplessness. Not for a second did he stop trying to make his relation to me appear as simple and sincere as his seeming relationship to himself.
Unless, unless, he was just a mature man, as devious as the next mature man. Unless what was awakened by the cancer surgery—


(37)
and what had momentarily managed to penetrate a lifelong comfy take on things—the hundred percent recovery had all but extinguished. Unless he was not a character with no character to reveal but a character with none that he wished to reveal—just a sensible man who understands that if you regard highly your privacy and the wellbeing of your loved ones, the last person to take into your confidence is a working novelist. Give the novelist, instead of your life story, the brazen refusal of the gorgeous smile, blast him with the stun gun of your prince-of-blandness smile, then polish off the zabaglione and get the hell back to Old Rimrock, New Jersey, where your life is your business and not his.
"Jerry's been married four times," said the Swede, smiling. "Family record."
"And you?" I had already figured, from the ages of his three boys, that the fortyish blonde with the golf clubs was more than likely a second wife and perhaps a third. Yet divorce didn't fit my picture of someone who so refused to register life's irrational element. If there had been a divorce, it had to have been initiated by Miss New Jersey. Or she had died. Or being married to someone who had to keep the achievement looking perfect, someone devoted heart and soul to the illusion of stability, had led her to suicide. Maybe that was the shock that had befallen … Perversely, my attempts to come up with the missing piece that would make the Swede whole and coherent kept identifying him with disorders of which there was no trace on his beautifully aging paragon's face. I could not decide if that blankness of his was like snow covering something or snow covering nothing.
"Me? Two wives, that's my limit. I'm a piker next to my brother. His new one's in her thirties. Half his age. Jerry's the doctor who marries the nurse. All four, nurses. They revere the ground Dr. Levov walks on. Four wives, six kids. That drove my dad a little nuts. But Jerry's a big guy, a gruff guy, the high-and-mighty prima donna surgeon—got a whole hospital by the short hairs—and so my dad fell in line. Had to. Would have lost him otherwise.


(38)
My kid brother doesn't screw around. Dad kicked and screamed through each divorce, wanted to shoot Jerry a hundred times over, but as soon as Jerry remarried, the new wife, in my father s eyes, was more of a princess than the wife before. 'She's a doll, she's a sweetheart, she's my girl…' Anybody said anything about any of Jerry's wives, my father would have murdered him. Jerry's kids he outright adored. Five girls, one boy. My dad loved the boy, but the girls, they were the apple of his eye. There's nothing he wouldn't do for those kids. For any of our kids. When he had everybody around him, all of us, all the kids, my old man was in heaven. Ninety-six and never sick a day in his life. After the stroke, for the six months before he died, that was the worst. But he had a good run. Had a good life. A real fighter. A force of nature. Unstoppable guy." A light, floating tone to the words when he goes off on the subject of his father, the voice resonant with amorous reverence, disclosing unashamedly that nothing had permeated more of his life than his father's expectations. "The suffering?"
"Could have been a lot worse," the Swede said. "Just the six months, and even then he didn't know half the time what was going on. He just slipped away one night… and we lost him."
By "suffering" I had meant that suffering he had referred to in his letter, provoked in his father by the shocks "that befell his loved ones." But even if I had thought to bring his letter with me and had rattled it in his face, the Swede would have eluded his own writing as effortlessly as he'd shaken off his tacklers on that Saturday fifty years before, at City Stadium, against South Side, our weakest rival, and set a state record by scoring four times on consecutive pass plays. Of course, I thought, of course—my urge to discover a substratum, my continuing suspicion that more was there than what I was looking at, aroused in him the fear that I might go ahead and tell him that he wasn't what he wanted us to believe he was… But then I thought, Why bestow on him all this thinking? Why the appetite to know this guy? Ravenous because once upon a time he


(39)
said to you and to you alone, "Basketball was never like this, Skip"? Why clutch at him? What's the matter with you? There's nothing here but what you're looking at. He's all about being looked at. He always was. He is not faking all this virginity. You're craving depths that don't exist. This guy is the embodiment of nothing.
I was wrong. Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.