THE BOMBSHELL By Edmund Jonah
Sunday, October 07, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
The trials of a writer who thinks he's God's Gift to the world.
His first novel earned him a good sum of money which, invested, would havegiven him a decent second income.But success made him pompous and he put down the bulk of his earnings on a villa on the south coast of France, not far from mine.He filled it with tasteless furniture and hung vulgar nudes by some unknown painter who, by no stretch of imagination, could be called an artist.He fancied he had made a great discovery.
His father and I had been drawn together at school by our common interest in the arts.He was three years older at an age when years are important and I looked up to his superior intellect.Later, when I made my name as an author of some repute and he was the head clerk of a large manufacturing company, I realized his had been a sterile love of the arts.At the age of forty-seven, virtually penniless, he died of a heart attack.
His son, Frederick Thomas Peter Langley, as was the pretentious appellation on the jacket of his book, had been influenced by his father's enthusiasm.At an early age, he had devoured the classics and would argue precociously with me on the merits and demerits of Dickens, Thackeray and Sir Walter Scott.He propounded his opinions with confidence so vigorous, it would brook no contradiction.Frankly, he was a brat.
He had just finished his schooling when his father died.His father's firm took young Frederick on and he spent the next ten years with them, rising to a respectable position.The emotional struggle of the years immediately following his father's demise was described with surprising poignancy in Freddy's first novel.The poetic prose captured, with a sensitivity I did not know he possessed, the pitiless forces that had laden the young man with responsibilities heavy enough to bow the backs of men twice as mature.Because of its better than moderate success, he felt a dangerous sense of security which made him leave his job to devote the rest of his life to his art.
He had married a nondescript young woman who bore him a third son a year after the publication of his book.Every time I met them, (and I did keep in touch out of a sense of loyalty to his father) I was impressed with her facility to fade away virtually before one's eyes.One simply ceased to notice her presence.
Freddy recounted to me his final interview with the Managing Director of the firm.
“The ass!” he pronounced with considerable vigour.“As if I would continue working when I have so many worlds to conquer.”
“Perhaps you were a bit precipitate, Freddy,” said I, assuming the parental attitude I had adopted over the years.“After all, it was an excellent position and to chuck it for the proverbial birds in the bush...”
“Oh, uncle!” he interrupted.The nomenclature was a familiarity I would have loved to discourage.“My head is teeming with ideas I haven't enough time to set down.I shall not waste it in an office I loathe, among Philistines and crass bores.”He flicked an invisible speck of dust off the leg of his immaculate trousers.“I am a writer.I have always known it and I shall write great things.”
I said nothing.
“I have always wanted to be rich,” he mused.“My agent tells me a Hollywood studio has made a bid for the film rights.They will probably make a hash of it but who cares if the money's right.I've got my eye on a property here and I dare say we shall soon be neighbours, uncle.”
I smiled painfully.
When the Langleys installed themselves at the villa, I was forced to see them more than I cared to.Freddy's wife - her name always eluded me - sent messages inviting me to dine.I refused as often as was polite for, not only was Freddy's company irksome, I found it beyond bearing to sit surrounded by those impossible nudes.
I was therefore, thankful to receive a letter from my publishers in New York urging me to fly over for the launching of my new novel. Although it was only September, I decided to remain on for the winter theatre season.Imagine my surprise when one December night, on answering a ring at my apartment door, I found Freddy standing there looking very cross.He was holding a thick manuscript.
“Hello, uncle,” he said and entered without a by-your-leave.
“What are you doing here, Freddy?” I asked.
He divested himself of his topcoat and helped himself to a drink of my best Scotch whiskey at the bar, where he deposited the manuscript.“Those fools!” he exclaimed.“Asinine boors!”He took a quick gulp, downing the neat whisky he had poured.“They can't recognize a bestseller staring them in the face!”
I winced at his mode of expression.He downed a second drink and poured a third.“I've decided to find myself another agent here in New York but, before I submit the manuscript, I'd appreciate your opinion and any suggestions you may have.”
I knew, of course, Freddy had no use for my suggestions and certainly did not expect criticism from me.All he wanted was confirmation of his genius.I had no intention of reading the manuscript but I asked him where I could get in touch with him when I had completed it.He had finished his third drink and was pouring a fourth.He named a Fifth Avenue hotel.
“By the way,” I asked, “who's minding the villa?”
“Oh, that?” said he off-handedly.“Sold it.”His tongue was thick.“Too big, you know.White elephant.”
He swallowed the whisky, set the glass down with exaggerated deliberateness, picked up the manuscript and moved unsteadily toward the front door.I handed him his topcoat.
“Goodnight, uncle,” he said.The intimacy jarred.“Sorry I can't stay.”Reverently he placed the heavy manuscript in my arms.“You'll find you're holding a bombshell!”
And he let himself out.
Poor Freddy!His first novel was sustained by an inner fire.Its unexpectedly romantic style and rhythmic sentences counter-pointed the bitterness of the content.This new work, which I skimmed through, was dull and lustreless, the prose bombastic, the sentences so long that the reader had to pause for breath.Success had poured cold water on his passion.I put it aside for a week, then telephoned him at his hotel.When he called round to pick up the manuscript, I murmured some tactful words, permitted him a few drinks and got rid of him with an excuse.
It was impossible to avoid him entirely while he and his wife stayed in New York.On one occasion, at a restaurant to which I took them, Freddy was expounding as usual about his extraordinary talents and I was tactfully nodding at the appropriate pauses in his monologue when I distinctly heard the word: “Bosh!” We both turned in amazement to his wife, who had been drinking quietly and steadily.“Bosh!” she repeated and followed it with a hiccup. “Freddy doesn't know how to write.He has damn ... Ooops!Polite society! v.. very good ideas ... and dis'pline -- but he doesn't know when to end his sensentes ... er ... sentences.”
“You're drunk,” said Freddy disgustedly and took her home.
I was amused to observe how Dutch courage had made this colourless individual venture to burst her lord and master's bubble.
Almost a year later, Freddy again presented himself unannounced on the doorstep of my New York apartment. I could scarcely believe the change in him.He had lost considerable weight.His face was gaunt and his eyes feverishly bright.His clothes, under the shabby topcoat, were frayed and none too clean. They hung loosely and had the appearance of cast-offs. However, he still carried himself erect, his pride undimmed.In his hand, he held another manuscript.Walking straight to the bar, he poured himself a large whisky and downed it immediately.“That,” he said, “was to knock the chill out of my bones. I can't stand the beastly cold.How are you, uncle?”He proceeded to pour himself another.
“What has happened to you, Freddy?” I was genuinely distressed.For answer, he went into a paroxysm of coughing that wracked his thin body.“Whatever have you done to yourself?” I cried.I brought some cold chicken, salad and potatoes from the refrigerator and insisted he eat, refusing to accept his denials that he was hungry.Once he had taken the first tentative mouthfuls, he wolfed down a goodly amount, careless of his manners.Later he said: “I don't understand it, uncle. They can't be reading my work.How else can they return my manuscripts so fast?Here's my latest novel.Read it.I tell you it's a bombshell!Then call my agent, Charley Stevens, and let him know what you think of it.”
I wrote down the telephone number he gave me.He rose to leave. As I handed him his topcoat, I slipped a hundred dollar bill into the pocket.
The book lay unread on my desk for over a month.I wondered what had become of Freddy.He had said he would be in touch, refusing to give me his address.I suspected he had no telephone.I dialled the number of his agent, Charley Stevens.
“I'm a friend of Freddy Langley's.”
“Didn't know he had any.”
“I wonder if you know where I can find him,” I asked.
“The last address I have is somewhere near the Bowery. Hold on.”
He called it out and I jotted it down.I decided to give Freddy until the weekend.
Saturday morning dawned, bleak and cheerless as a funeral.Even at , when I rose, the light was that of continuing dawn.The sky was black with threatening clouds.An hour later, when I went out to the taxi, a stiff breeze bit through my heavy clothing.I gave the driver the address and, in half-an-hour, I stepped out in a most depressing neighbourhood. Crumbling old houses with peeling plaster and hazardous steps; garbage cans everywhere, overflowing with refuse and littering the sidewalks, torn posters disfiguring walls and billboards.Only a few bedraggled women, muffled and pulling rickety shopping carts, braved the freezing weather.
I found Freddy in a basement room.Barred, narrow windows below street level offered little light and scant protection.The glass panes were shattered and the window frames covered with newspaper.Gingerly I made my way down the broken steps.Slivers of glass lay strewn in the little alley leading to the front door.His eldest son answered my knock.Freddy lay on a bed by the wall in a corner of the room, breathing laboriously.He was shivering under threadbare blankets over which his old topcoat was spread.His wife sat on a cane chair by his side, mopping his brow.The three boys huddled silent on a dirty mattress on the floor.The freezing draught rattled the newspapers over the windows.The room was an icebox.His wife stood up."Oh, thank you so much for coming.How did you find us?"
"Charley Stevens," I said and added, "Freddy's agent," but she seemed to know at once to whom I was referring.She stood aside and let me take her place.Freddy turned his eyes to me.They stared brilliantly out of sunken sockets.
“You fool, Freddy!” I said, touching his burning forehead.“Let me send for an ambulance?”
He appeared not to hear for his eyes remained fixed upon me for a full minute.Then slowly, he drew his wasted arm from under the covers and caught me by the lapel of my coat, pulling me toward him with surprising strength.
“Promise me, uncle,” he whispered with hoarse intensity, “promise you'll get my book published.It's ... a bombshell!”
“I promise,” I said.Well, what else could I say?
Six months after Freddy died, I found the forgotten manuscript at the back of a drawer in my desk.I sent it to my publisher with a note apologizing for asking him to have a look at it.I was amazed when he published it so I read it.It was a novel written from the gates of hell.The uncharacteristic sensitivity was again apparent and it made me weep.It was a cry of despair from a dying man.The fire was back.It sold an unlimited number of copies in a dozen languages.It grossed over a million pounds; it was a bombshell!
My publisher gave me the new address where I would find Freddy's wife.She had moved to an apartment close to the United Nations Plaza.She answered the door at my ring.She was wearing a smart black and white tailored dress and one could see she had taken pains over her appearance.The result was very fetching and, for an instant, I thought I had mistaken the apartment.She greeted me enthusiastically and with unusual self-possession.
“I am delighted to see you,” she said, taking my hand. “At last I have the opportunity to thank you.Without your recommendation, the publisher would not have glanced at Freddy's book.”
I mumbled something suitable, feeling most uncomfortable for having treated the manuscript so cavalierly.I was also ill at ease with the new Mrs. Langley.I still could not recall her name and it was suddenly very important I should.
“Do sit down,” she said indicating the sofa.“The boys are at school and that leaves us time to chat.I'll put the coffee on - or would you prefer something stronger?”
“I seem to have come at an inconvenient hour,” I said.
She followed my glance to the typewriter, alongside which sheaves of papers lay on an open writing desk. “Oh, that's all right,” she said.“I can do that at any time.”She spoke with a hint of mischief, as if she were laughing up her sleeve.After a slight pause, she said: “I don't see why you shouldn't know,” and led me to the desk.
“Why, that's one of Freddy's manuscripts!” I exclaimed.“What are you doing with it?”
“Re-writing it,” she answered coolly.“The publishers asked me to send along some of Freddy's old material.Well, you know how terrible Freddy's prose is, so I put him off.Do you know, there and then, he offered me better terms.He thought I was about to auction off Freddy's manuscripts to the highest bidder.”
She laughed.I was too shocked to appreciate the humour in the situation.“What you are doing is unethical and illegal,” I said.“It's blatant fraud.”
“Fraud?”She tilted her head questioningly, looking terribly innocent.“Fraud?”
“It's Freddy's work they want,” I said, “not a rehash by you.”
She smiled at me.A strange look, akin to contempt, gleamed in her eyes.“No,” she said.“It isn't Freddy's work they want.Freddy's bombshell - as he so ridiculously called it - had been returned several times before I convinced him to let me work on it. I reminded him the corrected prose of his first novel contributed to its success.His stubborn pride prevented him from letting me edit his subsequent manuscripts.He needed to prove he could do it on his own.This last time he was too sick to argue or resist, but I gave him my solemn word no one would ever know.He was dying.I couldn't take that from him.”
I was looking at her for the first time.She gave me a bright smile.I tried desperately to recall her name.
“I knew I'd succeeded with his last book but the publishers refused to read anything of Freddy's.I had to convince him to approach you again.I'm afraid I told him he was worth ten of you before he worked up the courage.You see, I knew you would help him.”
Linking her arm through mine, she led me to the sofa and sat me down beside her.“Freddy's left me a wonderful legacy,” she said roguishly.“Six unpublished novels and numerous short stories.They'll all be bombshells!”
“What is your name?”
I had asked it before I knew I was going to. She laughed.She laughed delightfully, showing a set of beautiful teeth.
“Leslie,” she said.“And we're going to be great friends, aren't we... uncle?”