Of course, as soon as I knew that Adam Langer was the son of the secretary of the Northwestern University School of Speech (back when it WAS the School of Speech instead of Communications), I knew that “The Thieves of Manhattan” would be interesting (dull people did not last long in the School of Speech) but I wondered why he wasn’t an NU grad. Then I read that he graduated from Vassar after Vasser turned co-ed and realized this was a guy full of irony, jokes and, well, acting. Because those of us who hung around the School of Speech were all actors, even the ones who did speech therapy or lip-reading. The time-warp is a little gappy -- I was there 1957-61 and Langer was born in 1967 which is a little past the real Golden Era of Alvina Krause and the Method -- but that just makes the whole syndrome more shimmering and mythical.
I did go back to Chicago, you know, on the other side of town, attending a little seminary 1978-82 but secretly intending to write. I would go into the book stacks of the library where the steel and concrete floors and racks of ancient books rested quietly, waiting for something to happen, and sit cross-legged in the Gothic stone windows that went up four stories. Because to write a book like this one Langer wrote (which I haven’t and don’t intend to, though maybe I could) and also to write the way I blog, one needs some kind of big T Truth to hold onto while all the little t truths go swirling around. Even if the big T turns out not to be a golden crucifix as it is in this book.
This is one of those stories in which the real life author pretends to be someone a lot like him who is writing a book a lot like this one which is about someone a lot like him who is . . . Maybe this is supposed to be about hoaxing but it’s really about the modern dilemma: we know too much and don’t believe a single thing.
For instance, do you really believe I sat cross-legged on the floor in the windows of the seminary late at night, pondering what big T truth is? Each of the students had a key to the library at that point in history and I treasured mine. I turned forty while I was at seminary so when I woke restlessly at 3AM, I’d go across the street and enter as quietly as I could. Sometimes I’d run into my professor/advisor in the hallway, his breath smelling of wine and his mood very cheerful. I was on the watch for Mircea Eliade, whose office was on the top floor. Usually you could smell his pipe, which set his office on fire once. No one was surprised -- the place was stacked with paper and books.
Most of the time I didn’t even turn on the lights, but sometimes I did so I could look for a book. The seminary did not advertise the fact that an MD sexologist had bequeathed his entire library of sex books. Book checkout was on the honor system -- you put your name on the card and dropped it in the box. We all read the entire sex collection, even the wives of students, but none of our names ever appeared on those cards. The books were conscientiously and quietly returned. They made “The Tales of Genji” sound pale. Most of them were full of lies, stereotypes and politically incorrect assumptions.
Then late one night fire engines pulled up in the street and hoses were attached and I seemed to be the only one who realized so I ran over in my bare feet with my key just in time to let the firemen in. They had one of those big axes ready to smash the beautiful wooden door. The fire was in the basement of the library. It was set to cover the theft of all those books on sex -- or maybe someone paid someone to remove them and set the fire -- and I helped put out the fire by striking the ancient burning newspapers with my bare hands. I had worked in a foundry when I was married to a sculptor so I knew how to do it without being burned. The fire was never solved.
The worst part of it was that then they took all our library keys away from us. But it doesn’t matter anymore because now the seminary is selling out anyway.
How much of this is true? Oh, I’d say the proportion was about 80/20. Maybe 90/10. Which is which? I won’t tell. Langer won’t know. I told him I used to babysit for an editor of Rogue magazine in Evanston and he told me that his mother ran into that guy in the street -- she knows him. What’s true here? I only know my half.
That’s the way it always is. We get part of the story, pick out what rings true to our own experience, might be right -- might not. I have strong opinions about this since after I resigned from the ministry and came back to the Blackfeet reservation I struck up a friendship with a brilliant pornographer and now co-write books with him. There are references to him in this blog. Believe that?
But on the whole this is not the sort of book that will tell you who’s in and who’s out, who’s real and who’s phony, which books to buy and which to ignore. It’s all framing and circumstances and things change faster than you can woolf through your day. It IS the sort of book that has to have a glossary in the back so that those of us who don’t hang out in Manhattan, don’t know anything about the publishing industry (which is nothing but a crater now anyway), and can’t get the inside author references will have some hope of understanding what’s going on.
Believe me, a “capote” in Manhattan may be the kind of hat Truman wore, but where I live a “capote” is a coat made out of a Hudson’s Bay blanket and worn by early Blackfeet. Just over the line in Canada, the writers don’t dare each other to write a satire on hoaxing that plays in-and-out the windows with the narrative. Instead, one day -- after imbibing a lot of faulkners -- they bet some daisies that Marian Engel couldn’t write a novel in which a woman convincingly did the chinaski with a bear. She won the bet. In fact, IMHO “The Bear” is more convincing than “The Thieves of Manhattan.” But the latter is more fun.