A Writer’s Story

Have you ever said two words to Saul Bellow? we asked Brent Staples.

“Hmmm,” said Staples. “Once at a reading at New York University I guess I passed close to him. He probably didn’t even hear me. I said ‘I enjoyed it.’ I guess it was about two words. If he heard me.”

In the late 1970s, while Staples was earning a PhD at the University of Chicago, he amused himself on his frequent walks about Hyde Park by spooking the white folk whose knees knock at the sight of tall young black men–Staples called the game Scatter the Pigeons. Most of all, he wanted to scare Bellow. “I wanted to trophy his fear,” is how Staples puts it in his new book, which explains why.

Staples had discovered Bellow’s books in Hyde Park. He was awed by the way Bellow reduced his characters “to a single bodily feature that carried their entire person in its wake.” But if the character was black, such as the pickpocket in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, that feature might be a penis. In Humboldt’s Gift, “a black man steps out of the shadows and, with no motive, slits a white woman’s throat.”

Then someone gave him Bellow’s first novel. Dangling Man was written in 1944 as the journal of a disconnected Hyde Parker waiting to be drafted. Staples felt the very same anomie. The book showed him himself, and he began keeping his own journal. These notes led first to a series of essays written for the Reader between ’79 and ’83. Then the Sun-Times hired him. Ten years ago this month his younger brother Blake, a drug dealer, was shot to death in Virginia. Driven even further into the contemplation of his life, Staples started in on the memoir just published by Pantheon as Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.

In it Staples admits to standing nights outside Bellow’s apartment building on Dorchester, waving at what he imagined to be Bellows window but also hoping to corner him coming home. “The game,” he writes, “was to wait for chance to place me squarely between the tower and him. That way he’d have to face me in the dark.”

The moment never came. He did see Bellow one afternoon in a crowd outside a bank. “He moved through the crowd looking downward, hungrily scanning asses, hips, and crotches. This was how he did it. The rest of us were a junkyard where he foraged for parts.” Years later he realized that what he’d wanted from Bellow went far beyond fear. “I wanted to steal the essence of him, to absorb it right into my bones.”

And after a fashion he thinks he did. “In the terms of my style of writing, the copycat things you do as a writer, they’re all from Saul Bellow,” Staples told us. “He’s the principal technical influence on my work. I got his ass dead fixed.

“I came to Chicago searching, man. I came searching for a kind of identity as a writer, as a person. If you’re in the woods and it begins to snow, you build a shelter out of what you can. And what I took from him, and quite consciously, was that distance. Or maybe I had that distance and his way of talking about it was the way for me. But I despised what he said about black people.”

Have you worked out your feelings about Bellow? we asked.

“I’ll never work that out,” Staples said. “One thing Freud said was ambivalence is the truest emotion.”

He has simpler problems with the things fashionable black writers write about blacks. “Unfortunately, the publishing industry and the news media to a large extent have developed a category they call the ‘black experience,'” he told us, “and the black experience has to do with anger, poverty, criminality, or some other deviant behavior. We’re just sort of getting around to fleshed-out human beings.”

Today Staples is an editorial writer for the New York Times. Last Sunday he published there an essay on a theme close to his heart, “the rhetoric of victimhood.” He framed his argument in terms of the Menendez brothers, but on his mind is the claim to victimhood made by the voices of the black experience. “To my credit,” he told us, “I wore out very early on the race tirade thing. Everything being a long disquisition on ‘I’ve been rebuked and scorned’ is not where I’m at.”

Staples came to Chicago from Chester, Pennsylvania, an industrial town. He grew up in a large, distressed family among blacks, Poles, and Ukrainians. His father drove a truck. Nobody else in his family went to college.

“This book is an American story of a boy and his family,” he insists, and so it is. It’s the story of a boy who by luck and destiny becomes a writer; its models were memoirs by white writers: The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. For long stretches before Hyde Park Staples’s blackness is so irrelevant to his book that it disappears. We told Staples his childhood reminded us of our own, even though in its broadest strokes there’s no resemblance whatsoever. But he captures the child’s sense of everything as phenomena, and the outsider’s sense of everything as being beyond glass.

Staples gave his landlady a copy of Parallel Time to read, and afterward he found her weeping. “She thinks it’s a very sad thing,” he told us. “She said, ‘I looked at you as a child watching people and taking in all these details about them and asking yourself what do you think about that.'”

“And naively, I said to her, ‘Doesn’t everybody do that?’ And she said, ‘Well, no, everybody doesn’t do that.'”

A Photographer’s Job

Last March Sun-Times photographer Bob Black was fired for what management called a “gross breach of trust”–the frequent personal use of the company’s Federal Express account. Last week a mediator’s Solomonic ruling allowed both sides to claim vindication. They promptly did.

A jubilant memo posted on the Newspaper Guild’s bulletin board announced that Black would rejoin the payroll. It recalled he’d been “improperly fired [in] a move that outraged the staff and the city’s black community.” The memo said arbitrator Elliot Beitner agreed with the guild that dismissal was too severe a penalty, but “did throw the company one bone. . . . He did not order back pay for Bob, who had received severance pay.”

Editor Dennis Britton responded on a management-controlled bulletin board. Calling the guild’s announcement “narrowly focused and limited,” he acknowledged that Beitner found dismissal too harsh a punishment. But “the arbitrator said we didn’t have much choice,” Britton declared, the only alternative to dismissal allowed by the guild contract being a mere written reprimand. “In essence,” wrote Britton, “the arbitrator has imposed on Mr. Black a suspension without pay or benefits beginning March 8, 1993 . . . . We’re satisfied.”

Britton’s memo also cited Beitner’s observation, “I find absolutely no evidence of discriminatory conduct by the company.”

We asked Black what he thought about Beitner’s ruling. “I think he was trying to be evenhanded and fair-minded,” Black said.

Was he? we wondered.

“Yeah, I think he was,” Black said.

Lincicome in Lillehammer

“This place might not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here if you are outside during the 17 minutes of official daylight. . . . This is a drab, gray, 40-watt place that looks like a baby spat up his milk all over everything.” The Tribune’s Bernie Lincicome from Lillehammer, February 11.

“There being no persuasive reason to have even one Winter Olympics every four years, the world now is offered two in two.” Lincicome, February 13.

“Godalmighty, did he think they hold the Winter Olympics in Bermuda?” Tribune mole.

And then the following exchange of cables came into our possession:

Chief, just arrived. Everything bleak and depressing. Checked into Olav Arms and so to bed. Lint

Lint, trust things looked better in morning. Need piece local color, folklore. Let it sing. Chief

Chief, no local color, folklore. All is gray, gloomy. Breakfast inedible. Went back to bed. Lint

Lint, no interest at Chicago World’s Greatest in your breakfast. Suggest Witt-Tomba update. Countries now allies, romance a go? Chief

Chief, lunch inedible. Can’t get warm. Fucking sun goes down at 2 PM. Lint

Lint, no interest at Greatest your lunch. Need update women’s figure skating. Work in Henie-Hitler angle. Chief

Chief, dinner inedible. Some kind of glutinous cod. Can offer 500 words on McSalmon burgers at local McDonald. Lint

Lint, no interest here McSalmon burgers. What about music of region? Dances? Beadwork? Urgent need any copy winter games. Get a grip. Chief

Chief, haunting dreariness. Sky color of lutefisk. Can’t locate laundry. Going back to bed. Lint

Lint, no sympathy your haunting dreariness. Chicago also cold and gray. Get out of goddarn hotel and go to work. Need soonest, light look at Norwegian-Swedish rivalry. Stress Bosnia-Serb parallel. Chief

Chief, incapable light look anything. Spirit broken by snow, cold, gloom. Lint

Lint, snow, cold, gloom the usual at winter games. For Christ sake, be a man. Chief

Chief, sending 500 words on pickled reindeer hooves, local delicacy. Urgent you Fed Ex pizza, ribs. Lint

Lint, your Donder essay spiked. Opposition singlehandedly filing five useful stories daily. World’s Greatest being humiliated. Forget pizza, ribs. Chief

Chief, no sun four days now. North wind, baying dogs. Unable to function. Fed Ex Prozac. Lint

Lint, pack bags. Report Sarajevo ASAP. Foreign desk sez urgent need combat coverage. Chief

Chief, sun finally broke through. Lunch with Liv Ullmann. Rejuvenated. Working exclusive tip linking Gillooly camp and Scream caper in Oslo. Located laundry. Peace. Lint

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linda Rosier.