Authors: David Eddie
was born in Boston in 1961, and has lived in the Philippines, England, Hungary, and Canada. He is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and has worked as a reporter for the
East Hampton Star
, letters correspondent for
magazine, a TV newswriter for the CBC, and as a film extra. He has written for several publications, including
Saturday Night, Toronto Life, Books in Canada
. He is currently a weekly columnist for
magazine and a book critic for Global TV. He lives in Toronto.
“I am always content with that which happens;
for I think that what God chooses is far
better than what I choose.”
It’s funny how life works — much more subtle and complex than it would be if designed by our poor brains. I thought writing a book would get me women: who knew that I would meet the woman of my dreams just as I was starting out, and that it would be impossible to write this book without her moral and financial support, and gentle — yet firm — editorial guidance? That woman became my wife, and this book is dedicated to her.
I couldn’t have done it without Doug Pepper, either, my excellent editor and beloved friend. I don’t think even if I were to spend my lifetime studying to be a warlock I could cook up a better editor in my basement cauldron. Over the years, he’s not only helped and encouraged me with the writing, but he’s also fed me excellent meals, ice-cold Gibsons, and fine wines.
I would also like to thank Carl Knutson, who has been there for me and with me since the beginning; Linda Frum, my first and ideal reader; Leslie Lester, who put me up when I had nowhere to go; Patrick Dickenson, who has bought me such a volume of drinks over the years I think by now you could blow up a rubber raft and float around on it; my parents, for all they’ve had to put up with over the years; and to everyone at Random House and Knopf for befriending this giant, lumbering, 225-lb waif and making me feel at home while I used your computers. And to anyone who ever lent me money, invited me to their party, gave me a job or even just offered a kind word of encouragement, thanks, and sorry about everything.
I am a failure.
Don’t get me wrong, I say this without bitterness, without self-hatred, without irony. Also without pride, in case you’re wondering about
. I state it as a fact merely, without editorial comment. It happens, that’s my attitude. Nature tosses out all kinds of variants and crazy experiments to try their luck in the planetary battle for survival. Some succeed, some fail. The ones who fail die off or, at least, become bachelors-for-life, their branch of the evolutionary tree withers and dies, and they are never heard from again. The ones who succeed, on the other hand, establish an ecological niche dropping out of trees on unsuspecting birds, snaring fish in their poisonous tendrils, or, in the case of our own species, practising law. They feather their nests and pass the genetic torch off to healthy, robust offspring.
What’s the secret of their success? In other words, what’s the secret of success on planet Earth?
It is the ability to adapt.
And I have failed to adapt; to my milieu, to my culture, and most of all, to my century. Everything about this century frightens me. World wars, nuclear weapons, concentration camps, global warming, desertification, the hole in the ozone layer, the Internet, Madonna, computers, credit cards. Sometimes I wish I’d been born in an earlier, simpler time. Of course, I wouldn’t
want to go too far back, to the Middle Ages, say, when everyone’s hair was alive with lice and they died at 30 and had sex with all their clothes on. No, I’d only want to go back 100 years or so, to late 19th-century England. That sounds like my kind of time and place, with its gas lamps, horse-drawn hansoms, twice-daily mail service. Naturally, I’d have to have been born into a wealthy, titled family. Oh, yes, that goes without saying. The poor had it rough in the 19th century, and the only serfing I ever want to do is high atop a gnarly wave off the coast of Cali or Oahu, not in a loincloth, following an ox down a furrow on some feudal estate, shagging my ass back to the lean-to and my little serfin’ girl.
“Lord Davington.” “Lord Davington of Fleet.” That has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Your morning coffee, Lord Davington. Why thank you, Cheevers, just set it on the settee. Oh, and Cheevers? Yes, m’Lud? Will you set out my punting clothes? I have a date on the Cam this aft with the Countess Veuve-Cliquot.
But those are just pipe dreams, cloudy figments in the crystal ball of my imagination. It’ll never happen, not to me anyway.
I had such high hopes for myself, too, growing up. Wanted to be a writer and all that. After remaining an inordinate amount of time in school — getting not one but two Master’s degrees in an orgy of academic overkill, leaving my old man practically in a barrel — I finally emerged at age 27, heavily in debt, and headed to Manhattan to realize my grandiose dreams of literary superstardom.
My plan was simple. Shack up with my grad-school sweetheart Ruth, get a job, write on the side, and through a combination of luck, talent, and personal charm, soar straight to the top of the literary heap. I gave myself two, three years tops;
after that, I would be toasted, I would be fêted, I would ride everywhere in a limousine, starlet on either side of me, laughing and spilling champagne as we rode through the bumpy streets of the West Village on our way to the latest club or black-tie-only gala. On a typical day, dawn would find me half-asleep in a fountain, still in my tux, a half-full bottle of champagne bobbing in the water at my elbow, a smile playing on my lips. By noon I’d be brunching with my publisher in some chic uptown restaurant, discussing international rights and screenplay options. At dusk, I’d collect my tux from the cleaners, and begin the whole round of celebrity-crammed parties all over again.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. In Manhattan, I was burned, but never toasted; I was fetid, but never fêted. I didn’t realize my dreams there, but life was dreamlike. Wandering alone in a mob of strangers, pursued by some nameless dread, suddenly someone surges out of the crowd brandishing a pair of shoes, a fork, a piece of cheese on the end of a stick.
What do you want?
you want to ask, but no words emerge from your lips. Later, you wake up in a cold sweat and realize: Oh, I see. He wanted to
that to me.
Like Madonna, I got off the bus at Times Square with about $50 in my pocket, big ambitions, and no talent or marketable skills. Unlike Madonna, though, I didn’t become one of the most famous people in the world. Instead, I sank like a stone straight to the bottom of society.
My third day in the city I got a job at
magazine, in the letters department. Writing letters back to people who write in to the magazine, according to the card on the journalism school job-board. Well, I can handle that, I thought. It’s not getting published, but at least it’s practice. In those days I
looked at everything in terms of how my future biographers would view it, and this seemed like a good fit: “Upon arriving in Manhattan, David Henry took a lowly job as a letter-writer for
magazine. Little did anyone realize that during these years he would develop the epistolary style for which he would later become so famous.”
The card on the job-board also said the job title was “Letters Correspondent,” but that wasn’t quite true, either. I’ll never forget my first day. A little wall-eyed elf named Donna — a ten-year
veteran — is showing me the ropes, taking me over to see the various points of interest, including the largest bank of filing cabinets I’ve ever seen. There must be 500 drawers.
“Damn, that’s a lot of filing cabinets,” I say.
“Yes,” she says thoughtfully, almost to herself. “There’s quite a bit of filing on the job, more than most of us would like to admit, really. Hence the ‘clerk’ in the title, I guess.”
“Clerk? What do you mean?”
“That’s your job title, didn’t you know? Letters clerk.”
So it’s come to this, I thought. After all my teen cheese-dreams of champagne-soaked limo rides and cocaine-dusted parties, this is the reality: I am a clerk. I may even have muttered it to myself to see how it sounded: “I am a clerk.”
Oh, well, I said to myself. I won’t stay long at this job. Just a few weeks, until I get on my feet.
I stayed nearly a year and a half.
The job didn’t have much to do with writing letters, either. Even in that humble expectation I was cruelly deceived. There were twelve of us in the letters department, all with advanced degrees, all sitting in two rows of desks in a room on the seventh floor of the world-famous
building on Madison
Avenue, and what we mostly did all day was type addresses on postcards.
gets about 1,000 letters a week, from all over the world. A few VIPs — former astronauts, congresspersons, presidents of large countries or corporations — received personalized replies to their letters, drafted by one of us, the letters clerks, edited and approved by Madeleine Edmonds, the letters editor. People with unusual comments or requests received one of
‘s dizzying array of form letters, designed to cover almost any occasion, from requests for information to racist rants to letters written only in heiroglyphs to requests for money (and you’d be surprised how many of these there were, mostly from deluded Third World students who thought
would pay their tuition and book costs). These were filed alphanumerically in one of the cabinets along the wall.
But by far the vast bulk of our mail, general comments from the general population, received in reply a special preprinted postcard, called a “CU” for some reason lost in the mists of time. Our job was to check the return address on the reader’s letter, type it on the CU, put the CU in the “out” basket and file the reader’s letter.