Authors: John Irving
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary
For Richard Gladstein
“. . . a person who is looking for something doesn’t travel very fast.”
—the telephone repairman in E. B. White’s
1. The Lion Guy
2. The Former Midfielder
3. Before Meeting Mrs. Clausen
4. A Japanese Interlude
5. An Accident on Super Bowl Sunday
6. The Strings Attached
7. The Twinge
8. Rejection and Success
9. Wallingford Meets a Fellow Traveler
10. Trying to Get Fired
11. Up North
12. Lambeau Field
The Lion Guy
MAGINE A YOUNG MANon his way to a less-than-thirty-second event—the loss of his left hand, long before he reached middle age.
As a schoolboy, he was a promising student, a fair-minded and likable kid, without being terribly original. Those classmates who could remember the future hand recipient from his elementary-school days would never have described him as daring. Later, in high school, his success with girls notwithstanding, he was rarely a bold boy, certainly not a reckless one. While he was irrefutably goodlooking, what his former girlfriends would recal as most appealing about him was that he deferred to them.
Throughout col ege, no one would have predicted that fame was his destiny. “He was so unchal enging,” an ex-girlfriend said.
Another young woman, who’d known him briefly in graduate school, agreed. “He didn’t have the confidence of someone who was going to do anything special” was how she put it.
He wore a perpetual but dismaying smile—the look of someone who knows he’s met you before but can’t recal the exact occasion. He might have been in the act of guessing whether the previous meeting was at a funeral or in a brothel, which would explain why, in his smile, there was an unsettling combination of grief and embarrassment.
He’d had an affair with his thesis adviser; she was either a reflection of or a reason for his lack of direction as a graduate student. Later—she was a divorcée with a nearly grown daughter—she would assert: “You could never rely on someone that good-looking. He was also a classic underachiever—he wasn’t as hopeless as you first thought.
You wanted to help him. You wanted to change him. You
wanted to have sex with him.”
In her eyes, there would suddenly be a kind of light that hadn’t been there; it arrived and departed like a change of color at the day’s end, as if there were no distance too great for this light to travel. In noting “his vulnerability to scorn,” she emphasized “how touching that was.”
But what about his decision to undergo hand-transplant surgery? Wouldn’t only an adventurer or an idealist run the risk necessary to acquire a new hand? No one who knew him would ever say he was an adventurer or an idealist, but surely he’d been idealistic once. When he was a boy, he must have had dreams; even if his goals were private, unexpressed, he’d had goals. His thesis adviser, who was comfortable in the role of expert, attached some significance to the loss of his parents when he was stil a col ege student. But his parents had amply provided for him; in spite of their deaths, he was financial y secure. He could have stayed in col ege until he had tenure—he could have gone to graduate school for the rest of his life. Yet, although he’d always been a successful student, he never struck any of his teachers as exceptional y motivated. He was not an initiator—he just took what was offered.
He had al the earmarks of someone who would come to terms with the loss of a hand by making the best of his limitations. Everyone who knew him had him pegged as a guy who would eventual y be content one-handed. Besides, he was a television journalist. For what he did, wasn’t one hand enough? But he believed a new hand was what he wanted, and he’d alertly understood everything that could go medical y wrong with the transplant. What he failed to realize explained why he had never before been much of an experimenter; he lacked the imagination to entertain the disquieting idea that the new hand would not be entirely his.
After al , it had been someone else’s hand to begin with.
How fitting that he was a television journalist. Most television journalists are pretty smart—in the sense of being mental y quick, of having an instinct to cut to the chase. There’s no procrastination on TV. A guy who decides to have handtransplant surgery doesn’t dither around, does he? Anyway, his name was Patrick Wal ingford and he would, without hesitation, have traded his fame for a new left hand. At the time of the accident, Patrick was moving up in the world of television journalism.
He’d worked for two of the three major networks, where he repeatedly complained about the evil influence of ratings on the news. How many times had it happened that some CEO more familiar with the men’s room than the control room made a “marketing decision”
that compromised a story? (In Wal ingford’s opinion, the news executives had completely caved in to the marketing mavens.)
To put it plainly, Patrick believed that the networks’ financial expectations of their news divisions were kil ing the news.
Why should news shows be expected to make as much money as what the networks cal ed entertainment? Why should there be any pressure on a news division even to make a profit? News wasn’t what happened in Hol ywood; news wasn’t the World Series or the Super Bowl. News (by which Wal ingford meant
news—that is, in-depth coverage) shouldn’t have to compete for ratings with comedies or so-cal ed dramas. Patrick Wal ingford was stil working for one of the major networks when the Berlin Wal fel in November 1989. Patrick was thril ed to be in Germany on such a historic occasion, but the pieces he filed from Berlin were continual y edited down—sometimes to half the length he felt they deserved. A CEO in the New York newsroom said to Wal ingford: “Any news in the foreign-policy category is worth shit.”
When this same network’s overseas bureaus began closing, Patrick made the move that other TV journalists have made. He went to work for an al -news network; it was not a very good network, but at least it was a twenty-four-hour international news channel.
Was Wal ingford naïve enough to think that an al -news network wouldn’t keep an eye on
ratings? In fact, the international channel was overfond of minute-byminute ratings that could pinpoint when the attention of the television audience waxed or waned.
Yet there was cautious consensus among Wal ingford’s col eagues in the media that he seemed destined to be an anchor. He was inarguably handsome—the sharp features of his face were perfect for television—and he’d paid his dues as a field reporter. Funnily enough, the enmity of Wal ingford’s wife was chief among his costs.
She was his ex-wife now. He blamed the travel, but his then-wife’s assertion was that other women were the problem. In truth, Patrick
drawn to first-time sexual encounters, and he would remain drawn to them, whether he traveled or not. Just prior to Patrick’s accident, there’d been a paternity suit against him. Although the case was dismissed—a DNA test was negative—the mere al egation of his paternity raised the rancor of Wal ingford’s wife.
Beyond her then-husband’s flagrant infidelity, she had an additional reason to be upset. Although she’d long wanted to have children, Patrick had steadfastly refused. (Again he blamed the travel.)
Now Wal ingford’s ex-wife—her name was Marilyn—was wont to say that she wished her ex-husband had lost more than his left hand. She’d quickly remarried, had got pregnant, had had a child; then she’d divorced again.
Marilyn would also say that the pain of childbirth—
notwithstanding how long she’d looked forward to having a child—was greater than the pain Patrick had experienced in losing his left hand.
Patrick Wal ingford was not an angry man; a usual y even-tempered disposition was as much his trademark as his drop-dead good looks. Yet the pain of losing his left hand was Wal ingford’s most fiercely guarded possession. It infuriated him that his ex-wife trivialized his pain by declaring it less than hers in “merely,” as he was wont to say, giving birth.
Nor was Wal ingford always even-tempered in response to his ex-wife’s proclamation that he was an addicted womanizer. In Patrick’s opinion, he had never womanized.
This meant that Wal ingford didn’t seduce women; he simply al owed himself to be seduced. He never cal ed them—they cal ed him. He was the boy equivalent of the girl who couldn’t say no—emphasis, his ex-wife would say, on
(Patrick had been in his late twenties, going on thirty, when his thenwife divorced him, but, according to Marilyn, he was permanently a boy.) The anchor chair, for which he’d seemed destined, stil eluded him. And after the accident, Wal ingford’s prospects dimmed. Some CEO
cited “the squeamish factor.” Who wants to watch their morning or their evening news telecast by some loser-victim type who’s had his hand chomped off by a hungry lion? It may have been a less-than-thirty-second event—the entire story ran only three minutes—but no one with a television set had missed it. For a couple of weeks, it was on the tube repeatedly, worldwide.
Wal ingford was in India. His al -news network, which, because of its penchant for the catastrophic, was often referred to by the snobs in the media elite as
“Disaster International,” or the “calamity channel,” had sent him to the site of an Indian circus in Gujarat. (No sensible news network would have sent a field reporter from New York to a circus in India.)
The Great Ganesh Circus was performing in Junagadh, and one of their trapeze artists, a young woman, had fal en.
She was renowned for “flying”—as the work of such aerialists is cal ed—without a safety net, and while she was not kil ed in the fal , which was from a height of eighty feet, her husband/trainer had been kil ed when he attempted to catch her. Although her plummeting body kil ed him, he managed to break her fal .
The Indian government instantly declared no more flying without a net, and the Great Ganesh, among other smal circuses in India, protested the ruling. For years, a certain government minister—an overzealous animal-rights activist
—had been trying to ban the use of animals in Indian circuses, and for this reason the circuses were sensitive to government interference of any kind. Besides—as the excitable ringmaster of the Great Ganesh Circus told Patrick Wal ingford, on-camera—the audiences packed the tent every afternoon and night
the trapeze artists didn’t use a net.