The last thing I had heard about the lawyer Michael Rips, he was going back to Omaha to run for Congress. That seemed improbable. Mr. Rips has the politician’s ability to make you feel like the center of the universe, but he was too sophisticated to want to hang out with farmers. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel and dropped notes on Italian stationery. His friends were people like the artist David Salle and investment banker Bob Scully.
Then, earlier this year, a friend said that Mr. Rips had dropped the political ambition and instead gone to live in a small Italian town for a while. Now he was coming out with a book about the place. I smiled respectfully. I’d sat at the other end of a dinner table from Mr. Rips now and then, and felt sure that his book would be charming but slight.
Just the same, the idea of a lawyer taking up a pen at 45 was intriguing, and when Mr. Rips sent me Pasquale’s Nose in the mail I threw it in my bag and took it to the airport, figuring I could leave it on the plane after a few pages.
When I opened the book, I was stunned. It was exquisite, far deeper than its charm. After 30 pages, I told myself Rips couldn’t keep the stunt up. After 150, I thought, “Well where is he going to take this?” The ending was merely flabbergasting.
Mr. Rips’ prose was fine, mad and laced with history and philosophy. And while Little, Brown was marketing him as following in the steps of Peter Mayle, he seemed to be tracking Borges.
Here he describes a local man’s method of skinning a porcupine:
“[A] sharpened knife is held with both hands directly in front of the skinner’s body. Approaching the porcupine with the knife held out, taking care to walk slowly and deliberately, the skinner shifts his concentration to one of the bald patches on the feet. As soon as the porcupine is within reach, the knife is plunged into the patch …. The incision done, the knife is set aside, and the skinner begins to fill his lungs. His lungs filled with as much air as possible, the skinner bends over the porcupine and wraps his lips around the hole. Making certain that his lips are tightly sealed on the porcupine (the blood from the hole should be spit out), the skinner’s lungs are expelled into the interior of the animal. Repeating this three or four times-inhaling and then releasing air into the hole-causes the skin and quills of the porcupine to drop off the meat. The rest is easy.”
Mr. Rips’ Nebraska sister-in-law, Jane Rips, sums the book up well: “If I didn’t know Michael, I’d put this book down and say, ‘This guy is crazy, and I’ll buy the next thing he writes.’”
I called Mr. Rips and confessed that I had always found him to be elusive, but I needed to know where this prodigy came from. We arranged to meet at Bottino, an art bar on 10th Avenue.
When I came in, he got up from the banquette and politely gave it to me before taking the chair. A fine-boned man with a mess of black curls and a manner at once grave and mischievous, he wore an oatmeal-colored suit and cap-toed shoes.
It turned out that he had been writing since high school, in journals.
“The journals developed because I never thought of myself as a writer,” he said. “In fact, I thought I couldn’t write. I never thought I could actually write clearly, and I became acutely embarrassed by this. So there was, at a very early age, an alienation from the idea of writing or reading.”
I said that most writers I knew had been hungry for fame from an early age.
“It’s almost the opposite: It was something I did in private. At Princeton they give you a little test, you had to sit down and write about a topic. Then they give you a reaction to your writing. I think they thought I was not from America. If you’re writing only in your journals, and it’s the only place you can write freely, there’s no reason to pretend you’re a Faulkner. It’s you that you’re communicating with.”
Now that is about to change. His book is being published all over Europe, too. His publishers there are pushing it by saying that if you don’t like Peter Mayle, you’ll like this.
“You’re looting the journals for public use,” I said.
Mr. Rips nodded dolefully.
“It does seem like a violation.”
Mr. Rips was not Emily Dickinson. He was a highly successful lawyer who knew everyone in New York. He had clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court justice; he threw fund-raisers for his friend Bob Kerrey. He had worked at Skadden Arps, and his connections in art and politics led him to broker the acquisition last year by the DIA Center for the Arts of the huge, abandoned Nabisco plant in Beacon. “Michael has always pursued the most esoteric of legal cases, cases he finds intellectually intriguing,” said Mr. Scully of Morgan Stanley.
Then Mr. Rips got another Scotch and told me how he’d become an author.
“To my mind, this is entirely accidental. It is the accident of my relationship to my journals,” he said. “I was friendly with a lawyer-I’m still friendly with a lawyer-he was going out at the time with a woman named Esther Allen. I was telling her stories about my family in Nebraska one of the first times I met her. And she said, ‘Oh, well, I would love-if you ever have any of these written down, I’d love to see them.’ It turns out she was managing editor of Grand Street . Which I didn’t know. I showed some stories to her. They were very distilled stories, maybe five paragraphs long, three paragraphs, like most of the journal entries. She said, ‘I’d like to publish a couple of these.’ Before she could print them, she left Grand Street . She said to me, ‘One day I will publish them.’”
Ms. Allen ultimately published them in Mandorla . These Nebraska tales were fragments about life in the provinces with uncanny emotional power. Mr. Rips doesn’t seem very Jewish, but his stories did, in the sense of an outsider who has blended perfectly into native culture but is still completely outside it.
Interest from an editor, Judy Clain, followed, and when Mr. Rips went off to Italy he was giving thought to writing a book. “I think law had grown tiresome to Michael,” Jane Rips said. “It can be mean and ugly. Michael’s not mean and ugly. He was looking for a way to earn a living without practicing law.”
In Sutri, Italy, he pursued his favorite occupation, idleness, sitting for 15 hours a day just watching the square. He spoke very little Italian, but was liked, as he is liked everywhere. His views of local eccentrics merged with his readings in the Bible and philosophy.
“Something I have thought a lot about is Heidegger’s statement that we are tumbling slowly toward death,” he said, “and we catch a glimpse of it every now and then, but then our bodies turn away from it. I think about that a lot.”
I remembered a passage from the book:
“As soon as I lay on my bed, my mind was cleaved open to the reality of my own death …. The malignancy of the vision was blunted, finally, by its familiarity, for so often have I encountered it, for so many years has it been with me, that I’ve come to appreciate, perhaps even enjoy, what it has revealed-the enormousness of Death, its vacant strength and its lush clarity …. For most, I suspect, the knowledge of death is pushed off, delayed until they are too old and exhausted to enjoy it. If youth is wasted on the young, death is wasted on the old.”
Other parts of the book are influenced by Levy-Bruhl-”a completely discredited French anthropologist,” Mr. Rips said, “because he came to his conclusions about society based on field research that was completely falsified. He was a brilliant guy who sat in his apartment in Paris.”
Former Senator Bob Kerrey said that Mr. Rips has that contemplative gift: “He never seems to be in a hurry to rush off, and it gives him the patience to see things that are right in front of him.” Mr. Kerrey said this quality would have served Mr. Rips well in politics. “I think he would have done very well with rural people, because he stays long enough that they would trust him.”
When Mr. Rips came back from Italy and showed his journals to Judy Clain, she told him to put himself and his family in the book.
“My interest was not to talk about myself,” he said. “But I trusted Judy. I feel rather elusive to myself. The view that you have of me is not unlike my view of myself.”
Did he enjoy being published?
“I would say that my identity is so fused to privacy and being remote that this is somewhat difficult.”
“So you are a reluctant author?”
“I would say yes.”
“But now don’t you have the ambition to do great work?”
Mr. Rips recoiled as if I’d brought a cattle prod to Bottino.
“Absolutely not. God forbid.”
An hour had passed, and I had the impression that Mr. Rips had had enough. He’d never been interviewed before, he said, and this was probably the most serious he’d ever been his whole life.
His brother Harlan explained to me that Mr. Rips has a “blameless” private life: “His private life is strictly interior.” The book demonstrates that. Mr. Rips’ charm and elusiveness have afforded him a private freedom to think the wildest thoughts and pursue them without interference.
Harlan Rips said that some of Mr. Rips’ stories are fanciful.
“Don’t think his relatives in Omaha or the people in Sutri are anything like this.”
“It’s like Lilliput or Oz,” Jane Rips threw in. “The guy with the cat’s hand? Come on!”
“Classic Michael layering,” his brother said.
I asked Mr. Rips whether he had made that up about the porcupine.
“No, it is true,” he said. “For all I know, you can skin a porcupine that way. Certainly it was described to me by the cook in that way.”
He said that he’d made a point of calling Sutri Sutri, rather than making up a name, because he wanted that connection to mundane reality. He often thought of something Paul Bowles said, about wanting to go through life without touching another human being. This impulse was one that he felt a need to suppress.
I walked Mr. Rips back to the Chelsea Hotel, and he reverted to a more casual mode-what his brother calls “congenial bullshit”-but I tuned it out. I felt humbled almost to the point of religion at my misapprehension, that this man I’d written off as superficial was actually an artist, that these sorts of miracles happen amid all the banal and rapacious delusions of New York.
I asked him why he hadn’t run for Congress.
“My brother Harlan, who I rely on because he can be so superficially indifferent to me, in the way of an older brother, and very Nebraskan in a severe way, he said, ‘Here [is] a list of seven issues-abortion, capital punishment, prayer in the schools, flag-burning and so forth.’ He said, ‘Here’s how Nebraskans feel about these issues. You can afford to be contrary on three or maybe even four of them. But beyond that, you can’t.’ I would have had to change my views.”
“But weren’t you crazy to even think you would run?”
“My family is an old Nebraska family. It made going back there easier. And it was something that came unfortunately naturally,” he said. “That kind of charming side of me was a natural resource when it comes to politics. Making people feel comfortable.”
We had landed on the threshold of the Chelsea Hotel, and Mr. Rips allowed himself a small smile.
“It also seemed a really eccentric thing to do,” he said. “The idea of checking out of the Chelsea Hotel and running for Congress-it had an appealing fictional quality to it.”