So far, Deborah Treisman is shaping up to be the George Harrison of the storied New Yorker fiction department-she’s the quiet one.
“It’s been great to not have any press about me for awhile,” confessed the 33-year-old fiction editor on Friday, June 6. She was picking over a plate of salmon at the Bryant Park Cafe, reflecting on the first “Debut Fiction” issue to bear her editorial stamp since the departure of Bill Buford six months ago.
In the past, former soccer hooligan and literary party boy Mr. Buford used the “Début Fiction” issue to punt newbies into the publishing net with noisy fanfare. The list of unknown writers anointed with book (and sometimes movie) deals is by now familiar: David Schickler, ZZ Packer, Nell Freudenberger. After Mr. Buford “discovered” Ms. Freudenberger-about 15 feet away from his corner office in the Condé Nast building, where she was an assistant at the magazine-the then-26-year-old sold her first story collection for more than $100,000, turning down a bigger offer for fear of being crushed by fortune.
After a year’s hiatus the “Début Fiction” issue is back, and under Ms. Treisman’s watch it’s a gentler affair. Ms. Treisman has done away with the glammy author photos that were a hallmark of the buzzy Buford era-no dreamy pinups of this issue’s debutantes, Lara Vapnyar, Daniel Alarcón and Heather Clay. And the stories themselves, while all well-wrought, don’t necessarily ring in the new era of post-Buford edginess that some expected. They’re more … meditative.
“That is what I saw this year,” explained Ms. Treisman. “In past years-the last time, for instance-I saw a lot more writers experimenting with form and voice. We had Jonathan Safran Foer and Gabe Hudson, who were both very playful. And this time I did not see a lot of playful material. It just wasn’t out there. I would have been happy to run it. You are at the mercy of what people are writing and what’s happening in the Zeitgeist in fiction.”
If Ms. Treisman sounds a little defensive, it’s because comparisons to Mr. Buford-who is now holed up in Italy, researching a book on the chef Mario Batali-have dogged her since last October, when she was first tapped for the gig by editor in chief David Remnick. “The most annoying question is ‘How are you different from Bill?'” she said. “It’s the hardest to handle.”
Ms. Treisman did fulfill her goal of bringing more international voices to the magazine. This year’s winners come from Russia (Ms. Vapnyar), Peru (Mr. Alarcón) and, er, Kentucky (Ms. Clay). (And Ms. Treisman said there’s more good foreign stuff right above the 49th parallel: “I’ve actually seen a lot of things happening in Canada lately.”)
But while they may be from exotic lands-miles from the old “inchoate longings” of John Updike’s West-chester protagonists, as Tom Wolfe once had it-Ms. Treisman didn’t have to look far to find them: All three had been in the fiction-department hopper.
“These were writers we were familiar with,” she said. “All three of them were people we’d thought about over time.”
Mr. Alarcón, 26, had been considered for the “Début Fiction” issue two years ago, but narrowly missed the cut. Ms. Clay, 32, was already chummy with the New Yorker fiction department: She was an intern there in 1998.
Ms. Treisman said that to qualify as a “début” writer, one must never have published a book. In that case, two out of the three came in just under the wire: Ms. Clay and Ms. Vapnyar both landed book deals before their stories were chosen by Ms. Treisman.
Ms. Clay’s agent, Bill Clegg of Burnes & Clegg, sold her novel to editor Jordan Pavlin at Alfred A. Knopf in spring 2002 for a six-figure sum. Ms. Clay wouldn’t say exactly how much. “Maybe it’s because I’m Southern … it makes me uncomfortable,” said the author, who has lived in Manhattan for 10 years. And 32-year-old Ms. Vapnyar-a Muscovite who, according to her agent, David McCormick of the Collins McCormick Literary Agency, moved to the U.S. in 1994 and learned English by watching TV and reading used books-sold her collection of stories, There Are Jews in My House , in September 2002 to editor Deborah Garrison at Pantheon, who had been a senior editor at The New Yorker until 1999. Mr. McCormick, who was a New Yorker editor until 1994, said she received “a modest, respectable sum” for that collection. He said he was preparing to sell Ms. Vapnyar’s first novel, Memoir of a Muse , in the coming week-presumably for something more than merely respectable. Only Mr. Alarcón, who is represented by Eric Simonoff of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, is without a book deal yet. But not for long: Mr. Simonoff said he also expected a deal this week, if not within 24 hours of this writing.
Ms. Treisman said she was happy with the “Début Fiction” issue. But if it should happen to mint a literary star, well, don’t blame her.
“With these issues, we’re not trying to anoint the next genius,” she insisted. “We’re trying to say, ‘Here’s a young person with a lot of potential’-and I’d like to have an old person too, but I haven’t managed to find my 70-year-old début yet-‘who’s written an interesting story.’ We’re not trying to say, ‘Buy his book for $500,000.'”
So Long, You Pencil-Neck Geek
When “Classy” Freddie Blassie, the 85-year-old pro-wrestling legend, visited his friend Jerome Raguso on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, the Italian pastry-shop owner would occasionally show the self-professed “King of Men” the things that people wrote about him on the Internet.
All the lore accumulated during the villainous showman’s life inside the ring and out was compiled there: the way he provoked spectators-on 21 separate occasions-into stabbing him, and on other occasions burning him with acid; the elderly TV viewers in Japan dropping dead in their seats from shock as they watched him gouge their national wrestling heroes with his famously filed teeth; the time a spectator hurled a hard-boiled egg at him, obliterating the vision in his right eye; his peculiar friendship with comedian Andy Kaufman, who mimicked the aging gladiator’s heelish mannerisms both onstage and in real life.
But one glaring inaccuracy always pissed Mr. Blassie off. Somewhere in the course of an eight-decade career, a rumor had started that his birth name was Blassman.
“I don’t know where the hell those pencil-neck geeks came up with that,” Mr. Blassie would rant, noting that his cousin, “Colonel” Nick Blassie, was a labor leader of some repute in St. Louis and that, through the miracle of DNA, another relative, First Lt. Michael Blassie, was found to be the Vietnam War victim buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“Everybody in my family is Blassie ,” he said. “My father was a son of a bitch, but he was Blassie .”
Otherwise, Mr. Blassie was pretty much at peace when he died from heart and kidney failure on June 2. Fans were rediscovering him through Listen, You Pencil Neck Geeks , the autobiography he and I had recently written together. And exactly three weeks before his death, he’d participated in a storyline on the TNN cable station’s World Wrestling Entertainment WWE Raw program-culminating with salt-and-pepper “half-brothers” Bubba and D-von Dudley splintering a table using a Blassie antagonist as a hammer.
Relatives of the World War II veteran from South St. Louis said that Mr. Blassie’s violence and bombast was nothing compared to what his Austrian-born mother and grandmother could summon; the latter once threatened to yank out a nun’s arms after she refused to allow young Freddie-then called “Fritzie”-to resharpen his pencil during a grammar-school exam.
Despite family pressure to go into the meat-cutting business, Mr. Blassie made his wrestling debut in 1935 at age 17, and was soon working the wrestling tent at Midwestern carnivals. The brown-haired teenager was blind to the fact that the finishes were rigged, but-since he wasn’t yet gifted enough to win anyway-old-timers amused themselves by placing him in a variety of torture holds.
When he wasn’t tussling between the ropes, though, life on the midway formed the foundation of Mr. Blassie’s wrestling education. He was exposed to “carny”- the form of pig-Latin wrestlers still use to keep outsiders in the dark-and witnessed a geek show, featuring a skeletal-looking man sticking pins and nails in himself, and biting off the heads of chickens and snakes. Inspired, Mr. Blassie coined the term “pencil-neck geek” to badger opponents and fans during interviews.
By the early 1960’s, Mr. Blassie was one of the most notorious villains in the industry, his hair bleached blond, like fading headliner Gorgeous George. At the time, promoters divided the continent into regional territories, and Mr. Blassie rotated from place to place, goring adversaries and spitting out their blood, and filing his teeth for television crowds. In the segregated South, he modified his routine to disparage fans as “pencil-neck grit eaters,” infuriating rednecks by pointing at the balcony and dedicating matches “to my fans-my Negro fans.”
At a certain point, some observers realized that Mr. Blassie was a pretty entertaining guy, and stopped jeering him. He then became something of a cult figure, recording a novelty tune, “Pencil-Neck Geek,” and an album, I Bite the Songs , for the Dr. Demento crowd; he also appeared, with Andy Kaufman, in My Breakfast With Blassie , a parody of the 1981 art-house hit, My Dinner With Andre .
All the while, Mr. Blassie remained unaware of his growing kitsch value, believing that all his fame had resulted from his antics in the ring.
I last saw Freddie in the hospital on June 1. He could no longer speak, and his blue eyes were bulging. With tubes protruding from various body parts, he apparently decided to vacate his death bed, and began to rise. A doctor attempted to restrain him, then another, before two nurses arrived on the scene. Blassie fought them all, as if he were back in the ring with Bruno Sammartino or Bobo Brazil.
The next day Mr. Blassie finally submitted, after Jerome Raguso promised to look after the roughneck’s doting third wife, Miyako, 59.
Everyone was happy, and convinced that Mr. Blassie would rest easily-until they opened up The New York Times two days later and noticed one inflammatory word in the paper of record’s obituary:
-Keith Elliot Greenberg
One piece in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s exhibit, “Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle,” which closes June 11, is a solid petroleum-jelly sculpture of a pub complete with stools.
“Everybody wants to touch it,” said the man in the navy-blue blazer guarding it, who wouldn’t give his name.
He broke off the conversation to yell at a visitor who had just used his index finger to gouge a golfball-sized lump of goo out of the expensive work of art.
But getting close to some of these pieces-not least of all, the series of five films that showcase Mr. Barney’s bizarre world of surreal sculpture and performance art that has become known as the Cremaster cycle-can be its own punishment.
“In [ Cremaster ] 3 , Barney plays an assistant caught doing something wrong,” said James Adams, a cheerful, earring-wearing guard who also moonlights as an artist. “They slam his teeth down his mouth and it comes out his ass, like Vaseline or something. It’s great to watch people’s reactions.”
Mr. Adams finds that amidst all the grotesque imagery, the films have moments of beauty and “something for everyone.”
“For some people, I think it’s just skin, chicks, beautiful women,” he said.
Abdul Rashad, a Muslim Indian museum guard, says he thinks that Mr. Barney’s work is beautiful and unique-but presents him with deep philosophical problems.
“My marriage with my wife was arranged, and we’ve been married 34 years,” Mr. Rashad said. “I don’t like the frontal nudity inside the gallery, but I just don’t look. It’s against my religion.”
A female security guard who would not give her name was keeping a watchful eye over two futuristic motorcycle props. She said that she was there for the filming of a scene in Cremaster 3 , in which Mr. Barney climbs straight up the Guggenheim’s central rotunda. In the scene, his character participates in a surreal game show with a bloody rag stuffed in his mouth.
“[Matthew Barney] walked by with that thing sticking out of his mouth and said hi and waved,” she said. “It was really freaky.”
While shooing people out of the closing museum, security guard Lyonel Pierre-Antoine Jr. admitted that the exhibit has been messing with his head.
From one speaker, a screeching, atonal violin score was blaring. Mr. Pierre-Antoine hummed along with the violins perfectly-from memory.
From Our Stringer
When Howell Raines exited the New York Times Building last week, it was clear he was leaving more in anger than sorrow. His last word to the staff that had served him for 21 months was…” Hell .”
Born in the Bayou country of Louisiana’s southern-fork region in approximately 1940, Mr. Raines came to the journalism trade at a very early age.
Except they didn’t call it “journalism” back then. In those days, reporting on the doings of others went under the phrase “gettin’ in folks’ bidness.”
“Oh, he got in your bidness real good,” said a man who knew Mr. Raines back when both Mr. Raines and this man were boys. “One time, he done found me strummin’ Old Man Parker’s banjer, and he wrote me up real good. Did a real nice piece on me, in fact, although I didn’t much enjoy it at the time. A nut graf is what it was missing. You know that there nut graf-the real boring paragraph up high in the story, usually the third or fourth one? Anyway, there warn’t no nut graf to speak of in this article, leastways not one worth a dang.”
The Raines family ran a crabbing concern as well as an apple orchard, say survivors of the blast. (There was a bomb blast in the town at some point.) The family business was threatened when the crabs got in the apples.
“You’d be bitin’ into the apple,” recalled Ella Mae Watson, 91, a longtime resident of the Bayou burg, “and the apple’d be bitin’ you back.”
“Sometime the apple’d win, and sometimes you would,” said Ella Mae’s sister, Mary Sue Walston, 98. “When you won, them there apples was sho ’nuff tasty. When you lost, it was your face that was tasty.”
“To the crab,” added Ella Mae helpfully.
Mr. Raines did not return a phone message left at his friend’s house 15 minutes before this article closed.
– Steven Maynes