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My Life as a Mannequin

By (August 1, 2013) No Comment

Philip Roth
The summer after I turned 21, freshly relieved of my virginity and all alone for the first time in a big city, I discovered what I wanted to do with my life.

I had arrived in Washington, D.C., to attend summer school in between my junior and senior years of college. The program was a seven-week college course/internship combo held on the campus of Georgetown University. Out of the multiple tracks on offer, I chose the legal track for one large reason: it would give me the opportunity to have an internship at a law firm. For as long as I could remember—but probably only since I’d started college—my parents had been talking to me about law school: how I should go, how they thought the aptitudes of law school matched with my own; and how it would serve as a useful credential for whatever I wanted to do later in life. Here finally was a chance to see firsthand what being a lawyer actually entailed.

This decision seemed to make perfect sense at the time, even though I was a relentless English major. Writing and reading were all I ever had the gumption to pursue since junior high—ever since I had become aware that school equaled work. In the meantime, I had honed the bad habit of not being able to muster much academic energy toward anything that didn’t already interest me. And so I found myself in college, wanting desperately to write, wanting blindly to Be a Writer, though I had no idea what this looked like as a vocation, and the books I was reading and enjoying offered few solutions. They all seemed to exist on a different plane of reality than my life as an obedient, bookish college student who had once been told he had a way with words.

My placid reading life was disrupted by my best friend, who urged upon me a very specific book—Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. That I should read this book became his mantra. Trust me. This is so great. You will enjoy this. His endorsements were always ethical appeals without any further supporting evidence. It was not unlike how one was slowly persuaded to try various drugs. This is the good stuff. And like many of the influential books that one encounters in college, this one wasn’t even on the syllabus.

PortnoySComplaintPortnoy’s Complaint was the first book I’d read that felt like a form of stand-up comedy—the abrasively funny, performatively confessional, and slyly confrontational comedy of Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Its voice was a secret self performed in private, publicized for our eyes. I was almost ashamed to laugh this hard. Here finally was a model, a voice embodied in a prose more exciting than anything I’d yet read. As I read more Roth, a set of examples of what could be done began to slowly emerge out of the murk of the canon. Roth seemed like the ultimate novelist. His first book (stories and a novella) appeared like a freeway on-ramp to a continuous silver highway of full-length heroic novelistic excellence. That he wrote little except fiction was noble. There was no time wasted on the minor, on the brief, on the discursive boulevards of literature. There were only monuments.

After Portnoy, I read Goodbye, Columbus; Patrimony; and Letting Go. But there was one novel that held my attention merely from its back-of-the-book promotional copy: My Life as a Man. From those few blandly triumphant sentences you could tell what the novel was about—the process of becoming a man and a novelist, which was of course the double subject I was most interested in studying. But in the summer of 1999, this was all inchoate. I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t know how to get there. All I knew was that I had seven weeks and I’d better pack a lot of books.

* * *
My first night there—before any educational activities had begun—was one of high stress. I needed to call my girlfriend. I’d told her I would call her when I got settled, and I was there, I was settled, I had oriented, I was ready. But I had no way to call her. We hadn’t yet gotten our phone set up in the dorm, I had no cell phone, and I didn’t explore campus to find the pay phone, which in hindsight makes a lot more sense than traipsing down to Wisconsin Avenue in the dark. But I remember I was determined to call, to let her know how I was, to check on her, to say in phone code I am still alive and I want you desperately. It was a strange time. Her name was Katie, and she lived in Florida, where she was in school, and I normally lived in Memphis, so we weren’t exactly next-door neighbors. We had managed that separation so far, but now this new level of distance with me in D.C. was too much for my mind to process. It seemed too far. Our rhythm of communication had been disrupted. At various points in my trip I, for lack of a better phrase, had panic attacks about maintaining sufficient, regular contact. More than anything I needed to remain a presence in her mind for the nine total weeks I’d be away from her. It’s the true narcissist’s theme song: don’t you forget about me.

I reached her for a short, barely audible, frustrating phone call as cars careened behind me. I proved to her that I still existed and she proved to me that she still cared about my insecure little self just by the tone of her voice. “Are you okay? Where are you?”

The next day was Sunday, sunny, an entirely free day, and I felt much better: we had talked. So I went out for a run. I started at 37th and O Street and ran north. Later, when I was smarter, I would simply head east on P Street until I hit Dupont Circle and then I would turn around and come home. Simple, short, and travelled daily for my internship commute.

I don’t know why I headed north but soon I was past the Georgetown campus and was moving into a residential neighborhood. It was beautiful. The tight grid and brick-lined streets of Georgetown had given way to the relaxed curves of a comfortable neighborhood. The houses sat back into their yards and peered at me over their tended hills of grass. It was a good neighborhood, like my parents’ neighborhood back home, but buoyed by an extra zero on its tax return. It felt good to run here. I felt proud that I’d found it, proud of myself for getting out and exploring in a new city all by myself. Perhaps this little D.C. venture, done primarily to please my parents and from a kind of existential inertia, wasn’t going to be the cul-de-sac of repressed grievance I thought it would be.

I seemed to continually run uphill, but it was a gentle hill, more aspirational than wearying. It was going great. I must have run for 45 minutes like this, a slow pleasant jog through an ideal transplantation of home. But then I realized I was lost. I was free from the grid of D.C. but I had curved and looped myself so much that I had no idea where I was. Gradually, as I kept running, I began to slow down, awareness of my situation settling in my running shoes like drying concrete. I wasn’t just momentarily confused about my location. I was seriously lost. I looked at my watch. I had been gone over an hour. I continued to jog but it was a slow, self-defeating jog—the further I went the more entangled I was getting within this foreign neighborhood.

Finally, I stopped running and that’s when it began to rain. I was wearing a T-shirt, running shorts, the high school-era briefs I only wore while running, a pair of athletic socks, and my shoes. My only other item was my room key, tied into the laces of my shoes.

The gentle summer morning rain didn’t last long, but it was still rain. John Cheever, that suburban poet of water, is right about rain: it’s a clarifying presence, especially when you’re alone, in a strange spot in a strange city, having cast yourself away from all that you know, accidentally distancing yourself from the girl you love, distending yourself so needlessly out of academic myopia and the unkillable need to please one’s parents. It was a nice touch: a meteorological-cum-supernatural gloss on my own lostness. I began walking with the prickly feeling of panic. I can see now that getting lost on a Sunday morning in the plushest corner of residential D.C. is not exactly being thrust into Robinson Crusoe, but at the time I was genuinely afraid. We don’t get to choose our gauntlet.

Finally I made a turn and in the distance I could see a road with actual steady traffic on it. I went toward it, fairly soaked from the rain and walking with steady worry. After another block or so the crepe myrtles parted and I saw a church. I was in a small parking lot and across the narrow street the church was emptying out. The bells were ringing and organ music was pouring out the doors, that spirited “Go out and get ’em” end-of-service stuff they play. This was my chance: my pride had been thoroughly washed away. A couple was entering the parking lot and I walked up to them.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I am terribly lost. I’m a student for the summer at Georgetown University and I’ve been out for a run and I have no idea where I am. Is there any way you can take me home?”

* * *
MyLifeasaManAs well as the books I’d packed, I steadily bought more. That was the legacy of D.C.: books and the bookstores in which I found them. They were where I spent practically all of my non-school or non-internship time. Despite being there for seven weeks, I never really made friends. I would occasionally grab a meal with one of my three roommates, but we never became buddies. Instead, at night after my dinner of chicken noodle soup and hot dogs or a bologna sandwich (my lunch from middle school), I would walk the streets of Georgetown, listening to my Walkman and visiting bookstores. There were three that I remember in the Georgetown area: one on a main drag just up from the large commercial intersection, the multi-floored Barnes and Noble a few blocks away, and much further down that same street, where Georgetown ebbs and flows into another neighborhood entirely, there was another, much smaller store, which is where I bought a collection of David Mamet’s essays.

In Dupont Circle there were two more stores. One was a used bookstore a block off the fountain and right next to my bus stop. I would try to ram a quick browsing session in this store before my return trip home every day, always racing to the bus at the last minute. (This is where I almost got into a shoulder shoving match with a girl over a pile of used Nabokov—I came away with Despair; she got everything else.) And then there was Kramer Books, the gem, the Shangri-La of D.C. bookstores. It was large, it was connected to a cafe/restaurant that served beer, and it was open, seemingly, 24 hours a day. Surely this is how I wanted to spend my adult life: walking through a big city, perusing its bookstores.

One of the books I’d brought from Memphis was Roth’s My Life as a Man, the 1974 novel that features Peter Tarnopol as its beleaguered writer protagonist, tortured by the memory of the two primary women of his life, and now isolated at a writer’s colony, desperately trying to solder together a coherent narrative from the scraps his life has become. The first section contains two fictional short stories he’s written, which interestingly mark the first appearance of Nathan Zuckerman, the epic alter ego of Roth’s later novels. The second, much longer section is Tarnopol’s own “true story,” his attempt to undisguise himself to himself.

Here are two sections from page 46 to 50. These come from the second Zuckerman story, “Courting Disaster (or, Serious in the Fifties),” and concern Zuckerman’s first days back teaching at the University of Chicago, as a young 23 year old fresh from the army and embarking on his life’s true focus:

I was pleased myself, though not so awestruck. In fact, the example of my own tireless and resolute parents had so instilled in me the habits that make for success that I had hardly any understanding at all of failure. Why did people fail? In college, I had looked with awe upon those fellows who came to class unprepared for examinations and who did not submit their assignments on time. Now why should they want to do it that way, I wondered. Why would anyone prefer the ignobility of defeat to the genuine pleasures of achievement? Especially as the latter was so easy to effectuate: all you had to be was attentive, methodical, thorough, punctual, and persevering; all you had to be was orderly, patient, self-disciplined, undiscourageable, and industrious—and, of course, intelligent. And that was that. What could be simpler?

Reading—and noting—fifty pages a night, I could average three books a month, or thirty-six a year. I also knew approximately how many short stories I might expect to complete in a year, if I put in thirty hours at it a week; and approximately how many students’ essays I could mark in an hour; and how large my “library” would be in a decade, if I were to continue to be able to make purchases in accordance with my present budget. And I liked knowing all these things, and to this day like myself for having known them.

I’ve read these pages so many times that their sentences have formed their own neural pathway. What’s more, they induce almost a form of paternal guilt, of how I have not lived up to the devotion they proclaim. Even though Roth is being ironic (this double ventriloquism mocks Peter Tarnopol’s own subsequent downfall) and even though Peter is tempting the Lure of Failure, I still took this list of activities to heart. Everything about these pages pricked me, like acupuncture: the ingredients of success, the itemization of his daily routine, the self-satisfaction one derives from simple, repeatable pleasure. I subsequently treated these pages as one might treat an edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.

ZuckermanBoundAnd yet what strikes me about this passage now, as I type this, at 6:08 in the morning, while my toddler son sleeps tenuously in his mother’s arms upstairs, as I try to maintain focus on this single browser window rather than any of the six others I also have open, as I contemplate how far I have fallen off the track of my original ideal set so long ago, now as 35-year-old father of two, is why I was attracted to this exemplum of discipline in the first place. Why was I even attracted to Roth’s writing, much less this burdened figure of the writer he continually depicts? Each of his writer protagonists, most obviously Zuckerman, is a demon of discipline. In fact, you could argue that the central conflict of Zuckerman Bound is that his writing has gotten in the way of his writing, most evident in The Anatomy Lesson. I could not have found a more opposite model.

In every case the discipline comes from the fathers and the alter-fathers: the shoe salesman of “Salad Days,” the bookkeeper of “Courting Disaster,” the podiatrist of Zuckerman Bound, and even the biographical father of Patrimony. In each case the diligent father figure is the epitome of Franklinian self-sufficiency. It’s almost a parody of American diligence: an unerring faith in hard work consistently applied will reap real results. Each of these men is confronted by the son who is unable to follow in his father’s footsteps.

In the case of My Life as a Man, Tarnopol is bent off track by his first wife Maureen, a proto-version of the indigenous American berserk. It’s her neediness, her codependency, her manipulation of his own diligent, disciplined generosity, his need to be a gentleman that does him in. He spends the rest of the novel trying to flee her, at first literally, then metaphorically and symbolically, because as soon as he’s free he becomes enraptured with Susan, who is the softer, blonder version of Maureen, also a magnet for his willing attention, and the whole horrible mess repeats itself. It’s a story of a man repeating the same downfall in his life and then repeating it in his work, a snake gagging on his own tail.

RothReposeBut the real Roth, we know, as much as we can know anyone, was not failing, but was in fact disciplined enough to produce novel after novel. I received a similar aspirational thrill when reading the later Zuckerman novels, where the fictionalized writer narrates his rationale for moving to the Connecticut woods and describes his daily routines there. Apparently I’m a sucker for daily routines in fiction, so desperate for one myself. But we can definitively, without going too far out on an interpretive limb, say that Roth was repeating much of the same productivity-in-isolation exemplified in the later Zuckerman books. The New Yorker profile by David Remnick that appeared in 2000 confirmed this. (I remember in particular a gorgeous two-page photo of Roth’s writing area in his cabin, complete with a standing desk. Even in the standing desk revolution, Roth was ahead of his time.) His life was split between occasional trips into New York City, where he kept an apartment and where he could socialize with friends, and this modern Thoreauvian existence, as alone as any one man in modern day America can be alone. It was like he’d established his own permanent writing colony of one.

* * *
The man had entered the parking lot with a woman, but they were not together. My appearance had pulled them up short; they were forced into an awkward preemptive goodbye. They didn’t hug or kiss but just turned to each other as if to say, “Well . . .” The man didn’t so much answer as simply gesture toward his van, a tall, narrow Volkswagen, the van of an old single man.

I was grateful to sit in a car. The changing of posture seemed to cling my wet clothes closer to me. It drizzled lightly as we made our way out of the parking lot, and he waved with three fingers to the lady he’d been talking to. After a couple of minutes of transitional silence, he asked what I was doing at Georgetown. I tried to explain as best I could. I tried to emphasize how I wasn’t actually a student at Georgetown but merely living there, etc. He seemed unfazed by this. “So you’re here for the internship. You’re one of the interns,” he said.

Realizing I was backing into some kind of President Clinton zone of contaminated vocabulary, I said, “Yeah, I’m one of the interns.”

After a few minutes of driving—I still couldn’t tell where I was in relation to my dorm—I said, “If you want to just drop me off close by, that would be fine. You don’t have to take me all the way.” He eyed me from his perch on the steering wheel. “You sure?”

“Yeah, that’s fine. If you can just get me back to the main drag, that will be enough. I can walk back from there.” This seemed to relieve him somewhat; he had places to go, people to see. He got me to Wisconsin Avenue and pulled over.

“You sure this is okay?”

“Yes, this is fine. Thank you so much for giving me a ride. I really appreciate it.”

He waved me off, pulled away, and I began walking in the direction I thought would at least eventually intersect with the road that led to my dorm. It was the middle of the day. The sun was out, the rain gone, the humidity was buffeting me along the wide sidewalk. I walked on.

I’ve often wondered about that man, if perhaps he and the woman he was walking out of church with on that summer Sunday were on a type of date. What would he have been doing if I hadn’t stumbled out of the bushes, wet and scared and needing his paternal intervention? What forces had directed his life to intersect mine at that particular point on the map of time and our nation’s capital?

Soon, as I paused at stop signs and let traffic pass and counted blocks, the old worry returned. Just where am I going? Is this the right way? I suffered again the terrible insecurity of being lost and feeling that you’re just further ensnaring yourself in your own oblivious misdirection. After a while, once again so afraid that I’d lost all my fear, I approached a cab. He was curbed with his window rolled down, waiting on a fare.

“Hey, look, I don’t have any money and I know you can’t take me there but can you at least tell me if I’m moving in the direction toward Georgetown University?”


“Georgetown? Am I heading toward Georgetown?”

“You’re in Georgetown.”

“No, am I heading toward the school? The campus? Georgetown University?”


“Will I hit O Street if I keep going that way?” I asked, pointing forward.

“O is that way,” he said, pointing ahead of me.

“How far?”

“It’s that way,” he said.

This didn’t really comfort me but it at least kept me going. On I walked, another block, more discombobulated sidewalks, a Safeway, which looked like a grocery store from a foreign land. On I walked. Finally the ratio of boutique-like shops to normal, gray shops began to tip, and it felt like I was getting closer to something. And then, finally, miraculously, there was my street, O Street. I turned right and began the long walk uphill. In my memory of that summer I was always walking uphill.

When I got close enough to actually see my dorm, still so new as to be almost unrecognizable, I wanted to cry out. There it was! I was not going to die alone in Washington, D.C., trying desperately to coax human warmth out various distant men with available cars.

I unlaced my room key and entered. My roommates were puttering around the apartment. I was so relieved and shaken I didn’t know what to say.

“You been out for a run?” they asked.

I’d been gone just under four hours.

* * *
My parents came to visit at the end of the program. I had passed my two courses, but I had not distinguished myself, and I reeked of academic muddling. We all went out to dinner, and I remember them asking about Katie. How is she doing? “She’s good,” I said. “I talked to her yesterday.”

“We know,” they said. They had, after all, been paying my phone bills all summer. They knew exactly what I was going through. I don’t think we talked about law school the entire meal, which was an accomplishment. Perhaps they sensed the futility of pointing me in a certain direction.

Two exchanges transpired sometime while they were visiting. I told my father how many books I had read while I had been up there, which is a very young-person thing to do. I think the number was nine during my seven-week stay. As a college student with no social life and minimal curricular obligations, which I diligently ignored, this doesn’t strike me now as that many books, but he was still impressed.

“Really? Which ones?”

I told him the books.

“You read Moby-Dick for fun?”

“Yeah, basically.”

I suppose this was a moment when my literary predilection, which I had always worn like a borrowed suit, finally began to fit.

Later, at that same dinner, they said they’d noticed that Florida State University had a creative writing program. I was vaguely aware of this, that Katie’s school had a graduate program in creative writing.

“Might be worth checking out,” they said.

“Might be,” I said.

“Might cut down on your phone bill,” they said.

This is how major life decisions were instigated within the family, how terms of approval were given—indirectly, billiard bank shots, my parents’ blessing and passive nudging converging in one conversation, a chart for a life set out through actions that I didn’t understand I was making and through parental approval I wasn’t necessarily seeking, but which I still needed, and which was given without me even asking. I realize now that desiring one’s parental approval, however obliquely graphed, is once again quite unRothian.

* * *
By now the broader arc that was set forth in those seven weeks has been clearly defined—I did not become a lawyer. I finally clarified (to myself, to my parents) just how I’d like to spend my time. But the daily iteration of that vision has been difficult. The need for discipline, to be more Roth like, to fight my own innate self, to try to remember what attracted me to that slice of Roth in the first place—that fight is eternal, a daily groping toward a counter-self. Perhaps why I liked those bits so much was because they seemed like glimpses of a foreign life, a magazine spread where everything is more glamorous, more coordinated than what you’ve been able to compile.

Up against Roth I don’t feel like a “real writer.” Who could? Besides, I’ve ceased to believe in something that can be called a “real writer.” Roth himself demolished that statue, dissected its various limbs and exhumed its stuffing through his subsequent novels. All that’s left now is the sawdust of commentary, the schlock of opinion, and whatever else they put inside mannequins.

What Roth’s example gave me (by his various figures of discipline) was a mode to escape my self, and if it wasn’t a means to create a real self, then at least it was the means of creating a better temporary self, a more productive provisional self. Peter’s discipline and failure in My Life as a Man became the compass, useful even though it pointed somewhere I wasn’t able to go, useful to a writer trying to imagine himself into becoming a writer, useful despite the fact that it was a fiction. No matter my age or degree of lostness, the work always picks me up and deposits me back a few blocks closer to my original destination, still leaving me plenty of blocks to cover on my own two feet.

When I return to Roth now, and when I return to that novel in particular, I always seem to be asking the same question: “Sir, can you take me home?”

Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.