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Dear Mr. Jarecki

March 23, 2015 | by

How Gordon Lish’s first novel anticipated The Jinx.


From the paperback cover of Dear Mr. Capote.

Like every other sentient being with an HBO subscription, I’ve been riveted by the layers of mendacity, hypocrisy, voyeurism, manipulation, deception, dysfunction, and psychopathology on display in The Jinx. Robert Durst is as compelling a creep as has ever appeared on an LED screen; he seems like a character sprung from Patricia Highsmith’s dark imagination. (The Talented Mister Durst?) Andrew Jarecki, with his distinctly Mephistophelean facial hair, gives off his own aroma of brimstone. As I watched the series—rapt, but with a queasy feeling of complicity—I felt I’d encountered something like this before. Then I remembered what it was: Gordon Lish’s skilled, twisted, and exceptionally prophetic first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983).

The self-proclaimed “Captain Fiction,” Lish is most famous and/or notorious today for his writing classes, which more resembled EST sessions than workshops, and his hyperactive editorial pencil—which, depending on your point of view, either butchered or rescued much of Raymond Carver’s fiction. By 1983, Lish was riding high as an editor at Knopf, but through most of the seventies he’d been the fiction editor of Esquire, where he had almost single-handedly engineered a sea change in the style and substance of American short fiction, publishing the work of such minimalists as Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. Lish also convinced Truman Capote to publish the first two installments in his long bruited-about novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Capote had bragged that it would be his American answer to Proust, and the first of the chapters to appear, in June 1975, “Mojave,” received rapturous praise. Buoyed by this response, he gave Esquire another chapter to publish later that year, the incendiary and staggeringly impolitic “La Cote Basque, 1965,” which spilled a dump truck’s worth of dirt on his high-society friends and exiled him from the fancy circles and acquaintances he had so assiduously cultivated. Its publication sent Capote’s career into a terminal tailspin, perhaps the most disastrous miscalculation by a major writer in our literary history. Lish, too, has his Mephistophelian side. Read More »

My Lunch With Terry Southern

June 22, 2010 | by

Photograph by Pud Gadiot

As most editors eventually learn to their chagrin, encounters with one’s literary heroes usually end up as disappointing and deflating experiences. But in the early eighties, I had a lunch with the great Terry Southern that was sheer perfection on every level.

As a sixties adolescent of the standard issue sort I had my psyche and to some extent my erotic imagination comandeered by Southern. There was Candy, of course, one of the great dirty books (or “dbs,” as Terry called them) of our time. Oh, how my idiot friends and I enjoyed repeating lines like “Give me your hump!” and “When I was in Italy, I got so much hot Italian cock that I stopped menstruating and started minestroneing.” into the ambient Brooklyn air at an inappropriately loud volume. But even better, to me, was The Magic Christian, wherein the multimillionaire prankster Guy Grand oh so grandly and ingeniously sends up the stupid adult world in ways I could only dream about. I must have read it in its Bantam paperback edition a dozen times. And mirabile dictu, when I became an editor at Penguin in the early eighties, I discovered that both of these books were out of print (wtf?) and was able to repay Terry Southern the favor by arranging to reissue them in trade paperback. Read More »