Excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder

Before I came to stay at the Manse I lived in an old townhouse on the north side of Washington Square, where my cousin Max and I rented rooms from a middle-aged German man named Gerhard Gottlieb, the uncle of one of Max’s old flames. I was never entirely sure what business Gerhard was in, but he was usually out of the country, and he gave us the run of the place in his absence, provided we walk his dog, a purebred boxer named Ginger, and feed the tropical fish in his enormous Victorian aquarium. Max and I were the only ones paying rent, but there were often two or three others staying on the vacant floor above us. We were all “in the arts,” as we liked to say with intense but undirected irony, which is what left us free to take Ginger out during the day and to spend our nights entertaining ourselves in that old house, drinking bourbon and smoking those thin, elegant joints that we all rolled so easily.

Max was the film critic for a local weekly. He didn’t like movies much, at least not the ones he was called upon to review, but he felt strongly that a critic who wasn’t part of the conversation—at a certain point in the night we could use such terms in earnest—was no critic at all. The artist was free to work in isolation, even to cultivate it. But the critic was an explainer. His job depended on an audience, and the audience went to the movies. So Max said on those evenings when an unseen judge called us to defend the manner in which we spent our days.

The part about cultivating isolation he aimed at me. And it was true that no one had read my novel when it came out a few months before. But this wasn’t by virtue of any aesthetic stratagem. I would have been more than happy with an audience. My publisher had paid me well and put its energy, as they call it, behind the book. I’d been reviewed where one hopes to be reviewed; some of the notices had even been good. Max and I share the same last name—our fathers are brothers, or were while mine was still alive—and there had been brief talk, much of it generated by Max himself, about the Blakemans representing some new cultural moment. That had all passed after my book sank quietly from view. Outside the world of mean-spirited media blogs no one had any idea who we were. Max secretly faulted me for this, though in truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York. I couldn’t blame them; I was tired of us, too.

For all that disappointment, the money had been real, and Gerhard barely charged rent, so I didn’t need much to get by. I could live on my advance while I figured out what came next. I understood that I shouldn’t expect too much from whatever that turned out to be. I’d been given my big chance—more than most get—and now I was on my own.

In the meantime, we spent long hours in that house, talking about the Grand Gesture, whether it nowadays existed, of what it might consist if it did. We wanted badly to believe it was still possible to live off ideas, except when we wanted badly to believe that it was no longer possible, since then the failure to do so was not our own, not caused by a lack of discipline or talent or by the fact that we didn’t finally want the things we wanted as much as we thought we wanted them.

In truth we were quickly reaching—had likely enough already reached—the age where it no longer made sense to talk about “promise.” It was around this time that I remarked to Max that no matter what we now achieved no one would say, “He’s so young.” Precocity had passed us by.

“After twenty-eight,” I said sadly, “you’re judged on your merits.”

“Unless one of us dies,” Max corrected me. “Then they’ll all say, ‘He was so young.’”

All of this is by way of an honest accounting of where things stood for me on the early autumn evening when I came home from dinner to a crowded party and found Sophie Wilder sitting on the half-collapsed leather couch near that antique aquarium in the far corner of Gerhard’s living room.



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