The manuscript has been stashed on the closet’s upper shelf for several decades. Finally pulling it down, I feel like weeping. My late grandfather painstakingly wrote this unpublished novel, and I should have read it sooner. Isn’t that what karma’s about? Do unto others?
My grandfather lived from 1900 to 1982. He was by no means a writer by trade. On the contrary, he was a touring professional boxer (from El Paso to Butte to Madison Square Garden), a Prohibition-era pharmacist (wink, wink) on Chicago’s South Side, and, following Repeal, proprietor of a North Side nightclub. He began writing in earnest in his retirement as part of a class affiliated with the Levy Senior Center in Evanston, Ill. I believe he made a stab at finding a publisher, but I’m not certain of that. Having myself learned too much about the habits of mainstream publishing, I can’t imagine Grandpa Bill received much encouragement, if he received any response at all.
Grandpa’s novel is called “The Roaring Twenties on Rush Street.” The title refers not to the post-World War I flapper period but to the name of the rollicking nightclub at the heart of his story. It is 255 pages long, double-spaced, meticulously typed on a manual machine that left a slightly fuzzy lettering imprint when the ribbon was fresh. Grandpa was a man of rugged hands, and it couldn’t have been easy, so many words and so few mistakes. Simply by holding the bulky manuscript, I experience a wave of closeness to him, like wearing a loved one’s sweater. You don’t get that with cloud-friendly PDF files.
As a kind of preface, Grandpa included a one-page cast of characters like you’d find in the script for a stage play. My hunch is that he did this at the suggestion of a writing workshop teacher, another indication that he aspired to be published.
Some of the characters:
Johnny Condos. “Owner of the Roaring Twenties, the Boss, has carried the club over from the Old Prohibition days.”
Red Sands. “Forty-second Ward strong man, he gives the ‘go’ as to who operates on Rush Street.”
Lilly Leeds. “An exotic dancer, been through the mill.”
Nana. “The beautiful Lady in Blue, star of the floor show.”
Tony Rio. “A young precinct captain, carries a badge as a bailiff.”
Papa Ben. “Nightclub booking agent. ‘Would you like to be a stripper?’”
Ginny. “The dice girl, a lush. She knows all the answers.”
I love it! Bring it on.
Initially, the pages fly by. The nightclub setting is exotic (to me), as are the characters. The upstart political flunky who’s sweet on the hat check girl. The pair of sexually ambiguous bookies, regular fixtures at a corner table. The sassy stripper courted by the lovestruck owner of a rival tavern. The insomniac judge stepping out for a nightcap, night after night. The gruff bartender with a talent for slyly fixing up Mickeys. The ridiculously late hours, with the action rarely winding down before dawn. And astride it all is the Boss, stalwart, unflappable, vigilant: a clear stand-in for Grandpa Bill.
Soon, however, I hit some bumps. Some sentences clang. Not all the metaphors strike the right chord. There are awkward shifts in point of view, erratic switching from past to present tense, a few too many names coming at me too fast. Noting these shortcomings brings me no pleasure. Indeed, I’m ashamed of the impulse to edit, prune, revise, improve. The author, damn it, is my grandfather. Every description, every aside, every line of dialogue was imagined by him, expressed by him, possibly lived by him. That alone should warrant lavish, unstinting esteem. That and karma.
Because someday it could be me begging a reader for leniency. Hell, it may be me already.
For I, too, have worked long and hard on unpublished novels. Years ago, in fact, before my grandfather passed away, I conducted extensive tape-recorded interviews with him about his life with the explicit goal of using the material to write a novel of my own. “Clippings” is the title I gave to that novel, which is set in Prohibition-era Chicago. (Note to self: Check if a loose-leaf copy of “Clippings” is anywhere to be found. It was last seen in a gray manuscript box in a corner of the basement where we keep the camping equipment, spare garden hoses, and old baseball mitts.)
What went awry with “Clippings”? It had colorful characters, captivating scenes, smart dialogue. The story was engaging, amusing, at times moving. That said, the plot probably meandered, there wasn’t much tension, and — might this be a genetically inherited weakness? — the point of view periodically wobbled. At the time I wrote that novel, I was fairly naive about commercial publishing (I no longer suffer that infirmity) and assumed that my manuscript’s evident strengths would be sufficient to entice a publisher who’d readily recognize its merits and assign a skilled editor the task of polishing it up for bookstore sales.
I resume reading, determined to abstain from nitpicking. Then something surprising occurs.
Along about page 219 — when Tony Rio is found dead in his car outside the club with the motor running after a Mickey had been surreptitiously slipped into his bourbon cocktail on orders from Johnny Condos, and the Chicago police come around asking questions of the hat check girl who’d dated Tony, and next thing you know the cops are giving Johnny a hard time about the special permit he has, or thinks he has, allowing the club to stay open after hours, and Johnny’s frantic phone calls go unanswered by the Democratic ward heeler who until this point has been the club’s staunch protector, and when a new delegation of coppers arrives demanding to inspect the club’s liquor and entertainment licenses, which of course Johnny can’t produce because the city, in a blatant power play, only issues receipts for license payments but never issues the actual licenses — the Roaring Twenties is summarily shuttered. In a scene that echoes the funereal pall descending upon that opulent West Egg lawn the morning after Gatsby’s murder, Johnny assembles his staff in the eerily lifeless nightclub to break the bad news. “I never thought I’d be alive to be at my own wake,” he tells them.
Damn, I think, this rocks! All it needs is a little more . . . nope, not going there.
All it needs is the right kind of reader.
Unpublished novels are homeless orphans hoping someone somewhere will take them in. So what if all that remains of a novel’s earthly existence is one musty copy, 255 unbound pages, shoved into a shabby old shopping bag with twine handles that the author’s loving grandson miraculously managed not to lose over the decades?
In my book, that still counts.
Bob Katz is the author of several books, both fiction and nonfiction. His next novel, “Waiting for Al Gore,” will be published in February.