I saw the new Coen Brother's movie last night, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and it brought back more than a few memories of the world I grew up in, the world I am so often, with good reason I think, nostalgic for.
Llewyn Davis' New York was the New York of 1961, before the ravages of the Vietnam war pulled the nation apart, before the chickens of racism came home to roost, before the specter of drugs undermined the fabric of society.
Kennedy was president. Cars were large and rents were small. The city, at least in my memory, at least as the Coen's depicted it was like a large small town. Maybe that's because Llewyn inhabits Greenwich Village and Columbia's Upper West Side. Maybe mid-town has always been too fast, too loud, too noisy, too brutal.
The city I remember is that smaller city.
When I was in graduate school I had an older friend. I thought he was the oldest person in the world. I think he was five years from 40.
David had already earned a medical degree and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania but two or three things stopped him from pursuing a career in either of those directions. One, was the Vietnam war. He wanted to keep his student deferment. Two, he, like Llewyn Davis, hated the idea of careerism. He wasn't feeling being a doctor or a lawyer. Three, what he really wanted to do was teach English.
So when I met him, he was, like me, pursuing his PhD. in English at Columbia. He and his wife, Maddy, lived in a sprawling six or seven room apartment on Morningside Drive, with a view of Morningside Park, one of the most crime-ridden sites on a crime-ridden island. Their building had been built with grandeur but now was dusty and down-at-the-heels. On some of the landings--where welfare families had moved in--the mezuzahs had been removed from the door jambs and were scattered on the dirty tiled floor like cockroaches.
David and Maddy had not a large-finned American car, but a small aquamarine Fiat, a 124 Sport Coupe with a stick shift. It seemed cooler to me than anything I had ever seen. That vast apartment with herringbone wood floors and glass-paneled French doors and their zippy Fiat.
Like Llewyn, many of us graduate students seemed to face a choice. We could give up the ghost--the ghost of writing that novel or teaching at Amherst--or we could try to turn the starving writer screw a little tighter and try to not give up our dreams.
David and Maddy were an inspiration. They had found a Columbia-sponsored sinecure and could live well without really growing up. They could avoid the choice that was pressing all of us.
Most of my classmates, myself included, gave up the ghost. The siren of middle-class respectability blared too loudly and enticingly for us to resist. We went into publishing--shepherding trashy books onto trashy bookstore shelves way more often than discovering another Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe. Others, like me, went into advertising, writing dull blandishments to buy some dull detergent or chemical concoction they called steak sauce.
There are times, of course, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" reminded me of those times, when I regret not having had the time, the space or the talent to really write. I mean to write something good, something for the ages. Something dire deep and dark. I tried, having written parts of three novels. One as serious as a heart attack, two comical and Rothian.
But like Frost said, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.
So, I took a job and became one of those people. A dull careerist. A sell-out huckster.
But that's ok.
I've raised two daughters who will not compromise their dreams. Who are smarter than I was allowed to be. One is more than half-way to her PhD. in Clinical Psychology and will change the world for the better in small 45-minute hours. The other will likely be half-way around the world, or half a league under the sea, saving coral reefs from carbon destruction or reviving sea turtle populations in Melanesia.
I don't try to novel-ize any more. I don't have it in me. The patience, the stamina, the depth, the drive.
So I write this blog.
And try my best.