Origin Story, The
[Note: Kraft has delivered versions of this story on many occasions. I’ve heard them all. MD]
I want to tell you the story of my lifetime’s obsession with the making of the Personal History. This is a story inextricably entwined with several others: stories of the collaboration of the author and his “other,” his alter ego; of the perdurable love of the author and his muse; a portrait of the artist as he ages; the growth and development of the work itself and of the means of making and delivering it; the interaction between author and audience; and the pleasures of living a life minutely examined and expansively imagined.
The story begins one cold afternoon in February of 1962, when I was in college. I was studying a German lesson in Lamont library, my feet were up on a table, my chair was tilted back, the room was warm. I nodded off. When I woke up, the chair and I were on the floor. People were laughing. I gathered my things and rushed outside — and in the cold air, the memory of a dream returned to me. I saw a little boy, sitting on a dilapidated dock, in the sunny warmth of a summer day, dabbling his feet in the water. That’s all, but that was the beginning.
Here’s Peter Leroy’s version of that story:
I was studying for a math exam, but I took a break to read a letter from Robert Meyer, a high school acquaintance who sent me tedious accounts of his travels in Europe. “Ich bin nun endlich in München und sitze hier in meinem Zimmer bei Frau Brenner in der Schellingstrasse,” he began, putting me to sleep nearly at once. In a dream, I found myself on a dilapidated wooden dock, enveloped in fog. I peered into the fog, and I saw a young man in a rowboat. That’s all, but it was the beginning.
Madeline Canning and I married in February of sophomore year. We had two children, Scott and Alexis. I went to graduate school, taught for a while, became an editor at a Boston publishing house, moonlighted as a rock critic for Boston After Dark, which became The Boston Phoenix — and I began to want to write a book — a book about myself, of course: myself, my life, my times, my ideas, my adventures. I tried, and I tried, and for years I went on trying, but I couldn’t do it. I was too close to my subject, for one thing, and for another I wasn’t really convinced that my subject was lead-character material.
Meanwhile, in Babbington, a small town on the south shore of Long Island, Peter Leroy had wooed, won, and married Albertine Gaudet. They had had two children, he had gone to graduate school, taught molluscan biology at Babbington High for a couple of years, and had become the current “Roger Drake,” the latest in a line of pseudonymous authors of the Adventures of Larry Peters, a series of books for boys — but — he had found that writing those books hadn’t brought him the artistic fulfillment he once thought it might.
Here is Peter, in the volume of his memoirs called Little Follies, recalling a time when he sat at the bar in one of Babbington’s best seafood restaurants, Corinne’s Fabulous Fruits of the Sea, trying to explain himself to Porky White, who was then the owner of a single clam shack in Babbington, but later became the bivalve mogul whose Kap’n Klam family restaurants now blight the landscape from coast to coast:
“I don’t know, Porky, I suppose I ought to be satisfied being ‘Roger Drake,’ but I just can’t stop dreaming about that big book about myself, that book as rich and various as a good clam chowder, loaded with useful and interesting information, hilarious anecdotes, recherché allusions, philosophical speculations, intriguing stories, clever word play, important themes, striking symbols, creative sex, intricate diagrams, mouth-watering recipes, big ideas—”
“Look, Peter, I just don’t think the guy I’m listening to is ever gonna to do that. Ya wanna know why? I’ll tell ya why. He takes himself too seriously. His ego is too tender, and he protects it too well. He’s afraid of making a fool of himself, afraid that people are going to laugh at him — but there is a way.
“Years ago, I used to listen to Bob Balducci on the radio. He was a ventriloquist, and he had a dummy named Baldy. Baldy used to say the craziest things, insulting things, embarrassing things, stupid things. He used to crack me up. Sometimes, though, Baldy would go a little too far: he’d say something too stupid, or too embarrassing, or too insulting, and you know what he’d say then? He’d say, ‘The big guy made me do it.’ And you know what Balducci would say to that? He’d say, ‘Don’t listen to him—he’s only a dummy.’”
Meanwhile, in Arlington, Massachusetts, I was becoming a bore — always talking about the book I intended to write and always failing to write it. I nearly gave up, but one day I drifted back into the daydream I had had so many years before, and this time Peter and I found ourselves looking at each other, face to face. Ventriloquist and dummy found each other, and I found my life’s work. That night — that very night — I began a draft with the words “In my family,” meaning Peter’s family, and both of us sighed with relief.
We made a pact, formed a working partnership. Peter wanders through his past, and through his boyhood home of Babbington, and he delivers his memories to me. I do the writing, I play the author. At first, I may have thought that in Peter I’d merely found a way to write about myself, and he may have felt that he’d merely found a ventriloquist behind whom he could hide. However, over time, each of us has liberated the other, and each of has become what he is through the agency of the other. We are not the same person, though we share a mind.
Every day, in the early morning hours, I slipped into Peter’s world, writing in an exploratory way, not for publication, not even in an attempt to tell a story, just to see what was there, to learn about Peter, the town where he lived, his friends and family, his experiences, his feelings and ideas. This phase lasted eighteen years. I accumulated cartons of notes — scenes, conversations, encounters, anecdotes — and I still have them. I haven’t opened them in three decades. I don’t need to refer to what’s there; I know it as well as I know my own memories.
I began to ask myself what I was going to do with everything I’d written. It was piling up, and I kept making more of it. It had grown so large that I couldn’t imagine a form that would contain it all. When I tried to make something coherent out of what I’d done, I would go a little way, decide that it was wrong, change course, try again, find that wrong, change again, and so on. Sometimes I didn’t feel up to the task, and sometimes I wondered whether the task was even worth doing.
What was the task — as I saw it then? It was portraiture, primarily, not a snapshot but a movie showing Peter making a rich dish out of bland ingredients, the trivial experiences of quotidian life, life lived at the level at which most of us live it from day to day, not widescreen high-definition, but a reflection in a bathroom mirror in which one can see, over the shoulder of the man standing there, groggy and puzzled, intriguing bits of the small world in which he lives — and beyond the frame a larger world in which we all live.
In 1975, I was laid off by the educational publishing company I’d been working for. I couldn’t find a job, but I did find work, and Madeline and I became Kraft & Kraft, suppliers of editorial services to educational publishers. Our business grew, and it brought me tools for publishing my own work, at least on a modest scale. I began with Peter Leroy’s juvenilia — “Larry Peters Is Missing” and “Larry Peters, Child No More” — and a manifesto for the work I had in mind — “Large and Unsolicited Fiction.” Wednesday evenings became “publication nights,” when I copied a few pages and stuffed them into envelopes for mailing the next day.
I asked the people who received my mailings to recommend others, and the list grew. Eventually, I was publishing a four-page leaflet almost monthly, in a format that resembled a newsletter. I thought I had found the ultimate form for the work — but — life wasn’t ready to let me settle down just yet. In the fall of 1981, Mad and I went broke. Educational publishing was in a depressed period, and I couldn’t justify the expense of publishing the newsletters. Without them, what was going to become of the work? What was going to become of my audience?
I called a small literary publisher who had found his way onto the mailing list and asked whether he’d be interested in a novel with Peter as its narrator and its center. He said, “Let me think about it.” When he called back he said that he thought part of the pleasure of Peter’s story and everything that surrounded it came from receiving the work in pieces. He suggested that we preserve that quality by publishing novellas at regular intervals, the whole adding up to a serial novel with no anticipated end. Well, I thought, why not? Here was a chance to start again, at the beginning. I took it.
Nine novellas followed — from my point of view — nine brief memoirs from Peter Leroy’s of view: My Mother Takes a Tumble, Do Clams Bite?, Life on the Bolotomy, The Static of the Spheres, The Girl with the White Fur Muff, Take the Long Way Home, Call Me Larry, and The Young Tars. Then ten novels followed those — or, for Peter, ten longer memoirs. Peter has told the buoyant love story of his maternal grandparents in Herb ’n’ Lorna, the sad story of his boyhood friend Matthew Barber in Reservations Recommended, the trials and eventual triumph of the sultry older sister of his imaginary friend in What a Piece of Work I Am, and his own story — greatly altered and embellished — in Little Follies, Where Do You Stop?, At Home with the Glynns, Leaving Small’s Hotel, Inflating a Dog, Flying, and Albertine’s Overcoat.
Now, after so many years at this work, I’ve become a crowd, and so has Peter. All the people from my past are with me, wherever I am, wherever I go, and so are their “others,” Peter’s versions of them. I’ve become one of those people who hear inner voices. In my case it’s a shifting internal confabulation, the chatter of an inescapable crowd, with each person in that crowd asking, pleading, or demanding that I tell his story next, or, at the very least, that I find a way to tell her story while I’m telling mine. I’ve become a fictionist. I’ve created a memoirist.
For an obsessive memoirist like the one I’ve created, the actual living of life is both a blessing and a curse. It takes time away from writing, but it provides the raw stuff of the memoir, and that makes it worth living. The memoirist takes that raw stuff and examines it, making an examined life, a life more worth living. But for the fictionist, or for the memoirist who invents as much as he records, living life is only half the fun—it’s just a rough draft. He reinvents the examined life, making an imagined life, a life even more worth living.
But why re-invent what’s already there? Because re-inventing and re-imagining the past forces me to re-examine it and reconsider it. I wanted to examine and record the way we live now—or the way we’ve lived over the past seventy-something years—and I discovered that the way to get to the heart of the matter, the essence of a life, the tone of the times, was to sweep away the obvious cultural references and invent new ones, so that the readers who found themselves in Peter’s world find themselves undertaking the same act of re-examination and reconsideration.
What has the work become? Something like a good clam chowder, Manhattan style. In a really good chowder, fresh clams, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, bits of bacon or salt pork, herbs, spices, and some dark, gritty bits at the bottom are held together by a rich broth that distributes the combined essence of all the flavors throughout the bowl. Similarly, each of the books in the Personal History has its own texture and tang, but Peter’s experiences and observations hold the whole concoction together and flavor each bite with his imagination, voice, and style.
But is it any good? Reviewers seem to think so. They’ve called the Personal History “a series of comic masterpieces, perhaps the most ambitious and rewarding literary enterprise of our time, sentimental, loving, raucous, wise, smart, funny, warmly inviting, great fun, delightfully impossible to define, a laugh-out-loud read with undertones of grief, obsessed with loss, gleefully satirical, a weird wonder, one of the biggest, funniest, sweetest, and looniest undertakings in contemporary American fiction,” and “the literary equivalent of Fred Astaire dancing.”
I had the great good fortune to find the ideal member of my ideal audience before I’d even written anything worth reading: Madeline. And I married her. There comes a point in my work on each book when I think that it’s finished at last — the point when I think that it’s finally good enough to read to her. So I do begin reading it to her, usually a chapter a night. If I see from her response that what I’ve done pleases, impresses, entertains, intrigues, and beguiles her, then I know that the book is ready, and only then is anyone else invited to the party.
Now I’m inviting you.