It may not be literature, but it’s a fast-paced adventure. At the risk of sounding like an old British military officer, it’s a cracking good yarn. It has more twists and turns than a mountain road, and a climax that would please James Bond. Nathaniel York knows Eugene Walters wants to kill him, so he decides to get Walters first. It’s about being chased and chasing, and that’s why Brizzolara said, “Not to pat myself on the shoulder — but I think it’s like Moby-Dick. The white whale in this story would be the big, bad white guy.”
“Really?” I asked. “I thought you were going to say the white whale is death.”
“That’s interesting that you say that. Really, really interesting. There’s a scene I love in here. It came from out of nowhere. I don’t know where it came from. Nathaniel York and a guy named Sufi…”
Before he finished his sentence I said, “I know: they’re talking about death.”
Brizzolara bolted up from the bed and grabbed my leg and said, “It’s a fucking thrill to have somebody read this story!”
“Well, I did read it, and when I got to that part I wondered if it wasn’t what the whole book was about.”
“Yeah, you got it. You nailed it. It’s about death.”
In the scene we were referring to, Nathaniel York is surfing with a character named Sufi. The waves are flat, and they’re just lying on their boards, talking.
[Sufi] waved at a low-flying detachment of the primal-looking birds scooping the shoreline. “So you gotta let go of that. Rather, you’ve got to be ready to let go.”
“You talking about pelicans or death?”
“Yeah,” he answered. Very Sufi-like. And then, “You see, I know something dead men know.” He turned and looked at me levelly. He didn’t seem any crazier than he had a minute ago.
“Some soldiers know it and some cops, old people, sick people, firemen, and doctors…a few other people know it.”
“I give up.”
He whispered, “You ready?”
I nodded, smiling, ready for the big revelation.
Still whispering, he said, “It’s better to be alive than it is to be dead.” We stared at each other for a moment, smiling questioningly at each other, and then he laughed and tumbled off his board into the water.
He climbed back up and splashed some water at me. “Once you know that, there’s only one kind of passion you really got to look out for. Know what it is?”
“Death,” I answered.
“You got it. Perverse, isn’t it?” He started to paddle farther out with strong, even strokes.
That’s the image Brizzolara and I had in our minds. I said, “Running from death. Running to it.”
“And how we each do it. This poor schmuck, you know, has these bad circumstances. I mean, you know, I’ve got heart disease, cancer, all this stuff. We’re all running from it. You’re right, it’s death. The white whale.”
“Nathaniel York is running from it. But in another way, he’s also running toward it. Like in Moby-Dick.”
“Yeah, like Ishmael. In this sense, it’s paradoxical. He’s trying to embrace life on the one hand. On the other, it’s, like, ‘Take me out of here! Give me the worst that can happen!’ ”
Brizzolara looked down at the floor, or maybe the tumbler. I waited until he said, “Ask me some questions.”
“All right. To what extent is Nathaniel York really John Brizzolara?”
“I’m not the tough guy Nathaniel York is, but the thing is, I’m the wise guy. You know, you wake up in the morning and you’re pissed off at your boss and you’re telling him off in the mirror. All the things you wish you could say. York gets to say these things. I don’t, because I live in the real world.”
He paused at this point, as though mentioning the real world had suddenly made him too aware of the one he was living in and the one that was living in him. He reached down for the now-empty tumbler on the floor, hauled himself off the mattress, and took three steps to a little cupboard. He filled the tumbler with vodka, leaving just enough room for a tiny splash of orange juice, the closest thing to nourishment he would get all day.
“This is really a bad time for me,” he said. “The past few months I’ve had bypass surgery, and then I got the flu, and, you know, I’m an alcoholic. The alcohol has really screwed up the medications.”
I had pushed too hard. Nathaniel York is John Brizzolara, and we both knew it. But I had wanted him to say it, to admit it, to make the point for my nice little article. I had opened a not-so-nice wound of self-awareness that he now wanted to medicate with his drug of choice.
I had to pull back, find safer ground. It seemed a good time to bring up his background. “You were raised in Chicago?” I said.
“Yeah. Big Italian family. Eight kids.”
“Where were you in the lineup?”
“Second born. I have an older sister who is a Jehovah’s Witness who considers me a prime candidate for hell. I took off to California and became a rock musician, ending up in New York. Not a very literary background. I always just wanted to eat life, to devour it. And I thought I could do anything, anything. I’m 52 years old right now, and I realize now [he chuckled], ‘You’re an idiot!’ But the thing is, I’m proud of some of the stuff I’ve done. These things you see on the walls? These are illustrations for stories I’ve done.”
“Why did you start writing?”
“My father was a writer. He did some fiction, but mostly he was a writer for Catholic magazines. I’d watch my father smoking his pipe, sitting at his Remington, and he’d pull the page out, and I’d look and I’d read it and I wouldn’t understand a word of it, but I knew it was magic. It was just, like, ‘Wow! This is wonderful! Where does he get all these words?’ Apparently some Freudian thing, you know. That’s what I wanted to do. And my father would always buy me books. Sherlock Holmes, Robert Benchley. I’d love every one of them. And this stuff” — he pointed to his manuscript on the bed — “is a direct descendent of my dad in the drugstore, pulling a book off the rack. ‘Here, read this, read this.’ I admired this guy so tremendously.”