PROLOGUE, PREFACE, OR WHAT YOU WILL…
Once upon a time, twenty-four Long Island newpapermen decided to find out if they could write a worse book than Jacqueline What’s-Her-Name. Each sat down and wrote a chapter, either all at once or one at a time, and while the result of all of this self-indulgence may not have been worse than Valley of the Whatsits, it certainly belonged in the same ballpark. The twenty-four Long Island newspapermen then took a moderately attractive Long Island housewife and put her face on the back cover. Next they took a ravishing model and put her bare behind on the front cover.
Then they published the book, and it at once began to sell like pussy at a Rotary convention. And just as sales threatened to peak, word of their great coup circulated, and the public whooped with glee and hurried to find out what a purposely bad book would be like. What it was like, of course, was all the unintentionally bad books, but by the time Constant Reader found this out, he already owned the book and couldn’t very well return it.
So what does this All-American success story have to do with us?
It was this very literary hoax which we three sat discussing a couple of nights ago. We three are Harry and Priss and Rhoda. Harry is Harold Kapp. You’ve seen his cartoons everywhere, but you don’t know who he is because nobody remembers cartoonists, except for the one or two everybody remembers. This is one of the banes of Harry’s existence.
Priss is Priscilla Rountree Kapp. She is Harry’s wife, and another of the banes of his existence.
Rhoda is Rhoda Muir, which is me. Sitting here, at this kitchen table, typing this. Typing it far more slowly, I might add, than you are reading it, and that holds even if you’re a lip-mover. This is harder work than I expected. Anyway, this is me, Rhoda Muir, divorcee and dilettante-of-all-trades, and I suppose another bane of Harry’s etc… You could put me down as a friend of the family.
We were sitting in the cozy Kapp living room, watching a fire die in the fireplace and each of us waiting for someone else to abandon his or her drink long enough to throw a log on it-on the fire, dummy, not on the drink. And after we had discussed and condemned the Long Island newspapermen, the housewife on the back cover, the publisher, the reading public, and in fact everything connected with the aforementioned book except the demurely dimpled behind on its front cover, and after the conversation had died down rather like the fire and each of us had gone off in a huddle with private thoughts, I said, “You know, we could do something like that.”
“Naked Came the Clyde. A bestseller.”
Priss made one of her faces at me, at once narrowing her eyes and raising her eyebrows. I think the operative adjective is querulous. Harry gazed off into the middle distance, either exploring the possibilities or gathering wool.
Priss said, “We’re not writers, love.”
“Neither were those twenty-four guys.”
“They were newspapermen.”
“Doesn’t count,” Harry said. “A newspaperman is just a schmuck who covers high school track meets and then spells everybody’s name wrong.”
“That off the top of your head?”
“It’s not bad,” Priss said. “Actually, one of us sort of is a writer. Rho wrote tons of things at school. And you’ve written things since then, haven’t you?”
“I’ve begun things.”
“Well begun,” said Harry, “is half done.”
“I think the line about the newspapermen has more of a feeling of originality to it,” I told him. “Anyway, nothing I’ve started has been well begun. Or at least not well enough begun so as to ever be finished. Though some of them were promising. But that’s the whole point, don’t you see?”
They didn’t see.
“I think you would have to be really a writer or else very damned dogged to write a whole book. Books are long. You can’t just dash them off in odd moments like greeting card verse.”
“Or like cartoons,” Harry put in.
I ignored this. “But almost anyone,” I went on, “could write a chapter.”
“And when you’ve got enough chapters,” I continued, “you’ve got yourself a book.”
“There are three of us,” Priss said.
“So we would need twenty-one more newspapermen. Or cartoonists, or writers, or six-day bike racers or anything.”
“Not if we each write enough chapters.”
“You mean we each write a third of a book?”
“Well, yes, but a chapter at a time.”
“Of course it would be a chapter at a time, Rho. It would also be a page at a time, a sentence at a time, a word at a-”
I said, “No, you’re missing the point. One of us writes a chapter, then another writes one, then the third, and back and forth like that until a book results. That way nobody gets bogged down in the middle of a long lonely stretch of monotony.”
“Except the poor reader,” said Harry.
I ignored this, too. I finished my drink and rattled its ice cubes until Harry grunted to his feet and poured Scotch all over them. (The ice cubes, not his feet. Why do I keep doing that? Not even at the end of the first chapter and already I’m clicking along like the Bad Examples section of an eighth-grade grammar text.) I sipped my drink. Harry poured more for himself, and for Priss. Priss suggested that while he was up he throw a log on the fire. He said something inaudible, which was probably just as well, and threw a log on the fire.
I said, “I think it would be a lot of fun, actually. Not to say interesting and absorbing. Not to say potentially profitable, if we can find some clown to publish it.”
“And promote the hell out of it,” Harry suggested.
Priss gazed into the fire. “I don’t know which I would rather not have,” she said thoughtfully. “My face on the back cover or my bottom on the front.”
“Toss a coin,” Harry said. “It’s a question of-”
“I know, I know.”
“-heads or tails,” Harry said, unnecessarily. Sometimes it’s hard stopping him.
We went on, in this weathered vein, joking about autograph parties and guest spots on the Carson show. It was reasonably amusing conversation and went well with the drinks and the fire and the music. Mozart, if I remember correctly. And if you care.
And then, after another round of drinks had been poured and another log sentenced to immolation, Priss finally said, “Hey, wait a minute.”
We waited part of a minute.
“What is it going to be about?”
“Our book,” she said. “A book has to be about something. What’s it going to be about?”
“It is going to be about sixty-five thousand words long,” Harry said.
“I’m serious,” Priss said.