You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

23. The Lion Hunters

In New York his book got a somewhat better reception than it ‘enjoyed back home. The author was unknown. Nobody had any advance reason to care about what he had written one way or another. Though this was not exactly an asset, at least it gave the book a chance to be considered on its merits.

Surprisingly enough, it got pretty good reviews in most of the leading newspapers and magazines. That is, they were the kind of reviews that his publisher called “good”. They said nice things about the book and made people want to buy it. George himself could have wished that some of the reviewing gentry, even some of those who hailed him as “a discovery” and studded their sentences with superlatives, had been a little more discriminating in what they said of him. Occasionally he could have asked for a little more insight into what he had been driving at. But after reading the letters from his former friends and neighbours he was in no mood to quarrel with anybody who felt disposed to speak him a soft and gentle word, and on the whole he had every reason to be well pleased with his press.

He read the notices avidly, feverishly, and sooner or later he must have seen them all, for his publisher showed him the clippings as they came in from every section of the country. He would take great bunches of them home to devour. When his eager eye ran upon a word of praise it was like magic to him, and he would stride about his room in a delirium of joy. When he read a savage, harsh, unfavourable review, he felt crushed: even though it came from some little rural paper in the South, his fingers would tremble, his face turn pale, and he would wad it up in his hand and curse it bitterly.

Whenever a notice of his work appeared in one of the best magazines or weekly journals, he could hardly bring himself to read it; neither could he go away from it and leave it unread. He would approach it as a man creeps stealthily to pick a snake up by the tail, his heart leaping at the sight of his name. He would scan the last line first, then with a rush of blood to his face he would plunge into it at once, devouring the whole of it as quickly as he could. And if he saw that it was going to be “good”, a feeling of such powerful joy and exultancy would well up in his throat that he would want to shout his triumph from the windows. If he saw that the verdict was going to be “thumbs down”, he would read on with agonised fascination, and his despair would be so great that he would feel he was done for, that he had been exposed to the world as a fool and a failure, and that he would never be able to write another line.

After the more important reviews appeared, his mail gradually took on a different complexion. Not that the flood of damning letters from home had ceased, but now, along with them, began to come messages of another kind, from utter strangers who had read his novel and liked it. The book was doing pretty well, it seemed. ‘It even appeared on some of the best-seller lists, and then things really began to happen. Soon his box was stuffed with fan mail, and the telephone jingled merrily all day long with invitations from wealthy and cultivated people who wanted him for lunch, for tea, for dinner, for theatre parties, for week-ends in the country — for anything at all if he would only come.

Was this Fame at last? It looked so, and in the first flush of his eager belief he almost forgot about Libya Hill and rushed headlong into the welcoming arms of people he had never seen before. He accepted invitations right and left, and they kept him pretty busy. And each time he went out it seemed to him that he was on the very point of capturing all the gold and magic he had ever dreamed of finding, and that now he was really going to take a place of honour among the great ones of the city, in a life more fortunate and good than any he had ever known. He went to each encounter with each new friend as though some wonderful and intoxicating happiness were impending for him.

But he never found it. For, in spite of all the years he had lived in New York, he was still a country boy, and he did not know about the lion hunters. They are a peculiar race of people who inhabit the upper jungles of Cosmopolis and subsist entirely on some rarefied and ambrosial ectoplasm that seems to emanate from the arts. They love art dearly — in fact, they dote on it — and they love the artists even more. So they spend their whole lives running after them, and their favourite sport is trapping literary lions. The more intrepid hunters go after nothing but the full-grown lions, who make the most splendid trophies for exhibition purposes, but others — especially the lady hunters — would rather bag a cub. A cub, once tamed and housebroken, makes a nice pet — much nicer than a lap dog — because there’s just no limit to the beguiling tricks a gentle hand can teach him.

For a few weeks George was quite the fair-haired boy among these wealthy and cultivated people.

One of his new-found friends told him about an aesthetic and high-minded millionaire who was panting with eagerness to meet him. From others came further confirmation of the fact.

“The man is mad about your work,” people would say to him. “He’s crazy to meet you. And you ought to go to see him, because a man like that might be of great help to you.”

They told George that this man had asked all kinds of questions about him, and had learned that he was very poor and had to work for a small salary as an instructor in the School for Utility Cultures. When the millionaire heard this, his great heart began to bleed for the young author immediately. It was intolerable, he said, that such a state of affairs should exist. America was the only country in the world where it would be permitted. Anywhere in Europe — yes, even in poor little Austria! — the artist would be subsidised, the ugly threat of poverty that hung over him would be removed, his best energies would be released to do his finest work — and, by God, he was going to see that this was done for George!

George had never expected anything like this to happen, and he could not see why such a thing should be done for any man. Nevertheless, when he thought of this great-hearted millionaire, he burned with eagerness to meet him and began to love him like a brother.

So a meeting was arranged, and George went to see him, and the man was very fine to him. The millionaire had George to his house for dinner several times and showed him off to all of his rich friends. And one lovely woman to whom the millionaire introduced the poor young author took him home with her that very night and granted him the highest favour in her keeping.

Then the millionaire had to go abroad on brief but urgent business. George went to the boat to see him off, and his friend shook him affectionately by the shoulder, called him by his first name, and told him that if there was anything he wanted, just to let him know by cable and he would see that it was done. He said he would be back within a month at most, and would be so busy that he wouldn’t have time to write, but he would get in touch with George again as soon as he returned. With this he wrung George by the hand and sailed away.

A month, six weeks, two months went by, and George heard nothing from the man. It was well into the new year before he saw him again, and then by accident.

A young lady had invited George to have lunch with her at an expensive speak-easy. As soon as they entered the place George saw his millionaire friend sitting alone at one of the tables. Immediately George uttered a cry of joy and started across the room to meet him with his hand outstretched, and in such precipitate haste that he fell sprawling across an intervening table and two chairs. When he picked himself up from the floor, the man had drawn back with an expression of surprise and perplexity on his face, but he unbent sufficiently to take the young man’s proffered hand and to say coolly, in an amused and tolerant voice:

“Ah — it’s our writer friend again? How are you?”

The young man’s crestfallen confusion and embarrassment were so evident that the rich man’s heart was quite touched. His distant manner thawed out instantly, and now nothing would do but that George should bring the young lady over to the millionaire’s table so that they could all have lunch together.

During the course of the meal the man became very friendly and attentive. It seemed he just couldn’t do enough for George. He kept helping him to various dishes and filling his glass with more wine. And whenever George turned to him he would find the man looking at him with an expression of such obvious sympathy and commiseration that finally he felt compelled to ask him what the trouble was.

“Ah,” he said, shaking his head with a doleful sigh, “I was mighty sorry when I read about it.”

“Read about what?”

“Why,” he said, “the prize.”

“What prize?”

“But didn’t you read about it in the paper? Didn’t you see what happened?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said George, puzzled. “What did happen?”

“Why,” he said, “you didn’t get it.”

“Didn’t get what?”

“The prize!” he cried —“the prize!”— mentioning a literary prize that was awarded every year. “I thought you would be sure to get it, but”— he paused a moment, then went on sorrowfully —“they gave it to another man . . . You got mentioned . . . you were runner-up . . . but”— he shook his head gloomily —“you didn’t get it.”

So much for his gocd friend, the millionaire. George never saw him again after that. And yet, let no one say that he was ever bitter.

Then there was Dorothy.

Dorothy belonged to that fabulous and romantic upper crust of New York “Society” which sleeps by day and begins to come awake at sunset and never seems to have any existence at all outside of the better-known hot spots of the town. She had been expensively educated for a life of fashion, she had won a reputation in her set for being quite an intellectual because she had been known to read a book, and so, of course, when George Webber’s novel was listed as a best seller she bought it and left it lying around in prominent places in her apartment. Then she wrote the author a scented note, asking him to come and have a cocktail with her. He did, and at her urging he went back to see her again and again.

Dorothy was no longer as young as she had been, but she was well built, had kept her figure and her face, and was not a bad-looking wench. She had never married, and apparently felt she did not need to, for it was freely whispered about that she seldom slept alone. One heard that she had bestowed her favours not only upon all the gentlemen of her own set, but also upon such casual gallants as the milkmen on her family’s estate, stray taxi-drivers, writers of da-da, professional bicycle riders, wasteland poets, and plug-ugly bruisers with flat feet and celluloid collars. So George had expected their friendship to come quickly to its full flower, and he was quite surprised and disappointed when nothing happened.

His evenings with Dorothy turned out to be quiet and serious tête-à-têtes devoted to highly intellectual conversation. Dorothy remained as chaste as a nun, and George began to wonder whether she had not been grossly maligned by evil tongues. He found her intellectual and aesthetic interests rather on the dull side, and was several times on the point of giving her up in sheer boredom. But always she would pursue him, sending him notes and letters written in a microscopic hand on paper edged with red, and he would go back again, partly out of curiosity and a desire to find out what it was the woman was after.

He found out. Dorothy asked him to dine with her one night at a fashionable restaurant, and on this occasion she brought along her current sleeping companion, a young Cuban with patent-leather hair. George sat at the table between them. And while the Cuban gave his undivided attention to the food before him, Dorothy began to talk to George, and he learned to his chagrin that she had picked him out of all the world to be the victim of her only sacred passion.

“I love you, Jawge,” she leaned over and whispered loudly in her rather whiskified voice. “I love you — but mah love for you is pewer!” She looked at him with a soulful expression. “You, Jawge — I love you for your maind,” she rumbled on, “for your spirit! But Miguel! Miguel!”— here her eyes roved over the Cuban as he sat tucking the food away with both hands —“Miguel — I love him for his bawd-y! He has no maind, but he has a fa-ine bawd-y,” she whispered lustfully, “a fa-ine beaut-iful bawd-y — so slim — so boyish — so La-tin!”

She was silent for a moment, and when she went on it was in a tone of foreboding:

“I wantcha to come with us to-naight, Jawge!” she said abruptly. “I don’t know what is going to happen,” she said ominously, “and I wantcha nee-ah me.”

“But what is going to happen, Dorothy?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered. “I just don’t know. Anything might happen! . . . Why, last night I thought that he was gone! We had a fight and he walked out on me! These La-tins are so proud, so sen-sitive! He caught me looking at another man, and he got up and left me flat! . . . If he left me I don’t know what I’d do, Jawge,” she panted. “I think I’d die! I think I’d kill myself!”

Her eye rested broodingly upon her lover, who at this moment was bending forward with bared teeth towards the tines of his uplifted fork on which a large and toothsome morsel of broiled chicken was impaled. Feeling their eyes upon him, he looked up with his fork poised in mid-air, smiled with satisfaction, then seized the bit of chicken in his jaws, took a drink to wash it down, and wiped his moist lips with a napkin. After that he elegantly lifted one hand to shield his mouth, inserted a finger-nail between his teeth, detached a fragment of his victuals, and daintily ejected it upon the floor, while his lady’s fond eye doted on him. Then he picked up the fork again and resumed his delightful gastronomic labours.

“I shouldn’t worry about it, Dorothy,” George said to her. “I don’t think he’s going to leave you for some time.”

“I should die!” she muttered. “I really think that it would kill me! . . . Jawge, you’ve got to come with us to-naight! I just wantcha to be nee-ah me! I feel so safe — so secure— when you’re around! You’re so sawlid, Jawge — so comfawtin’!” she said. “I wantcha to be theah to tawk to me — to hold mah hand and comfawt me — if anything should happen,” she said, at the same time putting her hand on his and squeezing it.

But George did not go with her that night, nor any night thereafter. This was the last he saw of Dorothy. But surely none can say that he was ever bitter.

Again, there was the rich and beautiful young widow whose husband had died just a short time before, and who mentioned this sad fact in the moving and poignantly understanding letter she wrote to George about his book. Naturally, he accepted her kind invitation to drop in for tea. And almost at once the lovely creature offered to make the supreme sacrifice, first beginning with an intimate conversation about poetry, then looking distressed and saying it was very hot in here and did he mind if she took off her dress, then taking it off, and everything else as well, until she stood there as God made her, then getting into bed and casting the mop of her flaming red hair about on the pillow, rolling her eyes in frenzied grief, and crying out in stricken tones: “0 Algernon! Algernon! Algernon!”— which was the name of her departed husband.

“0 Algernon!” she cried, rolling about in grief and shaking her great mop of flaming hair —“Algie, darling, I am doing it for you! Algie, come back to me! Algie, I love you so! My pain is more than I can bear! Algernon! — No, no, poor boy!” she cried, seizing George by the arm as he started to crawl out of bed, because, to tell the truth, he did not know whether she had gone mad or was playing some wicked joke on him. “Don’t go!” she whispered tenderly, clinging to his arm. “You just don’t understand! I want to be so good to you — but everything I do or think or feel is Algernon, Algernon, Algernon!”

She explained that her heart was buried in her husband’s grave, that she was really “a dead woman” (she had already told him she was a great reader of psychologies), and that the act of love was just an act of devotion to dear old Algie, an effort to be with him again and to be “a part of all this beauty.”

It was very fine and high and rare, and surely no one will think that George would sneer at a beautiful emotion, although it was too fine for him to understand. Therefore he went away, and never saw this lovely and sorrowful widow any more. He knew he was not fine enough. And yet, not for a moment should you think that he was ever bitter.

Finally, there was another girl who came into George Webber’s life during this period of his brief glory, and her he understood. She was a beautiful and brave young woman, country-bred, and she had a good job, and a little apartment from which you could see the East River, the bridges, and all the busy traffic of the tugs and barges. She was not too rare and high for him, although she liked to take a part in serious conversations, to know worth-while people with liberal minds, and to keep up her interest in new schools and modern methods for the children. George became quite fond of her, and would stay all night and go away at daybreak when the streets were empty, and the great buildings went soaring up haggardly, incredibly, as if he were the first man to discover them, in the pale, pure, silent light of dawn.

He loved her well; and one night, after a long silence, she put her arms round him, drew him down beside her, and kissed him, whispering:

“Will you do something for me if I ask you to?”

“Darling, anything!” he said. “Anything you ask me, if I can!” She held him pressed against her for a moment in the dark and living silence.

“I want you to use your influence to get me into the Cosmopolis Club,” she whispered passionately ——

And then dawn came, and the stars fell.

This was the last he saw of the great world of art, of fashion, and of letters.

And if it seems to anyone a shameful thing that I have written thus of shameful things and shameful people, then I am sorry for it. My only object is to set down here the truthful record of George Webber’s life, and he, I feel quite sure, would be the last person in the world to wish me to suppress any chapter of it. So I do not think that I have written shamefully.

The only shame George Webber felt was that at one time in his life, for however short a period, he broke bread and sat at the same table with any man when the living warmth of friendship was not there; or that he ever traded upon the toil of his brain and the blood of his heart to get the body of a scented whore that might have been better got in a brothel for some greasy coins. This was the only shame he felt. And this shame was so great in him that he wondered if all his life thereafter would be long enough to wash out of his brain and blood the last pollution of its loathsome taint.

And yet, he would not have it thought that he was bitter.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02