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Dark Comedies of the City

In Hurry Down Sunshine (2008), Michael Greenberg told the story of his daughter Sally’s breakdown—of how, in the summer of 1996, she “was struck mad.” His extraordinary tale of the journey he and his daughter make following Sally’s collapse tells us as much about the complexity and mystery of those conditions we call mental illness as it does about what happens within a family when all moments—moments that often extend across lifetimes—become informed, and transformed, by the confusion, pain, and suffering brought on when one family member goes mad.

Hurry Down Sunshine,” Oliver Sacks has written in these pages,

may provide a sort of guide for those who have to negotiate the dark regions of the soul—a guide, too, for their families and friends, for all those who want to understand what their loved ones are going through. Perhaps, too, it will remind us of what a narrow ridge of normality we all inhabit, with the abysses of mania and depression yawning to either side.1

In his new book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, a compilation of forty-four essays (culled from 150) he contributed to the Times Literary Supplement between 2003 and 2008, Greenberg is again our guide, this time not only to his life and Sally’s, and to how they dealt with the aftermath of having their lives publicly exposed, but to a wide range of subjects, most of which derive from his sometimes darkly comic struggles to become a writer.

Unlike most American writers of his generation, Greenberg, born in 1952, never went to college. Raised in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Rockaway, New York (his father owned a scrap-metal business), he attended an academically rigorous cheder (Hebrew day school) until the eighth grade, but left home soon after.

Among the family my fights with [my father] were famous. The last one occurred when I was fifteen. I followed him around the apartment, taunting him with a line from my latest poem, “Which do you think is worth more, flesh or steel?” At the end of his rope, he took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast. “You have guts, but no common sense,” he said. “One cancels out the other. A total waste.”

Two years later, Greenberg dropped out of school because he was “sold on the idea that it was a shortcut to becoming a writer,” and for the next thirty years supported his writing habit with a series of jobs that seem more fascinating in the telling than the doing. He was a cab driver, a furniture mover, a fire alarm salesman, a journalist, a postal worker, a waiter, and a street peddler; he worked in bookstores, gave Spanish lessons, wrote movie scripts (including one about golf, a game he had never played), and was a Spanish-language interpreter in the New York City court system. Greenberg is also a knowing guide to a range of subjects as various as his jobs: New York City rats, Central Park owls, Hart’s Island (and its thousands of paupers’ graves), polyamorism, circumcision, the stock market, forgotten writers (Ludwig Lewisohn, William Herrick), and the only prerevolutionary African cemetery in the United States, which is buried, with some 20,000 graves, under a skyscraper in Lower Manhattan.

Most of Greenberg’s tales are set in New York City, where he is often an endearingly hapless companion, for despite street smarts gained from a lifetime of living on the margins of what he calls “the American hustle,” he often ends up the victim of con artists and grifters. Thus his career as street peddler, selling goods from an ironing board:

I specialized in cosmetics—eye pencils, compacts, lip gloss, and the like. My supplier operated out of a three-room apartment above a wig shop in Brooklyn. The place was packed from floor to ceiling with knockoffs designed to look as if they had been manufactured by Helena Rubenstein and Lancôme. He sold them for a buck apiece. “Tell your customers they’re hot,” he advised me when I inquired what to do if questioned about the legal status of my wares. “It’ll make them think they’re getting a bargain.”

On the recommendation of Lucho, a Chilean immigrant and friend, Greenberg sets up shop on Fordham Road in the Bronx. “If you’re not careful,” Lucho warns, “street-vending is just another way of starving.” Lucho sells “golden sticks of fried sugary dough from a plastic milk crate,” and suggests, because of their “complementary products,” that they work in tandem: “’ Belleza y comida.’ Beauty and food.”

They hawk their wares in front of a large women’s department store, where, for a small payoff, the security guard leaves them alone. Taking money from his female customers, Greenberg writes, “I would be reminded of Gorky’s description of trapping songbirds for his grandmother to sell in town at the market.” When the low price of his products ($3.50) makes his customers suspicious, Lucho advises him to raise the price to five dollars, and business picks up.

Greenberg’s most profitable day is the Saturday before Easter. To his surprise, Lucho doesn’t show up. “As I was preparing to leave, three teenagers robbed me of goods and cash,” Greenberg writes. “The following week Lucho was nowhere to be found…. The security guard at the department store informed me that he wouldn’t be able to protect me any longer, and my career as a street vendor ended.”

Whether as street peddler, waiter, dog trainer, investor, or writer-for-hire, Greenberg ends up on the short end of the stick. “Where money is concerned…,” he concludes, “hope is counterproductive.”

For three years Greenberg lives in Argentina: “As an aspiring writer, I figured I would do well to experience a place other than New York and so, with money salted away from a job at a Manhattan post office, I lit out for South America with my high school girlfriend Robin.”

It was the early 1970s, the prime of the Latin American literary boom. An aura of promise and political chaos pervaded the continent, and part of its attraction was that the two seemed to go hand in hand. My idea was that North and South were inextricably entwined, the extension and flip side of each other, the alpha and omega of the New World. Borges, with his metaphysical tales, was connected to Hawthorne and Poe. García Márquez was heir to Faulkner.

With the hope of tapping into this current,” Greenberg and Robin settle in Buenos Aires, where he finds work as a stringer for American publications. Eager to meet Borges, he is told to “use the pretext of his blindness to accompany him across the street when he emerged from the National Library where he worked.”

It proved to be good advice. Within seconds of introducing myself, he guessed that I was from New York, and then, with the confident divination of his blindness, that I was Jewish, a tribalism whose bloodline, he assured me, he shared by a demonstrable quarter.

Borges was seventy-four, but his soft pale face, his slightly Castilian lisp, and his unshielded, upward-floating eyes gave him a childlike air. Lamenting Argentina’s deteriorating political situation, he employed the same words he had once used to describe going blind. “It is like watching a slow sunset.”

Within a year of Greenberg’s arrival, Argentina is at the point of civil war, and his life during this period reads like a story by one of the South American writers he admires. “I was electrified by the turmoil, though I should have been alarmed,” he writes. Late at night, he and Robin “lie awake in [their] apartment listening to gunshots and the explosion of homemade bombs.” After visiting a friend in a hospital, Robin stumbles into a demonstration, runs away from tear gas, and is arrested. The next morning she is identified in the newspapers as a member of a “revolutionary cell.”

For three days, Greenberg tramps from one police station to another until he finds Robin “in a tiny cell on the outskirts of the city.” When he appeals to the United States consul for help, he is told that for $7,000 cash he can gain her immediate release. “This is the police chief’s price, not mine,” the consul says. Greenberg scrapes together $900, enough to get the local firehouse captain to have Robin charged with disorderly conduct.

After nearly being killed when police open fire on her cell (a fellow prisoner pushes her to the ground), Robin is released, and she and Greenberg take a steamship to Montevideo, then travel through the Uruguayan countryside. “For a week we holed up in a town called Fray Bentos, hardly leaving the inn where we stayed,” Greenberg writes. “We were twenty years old. Our future as a couple was fragile. We had never discussed having a child, but we made love in a kind of lustless trance….” (Later he realizes that Fray Bentos is the setting for Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious.”) Greenberg and Robin return to New York, where the son they conceived in Fray Bentos is born. Six years later they have a daughter—Sally—and six years after this, they break up.

Greenberg’s gifts as a storyteller—his spare style, shrewd use of detail, easy way with unpredictable references (Gorky on Fordham Road), lack of sentimentality, and sense of the surreal in the ordinary—are evident throughout the book, whether recounting adventures in South America, or observing a New York City street scene. “I stood at my window after midnight,” he writes,

watching [rats] scoop water from the curb with their front paws. Dozens of them were hanging out like teenagers, copulating, browsing, completely at ease. Released from their usual panicked state, a new arrogance was revealed. When crossing paths with them, I felt a shiver of recognition, and hatred.

One of the most unforgivable things about [rats],” he comments, “is how much they remind us of ourselves,” and he ends his explanation of how and why this is so with a quote from Joseph Mitchell about rats in a poultry market: “They bit the throats of over three hundred broilers and ate less than a dozen.”

In 1978, Greenberg tells us,

I was making my living moving furniture in a used van with a hired helper. Between jobs I looked after my two-year-old son and worked on my novel… Two years later, I sold the novel, only to have its publication canceled when the publishing company changed corporate hands and my editor was fired.

Greenberg sends the novel to Ted Solotaroff, an editor at Harper and Row whom he admires but does not know. “I heard from him after only a week,” he writes. “A letter in the maibox: ‘This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction. Good luck trying to find it a home.’”

Twenty years later, he meets Solotaroff at a party:

I mentioned, casually, the rejection note. “Twenty years ago, you say?” He didn’t remember it. “Maybe it made you stronger. The name of the game is endurance. I’ve seen a lot of writers drop away after a few decent stories and disappear.”

After more rejections of his novel, and yet more odd jobs, he marries again, has another son, moves to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and comes to write a regular column for the Times Literary Supplement.2 In his mid-fifties he publishes Hurry Down Sunshine, thereby joining a fair-sized club of writers who published their first books in their forties, fifties, or beyond: James Michener, James M. Cain, Louis Begley, Sue Miller, Harriet Doerr, William Wiser, Harry Bernstein, Frank McCourt, Raymond Chandler.

Mulling Solotaroff’s remarks, I found myself noting that I had myself accumulated, by my count, 576 rejections before I sold my first story, and more than two thousand rejections on eight unpublished books before I sold my first novel. What keeps writers going, as it does Greenberg, is a sense that though, when rejected or ignored, we may feel such things intensely, we learn not to take them personally. Thus, more than a hundred years ago, in The Private Papers of Henry Rye-croft, George Gissing writes:

And why should any man who writes, even if he writes things immortal, nurse anger at the world’s neglect? Who asked him to publish? Who promised him a hearing? Who has broken faith with him? If my shoemaker turn me out an excellent pair of boots, and I, in some mood of cantankerous unreason, throw them back upon his hands, the man has just cause of complaint. But your poem, your novel, who bargained with you for it?

Near the end of Beg, Borrow, Steal, Greenberg writes about what has become a minor literary plague—writers inventing tales they purvey as memoirs—and directs our attention to issues beyond deceit and plagiarism: to concerns, literary and ethical, that arise whenever we write about people we know. Invoking Aharon Appelfeld’s memoir The Story of a Life, which tells of Appelfeld’s childhood during the Holocaust, Greenberg is “brought…back to the sanity of darkness.” Although Appelfeld has written more than twenty books about his years in the camps, Greenberg realizes, he has never written about his reunion with his father, also a survivor. A friend tells Greenberg:

After the war, Appelfeld discovered that a man with his name had arrived in Israel from Europe. “Aharon went to the kibbutz where this Appelfeld was living and found his father on a ladder pruning an apple tree. They were so astonished that they were unable to speak to each other for months.”

When asked why he hadn’t put the story in his memoir, Applefeld said he was afraid that if he did he would never write another word.

The writing of a memoir is “tricky,” Greenberg notes, “not only because the form has been dragged through the mud by its own practitioners in recent years,” but because, as he has come to believe, the act of writing can be “a betrayal. I was exposing [Sally’s] psychosis, chronicling in detail what could have been painlessly left unsaid.”

Sally, however, says she does not feel betrayed. “I felt,” she wrote him, “I was reading about someone else, a fifteen-year-old girl named Sally who had been to hell and was the only one who didn’t know it. How many people get to look at themselves in such a way?”

Greenberg tells of a teacher in his Hebrew day school who objected to students taking art class because doing so would violate God’s second commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.” He writes:

Lately I’ve been thinking that in a way my teacher was right—not in the sense of making pictures, but about writing of people you know. Most people are disturbed when an experience they’ve had is told for them—and the closer the person is to you, the more he or she is apt to feel wronged. What captures their attention is not the scrupulous portrait you’ve drawn, but rather the unpleasantness of seeing themselves as a manipulated object in the drama of their own life.

Greenberg writes of the ambivalent and often angry reactions to his writing by his wife, brothers, and other relatives. A friend, Eric, feels “stabbed” by Greenberg’s portrayal of him. But it was “written with real fondness,” another friend says. “You didn’t betray a secret. You didn’t make anything up. So where’s the problem?”

Eric had once commented on how closely I listened to him,” Greenberg writes by way of response. “Enough to steal a piece of his soul.”

In his book Other People’s Trades, Primo Levi writes that his essays were “the fruit of my roaming about as a curious dilettante.” They are, he said, “‘invasions of the field,’ incursions into other people’s trades, poaching in private hunting preserves” that “affect me with the durable fascination of unsatisfied and unrequited loves, and excite my instincts as a voyeur and kibitzer.” This could also be said of Greenberg and his curiosity about “the dark sanity of the world,” and about how—or why—we sometimes survive.

  1. 1

    See “A Summer of Madness,” The New York Review, September 25, 2008.

  2. 2

    Greenberg’s final TLS column appeared on October 16 of this year.

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