I should have known better than to rip the Confident Man’s copy of the bestseller Blade by Blade out of his hands, fling open the door to Morningside Coffee, and whip the book halfway down Broadway. But I had just broken up with my girlfriend, I hadn’t slept since, and that autumn something about that book seemed to always set me off. It felt as though I was seeing Blade by Blade everywhere—half the suckers who sat next to me on the bus were reading that so-called memoir. § I probably should have kept walking when the Confident Man caught up to me on Broadway and offered to buy me a beer. But throwing his book had just gotten me fired from the café, and so I didn’t have any better offers. Besides, I really did need a drink.
The other café workers and I had been calling him the Confident Man because he always dressed so nattily and tipped so well. But as I sat across from him in the 106 Bar on Amsterdam Avenue drinking the Guinness he had bought me, he told me his name was Jed Roth. My theory had been that he was either an actor or a gambler, but as it turned out, he was an editor. For a moment I thought that Roth might be offering to publish some of my work, but though he remembered having read it, and said he had admired it, he told me he didn’t work for Merrill anymore, wasn’t working as an editor anywhere now.
“What happened?” I asked. Roth held up his newly scuffed copy of Blade by Blade, showing me the spine with the Merrill Books logo on it.
“This happened,” he said.
Alittle more than a decade earlier, when he was about my age and he had just moved to New York, Jed Roth had intended to devote his life to books. He worked at bookstores, took internships at publishers. When he wasn’t working, he was trying to write.
He had tried to work as much as possible in places that would inspire him, the older and more atmospheric the better—the Society Library, the Mercantile, the reading room of the main branch of the New York Public Library. Roth wrote classic yarns, swashbuckling high-seas adventures, hard-boiled detective stories. He said he was fast and figured he could make a living cranking out one story after another.
But after he’d begun submitting the stories to literary agents, he received just about the opposite responses that I tend to receive regarding mine—there was too much going on in his work. Sure, the stories were entertaining, but they didn’t speak to contemporary society or the human condition; Roth needed to draw on his own experiences. Roth said he had never thought of writing from his own experience; to him, writing a story was supposed to be about making something up.
Disheartened, Roth spent hours when he wasn’t working wandering the streets of Manhattan searching for adventures with contemporary settings. He felt hopelessly out of date; maybe he had been born in the wrong era. There were no pirates doing battle on the East River, no cowboys riding horseback on the Central Park bridle paths.
The Blom Library on Lexington Avenue and East 33rd Street had once been the home of Chester Blom, an early-20th-century railroad magnate and a collector of manuscripts and East Asian Art. The dusty and mildewed reading room was filled with seemingly priceless curiosities. Its most valuable possession was an 11th-century illustrated copy of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. Genji was a thousand-page epic concerning the loves and travails of the eponymous son of a Japanese emperor. The book, with its stained, leather cover, adorned with gold filigree, was displayed in a glass case. The character of Genji was nicknamed “The Shining Lord” for his beauty, and the shimmering gold leaf on this book’s cover had inspired its own nickname—“The Shining Lord Manuscript.”
One evening, Roth looked through the library’s windows, saw the reading room’s green desk lamps and its sagging bookshelves, and immediately after entering applied to become a member. “An odd place, that Blom Library,” Roth told me. Its front desk was manned by a gruff, bald, and muscular goon who seemed to have little affection for literature. He smoked in the reading room and flicked ashes onto his desk. He spoke little and, when he did, mangled the English language—“Wot you said?” he’d ask whenever Roth asked to see a volume. Roth began to refer to him as the “Hooligan Librarian.”
Most of the regulars at the Blom were academics, writers, or well-heeled senior citizens. Most were men, but one day a young woman caught Roth’s eye. He never learned her name, even now still referred to her only as the “Girl in the Library.” She seemed particularly fascinated by the Genji. Roth watched her intently studying the book through its locked, glass cover. Roth heard her ask the Hooligan Librarian if she could take out the “Shining Lord,” but the man said no.
“Check back Monday,” he told her. “How’s that soun’ like a good idea?”
Roth was there on Monday, but the girl wasn’t. And neither was the library. The sirens should have alerted him, but Roth didn’t even notice their wail until he arrived at the place where the entrance was supposed to be. Where the library had been were mounds of rubble, charred manuscripts, the shell of a building with its windows blacked out, busted in; firefighters were moving deliberately but slowly through the wreckage as if there was no longer any urgency to their mission.
What remained of the building was demolished; within a year, there was no sign that the Blom Library had ever been there. Roth had witnessed an interesting beginning to a story, perhaps, but nothing more. That was the problem with trying to write about reality, Roth thought—the modern human condition didn’t follow the arc of a good plot. If anyone wanted to know who the woman in the library might have been, what might have happened to the Hooligan Librarian, he’d have to invent a story.
“And that’s what I did,” Roth told me. “I made up a story.”
By now I had finished my beer, and the 106 Bar was filling up. Couples were shooting pool, guys from the neighborhood were watching football on TV, Roth had taken off his jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. He was an especially good-looking man, I thought, the kind of man I wouldn’t have minded seeing myself becoming in 15 years if I could figure out a way to clean myself up, keep myself fit, and sell some of my stories.
“Why’re you telling me all this?” I asked.
“Patience,” said Roth.
Roth started the novel A Thief in Manhattan as an original, modern tale, but one that encompassed elements of classic adventures he loved. It began with an odd library; a hooligan librarian; a lovely, pale woman; and a man at the next table wondering what it all might add up to.
It didn’t seem like much to build a story on, but after all, Genji was reputedly the book that had invented novels, so it didn’t seem like a bad place to start. Roth tried to imagine himself back at the Blom Library, then asked himself, “What if?”
And maybe that was a good way to write a story, he thought—start with reality, take a vicious left turn, slam on the gas, never look back. Maybe all stories started with “What if?” What if the girl in the library’s interest in the Genji was some long-held personal obsession; what if Roth’s interest in the girl was some deep passion. What if the hooligan was a thief who was planning to steal The Tale of Genji? What if every time that the hooligan said a manuscript was “unavailable,” he was actually bringing it to a crooked appraiser’s office and fencing it. What if Roth had seen the librarian pilfering valuable documents from the Blom, heard the man discussing the Genji, then decided he would steal that book for the girl himself?
Roth imagined himself as the hero of a classic thriller, one in which a naïve young man stumbles into a situation beyond his control. He imagined hiding in the Blom Library until late in the evening, crouched in darkness among the stacks. He imagined watching the Hooligan Librarian insert some precious document into a metal case, lock it, then head out.
And then, in the story he was beginning to scribble because now he was getting excited, he was following the librarian, yes, tailing that hooligan—out of the musty library, onto the rain-puddled sidewalk, into the subway station, excuse me, miss, excuse me, sir, hold that door. He imagined himself emerging from a subway at Delancey Street, out into a windy, rain-soaked night. He imagined himself watching the Hooligan Librarian pounding the buzzer on a panel in a doorway, the door clicking open.
The faster Roth wrote, the more ideas kept coming. “What if?” he kept asking himself.
Roth imagined a seedy fencing operation masquerading as a manuscript appraisal service. Stacks of dusty manuscripts were piled on lopsided shelves; jewelers’ loupes and magnifying glasses were scattered on a long desk. Behind the desk, Roth imagined, was a woman about 70. She was straitlaced in appearance, but she swore like a sailor. Roth decided that her name would be “Iola Jaffe,” sole proprietor of Iola Jaffe, Rare Manuscripts and Appraisal Services.
Once Norbert Piels—yes, Piels would be the Hooligan Librarian—once Norbert Piels had finished cutting some deal, he would exit the building, step out into the rainstorm, hail a cab. And Roth, or whoever the hero was—he hadn’t come up with that name yet, but Roth was as good a name as any—would catch a taxi, too. Across Delancey they ride, up the West Side Highway, exit at 96th Street, north to Tiemann Place, the two taxis stop. The two men emerge from their taxis; one heads for a droopy, prewar mid-rise, the other follows at a distance. Roth watches Norbert Piels enter his building, waits for a light to go on, look, there’s one, fourth floor.
Early the next day, the skies clear. Norbert Piels lumbers out of the apartment building, heading for the 125th Street train platform. Our hero follows him. The 1 train arrives, doors open, people jostle to get on. Piels tries to shove his way past; our hero shoves him back. In the confusion, Roth reaches into the librarian’s pocket, grabs his keys, pockets them, then runs for the train station stairs, down to the street, catches a cab: Blom Library, 33rd and Lex! When he gets to the library, he tries Norbert’s keys, then opens the door onto darkness. He waits for his eyes to get accustomed to the dark. And then he sees it under glass: The Tale of Genji. But there is only a moment to admire, because the librarian is approaching, the door is opening, bam! Roth brings his fist down on the glass. It shatters, the alarm sounds; our hero grabs the Genji, runs for the back door.
Back to Delancey Street, back to Iola Jaffe—What is this? Roth asks. What is it worth? Iola Jaffe, a grim-visaged figure all in black, hisses:
“No one ever has any questions about literary merit,” she says. “No one asks about provenance or cultural relevance. Just ‘how much?’ World full of Philistines! How much? Twenty years ago, the price at auction for one like this was $6.6 million. That’s how damn much.”
“And today,” Roth asks, pressing her. “How much would this one be worth today?”
“Today?” She steps into another room. When she returns, she’s holding a gun.
“Today, I’ll take it for free,” she says. But Roth lunges for the weapon. They wrestle; it flies to the floor. Bullets whiz past Roth’s head as he races down the stairs, then jumps into a taxi: Step on it, driver!
The crowd at the 106 Bar was thinning out. Roth was winding up his story. It didn’t sound like the kind of story I’d write or read, and certainly not the sort I’d mention when trying to impress anybody. But Roth was a talented storyteller, so I was surprised when he told me he hadn’t found a publisher.
Times had been different in publishing 15 years earlier when he wrote his book, Roth said. After the literary agent Geoffrey Olden rejected it, he just gave up.
“What did he tell you?” I wondered if Olden had been as nasty with Roth as when he had rejected my work.
“Something characteristically imperious, unctuous, and snide,” said Roth. Apparently, Olden had told Roth that “no serious house in New York would ever consider publishing this in its current form,” and there was only one way any publisher at all would consider doing so.
Which way was that? Roth asked.
“If every word of it were true,” said Olden.
Roth put the manuscript in a drawer, deciding he had no future as a writer. Instead, he became an editor and worked his way up the ladder at James Merrill Books. Jed Roth had thought that the further he rose and the longer he stayed, the more freedom he would have. But publishing changed again, and instead, he found himself burdened with thankless assignments—diet books, ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies.
When a 600-page memoir written by a two-bit thug and music-business hanger-on named Blade Markham arrived at Merrill Books, Roth had been working there for more than 10 years. He had a spacious office with a Park view, a list of about three dozen authors, and a new assistant named Rowell Templen, an oily, sideburned 24-year-old Princetonian, fond of velour blazers worn over V-neck sweaters and ties.
Roth had been sitting at his desk when Templen knocked twice and entered with an intimidating tolstoy of pages.
“Time to read today?” he asked, then showed him the title page of Blade by Blade. He said he knew Roth didn’t like to be bothered with submissions before they had been summarized, but he hoped Roth would make an exception. This book was brilliant, so raw and so true; when he had read one of Blade Markham’s prison scenes, he practically pahlaniuked all over his desk. Roth told Templen he’d look at the manuscript when he had the chance, but Templen said, No, there wasn’t time—he was sure it would sell by the end of the week.
Roth didn’t know whether to feel angered or amused by Templen’s presumption, but his curiosity was piqued. So, after Templen closed the door to his office, Roth picked up Blade Markham’s manuscript and turned to the dedication page. Then he burst into laughter.
Jed Roth and I were walking up Amsterdam Avenue now. “So what happened next?” I asked.
Roth said he supposed he could have stopped reading Blade Markham’s manuscript when it became clear that just about every word was “utter bull,” but he read the entire thing. He supposed, too, that he could have just told Rowell Templen that he wasn’t interested. Instead, he marked up every page, insisting that Templen stay until he was done. And when that time came, he called Templen into his office and berated him for the better part of an hour, ostensibly to teach the punk a little bit about publishing and literature.
The kid didn’t flinch, just stood there, the same arrogant, pinched lips, the same bored slouch. When Roth finally ran out of insults, Templen merely took the manuscript, said, “Thank you, Mr. Roth,” then walked out.
The next morning, Roth was working at his desk, ready to head home, when his door swung open.
“Busy, Jed?” Jim Merrill Jr., the head of his firm, asked.
I had never met Merrill, knew him only from pictures in the Sunday Styles section—a man with a sophisticated, John Steinbeck mustache and tailored Savile Row suits. But to Roth, Merrill was a dolt who had never edited a single manuscript on his own; he based his impressions of the books he published on their first and last pages and on the coverages his assistants provided.
Roth followed Merrill to the conference room, where Rowell Templen and Geoff Olden were already seated, drinking scotch with Blade Markham, who was boasting of having glugged Slivovitz with snipers in Sarajevo.
Roth surveyed the convivial conference room. It didn’t take long for him to figure out that Jim Merrill and Rowell Templen had made a deal with Blade Markham behind his back.
“Rowell will be working directly on the book, but I’d like you to look over his shoulder a bit,” Merrill said, then added that the opening of Blade by Blade, probably the only part he had troubled himself to read, was “a real knockout.”
This news would have been humiliating enough, but when Templen looked up at Roth with an oily, smug, and victorious smile, Roth could not stand it. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, “I don’t work here anymore.”
Well,” Jed Roth said, handing me a drink as I sat on his living-room couch, “Now you have some idea why Rowell Templen has my job and I have none, why Blade Markham has a book contract and you have none, why we’re two jobless men with enough free time to drink whiskey after midnight.”
I clinked Roth’s glass and swigged to the freedoms afforded to the unemployed.
“So,” I asked Roth, “you would have published my stories if you could have?”
Roth laughed as if my question was so presumptuous and the answer so obvious he didn’t need to offer it.
“Of course not,” he said, and when I looked at him, somewhat dumbfounded and more than a little defensive, he said, “No, you’re a decent writer. You know how to take a story from your life and tell it so it sounds smart and sad and witty and real. But in the end, so what?”
“So, you’d think that would be enough,” I said.
“Why would you think that?” Roth asked. “Why would someone who didn’t know you spend $25 to read your stories of small people leading small lives? Tell me exactly what there is about you that anybody would want to sell or buy?”
I glared at him, initially unable to speak. So this was where his story had led: cynical advice given by an embittered man who thought he could apply his lousy experiences to a total stranger. Roth saw how angry and frustrated I was and started to laugh. “What are you sniggering about?” I asked.
He held up one finger, turned with a little flourish, then left the room, returning with a bound manuscript. I glanced at the title page—“A Thief in Manhattan, a novel by Jed Roth.”
“Read it,” he said.
“Yeah, maybe if you find someone who wants to publish it someday, I might,” I said.
“Now,” said Roth, and then said it again—“Now. I want you to read it now.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It doesn’t cost anything to read,” he said.
“It costs my time.”
“What’s that worth to you?” He pulled out his wallet, took out a hundred dollar bill, and tossed it onto the table. When there were five such C-bills beside A Thief in Manhattan, I asked what they were really for.
“A reading fee,” he said. All he wanted was for me to read his manuscript, then tell him what I thought. “All right,” I said, and flipped to the first sentence: “She was standing in a library.”
Loath as I might have been to admit it at first, A Thief in Manhattan was a great read. While I was blazing through it, I no longer felt angry with Roth for having insulted me; in fact, I forgot how angry I had been. No, it wasn’t literary and it was all pretty ridiculous, but it was fun and fast and suspenseful.
“So?” Roth asked when I was done.
“So what?” I asked.
“So what do you think?”
I considered, then told Roth the truth, that I thought Thief was a good story. To earn the $500 still on the coffee table, I told him that the book was a little violent for my tastes. Then I made some obvious points about the plausibility of his story and characters. But mostly, I said, my opinions didn’t matter much, because his was an entertaining story, and one he could probably publish if he still wanted to—so, what was he planning to do with the book?
Roth took a seat next to me on his couch, put his feet up on his coffee table, and then said that actually, he himself wasn’t planning on doing anything with the manuscript. He asked if I remembered what Geoff Olden had told him about it, that “no serious house in New York would ever consider publishing this in its current form, and there’s only one way anybody ever would—if every word of it was true.”
I said I did. “Alas, Olden was right,” said Roth. A Thief in Manhattan was, in fact, too implausible, too slight, too shallow.
“That’s why,” Roth said, “the book will be published, yes, but not as fiction. It will be published as a memoir.”
I laughed when Roth said that, thinking he was making a joke about Blade by Blade. But then I saw he wasn’t joking.
Wait, I said, did Roth really mean to say he would try to pass off his novel as truth, that he would present everything he had written as a memoir?
“You’ll say it all really happened to you?” I asked.
“No,” Roth said, and smiled. “No. We’ll say it all happened to you.”
I tried to pretend he was joking, but now he was regarding me even more intensely.
“Yes, you’ll say you wrote it,” Roth continued. “You’ll say it all happened to you just like it did in the book. And if you agree, here’s what will happen. Agents will want to represent your book. Publishers will want to buy your book. There will be reviews of your book, and then . . . ”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then what? Then, when 100,000 copies of your book have already been shipped to every bookstore in America, you’ll say that every word in it is a lie. And here’s the part you’ll like. When people ask why you did it, why you took a book full of lies and pretended it was true, you’ll tell them that you did it because it was the only way to get anyone to pay attention to your stories. And soon, those stories you wrote, the ones no one would publish because they were too small—everyone will want to publish them. Because you’ll be somebody then. You’ll have a name.”
“You must think I’m pretty desperate,” I said. Roth didn’t contradict me.
“So, what’s in it for you?” I asked.
“Revenge, of course,” said Roth.
“On Merrill?” I asked.
Roth nodded. His idea was funny in a sick sort of way, but I still felt that all this seemed like a whole lot of trouble to go through just for a bit of revenge, no matter how detestable or gullible the Merrill Books crowd was—sure, they believed Blade Markham’s book, but Roth’s was even more far-fetched. Roth must have been reading my mind because he said, “Oh, one other thing—if we do this together, I’ll also be taking 25 percent.”
“Of the book?” I asked.
“Of both books,” Roth said. “My book and your stories.”
But A Thief in Manhattan had been rejected years ago, I said; no one had wanted to publish it when Roth had first written it.
“Ancient history,” said Roth. Besides, it was a different book now.
How much had he changed, I asked.
“Just the word ‘novel,’” he said. “That’s all I needed to change.”