I was feeling lonely and somewhat deracinated so the first week of June I flew from London to New York. I bought new shoes and walked around like a tourist: on the High Line, over the Brooklyn Bridge, back and forth between Park Slope and Williamsburg, up and down from Midtown to SoHo. The shoes didn’t quite fit, so when I resumed my old habit of crashing publishers’ parties, I had blisters on both heels and was walking around with the tentative gait of an elderly cripple. Publishers are always said to be staggering towards the grave, buffeted by corporate takeovers, discount chains, the internet, and teenagers who never open a book, but the gossip was that advances were up, perhaps because editors have money today and may not have any tomorrow. It was the week of Book Expo America, and basements and penthouses had been rented. The view of the halfway finished One World Trade Center was new, but the faces in the crowd were familiar. I spent 11 years in New York, and now I always think of the people who no longer show up at the party: the reporter who wrote a Neo-Beat novel involving a charismatic porn actor and now holds elected office in the Rust Belt; the tutor who wrote a novel he believed would only be understood by the computers of the future and is now in finance; the poet who at university wrote with a facility that made me jealous, did a couple of maddening years answering the phone at a literary agency and currently runs a real estate concern that deals in mobile-home subdivisions across the Deep South. My first job in New York was on the copy desk at a celebrity weekly where I put in and took out commas and wrote the occasional headline: ‘It’s 2 a.m. in Hollywood – Where Are the Bush Twins?’ The woman who sat behind me and wrote in her free time about female boxers today raises rabbits and sells them for meat somewhere in the Great Lakes region. Whenever someone left town my friends used to say I was like a narrator upset that characters were leaving the story without his permission. Then I left too, and killed my character off. The places of the departed are taken by recent graduates of writing programmes who’ve yet to have the look of hope wiped off their faces.
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[*] Polity, 432 pp., £12.99, March, 978 0 7456 6106 3.