A recessed bachelor, living with his parents in the great American heartland, seeing no one but family. He alone, Thomas Lucchesi, the relentless reader and rumoured writer among them, would journey beyond his small city’s environs, often to distant and remote parts of the country, but only to succour dying friends – chums he’d not seen since college days, who had long since been cultivated by the intimate revelations of his correspondence. At the hour of extremity, he would travel at considerable expense, this man of scant means, to hold the hand of the about-to-be-dead, actually to hold the hand, and deliver words of reassurance so soothing that a palpable unburdening was achieved. ‘In a most unusual way,’ he would say, ‘because of you, I am who I am: because of you, who so inhabit my innermost life.’ Later, the grateful children of the recently departed, needing to retrieve his miraculous presence, would write to him, enclosing photos of their own children, gifts and mementos of the dead parent. He would acknowledge nothing.
When his parents reached their steepest decline, he left without notice on an open-ended cruise in the South Seas, for the purpose of retracing Herman Melville’s early career, in the hope of summoning, from places Melville had touched, that writer’s robust tutelary ghost. Then, on a soundless veranda in the Marquesas, while making notes on an advanced draft of his experimental novel, word came of his parents’ passing, one after the other, in the space of two weeks: Return. Mother and Father dead. But he did not return. Six months later, confronted by an enraged sibling, he said: ‘In this, the matter of our parents, I have only been consistent. The imminent death of a loved one has always caused me to travel.’ He did not confess that in times of grief-driven transport, and only in such times, was he inspired to write. That writing, for him, was indistinguishable from grief-driven transport. And more than life itself.
I’m in between appointments, and Barnes & Noble happens to be located in between. I’m eating a half-sandwich of grilled vegetables, drinking a small bottle of alpine spring water, when he spots me: a clerk, my long-absent next-door neighbour. He says, as he sits, ‘Tom, may I join you?’ I say, ‘If you must.’ He says, ‘You probably noticed that I separated from my wife.’ I say, ‘I never noticed.’ He says, ‘The bone in her throat was, I rolled over in bed and hit her.’ I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ He says, ‘It was an accident. You still writing those books?’ I say, ‘I’m in between books. I’m relaxing.’ He says, ‘To be honest, it’s a case of domestic violence. You probably heard her scream.’ I say, ‘My ears ring constantly. It’s a permanent condition.’ He says, ‘I hit her twice in church.’ I say, ‘Accidentally?’ He says, ‘I’m a lucky man. My wife loves me.’ I look down at my plate and say, ‘So you’re working here now.’ He says, ‘I’m reading all the books. How come they don’t have any of yours?’ I look up. He says, ‘You look tired. Are you sick?’ I say, ‘I was sick. I’m okay now. I’m relaxing.’ He says, ‘Did you ever hit your wife?’ I say, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Don’t get snotty with me. I’m bigger than you. I’m bigger.’ I say, ‘I’m sorry.’ He says, ‘Does your wife love you?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ He says, ‘That didn’t stop me, did it?’ I say, ‘Why should love have to bear that burden?’ He says, ‘Whatever you had, my friend, you’re not over it.’
A Night at the Opera
When the obscure American novelist, Thomas Lucchesi, checks in at the Alitalia counter, he’s told that he’s been upgraded to first-class, at no extra charge. After he boards, he’s presented with a rare edition of the score of La Bohème. Flabbergasted, he says to the flight attendant, ‘Tomorrow evening I’ll be at La Scala, to hear this very opera, with Pavarotti himself. The sound of his name alone thrills me.’ The fetching flight attendant replies, ‘Not as much as the sound of Lucchesi thrills me, sir.’ He says, ‘You’ve read me?’ She says, ‘Why not?’
At La Scala, they don’t give him the seat that he’d paid through the nose for, but one deep in the orchestra, adjacent to an exit. When he complains, the elegant usher says, ‘In due course, sir.’ Minutes before the curtain, depressed, he hears the announcement: ‘Mr Lucchesi. Mr Thomas Lucchesi. Please report backstage immediately.’ The usher, who has all along been standing at the exit, with an eye trained on the writer, escorts him briskly backstage, saying, as they go: ‘Now, sir, while there is still time!’ Lucchesi, surly, says, ‘Now what?’ They are met by the artistic director, who tells Lucchesi that Pavarotti is indisposed and that he, Mr Thomas Lucchesi, will have to step in. ‘Because you have no choice. All of Milan trembles.’ The usher says, ‘See? You should have vocalised when I told you to!’ The cast gathers round him. Lucchesi whimpers, ‘But I’m not a tenor.’ To which the baritone snorts, ‘You’re not even a singer, you arrogant bastard.’ Lucchesi responds (sotto voce), ‘I am only a writer.’ The artistic director says, ‘Good! The role of Rodolfo is that of a writer. In Bohème, Pavarotti sings a writer.’ Lucchesi says, ‘I could write a singer, perhaps, but I cannot sing a singer. Besides, I’m a baritone. More or less.’ The disgusted baritone says, ‘A barreltone? You? Do you have a massive dark understructure?’ The soprano adds, hornily, ‘Do you? Do you have a massive dark understructure? All true barrel-tones do.’ The semi-tumescent artistic director says, ‘Sir! You know this music better than you know your so-called self. Make every effort to breathe naturally and your voice will be buoyed-up as upon a great cushion, your voice will spring as upon a trampoline! Breathe from the very balls of you, sir! We want the bright, the focused, the ringing top. Mr Lucchesi! Remember nature!’
Then from everywhere he hears the pouring of that warm, familiar ocean of sound, in full flood, and he’s laved all over by an intimacy plunged deep, insistent: Lucchesi is beside his so-called self. The Tenor appears: happy, as always. Lucchesi says, ‘That was not indisposed, Luciano.’ The baritone says, ‘You’re on a first name basis with him?’ The Tenor, grinning, says, ‘Thomas, I am bored. Lately, I fear that I have begun to sing a singer singing beautifully.’ The Tenor hears the soprano whisper, ‘They’re on a first-name basis with each other,’ and The Tenor replies, ‘It is always the way when we love an artist. We say Dante. We say Michelangelo. We say Elvis.’ Startled, Lucchesi says, ‘You’ve read me, too?!’ The artistic director, in full tumescence now, trots out front to announce the replacement for the Tenor. The Tenor says, ‘Why not? The fetching flight attendant and I discuss your books during those long dead hours over the North Atlantic, when the plane seems fixed for ever in the sky, and land is hopeless. Then we have you. Only you.’ From the house a roar, signifying either hope or horror. The Tenor continues, ‘All of Milan trembles. Over the North Atlantic we do not have enough of you. We love you. But we desire to love you more, if only you would permit it. No, you cannot sing a singer. I agree. Nor can I. I sing. Over the North Atlantic we discuss your subtle disease. My dear Thomas, you write a writing, and this is why the total animality of your style is withheld just enough to rob us of your best. I sing. Write! Let your brain become as dumb and cold as a trout in a remote alpine stream, in mid-winter. Because this is what your brain most desires. Then write! And your passion will fatten and flame on the page and we will scream over the North Atlantic: LuuuuuCCHEsi! LuuuuuuuCCHEsi!’
The writer says, ‘Luciano! I’m not a tenor!’ The soprano says to the baritone, ‘What’s that puddle at his feet?’ The baritone says, ‘The arrogant bastard peed his pants.’ Lucchesi says, ‘Luciano! Look! I peed!’ The Tenor replies, ‘Thomas, you pee; before every performance, I puke. Then I jump in and they go crazy.’ Lucchesi says, ‘Everyday, before I write, I puke.’ The Tenor puts his arm around Lucchesi and says, ‘We are the same. We are exactly the same. Thomas! Jump mindlessly into your own warm ocean and all of Milan will scream.’
The usher requests, and is granted, Lucchesi’s autograph. The Tenor, grinning again, says, ‘I need to be replaced.’ The stage manager leads Thomas Lucchesi, a new tenor, to his mark on the first act set.
Curtain going up.
The Fan Club
Thomas Lucchesi finds himself on the busiest street corner in his hometown, where he sees a woman in the far distance come running, directly at him she comes, with something in her hand. She closes in, pointing something, haggard and middle-aged. He freezes. She collapses at his feet, dead. In her hand, a book of indeterminate authorship. A policeman rushes to the scene, but before he can speak, Lucchesi says, ‘It’s nothing. It’s just my wife.’ The policeman says, ‘She’s nothing?’ Lucchesi says, ‘Correction. It’s nothing.’ The policeman says, ‘Sorry to disturb you, sir.’ Then pointing to the heap, the policeman says, ‘What would you like me to do with this?’ Lucchesi responds, ‘Leave it. I might put it in a vase.’
A crowd gathers. Among them, two faces familiar to Lucchesi from an old family album: his parents on their honeymoon. Lucchesi says, ‘I know you.’ The man extends his hand: ‘Hello, I’m Thomas Lucchesi.’ Lucchesi says, ‘Senior. You’re Thomas Lucchesi senior. I’m young Tom, I’m junior.’ Senior says, ‘How disgusting.’ The woman addresses junior: ‘Are you cracking up, or what?’ Senior says, ‘Your angles are all off, mister.’ Lucchesi says, ‘Which angles?’ Senior answers, ‘Don’t play dumb, buddy. I’m tired of your antics.’ Junior says, ‘Will you please hug me now, please?’ The man and the woman hug each other and kiss deeply. Junior says, ‘No! Me! Me! HUG me! I’m your son.’ They stare at him. ‘Goddamn it,’ he says, ‘I’m going to be your son.’ Senior says, ‘You want us to make you?’ Junior says, ‘You will make me.’ Senior says, ‘You’re a cocky bastard.’ The woman adds, ‘You must be pushing sixty, for God’s sake! Are you trying to induce a double suicide?’ The man says to his beautiful new wife, ‘What do you say, Ann? Shall we make him?’ Ann points to the dead woman and says, ‘You get involved with this character, this is where it leads.’ The dead woman says, ‘Don’t kid yourself. I’m better off.’ The man says, ‘What do you say, Ann?’ Ann says, ‘I’m game.’ Lucchesi senior picks up the book of indeterminate authorship and says, ‘Before we make you, I need to ask you a question. Did you write this thing?’ Junior says, ‘Don’t you like me?’ Ann says, ‘Quick! Let’s commit double suicide.’ The man and the woman eat of the book. They collapse. The policeman rushes back. He says, ‘Who are these dead people, sir?’ Lucchesi replies, ‘They all throw themselves at my feet. My greatest fans.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.