Brodie was nineteen when he wrote his epic poem “Hercules In Winnipeg”; twenty when it was published; twenty-one when he became rich and famous from it. Yeah, famous, not only among poets and other literary wonks but the general public as well. And rich. It sold a ton. I don’t pretend to know anything about poetry; for some reason Brodie’s poem captured the imagination of pretty near everyone. I didn’t like it much because I was there when he “wrote” it.
Brodie, Eleanor, Baker, and I did peyote one night and talked a lot. Brodie recorded what we said and, unfortunately, on the original recording you can hear us waiving our rights to anything that came out of it… Brodie typed it up, added some clichés about coming-of-age in rural Manitoba during the Great Depression and overwrought descriptions of prairies and birds, and there it was: the greatest poem of the modern era…
The success went to Brodie’s head and he became pretty unbearable (you couldn’t have a conversation with him without mention of the poem) but we didn’t have to deal with him a lot after the Introductory Creative Writing course we were all in because I focused on non-fiction, Eleanor on playwriting, and Baker on translation. Still, we saw him at department functions where you couldn’t stop him from reciting passages from his poem. Brodie thought he was an enfant terrible; Eleanor said he had the requisite tattoos and piercings that define today’s conformist…
By accident we stayed in touch over the years. Baker was working in Los Angeles, creating subtitles for foreign films and, when I went to visit him, he told me Brodie was also living there.
We called him up and invited him out to dinner one night, and he said he’d be there. He never showed up, and never called back to say why.
But we got a phone call from Brodie about a week later, and he invited us to a poetry reading in a few days’ time at a bar just off Melrose. There was no way we were going to miss that…
Two depressed Los Angelenos preceded Brodie at the reading, reciting mainly about defecation and menstruation. Brodie, on the other hand, was something else. Banal beyond belief with tired metaphors high school poets usually reject. He received polite applause. He finished his set with a long excerpt from “Hercules in Winnipeg” but it had been a long time since that had had any notoriety, and it was greeted with discreet silence, a reaction it should have received in the first place.
The reception after the reading was very noisy and, when I caught Brodie’s eye, I mouthed at him, “Hey, Brodie”, which he obviously misinterpreted as “Great reading, Brodie”.
He smiled at me, and said, “Thank you.”
Brodie, Baker, and I had a glass of wine together. Brodie was the same person he always had been, complaining about the wine, the venue, the sound system, and we left him there, chewing on a crumpled-up paper napkin he must have thought was a piece of cheese.
Eleanor was having one of her plays produced in the West End in London, so I decided to visit her and, as it turned out, Brodie was living in a bedsit off the King’s Road in Chelsea. The pretentious factor of that seemed right for him.
Eleanor called Brodie up, and suggested the three of us go out to lunch. (“Lunch?” I asked Eleanor. “What are we? Seventy-five years old?” “Shut up,” Eleanor smiled at me.) Brodie suggested the following Saturday as an acquaintance of his was opening an art exhibit he wanted to see.
We had lunch in a Clapham restaurant (Brodie said he was “slumming” by going south of the river…) and Eleanor was her usual coy self, sarcastically insulting Brodie without his knowing it, praising him for his fine new work (as apparently described to her by me…), and self-deprecatingly talking about her own “modest” achievements; her play was selling out, and the run had been extended.
We went to the art gallery nearby and, as we entered, Brodie wrote something in a book in the foyer. Eleanor looked down at the book, snorted, and looked at me and winked. I looked back at her quizzically but she just laughed and went in.
The exhibit was a non-stop show of squares, bright colours, and pencilled vectors. Eleanor was on her game, making pithy and pseudo-intellectual remarks about each piece, turning every now and again to me with a look on her face of sheer delighted horror.
After an interminable time looking at these plagiarized third-rate Klees, Eleanor began laughing and couldn’t control herself. When Brodie and the gallery staff looked at us, I hustled Eleanor out of there.
She tried to light a cigarette as soon as we were outside, but was laughing so hard I had to light it for her.
Her laughter was infectious, I was laughing too, and asked what was so funny.
“That Brodie,” she said, finally getting her breath. “He’s so pretentious. Did you see what he wrote in the book?”
“No, what did he say?”
“He wrote, ‘Great show. Loved it! Love, Brodie.’”
“Well, that’s his opinion,” I said.
“My dear boy, you don’t understand. He wrote that before he’d even seen the exhibit.”
I started to chuckle at that when Brodie came out of the gallery, fuming.
He got up in Eleanor’s face and screamed, “That was bloody rude!”
Eleanor snorted. “‘Bloody’? You said ‘bloody’! You’ve been in England two months and you’re already saying ‘bloody’?”
“Don’t get stroppy with me, Eleanor,” Brodie retorted and stormed off.
Eleanor called after him, “The exhibit was naff. And so are you.” She looked at me and I had to laugh again.
“That’s why I love you,” I said.
“Let’s go for a drink,” she said. “I have an idea.”
About four months later, Eleanor, Baker, and I were back in London, and we called up Brodie and told him to meet us at a pub. When he saw Eleanor, he started to leave but we convinced him that she was contrite and wanted to make amends.
“I’m really sorry, Brodie. I don’t know what got into me. I didn’t mean anything by it,” she said. “We have something for you.”
Baker took a flash drive out of his pocket and set it on the table in front of Brodie. “A writer submitted this novel to the publishing house I’m working with, and then he died shortly after. He had no family, no friends, as far as we could tell. Our editor said it was really good but that we couldn’t publish it due to the subject matter. We sent it to a couple of other publishers and they said basically the same thing. I have a few e-mails I could send to you.”
“So what does this have to do with me?” asked Brodie.
“We thought you could self-publish it,” said Eleanor, “given that you have the money to do that kind of thing.”
“It’s a helluva novel,” I said. “And it has large chunks in foreign languages so that’ll appeal to the literati.”
“Why don’t one of you publish it then?” asked Brodie.
“I can’t publish novels,” said Baker. “I’m a translator. No one will believe I wrote it.”
“What about you, Eleanor?” asked Brodie, twirling the flash drive in his fingers. You could almost hear his brain whirring.
“I’m a playwright,” said Eleanor. “Playwrights don’t write novels.”
“What about Beckett?” I said without thinking.
She glared at me, and was about to respond when Brodie said, “Beckett is crap as a playwright and a novelist.”
Eleanor and I looked at each other and said nothing.
I quickly recovered. “And I can’t claim it because I write non-fiction.”
“But I’m a poet,” said Brodie.
“There are plenty of poets who wrote novels.”
“Thomas Hardy. Or was he a novelist who became a poet?”
“Well, maybe…” said Brodie. He was obviously starting to warm to the idea.
“And we have another thought,” said Baker. “You go on a European tour and do readings. Readings of the foreign parts, in French, German, Italian… You’ll be a sensation!”
“But I don’t know those languages.”
“I can teach you how to say them phonetically, and where to emphasize the appropriate words,” said Baker.
“And with your natural inclination for performing,” I added, “you’ll know how to do this instinctively.”
“So we’ll set up the readings for you,” said Eleanor. Just give us a blank cheque and we’ll handle all of that.”
After Brodie nodded to himself for a while, he agreed.
The first reading was at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Berlin State Opera House. The crowd seemed to be stunned into silence. At the end of the reading, Eleanor, Baker, and I applauded, as did the people we paid to applaud. The rest of the audience was confused.
The second reading was at the Palais Garnier in Paris. The reception was, how shall I say, a little more hostile. The French are more vocal than the German when it comes to literature…
The next day, we had the reviews from newspapers and the net for the Berlin and Paris readings. We didn’t tell Brodie.
Two days later, we were at the Grand Theatre de Geneve, and this was his finest performance. He read in German, French, and Italian. Baker said he wished that he knew Romansch…
Brodie rose to a brilliant crescendo and gave it all he had. The Italian version was the best just because the sound of Italian is so conducive to drama.
“He’s really killing it,” said Eleanor.
“Yeah,” said Baker. “I thought he was good in Berlin and Paris, but the Geneva Brodie is definitely the best.”
The crowd advanced on Brodie, and we gathered around him to prevent any violence. Eleanor whispered in his ear. “You said you wanted to go mountain climbing while you’re here. I suggest you do it without these people.”
It took Eleanor, Baker, and me three months to write the novel, Baker contributing all the parts in foreign languages. We could have written it faster but I think we spent too much time laughing. It was one of the worst novels ever written, and that’s saying something considering some of the novels I’ve read. It would have been the worst except for the fact that there was some truly inspired writing, as you’ll soon see.
It’s clear Brodie never even read the novel because we told him in Chapter 5 exactly what the game was all about.
This is the English translation of what Brodie recited: “You in the audience! Yes, you! You children of a syphilitic brothel! You filthy incestuous swine! You brain-dripping leeches! Decayed-teeth pinheads! Decomposing carrion-lickers! Rotting maggot-breathed methane-based subhumans! Thought-challenged excremental trolls! Etc.”
Bill has had short stories, plays, and comedy sketches published and/or produced in Canada, Holland, and the U.K. He has a story forthcoming in an American magazine so he’s up to 5 countries!