Morgan Kinder Discovers the Writings of Thomas Roy, an excerpt from Of Gods, Royals & Superman
Morgan Kinder was in her final week of work as a summer intern in the City when her boss suggested she pay a visit to the Exel warehouse across the river in New Jersey. Hey, you’ll get a good taste of what happens to books, she was told by her manager. How orders are processed, shipped to destinations all over the world, how they’re stored on pallets, bubble-wrapped and retrieved, and if they don’t sell—well, how they’re marked down, remaindered and ultimately, if necessary, pulped.
She hated that word pulped, books sadly dissolved into a liquid the color of milk gone sour, even if those books would eventually be reconstituted into clean rolls of white or cream paper and reborn again as new Exel titles and House imprints.
You know, the lifecycle of publishing, of physical and not electronic books, she heard. We still make those, in case you’ve forgotten. Get it?
Yes, she got it.
As it happened, she welcomed the opportunity to get out of the House for a day and make the field trip. Who knew what she might discover if left to her own devices, curiosity being one of her natural gifts (cats be damned, she would tell her friends, so what if curiosity killed them). For the most part, her job in Editorial at Exel had strained the limits of her patience and endurance: days and nights spent reading scores of unpublishable manuscripts on a computer screen or even her mobile, eyes glazed over, bored and sometimes distracted, looking for gems, diamonds in the rough, works of fiction and non-fiction that spoke to her passion and love for literature and great writing. Such gems, though, were few and far between. Most days she came up for air empty-handed, finding nothing of value in the slush piles of manuscripts her boss had given her, unceremoniously, to wade through.
It goes with the territory, she told herself. Live with it, young lady. The month before, she had turned twenty-two and was keen now to return to school, finish her senior year and get her degree, although she had little idea what she could do beyond graduation. I mean, she chided herself, do what? Sure, with a degree in English, even if it was from Dartmouth, but what? Become an editor? An agent? Her boss, Tina Kennedy, was a senior editor on a career path to the top of the House, destined to become editor-in-chief, from whom, all things considered, despite the daily grind, Morgan had learned many of the ins and outs of New York publishing: how to spot exceptional writing in an instant, how to handle pushy agents with seductive voices who would dog her aggressively on behalf of their clients, how to punt on certain titles that had no popular appeal to readers, and of course, how to calculate the return on investment for each book bought by the House, crunching numbers with granular precision in an Excel spreadsheet—all that and more. Tina had also gone to Dartmouth, so picking Morgan to work as an intern in Editorial was easy enough, a bit of the sisterhood-with-the-traveling-books syndrome, perhaps, although in practice, whatever the alma mater connection, Tina was a difficult task master, at times almost impossible to please. Yet Morgan Kinder had performed well, being a voracious reader, a sharp wit in group discussions, a good gossiper and purveyor of scuttlebutt around the watercooler, an incisive reviewer and writer of book reports, aside from all the grunt work an intern editor was expected to do without complaint, however demanding, while still being humble and grateful to work in the hallowed halls of Exel Publishing.
On the bus to New Jersey she glanced out the window at the receding Manhattan skyline; her mood mixed, at best. On the one hand, glad to depart for school in New Hampshire, on the other, sure to miss the energy and excitement of living and working in the Big Apple. She had already packed up her belongings in a single suitcase, cleaned the kitchen and bathroom of her studio walkup in the Village, and rehearsed her goodbyes to the other editors at the House. I like to be ahead of the curve, she told herself, even if it’s a total cliché. Trite was the word Tina would use whenever she encountered a sentence in a manuscript that was shopworn, hackneyed, and yes, clichéd. And Morgan had developed an eagle eye for spotting such phrases while still lapsing occasionally into their usage whenever she carried on a conversation with her inner self. I’m only human, I can’t help it.
At the Exel warehouse she was greeted by the Production Manager, a burly, overweight fellow, with clipboard in hand, who took her on a guided tour of the physical plant. The machinery for processing book orders, storing and retrieving them for sale and distribution was gigantic, perhaps overwhelming from her point of view. The noise alone, the constant drone and hum and whistle, was a bit too much; she wanted to plug her ears. Toward the end of the tour she came to the back room of the warehouse, almost a hidden corner office, and was met by a man who introduced himself as Jack Taylor. Call me Pappa Jack, he said with a wink. Everybody does. To her eyes, he looked to be about ninety-three years old, if not older; white hair down to his shoulders, white beard, grizzled, with a round, cherubic face, wearing a white worker suit, soiled and a bit greasy, like a BMW auto mechanic. She shook his hand and felt a surge of warmth; he broke into a big smile and almost blew a kiss in her direction. Pappa Jack had been with Exel before Exel had bought out the House, which had originally been founded by two fraternity brothers from Yale, one with a fat, New England-bred inheritance, the other poor as a pauper. Both men loved literature; both had little regard for the business of publishing or, its nemesis and bugaboo, profits. Pappa Jack, she figured, had doubtless seen it all and the Production Manager left the two of them in Jack’s ramshackle office at the back of the plant.
“So, young lady, they tell me you want to go into publishing? Is that right?”
“Well, don’t know yet. I’m still feeling my way around, getting to learn the ropes.”
“It’s all about finding authors and publishing authors, not books. Books are only a by-product. Authors are what we publish, or used to publish. If you can do that, you’re doing the House and your readers a great service.”
By chance, Morgan glanced at a stack of books on a shelf behind the desk where Pappa Jack had propped up his legs, lighting a cigar. “It’s Cuban, in case you’re curious,” he said. “Got it when I was last in Havana. You know, Hemingway lived there and wrote there for about twenty years in Cuba. Some of his best work, like The Old Man and the Sea. I met him there once in a bar and he was in a great mood. Beaming. The writing, which he did with paper and pencil, scratching out a thousand words a day, was going well. Well, indeed. Then, poor devil, one day he happened to make a trip back to the States—you know, he was born in Oak Park, Illinois, grew up there—and the government tax collectors, a nasty pack of thieves, chased him around the country, harassing the hell out of the old man. Drove him crazy. Made him paranoid, rightfully so. Finally, he’d had enough and blew out his brains with a shotgun blast. I would’ve done the same, frankly. When the government gets on your case, you are finished!”
“Didn’t know that. Thought it was the stuff of urban legend.”
“It’s not. All true and coming out now in new biographies of the man.”
She recognized some of the authors on the shelf but others were not familiar to her. Why haven’t I heard of them? She thought to herself. I should know.
“It’s unlikely you would know,” said Pappa Jack, blowing a smoke ring and reading her mind.
“Are these your favorite titles from writers at the House?”
“Yes. They say that if a book is really true, you’ll always need it. These are the books—I need.”
“I see a title and an author I don’t recognize. Mind if I ask who it is?”
“I know the one you’re interested in,” said Pappa Jack, turning around and pulling down the books authored by Thomas Roy. “It’s Roy you see. The vanished author.”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Let’s just say that I know.”
“Who is he?”
“Well, it’s a long story.”
“Shoot. I’ve got all afternoon.”
After two novels, one a popular bestseller, the other not, Thomas Roy had vanished from the publishing scene, mysteriously dropping out of sight. It happened back in early 1977 when the author came to New York to meet with his editor and deliver the manuscript of his third novel. On reading the script, the editor had tossed the pages in the author’s face in a fit of anger and unruly contempt, storming out of the hotel room where they’d met to discuss edits. Roy’s work had suffered the sting of rejection, said Pappa Jack, a sting felt by many writers after a book or two, perhaps with less than stellar sales, or after an encounter with an editor whose tastes they could not happily, or commercially, satisfy. It was not known if the editor had made a copy of the rejected book but in any event the manuscript had fallen through the cracks, as it were, down the proverbial rabbit hole of lost or junked work, when the house was taken over by a German conglomerate. The thing was nowhere to be found, added Pappa Jack, and believe me, I looked far and wide. Roy had written the book on his IBM Selectric typewriter in a 12-point Courier font, the writing tool and font of choice during that time. The script, entitled When, 20:37, ran over 600 pages, was typed on onion-skin paper, dripping, I’m told, with the blood, sweat and tears of its young, promising author. It was said to be futuristic in its vision of America.
Relations with the author had chilled, as I recall. They were saying the man had gone rogue or was living incommunicado. Nobody seemed to know for sure, not his agent nor his editor at the House. His editor, I knew him well, retired to Taos, New Mexico, soon after the encounter. Taos was this refuge for artists and writers like D.H. Lawrence and Frida Khalo, as well as others seeking spiritual enlightenment—this was the 1970s, people still did those kinds of things. The editor, a half-crazed kooky guy who worked like a dog, reading day and night in search of great writing, was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, like Hemingway. Rumors had spread of extensive peyote use, vision quests in the desert, strange meetings with Zuni tribesmen—compounding the mystery of the lost manuscript and Roy’s whereabouts. When Exel Press took over, and a flock of editors left, nobody had any idea if Roy was even alive. We heard he might be living in exile in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where many Beat poets hung out, you know, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and where Neal Cassady, the hero of On the Road, a great book, Jack’s best, was found dead in 1968 counting railroad ties. Railroad ties, of all things! They did an autopsy on Neal’s body but couldn’t determine the exact cause of death. The doc at the hospital said he’d died of “general congestion of all systems.” Poor guy was only forty-one. Sounds like the sixties, all right, the bit about congestion. We all felt it. Anyway, Roy came later when the culture took a bad turn for the worse, though I’m sure he spent a couple of winters down there in San Miguel, cooling out from the madness and the bad reception he got from his editor at the House. You with me, Morgan? Yes, I’m with you all the way. Tell me more. So, as I was saying, time passed, everybody here moved on in one capacity or another, shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, we used to say, yet the stories, mostly apocryphal, I’m sure, continued to surface, adding to Roy’s legend: some claiming the rejected manuscript was a work of unheralded genius, a work that would change the course of American fiction, if only it could be retrieved—perhaps one day, but maybe not. Maybe never. So went the mantra. Royalty checks for Roy’s earlier work, I heard from his agent, were routinely sent during the interregnum to an obscure post office box in Sacramento, signed and cashed by a woman, I’m told, with a Latin surname who had been granted authorization in a handwritten note from the author to handle his accounts.
“That’s the first place I’d look to find him,” Morgan said, having grown up in California.
“Sacramento. Believe me, weird things, really weird things can happen out there.”
“That, I didn’t know. Anyhow, why don’t you pick up on his two novels. See if you like them.”
“Sure, I’d love to.”
“I should tell you. Both books, the first and the second, are dangerous.”
“I mean, you’re bound to be changed after you read them.”
“I have no fear.”
“The other thing—well, I probably shouldn’t tell you but I will—is that there’s a society of dedicated Roy readers and translators around the world. I’m the webmaster. We call ourselves Royals, after the author.”
“Yes. There’s a translated version of both Roy novels in Estonian, another in Urdu, another in Arabic, another in Farsi, another in the dialect spoken in Catalonia, another in Swahili. Well, you get the idea.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I communicate with them. Letters, emails, occasional phone calls. Forums and chat groups. We try to be discreet about it, though.”
“The dark Internet?”
“Hardly. We just think Roy’s work should live on, and probably will if we keep it closed to a select group of readers and translators. I’ll give you the password to our website, Morgan. I shouldn’t but I will. I get good vibes from you. You’re not like the others.”
“The exploiters, the ones who want to cash in or like to fuck over authors for fun. They do that all the time in Hollywood; it goes with the territory.”
Pappa Jack used the same phrase as she did, but to her mind, it was hardly trite.
Friday came earlier rather than later and Morgan left the Exel office in downtown Manhattan, a canvas bookbag slung over one shoulder, her laptop in a black case hanging on a long strap over the other. She hailed a cab, got in and took a deep breath. It had been quite a week, her last at the House.
Inside the bag were the two Roy novels Pappa Jack had given her. She would dip into one of the books, she promised, her curiosity now whetted by her conversation with Jack, after first grabbing a bite to eat at the local deli. In the office that day she had probed the editors for any tidbits she could get about Roy and his disappearance. Reports had circulated, along with occasional photographs, of Roy’s reappearance from time to time at various book publishing events, readings and conferences, although nobody was quite sure the images truly matched the identity of the man. One editor claimed she had spotted him standing at the foot of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, looking old and tired and grizzled, with a shock of white hair and beard, staring into the abyss with those trademark ice blue eyes, but the sighting could not be confirmed independently and the man was lost in the crowd when the editor ran after him. Another editor at the house, who’d gushed with unbridled enthusiasm about the writer’s work, had taken a few snapshots with her pocket camera one day on the train from Brooklyn to the Exel office, thinking she had caught a glimpse of the author sleeping with his head against a rear window but they were too fuzzy to make out, and so, deemed inconclusive by those who’d studied the shots. Roy remained a man of mystery, all right, remembered at times yet mostly forgotten, relegated to the dust bin of literary history, an author whose talent and promise were seen as largely unfulfilled, but nonetheless, as Morgan Kinder was soon to discover, a writer of truly prophetic work.
For the next three days she barely got up to eat, sleep or hit the bathroom. Most of the time she spent in her pink bathrobe, book in hand, clutching the pages as if she were holding a newborn babe. I’m stoked, deep into them. Both novels were pure page-turners, riveting, spellbinding, impossible-to-put-down works of fiction—and unequivocally, brilliant. Why had they been ignored? Gone out of print? Now become the province of a secret cabal of readers and translators in distant lands? Roy was an American writer: he deserved better.
On the bus to Hanover now, leaving the City and her job as a summer intern behind to finish her senior year at Dartmouth, her mind wandered until she began to recall the outlines of an essay by Robert Bly, one of her favorite contemporary poets, entitled “Wallace Stevens and Dr. Jekyll.” The opening paragraph stuck like a poke in the eye of memory: “The literature of the American earth is many thousands of years old, and its rhythms are still rising from the serpents buried in Ohio, from the shells the Yakuts ate of and threw to the side. The literature of the American nation is only two hundred years old. How much of the darkness from under the earth has risen into poems and stories in that time?”
Roy’s work was all about those buried serpents, about that darkness which now, in her eyes, had indeed risen. On reading his two earlier works over the weekend, she was convinced of his genius. The nagging question of what had happened to him, and why, drove her to the point of obsession during the bus trip. She could not stop thinking about the vanished author. It was late September: autumn leaves had turned all colors of rust and gold and purple; New England more beautiful than she could ever remember. Yet underneath it all was that darkness, the places that haunted the human spirit, drove it to the brink of madness—and beyond. She wanted to touch those places, wherever they might be, wherever Roy would take her; such was the power of his writing.
After her stint at the publishing house Morgan felt a renewed sense of energy. I have to get back to school and finish my studies, she told herself on the bus. Although she had made many friends while working in the City, she had few manfriends, as she called them, fewer dates than she wanted or had time for. Her blonde hair cut short made her look mousey, and perhaps a bit too mannish. A turnoff. She needed to let it grow out and drop below her shoulders, and not color it anymore or streak it with highlights. Her natural auburn hair was good enough, she figured, and matched the sparkle of her dark brown eyes. She had put on weight, a few more pounds than she really needed, so at school she was determined to get back into jogging and playing soccer with the other girls in her sorority house. Manfriends were easier to attract in Hanover; she’d had better luck last spring when she was social chair of her sorority. It would all start up again with Homecoming weekend, parties and social events. Stay cool, she told herself, I am who I am. In a soft voice, she recited to herself aloud on the bus her favorite line from Eliot’s Prufrock:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
Beginning her senior year at the College, unlike her classmates who were destined for law or medical school, she was not sure of her future beyond graduation. What could she really do, again, with her degree in English? Become a teacher? Work in publishing as a low-paid junior editor? Get a Masters degree in Creative Writing or Fine Arts and try to make a living as a writer? Time and again the question popped up, always without a good answer. Hey, I love literature, she would answer her critics. That’s all that matters, wherever that passion might lead me in life. So be it.
Stepping off the bus in Hanover she caught her breath, lifted her head and slowly began to soak in the good vibes and magical splendor of another autumn in New England. Awesome, she thought to herself. Home again. Football fever, the rush to join fraternities and sororities, the rites and rituals of Homecoming weekend, the building of the monster bonfire on the campus Green—it was all in the air when she walked across the Green with her suitcase in tow, books and laptop tucked neatly under arm. Lisa, her sorority sister, was going to meet her on arrival but failed to show up, which was par for the course and not unexpected. Lisa was flaky, but a good person, all in all, in Morgan Kinder’s eyes.
They’d planned to live off-campus rather than in the sorority house or a student dorm, having rented a garret in a professor’s house on the lip of Occom Pond not far from fraternity row. The professor, who taught philosophy, and his wife and kids had two small rooms available on the top floor, up in a converted attic about the size of a couple of walk-in closets, which she and Lisa Bonner were going to share. Morgan was not sure it would work out, living together with Lisa.
Lisa was something of a party animal who had her pick of the boys while Morgan spent most of her time studying or researching in the stacks of Baker library. The year before Lisa had lived in the sorority house, serving as social chair for Homecoming, Winter Carnival and Green Key, the big weekends on campus when things got wild and sometimes out of control. On two occasions she had passed out after several nights of heavy drinking and had to be revived by a doctor at the campus infirmary. Morgan had been the one to take her there, get her to sober up and ensure Lisa moderated her drinking and partying habits. The choice of living off campus was a step in the right direction, they both agreed. Lisa needed to pick up her grades, which had fallen precipitously, even dangerously low, study hard and settle down. The boys would still come calling—Lisa was, after all, a striking young woman with sculpted features: a chiseled jaw, those beguiling greenish-blue eyes, inviting lips always painted bright red, and a lovely, slender body with all the right curves. She was fun to be with, witty in conversation and adventuresome, qualities that Morgan envied.
“Sorry I missed you, Morgan,” Lisa apologized when Morgan got to the house, her face flushed red from lugging her bags across campus. “Can you forgive me?”
“Well, you promised to meet me.”
“I got into a long conversation with my boyfriend and lost track of time. I’ll make it up to you, Morgan. Promise I will. How was New York?”
“Let’s get something to eat and I tell you.”
An hour later at Bob’s Diner on Main Street, Morgan had shared with Lisa the gritty details of her experiences living and working in the City. Most days were boring and uneventful, she said, filled with trivial chores, lots of manuscript reading and writing reports, followed by staff meetings with folks from advertising and publicity, and other demands in her job as an intern at Exel Publishing. Things only got interesting when she met with her boss, Tina Kennedy.
“Tell me about her,” Lisa probed.
“She was great. Learned a lot. We hung out together after work and talked literature until we were both blue in the face.”
“Any boyfriends? Or manfriends, like you call them?”
“Not really. The City can be a lonely place at times.”
“I’ll hook you up with a guy I met at a frat party the other night. I’m sure he’s your type.”
“And what type is that?”
“Oh, you know, bookish, nerdy, maybe a bit anti-social.”
“That’s not me, Lisa.”
“Sorry, I thought it was. So?”
“Who is your type, then?”
“I’ll tell you if you promise to keep it a secret. A writer named Thomas Roy.”
“Roy? Is he in a fraternity? On campus? If so, I can probably fix you up.”
“Thanks but no thanks.”