All across America, manila envelopes are rolling. Up from the South they roll, down from New England and over winding roads from the Adirondacks they are rolling in. They stream in the bellies of postal planes from Baja and from the Pacific Northwest, travel in mail trucks down from the Rocky Mountains high above where the Mississippi rushes to meet the sea, at a soggy delta from which they are coming, too. They are rolling from Minnesota and Oregon. They are rolling in from New York City and the San Fernando Valley, bearing manuscripts about loss and love. They are rolling in from San Luis Obispo, California, carrying a satire written entirely in an invented language, and from Port Jefferson, Maine, with a short story about a dowdy housewife who murders her two-timing husband and his “red hot chili pepper” Latina lover with a kitchen juicer. From Greenwood, Indiana, they are coming with a story imagining a lurid mŽnage-a-trois between Santa Claus, Jack O’Lantern and Peter Rabbit. From Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, they are coming with a bullet-point sheet titled “FACTOIDS ABOUT MY GOOD SHIT,” “My Good Shit” being the name of a motorcycle that has about 128,000 miles on it, most of them put on locally, not uncommonly riding on dirt roads, but that still runs like a champion. They are rolling in from students at Yale University and from would-be students in Massachusetts; they roll down from Springfield, Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo, New York. They are even rolling in from Toronto, Ontario, in an envelope whose return address proclaims the sender to be R.J. Dorgan, His Imperial Highness Alexander IV, Tsar of All the Russias, the Strachan House for Wanderers: “Vityaz na rasputie!”
All of these manila envelopes are rolling slowly and ceaselessly towards 77 North Washington Street, Boston, Massachusetts. The North End mailman will sort them into a single bag and take them to the fifth floor, the offices of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, to be dumped out on a big table in the library and eyed by a clump of dismayed interns clutching letter openers. Fifteen thousand a year hit that big table, which is about 35 a day; every month, more than a thousand of them will roll in, and all but one of them will be thrown away.
In June 2004, I started working as one of seven interns who sat around the table in the Atlantic Monthly’s library, slit open manila envelopes and read the short stories contained within. Here is why they needed so many interns: Like The New Yorker and Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, at least for the period that I worked there, published one short story in every issue. (On April 15, David Bradley, the Atlantic’s owner, announced that the magazine will discontinue the publication of fiction in its pages with the exception of a once-yearly fiction issue. Ironically, the Atlantic just won the 2005 National Magazine Award for Fiction.) Most of the stories in the Atlantic that summer were commissioned or were accepted from the portfolios of top New York literary agents. But the Atlantic, unlike the other magazines, had a standing promise to the literary world not to throw any unsolicited fiction submissions out unopened. Every story in the “slush pile,” lingo for this ever-replenishing mass of submissions, was read, and some response was sent back. C. Michael Curtis, the Atlantic’s long-standing fiction editor, remembers that when he was submitting stories to periodicals, he even enjoyed receiving the rejection letters. And, after all, you never know what you might find in the pile: Virginia Woolf posted short stories to the Atlantic before she became famous; Truman Capote punched the clock in the New Yorker mailroom while composing manuscript after manuscript to send off to magazines, usually in vain, but one fine morning–
Much of the slush pile, in truth, is terrible. We interns gleefully judged the kitchen juicer story un-publishable, printed out a withering report and posted it along with the first page of the story on the bulletin board that immortalized the strangest stories and cover letters the pile received. R.J. Dorgan, a slush pile legend by the time I arrived, sent something to the Atlantic about three times a month, so he provided our board with a pleasingly repetitive motif. We festooned its perimeter with his demented envelopes, and laughed at the double-eagle Tsar’s insignia carefully stamped on each as we cruised by to go to the bathroom. I laughed at almost all of it, until we received a story posted from Avenue J in Brooklyn, where my grandfather used to live.
“This one’s from the same street my grandfather used to live on,” I said.
“All of these people are, like, somebody’s parents,” another intern said, shuffling unopened envelopes through his fingers. “And their kids probably have no idea, either. They think their dad’s sitting in the Palm Beach condo, all gentle and sane, playing bridge with his friends, and they have no idea he writes whacked-out short fiction and spews it out to magazines every week.”
I began to wonder. My grandfather no longer lives on Avenue J, but whose did? Who are the people sending all these manila envelopes? Fifteen thousand submissions a year is a huge flow, especially since it’s so unlikely a submission will be published. Even in the face of such bad odds, many, like R.J. Dorgan, submit again and again. There is often a special urgency to the tone of these submissions. Fifteen thousand. Who are these weird would-be writers? And why are they trying to write?
The simplest answer is that writing seems so easy. Unlike, say, building houses, writing does not obviously demand any expertise. Even watercolor painting, as a hobby, requires some special supplies; to be a writer, you need only the same computer you use for your computer-programming day job or for your online shopping, and you don’t even necessarily need that. R.J. Dorgan’s manuscripts look typewriter-made.
As I begin to poke, idly at first, into the answer to my question, I run up against the inevitable result of this unique universal accessibility: The writer’s world is huge and infinitely faceted. Hundreds of magazines exist for writers to share their work and talk shop; “high-residency” and “low-residency” Masters of Fine Arts programs serve the more serious writing student, while online, university and writing center workshops and classes serve every other kind. I am directed to local students and teachers of writing; to Grub Street, Inc., Boston’s independent writing center; to Curtis at the Atlantic. Eventually, I will become implicated in the problem myself; I will find myself asking the Craigslist.org writer’s discussion group, a kind of frenetic writers’ group therapy session, “Why do we write?” I will be guilted by former United States Poet Laureate Robert J. Pinsky into taking a 16-hour, 600-mile, four-transfer bus trip from Boston back through Springfield, Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo, New York, to Toronto, where R.J. Dorgan will tell me, in the same pitiful way as a prisoner might describe his famine, that he hasn’t written anything in 10 days. He is waiting for his check from the Veterans’ Affairs bureau, which rewards him monthly for his service to America in the Korean War. He uses the check to buy paper, ink cartridges for his typewriter, stamps and envelopes. He writes because he has to.
In the beginning, though, I will look for R.J. Dorgan in the easiest way.
This past summer, Nick Antosca, a senior at Yale, submitted a story to the Atlantic. I have looked Nick up because I remember noticing his envelope’s return address. Nick is one of the best undergraduate fiction writers on the scene, according to his former professor, John Crowley, who has taught fiction at Yale for nine years. He is certainly one of the most serious: He has been widely published in online and small press forums, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He took the fall semester off of school to work on his second novel.
Nick tells me he wrote his first novel in a manic burst of energy, 60,000 words in 11 days. “I was really excited about it,” he says. “Dangerously excited. I went back and read it, and thought I had gone insane.” Nick has long eyelashes that remind me of a camel’s, a five-o’clock shadow, and an aloofly seductive air. His camel eyes droop languidly to where I’ve made note of his words, and he pauses, revises. “I mean, not insane. I was just excited to find out that I could write a novel, you know?”
I am disappointed. The reason he mailed his envelope to the Atlantic hasn’t seemed to bring me much closer to why the bulk of them keep coming. I somehow assumed that Nick would be possessed by the desire to write by the feeling that stories burn inside of him that must somehow get out, but he is restrained when discussing his work. When I ask him, “Why do you write?” he explains that there’s no good answer because the question is reductive and facile: It’s all about finding the balance between storytelling, character and style. His favorite author is Vladimir Nabokov, because “his evocations are so idiosyncratic. He’s just a beautiful writer.” The craft of fiction writing, the manipulation of the raw material of language, thrills him, and he’s excited because he’s beginning to master it.
According to C. Michael Curtis, the Atlantic easily gets 300 stories a year that are worth publishing, but that leaves 14,700 that aren’t. Most of these remaining stories are so bad. No one could ever have encouraged these would-be writers about their craft, yet they continue to submit. I can’t see R.J. Dorgan, Tsar of All the Russias, in Nick Antosca.
I go to Crowley for help. Crowley is a writer first and foremost, and his genre-bending novels have been effusively praised in the Boston Review for their “unrestrained passion and ambition.” But he reveals that as a teacher, he doesn’t try to advise on anything that has much to do with the mysterious “calling” his students may feel to write. He used to ask his students, at the beginning of the semester, to raise their hands if they thought they would someday be writers. A few would, timidly; but he realized that the people who most cherished this passion wouldn’t raise their hands. Such a calling is too precious to advertise.
As a teacher, he can only provide his students with a toolbox of technical “tricks” to use to tell their stories, like the principles of narratology and concepts from classical rhetoric. He doesn’t want them to worry too hard about forcing meaning on their writing, at least not yet. “The trouble about talking about fiction,” he explains, “is that you tend to slide over to a moral worth, to whether it’s imparting wisdom,” and this is a treacherous road.
Crowley talks about a student he once had. The first story she turned in was stunning; he remembers feeling truly emotionally affected by its denouement. He was startled to find, then, that her second story, though constructed on a different situation, produced the exact same emotional effect on him. He had been duped the first time, but he now saw how this young writer had learned to employ certain narrative devices to achieve a very specific, very powerful effect.
I sit back, waiting to share a laugh with Crowley about the student’s superficiality. How dumb is it to write many stories that all mean the same thing? But as it turns out, Crowley’s point is that she was one of his best students: “A promising writer,” he says, “has a natural skill at manipulating the kinds of things we’ve been talking about.” He pauses. “It’s a better indicator of promise now than honesty is,” he adds.
Leaving Crowley’s office, I worry. I am enrolled in a nonfiction writing class, and we’re challenged to develop playful voices and interesting structures to match our material. Sometimes I mix up the order in which this is supposed to happen. Certainly, we should be searching for the style that is strictly in service to what we want to say, that best illuminates our argument, but this other narrative device is super clever! So it makes it mean something a little different than what we’d planned. A piece I prepare on Yale’s deadly-dull student government turns into a mighty ode that compares one of its representatives to William Wallace half-naked on a horse, a shaft of quills slung across his chest, rousing the Scottish rebels. I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s pretty funny. Does it really matter?
I wonder what C. Michael Curtis thinks: As the Atlantic’s fiction editor, he sees a more professional slice of submissions than the interns do. Are the skillful stories Crowley described the kind he receives? Are these the kind he looks for? I head back to 77 North Washington Street, where three new interns clutching letter openers look up from the big table in the library as I pass by.
Curtis was a writer in his time, even though his graduate studies at Cornell were in political science. Having studied English as an undergraduate, he discovered that he was poorly educated to be a reporter: Disappointingly, there was no correlation between the poems of W.H. Auden and covering a scoop. He went to study politics to learn more about the world he was trying to report, and found that it complemented his understanding of fiction as well: “Studying the issues in political science made the moral issues in fiction that much more clear,” he explains.
We interns imagined, of course, that the crop of stories we got at the Atlantic that summer were the weirdest ever. But Curtis believes that the quality of submissions has been getting better, a trend he attributes to the proliferation of MFA programs. These programs give aspiring writers, who in the past might have fiddled about with writing for a couple of years after college and then moved on, the will to concentrate on it and, potentially, “get good.”
At the same time, Curtis observes that “we’re getting a lot more stories — well, many of these new writers are so caught up in stylistic flourish that they’re not telling stories. It’s like reading an especially bad poem — 300 pages of it.” Elegant craft, he believes, cannot exist for elegance’s sake; it must be working to get at something deeper. He recalls a few submissions he recently read by a college undergrad. “I think he’s learned to write a fancy sentence, and he’s admired for that,” Curtis says. “But he doesn’t have enough of the world with him to feel authentic pain.”
I imagine Nick might object to this critique of young writers. But it strikes me that the way of teaching writing that Crowley identified permits us not to worry about wrestling with authentic pain, just yet. Curtis remarks that the increase in programs to teach writing and the increasing emphasis on stylistic elegance is no coincidence: “For example,” he explains, “a friend of mine just sent me a novel. I told him it was terribly overwritten. He was kind of rueful about it, and I said, ‘It seems that MFA programs reward you for style, but the marketplace wants plot!'”
So does the Atlantic spurn stories that read like they came from technique-honing programs, to favor those that are simple and honest? Not necessarily — the problem is that the Atlantic also wants surprises. The editors are, perhaps, hyper-conscious of the ways in which these simpler stories are too alike. We interns noticed this in the submissions we read in the slush pile, too. The same themes kept popping up, and even motifs began to feel drawn from some unfathomable collective consciousness; I recall an intern complaining that half the stories she read had birds in them. I think I cracked some joke about the double-eagle Tsar’s insignia on R.J. Dorgan’s envelopes.
It seems sad, somehow, that being honest is so often the same as being boring. That to hone in on a common and true human experience so often means that everyone else is honing in on it, too. “We’re getting a new kind of story,” Curtis says, “on aging parents who have particular needs. A lot of them are developing — what’s the name of that disease?”
“Alzheimer’s,” I offer.
“Alzheimer’s. Again, it’s understandable — people are living longer, and writers in their 60s are confronting this kind of thing just as they may be coming into their own as artists. We probably get more good stories on this subject than any other, and we published three or four. But we don’t want to become a magazine that only prints about 85-year-olds going soft in the head.”
In my nonfiction writing class, we have learned about a device called the “MacGuffin.” The MacGuffin was Alfred Hitchcock’s signature way of spurring the plot in his movies: It is the object people are pursuing throughout, but it doesn’t really matter what the thing itself is. In “Notorious,” a Hitchcock film about a woman exposing her father’s contraband-smuggling Nazi friends in South America, the MacGuffin is uranium — but as the means to an end, it was interchangeable with anything else as the pursued object; in fact, the original script called for diamonds. In a nonfiction story, we learn, there should be one too; according to my professor, magazine editors will sometimes look at a story and cry, “Where’s the MacGuffin?”
In one story I saw in the Atlantic’s slush pile, a young, 30-ish couple is having marital difficulties. They are arguing in an airport, but they become distracted by a bird that’s gotten into the terminal. They run into a little boy who’s also chasing it and their argument climaxes on the issue of having children. The bird smashes into a window. There’s the MacGuffin.
I describe the story to Mike Curtis, who shakes his head, bemused. “You see a lot of that,” he says. The bird, as a symbolic motivator, never gets off the ground. There’s an idea about marriage there, but the effort to transform it above the mundane using a “technique” flops.
It is easier as a journalist, perhaps, to use the MacGuffin, because unlike in a short story, the information you report sustains itself. The duty is to stitch it together, and the MacGuffin, as long as it does that, doesn’t need to be so carefully chosen. Or does it?
I am scheduled to return home the next morning, so after leaving the Atlantic’s offices I wend my way toward a Boston University poetry reading to kill time. A kind of continuum is beginning to take shape in my mind: Toward one end, there are those writing for the craft, for the love of the telling, for the gorgeous shape a sentence can take on the page. Toward the other, I sense, are my envelope-senders, whose writing more often floundered on the rocks of language, its sentences short and stiff and its vocabulary narrow. The owner of “My Good Shit” only wanted us to know how fabulous that bike was, so that the marvel of its reliability and excellent chrome finish would not come into the world and go from it as his secret alone. The cover letter that accompanied the kitchen juicer story revealed that the author was herself a stay-at-home mom. The story could never be published, yet it seemed important: After reading it I was gripped with a desire to call the woman’s husband and tell him, urgently, that she knows.
The writer of craft is a skilled magician, juggling words to create effect, and able to see the chimeras of emotion he spins with a cynic’s eye. Unlike the envelope-senders — who shout their desire from every locale — when he is asked if he is driven by the need to write, he does not raise his hand. Perhaps he is a bit embarrassed: There is something more professional about writing from skill than from need. After all, the craft is what can be taught. But who is the writer from need? Is he taken in by the chimeras, penning foaming manifestos? Is there something unprofessional about insisting you are moved by something far greater then your skill, something that seems to us worrisomely unconcerned with talent, something arrogant, or evangelist? On the scale, where would I be?
Robert J. Pinsky, poet, is using a podium like a podium can generally only dream of being used. He leans into it, splays his wide fingers over its surfaces and flops his body parts over its edges, striking various exaggerated propped-up poses. If he were a mime, his performance would leave no curve or corner of it undefined. He reminds me of an exotic dancer pawing and draping herself around a chair, except it is Woody Allen instead of a beautiful woman.
Pinsky is a former United States Poet Laureate, creator of a very fine translation of Dante’s Inferno that I vaguely recall trudging through as a college freshman and professor of poetry at Boston University, which is why he is here, making acrobatic love to the Boston University Sleeper Auditorium’s podium at five o’clock on a Friday. He tells us that, as a poet, he is particularly obsessed with certain words, such as the word “thing,” or “Jesus,” or the phrase “jar of pens.” “Jar of pens, jar of pens,” Pinsky intones, torso dramatically cantilevered off the left side of the podium. “Sometimes the sight of them / Huddled in their cylindrical formation / Repels me –“
Slumped in the audience, I am having trouble imagining how one might feel authentic pain at the sight of pens. This florid style, this self-conscious muscularity of language, this generous way of pumping the everyday full of tragic grandeur, is all very far from what rolled in to us and our slush pile at The Atlantic Monthly.
But as Pinsky reads from a poem entitled, “Ode to Meaning,” it becomes clear that he wants urgently for his poetry to wrestle with moral issues. For this, he explains, is the peculiar joy of lyric poetry, which requires the experience of pain and grief in order to have anything to write about. A bad poem, he quips, is one that is “just journalistic” — he smiles — “by which I mean, complacent.”
The audience is full of young poets, and all around me they laugh in appreciation. The letters of R.J. Dorgan, ones I copied this summer and kept, burn in my backpack. Does the detached side of the continuum really have to be the trained journalist’s permanent home? Have I treated R.J. Dorgan as my meaningless MacGuffin, without acknowledging that alone among the interns I thought his desperate missives were funny, but also worth keeping? When I read them I was as curiously excited by his stories as I was disappointed by the more crafted and professional ones I read. Beyond being the mere hook in my story, maybe Dorgan is the point.
I find myself at Boston’s South Station, refunding my train ticket home and purchasing a five-leg bus pass to Toronto.
Everyone waiting in line for the eight o’clock Sunday morning bus to Springfield, Massachusetts, dangles a string of tickets attached at perforated joints. No one here just wants to get to Springfield by 10: For everyone, it is the first stop on a long, fragilely assembled journey, perhaps only as far as Albany, from where I remember a letter or two was posted to the Atlantic; perhaps on to Syracuse or Buffalo, from where letters were coming that summer, too. Late in the night, a few of us will even continue on to Canada, from whose beating urban heart R.J. Dorgan’s letters made their way.
We climb into the mountains and descend into New York State, where the scenery begins to change: There is a tiny Christmas tree farm and a wooden sign that announces “New Lebanon.” An abandoned red truck lies on its side, spray-painted “Amish-made! Clown bus,” next to the so-called “Peace Shrine,” which appears to be a burnt-out woodshed.
On New Road, a house sits on a promontory. The earth around it is eroding into a massive sinkhole. In the depression there are tires, a cash register, some carved wooden lobsters and a toilet. Whoever said the country was wide open and empty was off — it is full, full of car chasses hugging the rolls of the earth; full of houses and rusting tools and fallen signs and toys. Men squeezed the ground until it coughed these objects up, and now they are melting back under.
Night falls an hour outside of Syracuse. Out of the blackened landscape, lighted windows emerge. Perhaps some of them look into the studies where, late at night, after the day job is done and the children are in bed, the slush pile’s stories were first conceived. I begin to number them, from one to 15,000.
In Syracuse, two women board the bus. Their letter jackets and pale, tapered jeans seem too young for their age. They sit ahead of me and twitter with excitement: They’re on their way to join the World Wrestling Entertainment tour in Buffalo. The larger one keeps offering her Walkman to the smaller. “Dude, there’s this one song, called ‘Famous Monster,’ that’s totally about wrestlers!” She turns it up all the way so both can hear it, tinny and crackling. She sings along. “Look at their size!” They collapse into giggles.
The bus driver hasn’t driven this route before, and he doesn’t quite seem to know where he’s going. He weaves a bit as he shuffles through maps, and the women become nervous. The smaller one breathes heavily, and the larger one shifts restlessly. They begin to talk about the driver as though he isn’t there: “Are you going to report him?”
“You bet your ass I am. You bet your ass,” the smaller one insists. She hyperventilates.
“We’ll report him when we get to Buffalo.”
“You bet your ass.”
“You make this job even worse than it is,” the bus driver snaps.
“Your driving is awful. It’s a crime,” the larger one says.
“I’m getting an anxiety attack,” the smaller one declares.
The driver pulls off the highway into a gas station and slams the bus to a halt. “If my driving’s so bad, you’re gonna have to get off.”
“We won’t get off,” the larger one says. “We bought a ticket.”
“We’re trying to get to Buffalo for the World Wrestling Entertainment tour,” cries the smaller one. “We won’t make there it alive!”
“I won’t get off!”
“Then shut up!”
“Fine!” The smaller one begins to weep, snuffling into her friend’s shoulder. We roll on through Buffalo and on to Toronto in silence.
The next afternoon, when I call from a streetcar to let David Reycraft, the supervisor of the Strachan House, know I’m arriving, he tells me that he talked to R.J. Dorgan, and that he’d be happy to see me. “Robert is a lovely man,” he says. “Crazy as a loon, but lovely.” I stand in front of 805-A Wellington Street West, which is unmarked on the outside, a broad salmon-colored faade with faint outlines where sign lettering used to be but is no longer. Is this it? Mental illness in a broken-down Canadian flophouse?
I have not written about the visits I made to Grub Street, Inc., Boston’s independent writing center. The Boston Phoenix describes Grub Street as “Boston’s literary hub, the place to reference for all manner of literary endeavors. Grub Street provides those who don’t have time or money for a full-on MFA program [what is] perhaps most important in such a solitary endeavor, community.” This is probably all true, but I did not write about it because the sense I got was that the center works best for writers looking to take their skill to the next level, to find a genre that best suits their marketable talents. Toward those like my envelope-senders it is benevolently patronizing, providing them with something to briefly foster their dreams. Whitney Scharer, Grub Street’s program administrator, formerly held a job at Houghton Mifflin, one of the few publishing houses to still have a slush pile. “Dealing with it was annoying,” she reveals, “but at the same time I thought, ‘It’s so good that they’re doing this! That people know there’s a place they can send their work and someone will look at it, especially the crazies.'” She lowers her voice. “They’re probably lonely people, you know, without many — contacts.”
I did not write about it because I did not want to think it. I wanted to believe in a phenomenon of manila envelopes. I wanted to imagine 15,000 windows lit up over the dark fields of the republic, 15,000 insomniacs typing, each in a feverish search for meaning and whose collective search had its own meaning, a profound meaning about that America that I rolled through all day and into the night. I did not want to think that the slush pile was merely an outlet for crazies, a receptacle for the ramblings of lonely losers, an echo-board for the senseless barbaric yawps of those who cannot get anyone else to listen. But I have rolled across the border into Canada, to the doorstep of my lunatic MacGuffin, and that this is how it would end I should have known all along.
David Reycraft lets me in. He snakes through a little office that opens out onto the foyer, where he halts and waves a hand up towards the rafters. “Welcome to Strachan House,” he says.
How to describe the Strachan House? How to put a finger on what makes it so strange? The foyer is open like an atrium up to the building’s roof several stories above, and support beams stretching between walls and a scrubbed stone floor give it the feel of a fabulous skyscraper mid-construction. I assume the look is intentional, but David’s quick to explain that the place used to look “cozier”: Like every transitional housing facility, the Strachan House has had problems with bedbugs, so they finally decided to strip the whole place of any cushioning or cloth. “That’s why it looks so bare,” he explains.
The Strachan House was built in 1999 as part of the Homes First Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating the homelessness problem in Toronto. Homes First advocates a controversial transient housing policy called “harm reduction,” where tenants aren’t asked to kick their addictions or solve their mental illnesses before being offered shelter. Some of the Homes First buildings actually brew booze and roll joints for their tenants. The Strachan House doesn’t do this, but it does practice tolerance towards the kinds of personal problems that can go along with — or, in R.J. Dorgan’s case, precipitate — homelessness; 70 percent of its 76 tenants are on the type of Canadian welfare reserved for the mentally disabled. There are many other kinds of addictions besides alcoholism and drug abuse, I soon realize, and the Strachan House’s harm-reduction policy means that its group of tenants remains a real cast of characters. The 11 units in the Strachan House, each designated by a letter, have developed particular reputations: “Unit C,” David explains, “tends to have guys who are collectors for some reason.” A “collector” is a person who obsessively hoards — trash, scraps of paper, food items, hubcaps. He gestures into the living room of Unit C, where two men wearing baseball caps perch on the edge of a denuded couch. The component parts of a motorized scooter are strewn at their feet. “We try to help them with these problems, but we don’t want to be too invasive,” David says.
Most of the common rooms in the Strachan House are missing one or two walls; some are open at the top, so you can look down into them as you ascend the staircases. They contain the sparest furniture. The ranges and microwaves in the kitchens look like plastic toys when seen, in the ceiling-less rooms, from above. The place has the remarkable feel of an enormous dollhouse, its rooms cut open, its walls and furniture placed by fingers a bit too big to change their position after dropping them in. As a home for people trying to overcome mental illness, it strikes me as a laughably bad interior design.
We ascend towards Unit J, where R.J. Dorgan lives. With all the weirdness, I have hardly thought about preparing to meet him, and suddenly we are at his door.
It is exactly as I might have imagined it. The floor is covered in papers; a bookshelf full of ancient volumes by Bertrand Russell gives off a sour wormwood smell. The typewriter on which he must prepare his hundreds of envelopes sits on a long desk, surrounded by clippings. His bed is made, and a small leather chair has been cleared. He has been waiting for me.
“I thought you would be older,” he says. “I thought the person who came to interview me would be older.”
I feel bad. “Has anyone come to interview you before?”
“No.” He pauses. “I got interviewed for the Toronto Sun once, for an article about how homeless people are drunks and come home and puke all over each other. I did get interviewed, for that.” His sentences are perfectly lucid, and his tone is dark. He is maybe 70 years old, and standing in the light of his doorway he looks like a jacket-cover photograph I once saw of Robert Frost. David Reycraft claps his hands, and cheerfully announces that he’ll leave us two together to get acquainted! He pins me with an inscrutable look before he goes.
In the end, what I come to understand about R.J. Dorgan’s life is this: He was born in New York, and he has at least one sister. He went to Cornell, where he was a Sigma Nu. He fought in Korea. At Cornell he met his wife, an Alpha Phi. They moved to a farm on Prince Edward Island, and he taught in the public schools. They had a son, whom he named after himself, but it soon became clear that the boy was not his. His wife left for Salt Lake City and Pasadena; he was able to persuade her to come back, but when he tried to make love to her, she pushed him away, telling him he reminded her of a snake. Soon, she was gone for good.
In 1978, he submitted his resignation from his job teaching fifth graders. Or perhaps he was fired: They told him, “Bob, you’re teaching them too much!” He did hard drugs; he went broke; he had a nervous breakdown. His life in ashes, he took to the streets, for which he was interviewed for the Toronto Sun. Now he lives in the Strachan House and writes. He writes to the Atlantic, Harper’s and Time, mostly.
The straight facts of his life are hard to piece together because his vision and presentation of it is driven by a sense of mystic destiny. His life, he believes, is, in part, a modern reincarnation of the Odyssey: He was born in Greece, New York; he went to school in Ithaca, and he has since been wandering, a stranger to his home. He has had, he explained, his run-in with sirens, his Scylla and his Charybdis. His wife’s name is Nancy, which sounds suitably like Penelope. Although he resisted the temptation to name his son Telemachus, this son is now living in Simpson, Kentucky. Do you know who the father is on the television show “The Simpsons”? He leans back in his chair, smiling with satisfaction.
He was recently standing outside a bar when a passerby called out to him a cryptic sentence about the Pied Piper of Hamlin. His sister lives in Hamlin, New York, on Moscow Road, and he is the Tsar. “That’s a funny coincidence,” I say.
“It’s not a coincidence,” he counters.
“It’s bizarre,” I try again.
“It’s not bizarre,” he says. “Why do you keep saying ‘bizarre’? You’ve said that word three times.” For the Tsar, the enigmatic call outside the tavern was simply a sign, the kind that have come to him all through his life in the form of the unexpected associations that rise in his head, by the way the same kind of pain is created over and over again by different wounds, by the long chains of inexplicable connections that are too pervasive to be accident. It was a sign that it is time to return to Russia.
Later that evening, swaying on a streetcar and thinking about R.J. Dorgan and how I got to him, my mind swirls. I feel plagued by my own sense of mystic connections. R.J. Dorgan went to Cornell. Mike Curtis, fiction editor of the Atlantic Monthly, also went to Cornell, almost at the same time. My grandfather went to Cornell, too, the same one who lived on Avenue J in Brooklyn, who managed to live and die without ever ending up in Unit J. But how could I write this story without seeming crazy? Only an R.J. Dorgan, I sense, would try.
Does R.J. Dorgan, His Imperial Highness Alexander IV, Tsar of All the Russias, really think he is the Tsar? This final delusion would prove he was truly insane, that he was a crazy mailing crazy letters to the Atlantic that you’d have to be crazy to love. When David Reycraft brought me to him, Dorgan announced, “I’m going to Moscow soon. I have friends there. I have someone who wants to film my coronation. I have a young lover, whom I want to crown the Dauphin of France. I want a restoration of the Versailles government in seven months.”
I wasn’t sure what to say — I was a little afraid of being left with him — so I said, with all the sympathy I could conjure up, “That sounds hard.”
“I’ll say,” David said, laughing.
Later, when we were alone, I asked R.J. Dorgan if he thought that the Atlantic’s slush pile was simply doing him, and the other envelope-senders like him, a favor. “The Tsar gives a nation dignity,” he replied, enigmatically, fascinatingly. Could I use him in a piece I was writing? “Go ahead, I don’t care,” he said. “Use anything. I want to awaken people. I don’t want to kill them. I don’t want to poison them. I just want to awaken them, so they can enrich their culture.”
“Are you the Tsar?” I asked.
His response was as cryptic as the caller outside the bar. “My favorite editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, once said, ‘Every nation needs a Tsar like every village needs an idiot.'” He shrugged. “So, I’ll be the Tsar,” he concluded. There was a long silence. “Do you have any money?” he asked. “I haven’t written anything in 10 days.” n