This weekend, I’m off to receive my PEN/Hemingway nod at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. It’s a public ceremony, so come by and say hi if you’re in Boston.
I say “nod” for a reason. That’s all Catherine Chung (Forgotten Country) and I – the two Honorable Mentions – are required to do at the ceremony. Stand up when our name is called, nod to the crowd, and sit back down. The two Finalists, however, Jennifer duBois (A Partial History of Lost Causes) and Vaddey Ratner (In the Shadow of the Banyan) make a stage appearance and get a handshake. Only the Winner, Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds) gets all that, plus a fat check. He also gets to command the stage, alone, for a long lingering bask, before he’s bumped for keynote speaker, Colm Tóibín.
And on up the food chain.
My relatively lowly award notwithstanding, I’m thinking, it’s all good. Sure, it would have been better to win, but guess whose name is now forever paired with mine?
The PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award recognizes distinguished first books of fiction. Mary Hemingway, a member of PEN, established the award to honor the memory of her husband, Ernest Hemingway.
Hmmmm…I wonder if the judges close read pages 47 and 50 of As It Is On Earth…?
…She swings an arm of books up and clasps them to her chest with both arms. They’re music books, musical scores. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Are you coming to the concert in the Chapel tonight?” She nods past my shoulder toward the non-denominational college chapel at the east end of the University Quadrangle.
“I’m afraid I can’t. Not tonight.” I know nothing about the student concert. I look down at her breast, full of sheet music. She must be in the chamber group. “…I’m a fan of Vivaldi, I’ll be sorry to miss it.”
The Chapel bells ring the time.
“There, you see?…for whom the bell tolls…it’s a signal for you to come,” she says, playfully.
“It’s six pm.” I say, flatly. I ignore her literary reference; I do not like it.
…I no longer enter churches. Not since my father’s service. Not even for the architecture. Not even for attractive young women, with cellos nestled up to the soft heat between widely spread legs, playing Vivaldi.
Did you catch the Hemingway? No, not the randy wise-crack…the title of one of his books! My agenda there was actually to riff on The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. I was imagining Hemingway’s wrestling match with John Donne*. A few pages on:
…Minister Crowninshield did the best he could, given what he had to work with. He recited John Donne, invoking the Reformation Poet-Priest’s defense of suicide. “Biathanatos”: how Samson and Saul and Judas Iscariot had made their separate peace given the difficulties of their Faith. That there could still be an honor there.
…But something terrible had happened. To everyone. Crowninshield knew this too, and sent us off into the evening after my father’s service with final words from Donne: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”*
It was little comfort for something that truly was unspeakable. With the Geneva Bible in one hand and his Hippocratic Oath in the other, Deacon Thatcher – Dr. Thatcher – had kept watch on Mt. Vernon’s heaven and earth for years. But, in the end, he must have known that he had let himself down and was doomed to bring a few in Mt. Vernon along with him.
Of course, Harold Bloom is right. As writers, we “journey to abstract ourselves by fabrication. But where the fabric already has been woven, we journey to unravel.” And so, in my “wish to be the father to myself…“, I poke fun at Hemingway’s anxiety over Donne, only to reveal my anguish over both of them. Get in line, they mutter from The Great Beyond. Indeed. Maybe that’s why I came in third…just an Honorable Mention, following a Finalist, who follows, in turn, the Winner.
Then again, it is good to remember that these awards are the provenance of other anxious men and women (in this case, the writer-judges: Amy Bloom, Oscar Hijuelos, and Craig Nova). Best get on with the next book, and take your anxiolytic from Merriam Webster: Honorable Mention – a distinction conferred on works of exceptional merit…just not deserving of top honors.
…Not this time, anyway.
Remember what I said about my head going South Park? (Ruminations…35) Watch for my fatheaded nod on Sunday.
* Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624