I’m on stage, after giving a reading, blinking in confusion again at a question I’ve been asked by a member of the audience. The question is one I anticipated and rehearsed answering for years before I was ever faced with it – and which, as it happens, I’ve answered aloud in public a few dozen times already by now. You’d think I’d know the answer to it. You’d think I’d have memorized the better answers I’ve given in the past, might have honed a version of a sincere reply I’d be comfortable offering up, or else honed a lie or jape or confection to stand in its place, one to entertain the audience and the question’s asker, and in the process distract them from noticing I’d avoided the question. Or (I can hear you suggesting), I might simply reply with humble unrehearsed honesty, as if the question had never ocurred to me before but was certainly worth of an answer. The difficulty is that at this moment I can no longer recall what I believe to be the truth.
The question (in so many words) is this: “Is there a real person on whom your character Perkus Tooth is based?”
Well. There are so many ways to fail to completely answer this question, but I do have to pick one and open my mouth. My inclination, always, is to say ‘yes’ – not just to this, but to any public question that might be seen to set its answerer on the defensive; to absorb the anxiety of my audience, all those others waiting to see how this question will be answered and whether they ought to become uncomfortable, by being agreeable, by taking the question as an opportunity to say something which dissipates confrontation rather than meeting it head-on. Perhaps this can be seen a form of verbal Judo, though it’s not designed to land the question’s asker in a vulnerable position, flat on the floor with my knee at their throat. It’s far more generous than that – and more, it’s a route of honesty, not a strategy for avoiding honesty. Yes, I might say (and I have): Yes, Perkus Tooth is based on real persons – not one, but several. The crowd, at this, will exhale in relief. I continue: there are at least half a dozen people I had in mind, as I created this composite character – each of whom might rightly recognize themselves in Perkus Tooth and feel, I hope, a certain proprietary excitement, a thrill of connection to my life and my book. I didn’t, I hope, violate anyone’s privacy, yet if these various friends were to step up and ask me whether Perkus Tooth was based on them, I’d never be able to pretend otherwise.
But there are other honest answers which this one denies. How can I explain at the same time that Perkus Tooth, while in his externals resembling those various friends who might be encouraged to recognize themselves, in other deep aspects of his nature is based on others, or perhaps just one other, one who would never be capable of recognizing it, or of being recognized. Perhaps this other is a different race or age or sex from my character Perkus Tooth. Perhaps they have nothing ‘in common’ except for the feeling I hold for them, a soul-connection, like the karmic link between a beggar in Kashmir reincarnated as a banker in London. This is a secret I find difficult, not to confess, but to persuasively describe: how Perkus Tooth might be, for instance, my mother. But he is. On certain days that truth seems truer than any other.
This thought leads, however, quite inevitably to another. This other thought I’ve offered up, from time to time: Perkus Tooth, like all my characters, is helpless to be anyone but myself. Though hardly original to me (As Flaubert would have said, “Perkus Tooth c’est moi”), this has the advantage of being highly satisfying as well as distracting. Once an audience of readers has been led to dwell on the mysterious solipsistic helplessness of the novelist’s powers – I am incapable, with words and sentences, with speculations, of stealing anyone else’s soul, and equally incapable of keeping from constantly stealing my own – minor questions of resemblance seem petty by comparison. The lineaments of my characters bodies, their hearts, their brains, their talk and also their unspoken thoughts, are all only flutterings of my imagination, flickers of my fingers on a keyboard.
So that reply, too, is a brand of honesty I can offer up without withering my self-respect. The problem, though – the thing I’d explain if only I could – is that while it’s right to remind a reader that a character is a chimera, a shadow, a glance, far less in substance than even the shallowest human being who ever lived, it’s equally true that most characters are dwelling-places for dozens of human lives, containers for much more than a description of a single person. These notions may seem to contradict one another, but they don’t. Philip Roth has pointed out, rightly, that a writer only begins by basing his or her work on some real person or event. It’s everything that follows, everything the writer elaborates after that point of origin, that makes it worth reading, that makes it, maybe, literature. Another problem, of course, is that I, at least, learn so much from my betters that you may as well call me a plagiarist: Perkus Tooth wouldn’t exist without the precedent of the character Rudolph Menthol, from Rufus Firefly’s great novel Years Between Islands. Each time I lift Firefly’s book from my shelf and reread even a page I’m struck by this thought, one I’d be unlikely to mention in public: Tooth wouldn’t exist without Menthol. Sure, my character’s based on another person, but a real one, not a fictional one. Some days I’m certain that’s the truth.
Then again, as I stand there looking for an answer to the question, wondering which truth I’ll tell, I can’t help but think of my friend Garrett Fearing, my old dear friend Garrett, who, come to think of it, I really ought to call one of these days. Another friend recently mentioned he’d seen Garrett Fearing at a party, that Garrett had been drinking, and that in his somewhat drunken state he’d claimed to a small group of others that Perkus Tooth was based on him, on Garrett Fearing, irrefutably and completely. By doing so, Garrett was making a boast, but also a plea for sympathy and recognition. Claiming Perkus Tooth’s sorrows as his own, Garrett enunciated a wish that his friends and mine, we who so often flinch from Garrett’s demands, his unruly needs, accord to him some of the empathy Perkus Tooth had earned from my readers. That, damn it, we ought to view Garrett Fearing as we view Perkus Tooth, as grand and tragic, and as worthy of redemption, even if redemption had not yet quite been attained. Here’s another truth: if Perkus Tooth is me and you and a whole bunch of other guys, if I am the walrus and you are the eggman and goo goo ga joob, Perkus Tooth may nevertheless, in certain telling ways, in the breadth of his ungainly journey across the earth’s surface, be in fact a little more Garrett Fearing than he is anyone else. At the very least he was absolutely so in that moment when Garrett Fearing read my book and recognized himself, and felt the twist of pride and shame he surely felt then. Certainly, I’d never argue otherwise.
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Washington Post, 2005