There’s a web site called Snowflakes in a Blizzard which each week features books that its editor feels haven’t received the attention they deserve. This week he chose my novel, ONE LIFE, as well as another novel brought out by Unnamed, the same publisher — FINGERPRINTS OF PREVIOUS OWNERS, by Rebecca Entel. As always, I’m grateful for the attention. Click here to link to the page and read brief interviews with Rebecca and I.
I suppose that many countries around the world celebrate one form or another of Independence Day. Still, given what is going on these days, one can hardly help but wonder how many countries have anything about which they can be proud enough to wave their flags. In Mexico, we celebrate the night of September 15th, where at 11:00 at every town square -- from one-horse podunks to the Zócalo in Mexico City -- hordes gather to shout "Viva México!" This will be the last time that Enrique Peña Nieto officiates at this ceremony. According to opinion polls -- practically since he was elected -- there are very few people around who will be sorry to see him go.
Our new president assumes office on December 1. While he has many followers who believe in him to the marrow, I think that many other Mexicans voted for Andrés Manuel López Obrador because they simply couldn't stand another moment of the status quo. They wanted the PRI and the PAN, who have been in power here since 1929, to get buried as deeply as possible. I wish our new President well and truly hope that he will be able to fulfill the voters' expectations of him. Certainly his predecessors have been so disappointing, many would even say disastrous, that they provoked the kind of mood that the metro rider, pictured below, is in.
In 2009, Anthony Bourdain came to Mexico City to film an episode of his show No Reservations. Someone in his production company found my book, First Stop in the New World, and they hired me to help them find taco stands, cantinas, and hole-in-the-wall eateries from which they could film. They even put me on camera in a couple of segments, for instance eating tripe tacos with Bourdain from one of my favorite stalls on Calle Bolivar.
The crew was here for about a week, but Bourdain didn’t get airdropped in the city until the last minute, the night before filming began. He struck me as exactly as he appeared on camera. In the van moving between locations, he spewed monologues full of dirty jokes and scatological references. When the clock struck 1:00 pm, he wanted to know where was the closest place to get a tequila. His energy and sense of fun were infectious. Those of us who were along for the ride, as well as the crew who worked with him, all seemed to enjoy ourselves.
Despite eating for a living, he was a slender man. While we filmed, I observed one of his strategies to stay that way. When they shot him eating something, he’d take one bite and leave the rest of the food on the plate. Usually a crew member would finish it for him. Unless he really liked something, such as the tripe tacos. Not only did he finish that taco, he ordered more.
Bourdain told me that, since he became a TV personality, he traveled all over the world to do lectures in front of groups. (I’ve heard that, before he agreed to do an event, he had a list of exigencies that rivaled that of a rock star.) He complained about the weariness resultant to being in perpetual motion, and I asked him if he ever thought, “I don’t really need to do this any more -- I can quit.” He looked at me like I was crazy, and explained that the kind of money he was being offered to make these speeches was impossible to turn down.
Walking down the streets of the Mexico City, many people stopped and asked for his autograph. One guy even had him wait while he called his wife, so Bourdain could say hello to her and realize that the story wasn't a figment of her husband's imagination. Bourdain was gracious and accommodating to all of the fans.
He was a constant champion of Mexico. He often made it a point to say that, when he ran the Brasserie Les Halles in New York, most of the people with whom he shared kitchen duties were immigrants. And that nearly every restaurant kitchen in New York was heavily staffed by them. He was extremely proud of Carlos Llaguno (in photo, above), who started out as a dishwasher at Les Halles, and ended up executive chef when Bourdain left the business to do his TV show. (Sadly, Llaguno died of cancer at age 38 in 2015.)
At one point, in the van between locations, Bourdain told me that he liked First Stop in the New World, but that he’d loved Travel Advisory — my first book, a collection of short stories. I was completely taken aback that he’d taken the trouble to read it. It is always a surprise when someone who appears to “have everything” commits suicide. A New Yorker profile of Bourdain, which appeared in February of 2017, hinted at a dark side. Still, life is a torment for a lot of people, and a case like this, where it becomes too overwhelming to bear, is always a tragedy. If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide, the resources listed on this page might be of help.
In 1988, when I was beginning my career as a reporter, the U.S. edition of Vogue sent me to interview Philip Roth. The occasion was the publication of The Facts, his first memoir. I had read almost all of his novels, some of them two or three times. The exuberance of his prose, his bittersweet relation with the Jewish education he’d received, his sexual frankness, his unbridled rage and, most of all, his manic sense of humor, made him, in those days, the writer I most admired.
In the periodicals room of the New York Public Library, I read all the articles about him I could find. In the interviews, it appeared to me that there was some kind of contradiction. The novels were amusing and entertaining, no matter how serious their themes. When his friends spoke about Roth, the first adjective they used was “funny.” But when he spoke with reporters, he tended to use the fussy language of a strict and meticulous professor. It was as if he were afraid that the world would not take seriously the creator of Alexander Portnoy, who, in what is certainly the most notorious scene in all of Roth’s 33 books, masturbates with the liver that will later become the family dinner.
You could say that publishing autobiography was, for Roth, a provocation. A common criticism of him was that the cycle of novels he had published before The Facts — The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife, and The Prague Orgy — were nothing more than rehashes of his own existence. The protagonist of these novels was Nathan Zuckerman, who — like Roth — was a novelist who grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Like Roth, he wrote stories in his youth that delighted readers but alienated him from conservative sectors of the Jewish community. Like Roth, Zuckerman had published a sexually explicit bestseller.
Roth was 55 when we met. He was slender, in good shape, and to a certain degree elegant, calling to mind the most glamorous professor of a university. He was charming, polite, patient, and subtly controlling. Before answering a single question, he wanted to know what kind of an article I intended to write and how long it would be. He would only grant me the interview on the condition that, after finishing it, I would show him all of his quotes, with the possibility of his intervening with the goal of “strengthening the language.”
Once we began to chat, he made me laugh. We spoke of the differences between him and his fictional counterpart, and he said, “I’m not the same schmuck that Zuckerman is.” When I asked him if he had ever wanted children (he never had any), and to describe the nervous breakdown that he barely mentioned in his memoir, he said, feigning annoyance, “I shouldn’t have written The Facts. What you want is The Dirt.”
He was an expert at avoiding the answers to personal questions. His most famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is the monologue of a man speaking to his psychoanalyst, and analysis is also peripheral to some of his other novels. I asked him about his own experience in therapy and he told me that he went — once, during a week in the beginning of the 1960s. He only had one session.
“You don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“How long the analysis lasted, how often you went, and if the analyst was a strict Freudian.”
“How many times a week do you go?” he asked me, and then how much I paid, and if the analyst spoke with a foreign accent. After answering, he concluded that I paid too much, without revealing any of his own data. When I continued to pry into his personal life, Roth asked about my previous two girlfriends, the frequency with which I used condoms, and the life story of my mother, without saying anything about himself that he didn’t want to.
I interviewed him again a couple of years later, for Harper’s Bazaar, when he published a novel called Deception. Life had surprised him in the interval. He had recently recovered from a quintuple bypass operation — the same disaster that, three years earlier, he’d chosen for Nathan Zuckerman in The Counterlife.
In Deception, Roth got rid of Zuckerman and in his place “invented” a novelist named Philip, who resembled his author in many ways. The greater part of the book was about an affair between Philip and a young woman. it was impossible to ignore the gossip factor. At the time, Roth was married to the British actress Claire Bloom (they would divorce a few years later). When I asked him why he chose the name “Philip” for the protagonist, with a straight face he said that, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of another name.
After Deception, Roth would write Operation Shylock, a novel in which the main character is a writer named Philip Roth, who finds that an impostor — a spy in Israel — is also passing himself off as Philip Roth. Then he would abandon his game of Chinese boxes, beginning a cycle of novels exploring the disgrace and hypocrisy of politics and society in the United States. Among those are American Pastoral, The Human Stain, I Married a Communist and The Plot Against America. Some critics believe they’re his best work.
He also published Sabbath’s Theatre, a masterpiece about an unrepentant dirty old man, and a series of short novels that explore the humiliation of the aging process. Many readers believe that the Nobel Prize committee robbed Roth because they never gave him the award. But he won almost all other imaginable literary prizes, some of them several times. He died on May 22, a couple of weeks after the announcement that there would be no Nobel Prize for literature this year, due to a sex-abuse scandal. I guess we’ll never know what the author — so famous for the sexual content of his novels — thought of that irony.
The first time I interviewed him, in an elliptical way he indicated that he was coming to the end of his self-referential work. “I’ve been hiding and working for ten years,” he said. “I’ve finished a lot of work but finally it can drive you crazy. It’s a very austere life, very lonely.
“I’m a little out of it,” he continued. “For the last ten years I’ve been writing the Zuckerman books and I’ve been absolutely preoccupied. Eventually it caught up with me and I began to long for the unwritten world. I want to rediscover America.” In the course of a long career, I believe he did.
Years ago I saw a TV interview with the actor Robert Vaughn, who said that he had moved to Connecticut because he wanted his children to experience the change of seasons, rather than suffer the monotony of continuous sunny days in Los Angeles. Vaughn spoke with a priggish mid-Atlantic accent, and I remember thinking, What an unbearable snob. It’s as if he believes one kind of weather is morally superior to another.
I’ve written before about this time of year in Mexico City. Although climate change is making weather less predictable all over the world, it’s still my favorite season — the hottest time of year before the rains begin in full force, usually in late May or early June.
Even though Mexico City has a temperate climate, we do have markedly different seasons, even if they’re not the same as they are in Vaughn’s cherished Connecticut. Between February and June, when the rains begin, it’s “spring,” with jacaranda, bougainvillea and other flowers blooming. (By the time you read this, the jacarandas, pictured here, which shed their petals after two or three months, will be mostly nude.) It’s the hottest time of year (although not unbearably so), going up to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 or 27 Celsius) most days.
During the rainy season, from June through September, there’s usually a downpour for a couple of hours in the afternoon (with more at night from time to time). The rain cools things off, especially on cloudy days. October and November tend to be sunny and a little cooler, and during the winter — from December through more or less mid-February — it can go up to 70 degrees (21 Celsius) during the day, and on some nights down to about 40 (4 or 5 degrees Celsius). Homes in Mexico City don’t have central heating, so you need to wear a sweater inside, and lay on an extra blanket when you sleep. To hear people around here complain, you’d think we were living in the North Pole.
It’s what I consider a privileged climate, and has truly spoiled me. When I’ve had to travel to places of extreme heat and cold for work, I wonder how people survive a life there. I cannot imagine what it would possibly take to get me to move to Connecticut.