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Editorial Outtakes: Benjamin Markovits

Markovits collage [1]Today, we launch Editorial Outtakes, a new series here at ASF Online where we’ll feature excerpts from recently published novels and story collections that you won’t find in the finished books because, prior to publication, they were cut. The reasons for the cuts will vary, of course, but in the case of Benjamin Markovits, who is the brother of our co-editor Rebecca Markovits and the author of our debut installment of Editorial Outtakes, they were the result of finding that the heart of his most recent novel, You Don’t Have to Live Like This, lay in Detroit, not in his protagonist’s past. Here’s Markovits’s take on the excerpt, followed by some never-before-seen pages from the novel. 

The novel is about a group of college friends who get involved, for various reasons, in a scheme to regenerate several neighborhoods in Detroit. My first draft started with a long opening section set at Yale, which is where my narrator (Marny) and I went to college. But eventually I worked out that the Detroit idea was at the heart of this book. Getting to it somewhere around page 60 was too late. Most of the Yale stuff had to go—not just the scenes, but many of the characters, too. I kept an introductory chapter or two, as way of explaining the Detroit idea and Marny’s decision to join in. A few flashbacks also survived, to give depth or roots to various ongoing relationships. In a way, editing the book like this turned the task of writing fiction into something close to writing memoir. Instead of trying to construct new materials from scratch, from my imagination, I was carefully selecting from a large memory bank of events, feelings, people, etc. But it also meant that a lot of these events, feelings, characters and memories got cut.

Here’s an excerpt from one of those scenes: Marny’s ten-year reunion. In the published version, the whole thing takes up about four pages. Here you can see it started out as an extended set-piece. Reading it again reminds me of something else I fiddled with in rewrites. My idea was to make Marny both sympathetic and not entirely likable—he’s got an honesty-kick that leaves him a little exposed on the page. But getting the balance involved a certain amount of tinkering: this earlier draft probably amps up his dislikable qualities.

— Benjamin Markovits

 

Editorial Outtakes: You Don’t Have to Live Like This

After Hartford, I could feel New Haven approaching. We reached the tangle of highways knotted around the city and came off by the Convention Center, onto the quieter, more run-down city streets—the deserted and slightly terrifying streets we used to walk along to get to the train station.

Traffic slowed down outside New Haven Green. I had my first glimpse of Old Campus, that fortress of American Gothic, which looked exactly like what it was—a protective wall between university and city. Suddenly plane trees lined the roads; there were cafes, bookstores, museums, and public benches. Beatrice had splashed out for the deluxe weekend package and needed to collect her dorm room key. She parked on a meter outside our college. All I had with me from London was a backpack, but I had to lug it around until I found a bed for the night.

“I don’t mind, you can leave it in my room,” Beatrice said.

“Yeah, and then what, when you stay out until three in the morning, and I want to sleep.”

We walked into the quad, looking for somewhere to sign in. It felt very strange, being back. I remembered my first weekend at Yale, running into a couple old guys from the class of 1943—returning for their fifty-year reunion. Well, I’d made it to ten. But I didn’t feel much older than the seniors hanging around campus and waiting for graduation, the kids with nowhere to go during Dead Week. Some of them made a little money setting up chairs and tables under the pitched marquees, helping out dining hall staff—serving food and drink, cleaning up after. For some reason, I had a lot of sympathy for these kids. I felt like saying to them, buddy, we’re in the same boat. I was beginning to wish I’d stumped up for the weekend ticket. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like a party-crasher.

But then I ran into Tommy Dietricht coming out of the coat-check—his hand was still wet when I shook it. I hadn’t seen him in ten years. The first thing he said was, “Have you had lunch yet?”

“Just some crap on the car ride down.”

“You want to get some? Where should we eat?”

So I said good-bye to Beatrice and didn’t see her again till the big dance on Saturday night.

 

The only official event that evening was a free-for-all cocktail party and barbecue on Old Campus at six o’clock. Walter and a couple other guys were getting together at Mory’s beforehand, for a little warm-up drink, but even so, Tommy and I had nothing to do all afternoon but shoot the shit. So we went to the diner on Broadway and sat around eating burgers and fries and drinking beer. I had my backpack in the booth beside me and felt like a real college kid. And Tommy looked like he always did. He was one of those blond-haired, naturally red-faced guys, with a bit of pudge on him, who spends his whole life looking like he did in high school—who never grows out of his band jacket. In fact, he was married with two kids and working as a resident surgeon at a teaching hospital in Albuquerque.

“Practically the last time I saw you,” I said, “you were running naked and drunk along the beach at Pauly’s Island.”

“This is something Janice has made me aware of. For some reason, I’m an unhappy drunk. I don’t understand it myself, but so long as I don’t get drunk, or very drunk, it doesn’t matter much.”

After lunch, we walked around campus for a while, for nostalgia’s sake, then around four o’clock headed over to Mory’s to see if anyone was there. Walter Crenna was just organizing the private room. We had one of those paneled backrooms with a large table in the middle and too many high-backed chairs, so that you had to squeeze behind several of them just to sit down. But nobody else had showed up and for the first half-hour Tommy, Walter and I had the place to ourselves.

Walter told Tommy what he’d been doing with his life, and Tommy kept giggling. Susie Grabel was now a sophomore music major at Oberlin College, and Walter had moved out there to be near her. She lived on campus; he had a room in some professor’s house about a five-minute walk away. He made a little extra cash by tutoring students in composition but still depended mostly on handouts from his mom.

None of this embarrassed him; he had become unembarrassable. There was something very likable about his straightforward and essentially disastrous infatuation with this girl. I wondered whether Susie ever felt torn between her new, exciting undergraduate life and her relationship with an older man, who could have no part in it. But apparently Walter had been embraced by most of her friends. He went to the movies with them, sometimes driving small groups in his car to one of the strip-mall cinemas dotting the highways outside of town. He went to their parties, too, and was particularly useful in being old enough to buy alcohol.

“I’m having a great time,” he said. “I’m in the best shape of my life.”

We ordered, for old time’s sake, one of Mory’s famous cups and had to order another when everyone else showed up. There were a bunch of guys I haven’t mentioned, but Raymond Shu came, too, and Tommy, Raymond and I tried to find a quiet corner to catch up in, but it was almost impossible. I kept waiting for Mike Katz—Mike was one of the guys I really wanted to see.

Then Robert James walked in, and everybody called out “Hey, Robert!”, “What’s up, James!”, “Mr. James!” just as they had almost fifteen years before, standing outside the Yale Bowl in the freezing cold and waiting for a football game to start. He wore chinos and a Northface fleece over a plain white collared shirt, and smiled the old Robert James smile, showing no teeth. But it was a big friendly kind of classic smile nevertheless—the smile of a guy at the edge of a good-time picture, who isn’t as drunk as the rest but loves them all anyway. He sat down on the other side of the room and I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.

I was a little drunk already, so was Tommy, so was Walter. Robert had one drink and then quietly settled the bill himself, and we stumbled out into the pleasant, mild, campus-town evening air and headed over to the cocktail party.

It turned out there were lots of guys I liked, people I had almost totally forgotten, at this Old Campus do. Familiar faces kept coming up to me, fatter than when I’d seen them last, and what I couldn’t figure out is why I hadn’t made more of an effort to get to know these people first time around. I kept saying to them, “My brain hurts. All these recognition synapses are firing away inside it, and I’ve got cells waking up that haven’t opened an eye in ten years.”

For the first couple hours I had a pretty good time. The party was under one of those awful huge tents that make everything look like the underside of a rock. In spite of the fact that the night was clear as a bell, full of stars—and the moon was looming down on us like some kind of celestial surveillance equipment, some interstellar CCTV camera. But still, the food was laid out on plastic tablecloths under the plastic tent, the drinks table was in a corner of this tent, and if you wandered too far outside it, none of the seniors working that night in staff shirt and apron would bother to find you and refill your plastic wine-glass.

Lights beamed up at the tent-roof from a dozen sources. I kept turning the wrong way and catching an eyeful. Eventually I spotted that girl Becky with the horsy ambitions. I went over to her and said, “You’re probably one of those people who paid for a room.”

“What are you, hard up?”

“I figured you never know who you might run into.”

She looked at me a moment and said, “I thought you didn’t drink.”

But then I caught a glimpse of Robert James, pushing his way through the crowd with a couple of glasses in hand. So I made the just-a-minute sign to Becky and chased him down.

“Beatrice tells me you’re getting married.”

“I didn’t know Beatrice knew.”

“To some rich kid with a gallery to play with.”

“To a—pretty nice girl. Someone said you’re teaching in England.”

“Not even England, Wales; but I’m through with all that. I’m coming home.”

“To teach? You get a job over here?”

“Nothing specific.”

And he lifted the glasses to explain and moved on.

Around nine o’clock the students started kicking us out—they had to clean up for Commencement the next day. Folks starting drifting into the streets, in shoals, and I had a bad couple minutes trying to find my gang. There was a party of people heading out to Viva Zapatas, one of those college-town Mexican dive bars serving margarita pitchers, and eventually I spotted Walter among them and tagged along. Maybe an hour later we drifted out again, to another bar, and I ran into Robert in the street, with Charlie and a few other people. They were waiting for some girl to come out of the bathroom. By this point I already had a headache and Robert was as drunk as me.

“I hear you made a lot of money,” I said.

“I did okay.”

“So what do you do with yourself all day? Kick back?”

He began to explain himself very carefully. Lately he’d been working on a couple political campaigns, mostly fund-raising— fund-giving, too, he said. There was a guy we both knew in college, a law student at the time, who lived in the dorms and used to play squash with us occasionally in the steam-tunnel squash courts. A big barrel-chested black guy named Braylon Carr, with a football background and postgraduate degrees from Cambridge and Yale. Anyway, Robert had helped him run for mayor of Buffalo. These rust-belt towns were having a hard time—American cities all over the place were dying out. But if Braylon could make a difference in Buffalo, it would turn him into a major Democratic player.

“I tell you something now. He’s going to be the first black president of the United States.” For some reason this mattered a lot to Robert. “Wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing to be a part of?”

“It doesn’t sound like a full-time job.”

But he’d started a hedge-fund, too—a hedge of hedges. Basically, he went around the world picking funds to invest in.

“Does that keep you busy?” I said.

“I just got back from two weeks in China.” He had to repeat himself, because of the noise inside, and leaned towards me with his hand on my elbow. “You get to a point,” he said, “after a few days, when you know the routine. You’ve got two pairs of shorts and socks, a spare shirt, another pair of pants. The hotel takes care of the washing—they fold it up nicely and hang it outside your door in the morning. You’ve got passport and tickets. And you think, I could just keep going. I could go on like this as long as I wanted to.”

“When are you getting married?”

But he didn’t seem to hear me. “I take two per cent of the capital and twenty percent of the profit. Even if we lose money, I make money. It’s not very hard to make money. You just need to be able to work out what two per cent is.”

“Is that right,” I said. And then I said: “You know what I’d do if I were graduating now? I’d get a bunch of buddies together and we could all put something in the pot and buy up one of those neighborhoods in Detroit or Cleveland …”

By eleven o’clock I still hadn’t seen Mike Katz. But I ran into Nikki Sanghera outside Broadway Pizza. A bunch of us had gone out into the summer night to find something to eat. She was working as a lawyer in New York and had friends in our class—she graduated a year after.

“Where are you staying?” I said to her.

“I’m catching the night train into the city.”

“You here with someone?”

“Are you pissed? Fucking Marny’s pissed.”

“You headed somewhere? Listen, if you want company to the station, I got nowhere to stay. But you’ll have to put me up for the night.”

“Apparently there’s a party in Morse,” she said and split off with some of her group to look for it. Tommy Dietricht was in the diner eating cheese fries; he was even worse off than me.

“Didn’t you used to go out with her?” he said.

“For a cup of coffee.”

I shared some of his fries then we each bought a slice and afterwards went out to find that party in Morse. It was nearly midnight, but the streets were still pretty crowded; the shop-fronts on Broadway had changed a lot since our day. The big chains had moved in and we spent a certain amount of time staring at the clothes and looking at our reflections in the window.

Eventually I had the bright idea of stopping people in the street and asking them if they were happy with their lives. For some reason, this seemed like a funny thing to do.

“You were a fucking tight-ass in college, Marny,” Tommy told me afterwards. “It’s good to get drunk with you.”

The gates of Morse were shut and we spent about half an hour looking for a way in. Then we sat down on a bench under a streetlamp, with the moon over our head casting the same light. There’s a triangle of grass outside the college, with a few birch trees growing in it. Tommy said to me, “You wanna know something about my life? There isn’t a scene in my life I wanna be involved in.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“You know, the after-school pick-up scene. The Thursday night work-drink scene. The weekend in the garden scene.”

A few people came out of one of the gates, and I called out, “Hold the gate,” and ran to hold it. Nikki was one of them. She was trying to find a cab but all the numbers were busy.

“Fucking New Haven,” she said.

She was wearing one of those New York lawyer little black skirts, and black shoes, and a T-shirt and leather jacket. “Listen, Marny,” she said, “if you want to walk me to the station, now’s your chance.”

“Have you seen Mike Katz?” I said. “Is he in there?”

“Do I know or care?”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll walk you,” and I said to Tommy, “See you tomorrow, guy.”

It’s about a twenty-minute walk from campus to the station—a little longer, drunk, and we kept stopping under the street lamps to kiss. Then when we got to the station we had to wait another half hour for a train and spent the whole time making out on one of the benches. I bought some Dunkin Donuts on the way down to the platform, while Nikki went to the bathroom. The train smelled like piss and dry-cleaning, but we had almost a whole carriage to ourselves, and we sobered up a little and slept then woke up perfectly awake at Grand Central Station around three in the morning.

There wasn’t a problem getting a cab in New York. Nikki lived in Kipps Bay, about a ten-minute ride downtown; I even remembered to take my backpack from the seat. Her apartment had a big empty lobby like an airport lobby, with no one around but the doorman—for some reason, I really wanted to kiss her in front of him and she kept slapping my hand all the way to the elevator. She had a two-room apartment with a big wall of glass at one end and a kitchen counter at the other. Nikki pulled a bottle of vodka out of the freezer and poured us each a shot.

“Listen, Marny,” she said, “you’re not going to believe it, but I just got my period tonight.”

“How bad is it?”

“Pretty bad.”

“Do you want to do something else?”

“What, like blow you? Not really,” she said and started giggling. She was dead-tired and buzzed at the same time, and sort of free-floating. “Have you ever had anal sex?”

I shook my head. We sat up drinking for a bit, with the lights out. There was another apartment block over the way that mirrored the one we were in, and we watched the pattern of the light squares changing on the surface of it. Nikki’s brown skin looked very soft in the darkness, her lips looked brown, her eyes looked brown, everything. After a while we kissed and went to bed next door. When I woke up a few hours later, jet-lagged and dry-throated, with a bell-tower headache, her alarm clock said 6.37 a.m. and I felt terrible.

 

Benjamin Markovits has published six novels, including Either Side of Winter, about a New York private school, and a trilogy on the life of Lord Byron: Imposture, A Quiet Adjustment and Childish Loves. In 2009 he was a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and won a Pushcart Prize for his short story “Another Sad, Bizarre Chapter in Human History.” Granta selected him as one of the Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Markovits lives in London and is married, with a daughter and a son. He teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.