The folks at Goodreads.com asked me to answer the following question: What mystery in your own life could be a plot for a book?
I mulled that over for awhile. After all, the life of a trial lawyer is a life of dealing with small and big mysteries in every case. Indeed, like any good detective story, the key to a satisfactory resolution of a lawsuit is to figure out, and then explain to the jury, the main character’s motivations. But rummaging through my old lawsuits seemed an unfair way to seek an answer to the Goodreads question. After all, even we trial lawyers need to deal with the reality that exists outside the courtroom.
And thus, after much thought, I came up with the following answer:
As a trial attorney by day, I get forced to try to solve mysteries in every case, but picking one of those feels like picking one of the low hanging fruits of mysteries.
The deeper, more intriguing, and often more rewarding mysteries are how each of us got to where we are. My marriage is a perfect example. My wife Margi is the child of two Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. They both somehow survived the concentration camps (unlike many in their families and millions of others) and, through a convoluted sequence of post-WWII events, ended up in St. Louis, where someone fixed them up on a blind date. (They had never met before.) They fell in love, got married, and had two little girls, Margi and her little sister Bobbie. I met Margi in high school, promptly fell madly in love, and we were married the summer after her college education.
Now step back and pretend that you are a Las Vegas odds maker. What are the odds that Margi’s parents would both have survived the camps, much less both moved to St. Louis, much less met and got married, much less had a little girl named Margi, much less sent her to the same high school as me? While those odds seem so astronomical as to qualify as a mystery for the ages, I guarantee that if you trace your own life back a few generations your odds will qualify as well.
As you may have guessed, the topic of this post is a penis. No ordinary penis, either. Indeed, the scene opens like the beginning of a joke: two literary lions walk into a bar in Paris. One will soon confide to the other his concerns about his penis. Specifically, about its size. And the scene will be immortalized in what may well be the apex (or, more accurately, the nadir) of passive-aggressive humiliation in American literature.
But first, some background:
I was browsing in a used bookstore the other day and came across a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, published posthumously in 1964. I first read this beautifully evocative book nearly a quarter of a century ago. And all these years later, I could still remember his depictions of the life of a struggling, young, expatriate journalist and writer, still madly in love with his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Part of the fun of A Moveable Feast was reading of his encounters with other great artists of that era, including John Dos Passos, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas. And, of course, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The memoir’s influence continues to this day, having inspired, among other things, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In that film, a nostalgic screenwriter (played by Owen Wilson), while on a trip to Paris with his fiancée’s family, finds himself mysteriously going back to the Paris of the 1920s every day at midnight. Those time-travel portions evoke scenes inspired by the Hemingway memoir, including interactions with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. The Wilson character uses the phrase “a moveable feast” at least twice in the film, and a copy of the book appears in one scene
But back to F. Scott Fitzgerald. As I walked to the counter to buy the book, I had this vague memory of a bizarre encounter between Hemingway and Fitzgerald in which the topic was the size of Fitzgerald’s penis. And thus when I returned home with my copy of A Moveable Feast, I set aside my higher literary ambitions and instead scanned the table of contents in search of a promising chapter heading. And there it was: Chapter 19, entitled “A Matter of Measurement.”
The chapter opens with Hemingway explaining that Fitzgerald had asked him to meet for lunch at a restaurant. “He said he had something very important to ask me and that I must answer him absolutely truly. I said that I would do the best I could.”
They meet at the restaurant. “We talked about our work and about people and he asked me about people that we had been out of touch with.”
Hemingway keeps waiting “for it to come, the thing that I had to tell the absolute truth about; but he would not bring it up until the end of the meal, as though we were having a business lunch.”
Finally, as they are eating a cherry tart and drinking another carafe of wine, Fitzgerald gets to the point: “Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.”
What follows next is, well, unique. I’ll let Hemingway take over:
“Come out to the office,” I said. “Or you go out first.”
“Where is the office?”
“Le water,” I said.
We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
“You’re perfectly fine,” I said. “You are O.K. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues then go home and look at yourself in the mirror.”
“Those statues may not be accurate.”
“They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them.”
“But why would she say that?”
“To put you out of business. That’s the oldest way to putting people out of business in the world.”
He takes Fitzgerald over to the Louvre to look at statues, but Fitzgerald remains doubtful, thus triggering the final bit of advice from Hemingway:
“It is not basically a question of the size in repose,” I said. “It is the size it becomes. It is also a question of angle.” I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.”
It is an unforgettable scene, with an observation from Hemingway that has no doubt stuck with many male readers: “You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened.”
But when I closed the book I found myself thinking about what Hemingway had done. As a lawyer by day, I would describe the contents of that chapter as an indisputable (and despicable) invasion of privacy. One can hardly imagine a more private, painful, and embarrassing disclosure than the one Fitzgerald shared with Hemingway, and which Hemingway then shared with the world.
Often, when I see a Shakespeare play or watch a movie version of a Jane Austen novel, I find myself hoping that there is indeed an afterlife so that Shakespeare and Austen and all of the other artists, many whom died, like Herman Melville, in obscurity, can bask in the heavenly glory of their immortal art.
But when I closed the book after reading Chapter 19, I found myself hoping that, at least for F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died years before publication of A Moveable Feast, there is no afterlife.
Many years ago, my agent offered me the following advice: “The most important sentence of your novel is the first one. The second most important sentence is the last one.”
There certainly have been vivid, memorable first lines, many of which we can quote by heart–from “Call me Ishmael” in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” in George Orwell’s 1984. At the top my list is the first sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Each one accomplishes the author’s goal: to entice you into reading the next sentence, and, hopefully, the one after that, and so on and so on and so on.
But that final line–the one just before the curtain comes down–is even more important. The reader needs it for a sense of closure. And the author needs it to encourage the reader to pick up his or her next novel. It is the literary equivalent of the mic drop.
The masters of the literary mic drop have crafted some memorable closing lines. There is The Great Gatsby, which F. Scott Fitzgerald ends: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” And Huckleberry Finn, which Mark Twain ends: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” And my favorite, from James Joyce’s novella The Dead: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
And more often–as is the case with The Great Gatsby and so many other novels–that last line is perfectly set up by a lead in. Perhaps the most famous example is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in the back of a taxi:
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
No genre needs a good final sentence more than the mystery novel, whose goal is to bring order back into the world by the final chapter. I decided to flip to the back page of some of my favorite mystery novels. Here’s what I found:
One of Raymond Chandler finest novels is The Long Goodbye, which he ends with a two-sentence paragraph that beautifully captures the moment and our protagonist:
I never saw any of them again–except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon ends with Sam Spade seated at his desk as someone enters the outer office. His secretary Effie Perine quickly goes into the outer office, shutting the door behind her:
When she came back in again she shut it behind her. She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”
Spade, looking at his desk, nodded almost imperceptiby. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”
And then there is this powerful and poignant closing line, which comes from the one mystery novel that you will never find in the mystery section of your bookstore. I refer to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom–one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century and, as I’ve previously written, one of the great murder mysteries in American literature. It is the tale of the rise and mysterious death of Thomas Sutpen at the end of the Civil War, told entirely in flashbacks narrated decades later, mostly by Quentin Compson to his roommate at Harvard University. This is the same Quentin Compson whose subsequent suicide occurs in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner closes Absalom, Absalom with Quentin’s anguished thoughts:
I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!
And, finally, I end with the ending from my third novel Firm Ambitions–an ending I borrowed from my favorite Hollywood ending. Rachel Gold, having concluded a nasty divorce case that morphed into a murder case, receives a surprise phone call from Max Feigelbaum, who she describes as “a tanned and ruthless little ferret who wore dark glasses and Italian suits and was one of the most feared divorce lawyers in Chicago.” He wants her to handle a divorce case in St. Louis. Rachel tries to beg off, explaining, “I’m getting out of divorce work.” He tells her she’ll “want to make an exception for this one. It’s a beaut.”
As he explains the case, Rachel feels her pulse quicken. “Asking a trial lawyer if she wants to take part in a good courtroom battle,” she explains, “is like asking a ballplayer if he wants to take part in a World Series.”
She finally agrees, and the novel ends:
“Maxie,” I said with a smile, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I recently received a question on the Goodreads website asking who was my favorite fictional couple, and why.
My first reaction was to flip through all of the literary lovers I’d encountered over the years–a list that includes:
Romeo & Juliet;
Elizabeth Bennett & Mr. Darcy;
Lancelot & Guinevere;
Odysseus & Penelope;
Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler;
Cleopatra & Marc Antony; and, for you mystery fans,
Nick & Nora Charles.
When I’d finished the sorting and the weighing, I decided that my favorite romantic couple was Beatrice & Benedict from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. We, the audience, are totally captivated as we watch this witty couple–between volleys of nasty but funny barbs–gradually, painfully, and incredulously realize that they are in love. One quick sample from a much larger scene:
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedict: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Benedict: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor.
But then I stopped to read the question again. Hmm . . . I wasn’t asked to name my favorite romantic couple. No, I was asked to name my fictional couple. So I scrapped my list, leaned back in my chair, and mulled it over.
And that’s when I had my epiphany. I realized that my favorite fictional couple–or, more precisely, my favorites couples–were all pairs of men. Bromances, if you will. That list includes:
Huck Finn & Jim;
Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson;
Frodo and Sam (from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series);
Hamlet and Horatio; and
some of the many bromance pairs from the modern mystery genre, including Spenser & Hawk and Dave Robicheaux & Clete Purcell and my own creations, Rachel Gold & Benny Goldberg (although Rachel and Benny would not technically qualify as a bromance).
But then I paused and realized that my favorite bromance pair, and probably the inspiration for all the fictional bromance pairs since then, entered the literary world in 1605 in Miguel de Cervantes’ great picaresque novel. Yes, I refer to Don Quixote & Sancho Panza.
Those who’ve read the novel know that Don Quixote is the tragicomic hero whose quest in life is to revive the noble profession of knight-errantry. Though he is dignified, proud, and idealistic, he is also an absurd and insane old man. By contrast, Sancho is the peasant laborer that Don Quixote takes on as his squire when he sets out on his adventures. Sancho begins as the greedy, illiterate sidekick but ends up the wisest and most honorable man in the novel. And the funniest. The pair’s conversations along the journey are hilarious and perceptive and just plain fun. Theirs is a truly inspiring bromance. And thus they are my favorite literary couple.
Browsing through some older copies of Missouri Lawyers Weekly, I came across an essay of mine from a few years ago on a subject that many of us struggle with, namely, how to find a balance between your work and your life. Re-reading it brought back the vivid memories that had inspired the essay, and reminded me again how important it is for each of us to find that balance before it’s too late. Here is the text of that essay:
There’s a saying that no lawyer on his deathbed ever wished he’d billed more hours. I wonder, though, how many lawyers on their death beds wish they’d billed fewer hours. You don’t want to be that lawyer. You don’t want to look back with regret over that canceled family vacation, those missed concerts, that romantic trip to the Greek Isles you kept promising your partner, those guitar or baking lessons you kept meaning to take, or any of the other experiences you missed on that one-way ticket called life.
I learned that lesson as a young associate in Chicago. I learned it in the most vivid way imaginable. Indeed, if I tried to put that experience into a novel, my editor would delete it as way too contrived. But it happened, and it haunts me to this day.
I had traveled to Atlanta with a partner in the law firm. Let’s call him Mr. P. He was to argue the federal appeal of an antitrust case I’d worked on with him. Mr. P. was a legendary workaholic — at the office late most nights, billed close to 2,800 hours a year, traveled on the road on business three weeks a month. The oral argument ended at 10:30 that morning, and we were booked on a 5 p.m. flight back to O’Hare.
Having traveled with Mr. P. before, I knew the drill: cab to the airport, try to book an earlier flight, and then off to the American Airlines Admirals Club so he could dictate letters and make calls. But as I stepped to the curb to flag a cab, he said, “Wait.”
I turned, curious.
He had an odd smile. “It’s a beautiful day,” he said, glancing up at the bright blue sky. “Let’s go back to the hotel. They’ve got an outdoor pool and restaurant. We can have a nice lunch, sit by the pool, maybe take a dip, just take it easy.”
Stunned, I mumbled something about not having a swimsuit. He told me he was sure we could buy two pairs in the hotel lobby. And we did. We had lunch out by the pool and lolled around until it was time to change and head to the airport. I only wished I’d brought a camera, since no one at the firm would believe that I’d spent the day poolside with Mr. P.
On the flight back to Chicago, he told me that he’d had a revelation as he left the courthouse that morning. “I’ve traveled around the world on business,” he said. “I’ve been in every major capital in Europe and Asia. And on all those trips I never took any time off. I’ve been to Paris five times and never been to the Louvre. I spent two weeks on a deal in Beijing and never even saw the Great Wall.” He shook his head. “No more. Life is too short. You need to take time to stop and smell the roses.”
Back at O’Hare, as we said our goodbyes at the cab stand, he reminded me of the conference call with the client the next day at 2 p.m. to discuss the oral argument. “Let’s meet in my office at one,” he said as he climbed in the waiting cab. “We can go over our notes.”
I watched his cab pull away, still amazed at our afternoon. I never saw him again.
According to the receptionist, he arrived at the office the next morning at 7 a.m. As usual, he worked with his door closed. At around 11 that morning, another lawyer knocked on his door and, hearing no answer, opened it. There on the carpet, face down, eyes open, was Mr. P. The autopsy revealed he died of a heart attack.
Many years later in St. Louis, I received a reminder of that lesson. My teacher was a teenage boy from Bilbao, Spain. He was an exchange student who spent a month with our family, a delightful boy of 16. At the end of his stay, I asked him if he’d noticed any major differences between life in the United States and life in Spain.
He thought about it for a moment and said he’d noticed two. The first was that in America many people ate alone in their cars, at their desks or in front of their TV.
“In my country,” he said, “most people eat together around a table.”
And the second difference? I asked.
He paused, trying to find the right words. “In your country,” he said, “people live to work. In my country, people work to live.”
Sometimes my life in the world of the law overlaps nicely with my life in the world of the arts. I have been lucky over the years to represent some extraordinary artists, many of whom have become friends as well.
One such artist is the acclaimed international photographer (and laid-back dude) Lou Bopp, whose deep appreciation of the Mississippi Delta blues and its musicians has earned him many honors, the most recent of which–officially announced by the United States Postal Service just before Thanksgiving–I celebrate in a blog post on my law firm’s website right here.