Excerpt from No Hard Feelings by David Arthur Walters
Photo of Valery Panov
PAUL IS NO CRITIC
DAVID ATTHUR WALTERS
Paul Bowman, the greatest author the world will ever or never know, awoke at ten o’clock Saturday morning in Flatbush thinking he might be the greatest author the world will NEVER know.
Paul had been able to sleep late because Billy O’Malley, his roommate, was still in the hospital. The bathroom ceiling had collapsed on him while he was sitting on the toilet late Thursday evening. Alarmed by the extraordinary rumbling and groaning, Paul rushed into the bathroom, found him bleeding in the rubble, and called an ambulance.
Billy, eyes glazed but still conscious, did not know what had hit him; he still had his usual “I Love New York No Matter What Happens” attitude; he did his best under the circumstances to calm Paul down with a barely audible “No problem, Paul, I’m fine, just call 911. A mere concussion was not going to depress Billy O’Malley—when was 12, the doctors had told him he would not live to see 20, so he had been living it up every since, drinking like a fish on weekends after dropping a hit of LSD.
Sleeping in was hardly a luxury for Paul on this particular Saturday morning, for his sleep had been exceedingly anxious. It was not that he was worried about his roommate’s injuries. Billy was being well taken care of as Carla Williams, his true love for over twenty years, a working girl from the Harlem, had taken time off to watch over him at the hospital while her apprentice, Black Jasmine, covered her bookings. No, what had turned Paul’s rest into silent turmoil were John Wilson Senior’s repeated references to Paul’s dance reviews as “shit”, and to dancers as “a bunch of pansies prancing around in tights, peons nobody is really interested in.”
Senior’s initial offer to sponsor Paul if he liked his writing had thus turned into a nightmare. Paul had decided he must be his own man, so to hell with Senior, he told himself; no matter how filthy rich the Pittsburgh industrialist might be, a jerk is a jerk. Still, Paul had a sneaking suspicion that Senior might be right, so Paul had tossed and turned all night long, Senior’s parting remarks at the Peculier Pub rolling around and around in his groggy head. Senior had poked him in the ribs at the bar, and confided:
“Look here, buddy, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I said to my son, after reading your shit, Junior, don’t talk to that guy again. He’s crazy, wasting his talent on dance like that. That’s what I told him, but look here—Senior demanded Paul’s undivided attention, staring bleary-eyed into Paul’s eyes, which were moistened by his hurt feelings—so you like to dance. But you’re a talented writer. I could see that when you mentioned the hamburgers and hotdogs in one of your articles, and when you got mad at something a critic said…”
“I’m no damned critic. I despise critics, they disgust me!” Paul interjected.
“Now you’re talking, kid! But you write like a critic.”
“I’m no critic!”
“Hey, relax, let me tell you something,” Senior commanded with his face six inches from Paul’s, “You can put shit together, and I could see some style coming through.” Paul leaned away from Senior, disgusted by the smell of garlic combined with the scent of Sambuca and beer, mentally noting how drunks repeatedly push points. “But that stuff you sent me was shit! I’m telling you here and now, forget dance! Write! Don’t mix dancing and writing!”
With that memory churning in his mind, Paul wrenched himself out of his Brooklyn bed of discontent, took a leak, staggered into the kitchen, and gazed into the icebox. There was nothing within but a stick of butter, and four and one-half liters of Diet Coke that Billy liked to mix with the three or four fifths of rum he drank on weekends.
Funny, Paul thought, nobody would know of Billy’s love of intoxicants during the week, for he arose unfailingly at six o’clock on Monday mornings, apparently without a hangover, and did not touch another drop until the next Thursday evening at McGowan’s Pub. And even after that abstinence, it took eight rum and Cokes to prime his pump for another fun weekend in the Big Apple. Sometimes another kind of coke kept him running in high gear, not to mention the usual acid in his batteries. He would meet his fate years later, when he retired to Las Vegas to drink himself to death.
Paul took the butter out of the icebox, made himself four slices of buttered toast, and downed some coffee. The coffee, along with Senior’s command to write something to please him into sponsoring him, motivated him to put pen to paper, but Paul was a slow learner: despite Senior’s good advice not to mix dancing and writing, he started writing about dance. Nevertheless, he did strive to put some meat and anger into his effort. He scrawled out a heading on his college-ruled notebook paper:
“I’m No Critic”
Thereunder, Paul Bowman, the greatest writer the world will ever or never know, wrote furiously:
“The stupidity of professional dance critics is nauseating. Take that ravenous bird-brain, Tubby Bias of ‘Dance World’, for example. She was the first one to belly up to the buffet table at the reception following the Oakland Ballet presentation of Kurt Jooss’ ‘The Green Table,’ an anti-war danse macabre about the universal death and destruction provoked by greedy gentlemen who cannot agree. The Nazis did not take too kindly to his anti-war choreography and his refusal to kick Jews out of his danse theatre company: he and his company escaped 18 hours before they were to be sent to a concentration camp.
“Tubby was gorging herself on baloney. I approached her, thinking I should get to know a few professional critics who would, because of my love of dance, I supposed, welcome me into their inner circle as their natural ally. To start a conversation, I thought I would ask her if she believed dance criticism served to improve the quality of choreography and dancing.
“She was chewing on her sandwich, and before I could ask my question, she stated with a full mouth, ‘Bad ballet makes me awfully hungry.’
“I was shocked at her bad taste expressed in front of a complete stranger as she cursed the hand feeding her after being treated by the same host to a free ballet, but I said nothing about that. Instead, I replied calmly that, in my opinion, ‘The Green Table’ was primarily modern dance theatre, although the logic and discipline of ballet was apparent in the choreography. As we know, I said, Jooss was a pioneer of the synthesis of ballet and modern dance. He radically reformed ballet’s dogmatic posturing and rid it the supernatural illusion that gravity does not exist, bringing dance down to Earth where man actually exists in his essential human predicament, his dance unto death.
“Jooss sought economy of expression,” I went on pedantically as Tubby Bias piled three cheeses on her paper plate, “to rid ballet of its archaic ornaments and to invigorate it with the dynamic principles of modern dance. “
Modern? Eeh gad!” Tubby Bias exclaimed incredulously, ‘That’s not modern dance!”
“What a lard-ass she is,” I thought. “Here I was trying to impress her with my knowledge of her subject so she would accept me, and she wants to pick bones with me. Good grief! Jooss is known in Germany as the father of modern dance! Modernity is not a complete divorce from the past, the ancient ballet, for crying out loud, but she won’t admit the modern. She’s not somebody I want to know. She’s been gorging herself on passe’s too long. She doesn’t want to dance! She wants to do technique! Maybe she’d better learn to chew with her mouth closed…”
Paul was winding up into a rant, but he paused from his writing to take a drink of coffee, and then thought he had better change the subject for the time being, come back later, polish up and conclude his criticism of Tubby Bias. That being decided, he put down his coffee mugged and scrawled:
“And take that frilly-mouthed Banana Kissoff of ‘The Monotonous Times.’ She had the gall to call the artistic devices used by Valery Panov in his interpretation of Chekov’s ‘Three Sisters’ corny. Yes, she said ‘corny.’ There is nothing more outrageous to her ill-humored critical ilk than a ballet performance exalting the audience instead of putting it to sleep. So they call that ‘a can of corn’ because everyone else likes it. No, ma’am, there is nothing cornier to a cynical New York critic than romance!
“Kissoff really thinks she knows something about dance. Perhaps she did a few pirouettes herself before falling flat on her derriere. Then she took up imitating the critical magpies because of her own technical shortcomings. Therefore, what could she love more than technique? Yet the hypocrisy is revealed in her flowery style. Corny indeed! To top it off, she is a card-carrying member of the Balanchine cult. Well, Balanchine was great but he is gone. We love his museum, but not the cult’s maudlin mausoleum presided over by technique, the skeleton of dance. We have Panov now, from the same school as Balanchine, and Panov is alive! Yet Ms. Kissoff wants a legend.
“And how about Hack Neanderthal of ‘The Monotonous Times?” Paul wrote on. “He called Panov’s macho manner of manhandling willing women, in his pas de deux during ‘War and Peace’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘hammy.’ Hack has obviously never felt the brutally desperate will human beings have to perpetuate the species in the face of death, an urge tempered of course by the conventional niceties of peaceful love. Then only thing Hack has the nerve to appreciate are the conventions, the hackneyed dance phrases like tombee pas de bourree glissade jete. And when Panov with violent passion renders the ballet vocabulary invisible, Hack is arrogant and supercilious. He does not like Panov, the passionate refusnik who would not comply with Soviet reasoning, who got out of Russia with his glorious wife Galina, whose partner on the Brooklyn stage she now trusts to swing her head within an inch of bashing it in on the stage. To compound his absurd hypocrisy, Hack Neanderthal says he likes narrative ballets with a story line, but when he sees an excellent romantic ballet he bad-mouths it, like his fellow-critic Banana Kissoff, because the audience loved it.
“Where the hell do these critics get off?”
Paul penned the question, winding himself up to launch a most bitter and venomous tirade against the critical race at large; but suddenly his conscience halted his writing hand.
This is no way to behave, he observed as he eyed his article. Maybe Senior was right about critics, he reconsidered, and maybe the greatest writer the world will ever know, namely me, wants to be a critic, and is now venting his jealous rage over the competition.
A good man does not harbor resentment against the competition, Paul mused, and he further observed that vulgar people who do resent competition have the good sense to keep it to themselves. Therefore he picked up the several pages of his rough draft, tore them into shreds, and tossed the morning’s production into the waste can. Having unburdened himself and cleared his conscience, he felt quite relieved. Then he remembered how the bathroom ceiling had collapsed on Billy while Billy was taking a dump, and decided to visit him in the hospital after all.