Beverly Hills Iced
Sweet and Sour
Garnish w/ slice of lemon
Los Angeles, 1980
I am a Russian writer, a descendant of the great Tolstoy. I became well-known, both to the KGB and my devoted readership for subversive works, as the Soviet news wrote. My wife, Irena, would tell you I was best known in the bars and after-hours clubs, but she was a bitter woman, with faith in a marriage I saw more as a domestic necessity. I didn't plan to live in Los Angeles, but I had tolerated long enough the petty treacheries of life in Moscow. My hatred of the bureaucrat drove me away sooner than any other reason. You see, I loved the dove-gray skies that spread themselves over the city in late winter and the black crows, with the wingspread of eagles, perched on the bare tree branches. I was born with a soul tempered to moments and places beyond easy reach, and so Moscow will always cleave to my chest like a twin.
PEN International invited me to come and read from Vodka and Ice, a book of mine banned in the Soviet Union for its “advocacy of deceit and duplicity” to authority figures. I felt complimented, indeed. I came on a visiting professorship visa, intending to stay for one week only. I had Irena, my twin daughters, and my grandson, Misha, at home. I had a manuscript in need of considerable revision and classes to conduct. They all functioned holding their breath until I returned home, and I knew that, although America had always been the most voluptuous seductress—curvaceous and heavily scented in the perfume of promise and possibility, a deeply animal scent—my family needed me. I cannot tell you precisely what made me miss that flight home. But when Aram, my host, met me at the airport amidst the outstretched arms of other well-wishers (it seems I had a following here), a little bit of my allegiance to the life I left behind fell away.
Through its movies, America had seduced me before I had outgrown reading under the sheets with a flashlight. Decades later after learning how to talk like Marlon Brando and walk like James Dean, I saw for myself its fast moving highways like the bloodstream of a vast and complex organism, trains and trucks filled to the brim with well made, sturdily packaged goods, well-lit streets, women with good teeth and high full breasts, plump children with bright and sparkling faces, men who held their shoulders back and walked proudly because they could provide for their families. Everywhere, I saw contentment. And the night Aram drove me to UCLA to read before an auditorium of five hundred people shook loose the last bit of residual devotion clinging to my Soviet soul. My Moscovite readers were as ardent, but there was desperation in their eyes, a sallow fatigue tempered by years of fighting and getting nowhere. Here, my readers were robust and forward thinking, slender from all those fruit shakes. Here, too, my writing would become lean.
Garnish with orange slice
It was a mellow night, and great beams of searchlights swept the sky above Westwood announcing the premiere of a new movie. Tanned girls in shorts strolled along the streets and it seemed that every coffee shop and restaurant was crowded with people. Aram took my arm and guided me to Royce Hall. I could taste the excitement at my arrival. Students clutched copies of Vodka and Ice, and a group of Soviet American writers came forward to greet me. I did not have to fear secret police lurking in the background or a sudden surprise visit from some vodka-soused agent, illiterate but armed.
The first five years were good to me. I prospered professionally. Irena was furious with me at first, more out of jealousy than of heartache at my abrupt absence. Aram found me a small apartment in Hollywood and I taught one extension class on screen writing at the university. I published articles, tutored, held talks at libraries. At my height, Vodka and Ice was sold to a film studio for more money than I had seen in my entire life. Los Angeles in all its gaudy, shabby finery wrapped its burnished arms around me, and I was as if in a five-year-long trance, in love! My descent into such servitude is too painful to describe. I will only say that one day I found myself walking into the cool charcoal offices of a literary agent at a most reputable agency, and it seemed that the next I was sweeping the floors of the same company.
I had learned from my time in Russia when to stand out and when to disappear. For my first appointment with my new agent, I wore my one good suit, a rich midnight blue, and the youthful attendants who floated about the vaulted hallways of the agency stood aside to let me pass. But now, in this threadbare sweater and worn mouse brown trousers, I blended into the walls. But I have also learned how to listen and take note. The urge to write is ever present. For me, what I did was simply like adding color to drab scenes as a photographer would colorize a daguerreotype.
I listened stealthily as writers moved in and out of their meetings. I overheard conversations with these young hopefuls who often departed with shoulders slumped and a look in their eyes as if searching for the nearest stiff drink. The disputed draft often remained on the agent's desk for some weeks or months at a time. Long enough for me to read, to change. Years of teaching and writing gave me a deadly accurate eye for structural weaknesses and implausible characterization. I could look through a manuscript and tell you, within the hour, precisely how to repair the holes so it had a fighting chance in anyone’s estimation. You might well ask, Boris, why do you write knowing you'll receive no recognition? Certainly the Tolstoy name would draw crowds! Ha! You may as well ask why I breathe, why my heart beats, why I open my eyes in the morning. I am a fifty-five-year-old man, and my yearning for immortality has softened to a desire for only quiet justice.
Tomato Sauce & Tabasco
Garnish with egg yolk. Add salt, pepper, celery salt, Worcester sauce, and a beef bouillon to taste.
In Russia, the recognition of my work was bittersweet. I wrote of the darkness we all faced, and they sent more KGB to follow me about the city—blunderers, they were too, practically sitting in my lap as I sipped dark brewed coffee and read such subversive writers as Agatha Christie and Irving Stone. So, when I found myself here, polishing the floors and cleaning out the trash bins of some of the most powerful agents in the entertainment business, something strange happened. The more I witnessed their casual cruelties to other writers and their own staff, the less I wanted or needed their attention. Boris, you say, you're an idealistic fool, but idealism has changed the course of history, made men of boys and proud nations of dirty provinces. If you saw through my eyes how they chip away at a writer's confidence, his very passion for the craft, you would understand beyond a shadow of a doubt why I began revising these manuscripts in secrecy.
One writer, in particular, Jonathan Silverstein, a young man fresh out of a renowned mid-Western writing program, had gotten his first novel published to such reviews you’ve never seen. The book was then optioned by a big studio. He was smart enough to insist on doing the screen adaptation, but too inexperienced to know how to do it well. I had ghost written over two dozen film scripts in my career and knew the ins and outs of such a genre as well as the lines on my face.
The agency acted as a go-between for young, talented Jonathan. They took him out for fine lunches in Beverly Hills, sent the company car around, polished to a high shine by brown-skinned fellows who spoke no English, for his driving needs. But Jonathan fell from grace within a matter of months. Why? The wind blows westward, someone ate something that made his stomach sour—who knows, eh? All I can tell you is that Jonathan's agent stopped returning his calls. The young writer took to sitting in the lobby, unshaven, in rumpled suits, studying his nails and wheeling his head about expectantly every time the elevator doors split open and disgorged its hold of crisply dressed men and women.
I slipped the young man coffee, even once shared my cold beef sandwich. I knew if I didn't intervene, he would find himself out on the street, begging for loose change. What he lacked was an authenticity to his characters, so I went in and fixed here, fixed there. The American press described me once as a "master of nuance, a man deeply engaged in a lifelong dialogue with conflict." Okay, I have talents Jonathan lacked. This edginess, a term so many like to throw around regarding stories that grab, you don't get this edginess in much of American literature and film. I think this term means, quite simply, real life. Real life does not come in pills or with psychotherapy. Try waiting on one line for milk and another for shoes, only to find you’ve been thrown out of your apartment in the dead of a Russian winter. Edginess is something we Russians of a certain age could live without.
Boris Tolstoy is a sad and lonely man, my friends. A dreamer. A thinker. Solitude has clung to me like pollen on my shoulders all my life. Now, as a man past his middle years, stuck in this country without a home, without family, without the ability to do his craft above the table, I choose to do it underneath. Yes, I know that remaining here was my own decision, and perhaps returning to an existence where my talents were lost on legions of pasty-faced Moscovites who drank too much and pined for the good old days they never had would have spared me where I am now. Perhaps this is why I began my secret mission to salvage the careers of other writers.
Jonathan's writing just got better. And when his agent finally called to say—let’s see, how did he put it: "absofuckin-lutely loved the revision"—Jonathan was too stunned to say, "But I didn't rewrite anything like that!" Here, a funny thing about having fallen into and then out of the eye of a literary hurricane. The sudden praise was like biting into a spicy pickled onion. I saw this attention as all that was best in America.
Garnish with a twist of lemon
But falling as I did, I saw that such dashing nerve also threw out many who could not or would not go along with the program. Agents with no more credentials than a love of power and the wardrobe to back it up made dust of a writer's career. Jonathan spoke to me about the sudden upward shift in his career when we shared a cigarette outside the agency one chilly fall morning. The sun had just risen, and the jacaranda trees along the street were glazed with a fine dew, like tiny Tiffany gems. All the promise of Hollywood and the allure of success shone in that early morning light.
"It's uncanny, but now I don't have to hang out on the sofa anymore," he exhaled and handed me the cigarette.
"And this is—good?"
"Good, Jesus, it's unbelievable! I was ready to pack my bags and go back to New Jersey to work in my father's funeral business. ‘This is the only business,' he'd tell me, ‘that thrives when people take it lying down.' My agent called to tell me that the latest version of my script is going to be a hit." Jonathan shook his head and gazed into the distance where streetlights flashed red. “And I didn’t even write it.”
"It just feels like that," I replied.
"No, you don’t understand. I literally didn’t write this draft. Sure, it’s got some of the basic elements of my script, but the truth is someone else wrote it and sent it in with my name. Someone with a shitload more talent than I’ve got. Now, they’re being nice to me again. I feel like the fat kid who just got picked first for basketball. Hey, I appreciate your kindness through all of this.” He extended his hand and I shook it. “I’m Jonathan Silverstein.”
"Like the—wow, are you guys related or something? I’m a big Russian lit fan, I even speak Russian a bit."
"Nice to meet you, Jonathan. Don't become discouraged. It's a long road." I pinched the end of my cigarette and placed the butt carefully into my pocket. “Oh, by the way. Just accept whatever your agent tells you about these revisions. It's best."
He asked me to wait, what did I mean, was I a writer, too? Why was I here, sweeping floors? But I could not remain. I had two manuscripts of a new writer, a woman with Modigliani-like eyes and a fleshy sad mouth. She looked so fragile leaving the offices the other day, I felt her close to tears. I had to read and revise these manuscripts within the week.
The light in my apartment is a gentle buttery color, so different from the gruel-thin light of Moscow. This is the light by which I read and write. Here, I sit surrounded by my books, pictures of my family who have reluctantly forgiven me for abandoning them in return for packages of American magazines, books, and the occasional check. I walk through my Russian neighborhood, my ear snatching at bits of conversation as the old women hobble by. On Saturdays, I take my folding lawn chair to a park and sit playing checkers with Russian men my same age. We discuss politics, reminisce about our former lives, and commiserate about the absence of our entire families, even those kin whom we detested.
I am not a martyr. Nor am I a saint. I watch over my small circle of struggling writers with the aching heart of a parent whose own opportunities already floated downstream. I have had recognition. It is a heady, dizzying experience where you believe all that people tell you because, like heavy cream, it tastes so rich and leaves a film in your mouth for a long time. And I have lived in anonymity. I prefer to pass along these tear-stained streets and through the halls of America’s power elites visible only to others like myself. I shall be only ears to hear, eyes to see, and hands to write the story because this finally, my friends, is all that matters.
In Memory of Boris Tolstoy, Novelist, Screenwriter, and Friend,
Translated from the Russian by Jonathan Silverstein