Roger Rosenblatt Talks About His New Book
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JEFFREY BROWN: The Hamptons: A group of villages on long island known as the summer playground of New York’s well to do. Local controversies here are a bit different from other places, like the one over a huge mansion and estate being built in South Hampton.
At a cost of some $185 million, the 29 bedrooms, three dining rooms and so on, the neighbors are in an uproar. It’s too much even in these well heeled environments. The Hamptons are a setting for “Lapham Rising,” a new novel about the day in a life of an aging writer with only his talking terrier as companion going slightly crazy as he watches just such an over-the-top home rise next to his own property.
The author is NewsHour essayist and Hamptons resident Roger Rosenblatt who talked with us on a recent visit to Washington.
JEFFREY BROWN: Roger, welcome.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Here’s the first line. “Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.” So there’s a banging in your hero’s neighborhood and there’s a banging in his head. Tell us about this character Harry March.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Harry March is nuts or pretty close to nuts, though principled.
And what drives him over the edge, and he was fairly close to the edge as it was, the construction of a 36,000-square-foot house on the land across from the creek on which he lives on his little island which he calls “No Man” in hopes that someone will ask him where he lives and what it is and he will say, “No Man is an island.”
JEFFREY BROWN: He hopes someone will ask him.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Eventually somebody does. But as it turns out, as in most things for Harry, the one who asks doesn’t get the joke and just walks away.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the bane of his existence is Mr. Lapham.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Mr. Lapham is building a 36,000 square foot house and represents all the self-aggrandizement, all the tastelessness, all the want, all the lust for property that Harry abhors. So he goes after him.
JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that you’ve written here, I think, is social satire. You are kind of poking fun at the rich, the very rich, the super rich. Was it just irresistible to do?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes. But it would not be right to say that the novel was driven by any wild thoughts of revenge or disapproval as much as it was personally just a desire to write a novel. It’s what I always wanted to do.
I started out wanting to write poems and plays and fiction. And then lack of talent, lack of nerve, all these years but recently in the last few years I’ve turned to it again. It’s given me pleasure. It’s where I want to be.
Now, of course, I had a ready- made subject in the Hamptons so how could I resist?
JEFFREY BROWN: Read a little passage for us. You have something that’s representative.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: One of the characters in this book is Kathy Polite. Her name is spelled polite but she pronounces it Polite to get that what she calls it that continental je ne c’est quoi to her name.
JEFFREY BROWN: Everybody has a little extra something in the character.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Nobody is quite as he or she appears although Kathy’s appearance something special is attached because she’s decided that the best way to advertise her real estate company is to skinny dip off her boat and have her customers in a sense come to her so they — all the men in the area gather around at 10:00 to watch Kathy take her swim. And I describe this for a while, and this is how it culminates once she strips and is about to jump off the boat.
“At this moment of her diving as she is suspended in mid jackknife, nothing happens on the east end of Long Island. Not a single nail is nailed. Not a single hedge is trimmed. Not a single bottle of chateau — what an amazing wine — is sold. Not one compliment is paid to a tomato or an ear of corn or a peach. No one asks where the potato fields have gone, likewise the duck farms. No Filipino housekeeper is yelled at for failing to position the fruit forks correctly. No year-round resident is pushed aside at a farmer’s market.
No one asks anyone else to a small dinner just for close friends or wishes there were more time to spend reading quietly on the beach away from all the big parties. No one gives kudos or draws raves. No one embarks on exciting new phase of his life or enters a third act of his life or comments that life is a journey. No one plans a benefit dance for a fatal disease. Nothing moves. Nothing makes a sound. The universe lies in respectful silence as sex and commerce find their and apogee in Kathy Polite and her morning swim. For one brief moment in this day for what certainly will be the only such moment, I am at peace — all bitterness relieved, all burdens lifted from me. The wind kicks up. I bless her unaware.”
JEFFREY BROWN: One thing that you can see in that passage is that in addition to the fun, you’re saying something serious I think about things that are kind of lost in our society.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That’s my man. He’s really out of it. He has no social graces. His wife left him for an event planner in Beverly Hills. He only talks to his dog whom you mentioned earlier, who not only talks, but is an evangelical, and he’s born again and is a capitalist. So he argues with Harry all the time so he’s really alone in the world.
But his mental or spiritual company is Dr. Johnson and the 18th century. And he believes in a century that was modest and decent and where things were just their right size. And he lives in this world where everything is oversized and indecent and immodest. And that is the serious line of the novel.
JEFFREY BROWN: Did you set out to write a kind of funny-serious book?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I wish I knew enough about writing a novel to tell you that I set out to do anything. A lot of this just came. And originally it came as a kind of long essay on the subject. And eventually when it became a novel, when I say long I mean 60 pages — that essay wound up in one short paragraph and the rest of it was action around it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Literally. You mean you started out writing an essay and said — what happened? When did you say, aha, I have got a novel here?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, I said wouldn’t it be better if I had a character who actually acted in a world according to these precepts rather than simply outline the precepts? So then having enjoyed novels by my betters, I thought I might be able to do this. I might be able to set up a situation that is so preposterous as Harry’s is that people would enjoy reading about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: You use a quote at the beginning of the book from William Dean Howell’s 19th century novel “The Rise of Silas Lapham,” and you clearly use the name.
There is of course this great tradition in American literature about writing about the American striving for wealth, for big toys, for class.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: All that. And that’s how class is defined in America. The original Silas is a much nicer guy than my Lapham. And he had some conscience about his world. Mine is sort of the freakish outgrowth of the worst aspects of the original Silas Lapham. He just grabs and grabs and he has an air conditioner on his property that cools the out of doors that eventually turns against my poor Harry March.
JEFFREY BROWN: I’m not going to tell people what happens but I think it’s safe to say that progress in that sense is not stopped.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: That’s very nicely put. Harry tries his best. He constructs a weapon to use against Lapham but as in everything in Harry’s life, the weapon turns against him.
JEFFREY BROWN: I can’t help but notice that the protagonist lives in the village where you yourself live.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’ve been accused of this being an autobiographical novel. It is not mine. For the dog, however, it is to the letter true. He’s not particularly pleased with my portrayal of him, but he is smaller than I am.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “Lapham Rising.” Roger Rosenblatt. Thanks a lot.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Thank you.