- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2003

DO I OWE YOU SOMETHING?: A MEMOIR OF THE LITERARY LIFE

By Michael Mewshaw

Louisiana State University Press, $29.95, 226 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

Literary gossip sprouts like mushrooms in the dank soil of this book “Do I Owe You Something” as Michael

Mewshaw recounts his adventures in creating himself as a writer by means of his native talent as well as networking among the literati. “Since I wanted to learn not just how to write but how to live as a writer,” he recounts, “these encounters, in my opinion, were essential, and nothing was too trivial to merit attention.”

If Mr. Mewshaw’s account is reliable, however, one might wonder why anybody with good sense would want to live as a writer, for the fauna celebrated in these pages are a fetid and scabby lot. Whereas the few happy exceptions (e.g., George Garrett, Anthony Burgess, Robert Penn Warren) have small parts, the majority are spectacularly decadent, foolish and/or nasty. And yet it is unquestionably a star-studded list, including such luminaries as Graham Greene, Harold Robbins, Eleanor Clark, Gore Vidal, Pat Conroy, Paul Bowles and James Jones.

Mr. Mewshaw and his wife appear to be an engaging pair, far more decent than most of the celebrated writers they came to know, writers whose venalities involve drugs, promiscuity, sexual perversion (to use the old-fashioned, politically incorrect term), the writer’s classical nemesis, booze, and plain, down-home bitchiness. During a dinner party, Eleanor Clark, author of “Rome and a Villa,” “was dead set not just on being right but on reaching every conclusion via the high road.” And, elsewhere, Gore Vidal asked, “What are the three saddest words in the English language?” then intoned, “Joyce Carol Oates.”

Perhaps the champion rotter in Mr. Mewshaw’s vivid gallery, however, is Graham Greene, whose nastiness was salted with appalling arrogance and irrationality. Some may be shocked to learn that, if Mr. Mewshaw’s testimony can be trusted, the spectacularly flawed protagonists of Greene’s novels are possessed of far more grace and decency than their author, whom God may have loved, but God knows how any mere human could have managed it.

Mr. Mewshaw and his wife were astonishingly successful in gaining admission to these charmed circles (most fashionably European, for famous writers don’t live in West Virginia or Kansas). Upon occasion, their famous hosts were capable of generous whims; for example, Harold Robbins, planning a brief return to the United States from his Mediterranean villa, asked the Mewshaws: “Hey, would you kids like to fly back with me? My treat.” After quoting this, Mr. Mewshaw comments:

“It sounded like a line from his fiction, the turning point in the plot, where a couple of poor waifs morph into jet-setters, then molder into corruption.” Indeed. Our memoirist’s ambition was insatiable. “I heard a single compulsive phrase hammering in my head,” he writes (assuming that a phrase can be compulsive), “I wanted, I wanted … I wanted to be a writer, not a teacher. I wanted to live a more interesting and intense life; and I wanted to base myself in Europe.” (Okay for some, perhaps; but reading his book makes me glad I’m a teacher living in Ohio.)

Are we to assume from the evidence herein that writers are more vicious and immoral than the generality of humankind? Hard to say, although I think their basic problem is that of all celebrities: They’ve been mesmerized into taking themselves too seriously. In addition to this, however, writers tend to equate their power over the word with power over the world.

A signal manifestation of writerly power can be found in the choice of titles, which are labels writers are challenged to pin on what they’ve created. The title of this book comes from a dinner party in Rome, when, after the two had been out of touch for a while, Mr. Mewshaw ran into Burgess, who asked: “Do I owe you something? A letter? A recommendation? Money?” “Not a thing,” Mr. Mewshaw answered. “You’ve already given me so much.”

While this amiable anecdote does little to justify the silliness of the book’s title, it does provide a welcome revelation of whimsical civility and decency in both Burgess and Mr. Mewshaw, himself.

But elsewhere such evidence is scarce. An anecdote that concerns the young, not-yet-famous Rudyard Kipling is worth repeating in this context. After visiting Mark Twain in 1889, Kipling wrote, “Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer.” What a pity that Mr. Mewshaw couldn’t have gotten to know the man from Missouri.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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