I might have been failing some test, I wasn't sure. Perkus Tooth dealt in occult knowledge, and measured with secret calipers. I'd never know when I'd crossed an invisible frontier, visible to Perkus in the air between us.
"Do you want to give me a card?"
He scowled. "Eldred knows where to find me." His pride intervened, and he was gone. For a phone call so life- altering as mine to Susan Eldred, I ought to have had some fine reason. Yet here I was, dialing Criterion's receptionist later that afternoon, asking first for Perkus Tooth and then, when she claimed no familiarity with that name, for Susan Eldred, spurred by nothing better than a cocktail of two parts whim and one part guilt. Manhattan's volunteer, that's me, I may as well admit it. Was I curious about Echolalia, or Morrison Groom's faked suicide, or Perkus Tooth's intensities and lulls, or the slippage in his right eye's gaze? All of it and none of it, that's the only answer. Perhaps I already adored Perkus Tooth, and already sensed that it was his friendship I required to usher me into the strange next phase of my being. To unmoor me from the curious eddy into which I'd drifted. How very soon after our first encounter I'd come to adore and need Perkus makes it awfully hard to know to what extent such feelings were inexplicably under way in Susan Eldred's office or that elevator.
"Your office mate," I said. "They didn't recognize his name at the front desk. Maybe I heard it wrong"
"Perkus?" Susan laughed. "He doesn't work here."
"He said he wrote your liner notes."
"He's written a couple, sure. But he doesn't work here. He just comes up and occupies space sometimes. I'm sort of Perkus's babysitter. I don't even always notice him anymoreyou saw how he can be. I hope he wasn't bothering you."
"No . . . no. I was hoping to get in touch with him, actually."
Susan Eldred gave me Perkus Tooth's number, then paused. "I guess you must have recognized his name . . ."
"Well, in fact he's really quite an amazing critic. When I was at NYU all my friends and I used to idolize him. When I first got the chance to hire him to do a liner note I was quite in awe. It was shocking how young he was, it seemed like I'd grown up seeing his posters and stuff."
"He used to do this thing where he'd write these rants on posters and put them up all around Manhattan, these sort of brilliant critiques of things, current events, media rumors, public art. They were a kind of public art, I guess. Everyone thought it was very mysterious and important. Then he got hired by Rolling Stone. They gave him this big column, he was sort of, I don't know, Hunter Thompson meets Pauline Kael, for about five minutes. If that makes any sense."
"Anyway, the point is, he sort of used up a lot of people's patience with certain kinds of . . . paranoid stuff. I didn't really get it until I started working with him. I mean, I like Perkus a lot. I just don't want you to feel I wasted your time, or got you enmeshed in any . . . schemes."People could be absurdly protective, as if a retired actor's hours were so precious. This was, I assume, secondhand affect, a leakage from Janice's otherworldly agendas. I was famously in love with a woman who had no time to spare, not even a breath, for she dwelled in a place beyond time or the reach of anyone's Rolodex, her every breath measured out of tanks of recycled air. If an astronaut made room for me on her schedule, my own prerogatives must be crucial as an astronaut's. The opposite was true.
"Thank you," I said. "I'll be sure not to get enmeshed."
Perkus Tooth was my neighbor, it turned out. His apartment was on East Eighty- fourth Street, six blocks from mine, in one of those anonymous warrens tucked behind innocuous storefronts, buildings without lobbies, let alone doormen. The shop downstairs, Brandy's Piano Bar, was a corny- looking nightspot I could have passed a thousand times without once noticing. BRANDY'S CUSTOMERS, PLEASE RESPECT OUR NEIGHBORS! pleaded a small sign at the doorway, suggesting a whole tale of complaint calls to the police about noise and fumes. To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes that pavement- demolishing workmen periodically wrench open to the daylight and to our passing, disturbed glances. We only pretend to live on something as orderly as a grid. Waiting for Perkus Tooth's door buzzer to sound and finding my way inside, I felt my interior map expand to allow for the reality of this place, the corridor floor's lumpy checkerboard mosaic, the cloying citrus of the superintendent's disinfectant oil, the bank of dented brass mailboxes, and the keening of a dog from behind an upstairs door, alerted to the buzzer and my scuffling bootheels. I have trouble believing anything exists until I know it bodily.
Excerpted from Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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