The publication date for the British edition of "Cold
approaching, so I fold myself into a coach seat and head over for a few
days of interviews and photographs. I am reading a lesser Raymond Chandler
novel, "The Lady in the Lake," while the woman jammed knee-to-shoulder
against me in the next seat tosses back the third of what will eventually
be seven mini-bottles of Bacardi with Coke. A couple of strangers in the
seats behind me strike up a conversation in the modern corporate language
composed almost entirely of euphemism and puffery, delivered in that
barking tone that is supposed to connote confidence, aggression. I can't
The woman identifies herself by company. "We're service providers for the
retirement community industry," she says. I try to guess what those words
might mean. What work do they actually do? What service do they actually
provide? Deliver extra-large Pampers? Haul away the bodies?
The man talks the same kind of talk, and for all I understand I might as
well be listening to monkey chatter. It is a dead language, I decide,
though much in use. Then the man says an amazing thing. It is part of the
culture of his company, he says, to recognize that "different regions have
access to different information." True, I think. Absolutely true. The
grasslands of Cherry County, Neb., and the hardwood coves of Cherokee
County, N.C., the black-water swamps of Charlton County, Ga. and the
conifer forests and talus slopes of Summit County, Colo. Different regions,
utterly different information. And what a wonder it must be to work for a
company that builds such wisdom into its culture.
In London I stay at a hotel whose top-floor lounge is furnished with
retro-'60s furniture and has a sweeping panoramic view of the city, gray
and low as Lima. I sit there for two full days and answer questions and
then stand against the glass wall and have my picture taken. It has been
reported in one British publication that I live on a big ranch in Montana
and tend a herd of cattle in my spare time. So I have to keep repeating,
"Little farm, North Carolina, a few horses."
One delightful interviewer gives me a 19th century book on horsemanship. It
has been well-used during its 100-year life. The back is broken and the
pages are coming loose. The man says, "It is in only slightly better shape
than Inman's Bartram." I open the book and find that the first chapter is
titled "Kindness." Chapter Two: "Coercion."
The only tourist thing I have time for during my London stay is to visit
the recently opened Globe Theatre, reconstructed across the river from St.
Paul's near the site of the original. It is apparently the best educated
guess available as to what Shakespeare's theater looked like. I am mainly
interested in feeling the scale of the thing, and I am surprised to find it
almost cylindrical -- taller, narrower, tighter than I would have guessed.
Like putting on a play in the bottom of a bucket.
A few days later, I'm at a bookstore deep in the suburbs of Atlanta when a
high-school friend I have not seen in nearly 30 years comes up and says his
name. It has happened more than once and is, I am discovering, the best
part of the tour, to be signing books and look up and see a familiar face
from long ago. Both of us roughed-up by time but still, I think,
After I finish the job at hand, we talk and talk about the small isolated
town in the mountains where we grew up. Southern gothic stuff. We remember
the man who owned the phone company and how he also conjured warts away,
the dog named Frank who would make bank deposits and bring home groceries
for his owner, the man who visited town every year or two, traveling about
in a cart drawn by goats.
We also remember driving through the mountains at night talking about
books. At the time I was a great reader of junk, and he kept pointing me in
another direction. "You've got to read 'Ethan Frome,'" I recollect him
saying, "and 'The Sun Also Rises,' and Poe." And I did.