By Jonathan Lethem
Hardcover, 480 pages
List price: $27.95
I first met Perkus Tooth in an office. Not an office where he worked, though I was confused about this at the time. (Which is itself hardly an uncommon situation, for me.)
This was in the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, on Fifty- second Street and Third Avenue, on a weekday afternoon at the end of summer. I'd gone there to record a series of voice-overs for one of Criterion's high-end DVD reissues, a "lost" 1950s film noir called The City Is a Maze. My role was to play the voice of that film's director, the late emigre auteur Von Tropen Zollner. I would read a series of statements culled from Zollner's interviews and articles, as part of a supplemental documentary being prepared by the curatorial geniuses at Criterion, a couple of whom I'd met at a dinner party. In drawing me into the project they'd supplied me with a batch of research materials, which I'd browsed unsystematically, as well as a working version of their reconstruction of the film, in order for me to glean what the excitement was about. It was the first I'd heard of Zollner, so this was hardly a labor of passion. But the enthusiasm of buffs is infectious, and I liked the movie. I no longer considered myself a working actor. This was the only sort of stuff I did anymore, riding the exhaust of my former and vanishing celebrity, the smoky half- life of a child star. An eccentric favor, really. And I was curious to see the inside of Criterion's operation. This was the first week of September—the city's back- to- school mood always inspired me to find something to do with my idle hands. In those days, with Janice far away, I lived too much on the surface of things, parties, gossip, assignations in which I was the go- between or vicarious friend. Workplaces fascinated me, the zones where Manhattan's veneer gave way to the practical world.
I recorded Zollner's words in a sound chamber in the technical wing of Criterion's crowded, ramshackle offices. In the room outside the chamber, where the soundman sat giving me cues through a headset, a restorer also sat peering at a screen and guiding a cursor with a mouse, diligently erasing celluloid scratches and blots, frame by digital frame, from the bare bodies of hippies cavorting in a mud puddle. I was told he was restoring I Am Curious (Yellow). Afterward I was retrieved by the producer who'd enlisted me, Susan Eldred. It had been Susan and her colleague I'd met at the dinner party — unguarded, embracing people with a passion for a world of cinematic minutiae, for whom I'd felt an instantaneous affection. Susan led me to her office, a cavern with one paltry window and shelves stacked with VHS tapes, more lost films petitioning for Criterion's rescue. Susan shared her office, it appeared. Not with the colleague from the party, but another person. He sat beneath the straining shelves, notebook in hand, gaze distant. It seemed too small an office to share. The glamour of Criterion's brand wasn't matched by these scenes of thrift and improvisation I'd gathered in my behind- the- scenes glimpse, but why should it have been? No sooner did Susan introduce me to Perkus Tooth and give me an invoice to sign than she was called away for some consultation elsewhere.
He was, that first time, lapsed into what I would soon learn to call one of his "ellipsistic" moods. Perkus Tooth himself later supplied that descriptive word: ellipsistic, derived from ellipsis. A species of blank interval, a nod or fugue in which he was neither depressed nor undepressed, not struggling to finish a thought nor to begin one. Merely between. Pause button pushed. I certainly stared. With Tooth's turtle posture and the utter slackness of his being, his receding hairline and antique manner of dress — trim- tapered suit, ferociously wrinkled silk with the shine worn off, moldering tennis shoes —I could have taken him for elderly. When he stirred, his hand brushing the open notebook page as if taking dictation with an invisible pen, and I read his pale, adolescent features, I guessed he was in his fifties — still a decade wrong, though Perkus Tooth had been out of the sunlight for a while. He was in his early forties, barely older than me. I'd mistaken him for old because I'd taken him for important. He now looked up and I saw one undisciplined hazel eye wander, under its calf lid, toward his nose. That eye wanted to cross, to discredit Perkus Tooth's whole sober aura with a comic jape. His other eye ignored the gambit, trained on me.
"You're the actor."
"Yes," I said.
"So, I'm doing the liner notes. For The City Is a Maze, I mean."
"I do a lot of them. Prelude to a Certain Midnight ... Recalcitrant Women ... The Unholy City ... Echolalia ..."
"All film noir?"
"Oh, gosh, no. You've never seen Herzog's Echolalia?"
"Well, I wrote the liner notes, but it isn't exactly released yet. I'm still trying to convince Eldred — "
Perkus Tooth, I'd learn, called everyone by their last name. As though famous, or arrested. His mind's landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads. At that moment Eldred — Susan — returned to the office.
"So," he said to her, "have you got that tape of Echolalia around here somewhere?" He cast his eyes, the good left and the meandering right, at her shelves, the cacophony of titles scribbled on labels there. "I want him to see it."
Susan raised her eyebrows and he shrank. "I don't know where it is," she said.
"Have you been harassing my guest, Perkus?"
"What do you mean?"
Susan Eldred turned to me and collected the signed release, then we made our farewell. Then, as I got to the elevator, Perkus Tooth hurried through the sliding door to join me, crushing his antique felt hat onto his crown as he did. The elevator, like so many others behind midtown edifices, was tiny and rattletrap, little more than a glorified dumbwaiter — there was no margin for pretending we hadn't just been in that office together. Bad eye migrating slightly, Perkus Tooth gave me a lunar look, neither unfriendly nor apologetic. Despite the vintage costume, he wasn't some dapper retro- fetishist. His shirt collar was grubby and crumpled. The greengray sneakers like mummified sponges glimpsed within a janitor's bucket.
"So," he said again. This "so" of Perkus's — his habit of introducing any subject as if in resumption of earlier talk — wasn't in any sense coercive. Rather, it was as if Perkus had startled himself from a daydream, heard an egging voice in his head and mistaken it for yours. "So, I'll lend you my own copy of Echolalia, even though I never lend anything. Because I think you ought to see it."
"It's a sort of essay film. Herzog shot it on the set of Morrison Groom's Nowhere Near. Groom's movie was never finished, you know. Echolalia documents Herzog's attempts to interview Marlon Brando on Groom's set. Brando doesn't want to give the interview, and whenever Herzog corners him Brando just parrots whatever Herzog's said ... you know, echolalia ..."
"Yes," I said, flummoxed, as I would so often later find myself, by Tooth's torrential specifics.
"But it's also the only way you can see any of Nowhere Near. Morrison Groom destroyed the footage, so the scenes reproduced in Echolalia are, ironically, all that remains of the film — "
Why "ironically"? I doubted my hopes of inserting the question. "It sounds incredible," I said.
"Of course you know Morrison Groom's suicide was probably faked."
My nod was a lie. The doors opened, and we stumbled together out to the pavement, tangling at every threshold: "You first — " "Oops — " "After you — " "Sorry." We faced each other, mid-Wednesday Manhattan throngs islanding us in their stream. Perkus grew formally clipped, perhaps belatedly eager to show he wasn't harassing me.
"So, I'm off."
"Very good to see you." I'd quit using the word meet long ago, replacing it with this foggy equivocation, chastened after the thousandth time someone explained to me that we'd actually met before.
"So — " He ground to a halt, expectant.
"If you want to come by for the tape "
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 anymore — you 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.
Perkus Tooth lived in 1R, a half-level up, the building's rear. He widened his door just enough for me to slip inside, directly to what revealed itself to be his kitchen. Perkus, though barefoot, wore another antique- looking suit, green corduroy this time, the only formal thing my entry revealed. The place was a bohemian grotto, the kitchen a kitchen only in the sense of having a sink and stove built in, and a sticker-laden refrigerator wedged into an alcove beside the bathroom door. Books filled the open cabinet spaces above the sink. The countertop was occupied with a CD player and hundreds of disks, in and out of jewel cases, many hand labeled with a permanent marker. A hot-water pipe whined. Beyond, the other rooms of the apartment were dim at midday, the windows draped. They likely only looked onto ventilation shafts or a paved alley, anyway.
Then there were the broadsides Susan Eldred had described. Unframed, thumbtacked to every wall bare of bookshelves, in the kitchen and in the darkened rooms, were Perkus Tooth's famous posters, their paper yellowing, the lettering veering between a stylish cartoonist's or graffitist's handmade font and the obsessive scrawl of an outsider artist, or a schizophrenic patient's pages reproduced in his doctor's monograph. I recognized them. Remembered them. They'd been ubiquitous downtown a decade before, on constructionsite boards, over subway advertisements, element in the graphic cacophony of the city one gleans helplessly at the edges of vision.
Perkus retreated to give me clearance to shut the door. Stranded in the room's center in his suit and bare feet, palms defensively wide as if expecting something unsavory to be tossed his way, Perkus reminded me of an Edvard Munch painting I'd once seen, a selfportrait showing the painter wide-eyed and whiskered, shrunken within his clothes. Which is to say, again, that Perkus Tooth seemed older than his age. (I'd never once see Perkus out of some part of a suit, even if it was only the pants, topped with a filthy white T-shirt. He never wore jeans.)
"I'll get you the videotape," he said, as if I'd challenged him.
"Let me find it. You can sit down — " He pulled out a chair at his small, linoleum-topped table like one you'd see in a diner. The chair matched the table — a dinette set, a collector's item. Perkus Tooth was nothing if not a collector. "Here." He took a perfect finished joint from where it waited in the lip of an ashtray, clamped it in his mouth and ignited the tip, then handed it to me unquestioningly. It takes one, I suppose, to know one. I drew on it while he went into the other room. When he returned — with a VHS cassette and his sneakers and a balled- up pair of white socks—he accepted the joint from me and smoked an inch of it himself, intently.
"Do you want to get something to eat? I haven't been out all day." He laced his high-tops.
"Sure," I said.
Out, for Perkus Tooth, I'd now begun to learn, wasn't usually far. He liked to feed at a glossy hamburger palace around the corner on Second Avenue, called Jackson Hole, a den of gleaming chrome and newer, faker versions of the linoleum table in his kitchen, lodged in chubby red-vinyl booths. At four in the afternoon we were pretty well alone there, the jukebox blaring hits to cover our bemused, befogged talk. It had been a while since I'd smoked pot; everything was dawning strange, signals received through an atmosphere eddied with hesitations, the whole universe drifting untethered like Perkus Tooth's vagrant eyeball. The waitress seemed to know Perkus, but he didn't greet her, or touch his menu. He asked for a cheeseburger deluxe and a Coca-Cola. Helpless, I dittoed his order. Perkus seemed to dwell in this place as he had at Criterion's offices, indifferently, obliquely, as if he'd been born there yet still hadn't taken notice of the place.
In the middle of our meal Perkus halted some rant about Werner Herzog or Marlon Brando or Morrison Groom to announce what he'd made of me so far. "So, you've gotten by to this point by being cute, haven't you, Chase?" His spidery fingers, elbow- propped on the linoleum, kept the oozing, gory Jackson Hole burger aloft to mask his expression, and cantilevered far enough from his lap to protect those dapper threads. One eye fixed me while the other crawled, now seeming a scalpel in operation on my own face. "You haven't changed, you're like a dreamy child, that's the secret of your appeal. But they love you. They watch you like you're still on television."
"The rich people. The Manhattanites — you know who I mean."
"Yes," I said.
"You're supposed to be the saddest man in Manhattan," he said.
"Because of the astronaut who can't come home."
So, no surprise, Perkus was another one who knew me as Janice Trumbull's fiance. My heart's distress was daily newspaper fodder. Yes, I loved Janice Trumbull, the American trapped in orbit with the Russians, the astronaut who couldn't come home. This, beyond my childhood TV stardom, was what anyone knew about me, though some, like Susan Eldred, were too polite to mention it.
"That's what everyone adores about you."
"I guess so."
"But I know your secret."
I was startled. Did I have a secret? If I did, it was one of the things I'd misplaced in the last few years. I couldn't remember how I'd gotten from there to here, made the decisions that led from my child stardom to harmlessly dissipated Manhattan celebrity, nor how it was that I deserved the brave astronaut's love. I had trouble clearly recalling Janice, that was part of my sorrow. The day she launched for the space station I must have undertaken to quit thinking of Janice, even while promising to keep a vigil for her here on earth. I never dared tell anyone this fact. So if I had a secret, it was that I had conspired to forget my secret. Perkus eyed me slyly. Perhaps it was his policy to make this announcement to any new acquaintance, to see what they'd blurt out.
"Keep your eyes and ears open," he told me now. "You're in a position to learn things."
Excerpted from Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright 2009 by Doubleday.