Editor’s Note: What follows is composed from features published inThe New Yorker between September and December 2010. No alterations beyond rearrangement were made to the texts, excepting those that ensured gender, tense and number agreement.
When I finally submitted an article to The New Yorker, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who came to the craft from boat-building and cabinetry, read the piece in a house that sits on seven acres and is secluded by thick woodlands. Ruddy-complected, green-eyed, and white-haired, he greeted me in the front parlor and escorted me to a side library, which was painted an ochre color and jammed with art supplies and potted plants. He is eighty-one now, and had recently undergone angioplasty, but he did not seem infirm. He affected a down-to-earth demeanor, offering me a cup of coffee and insisting that I sit on a comfortable upholstered chair while he perched on a cheap plastic one. He was dressed in khaki trousers, a polo shirt, and a sport coat, quite believable in his role as a scientist. “Very nice, fascinating—but what does the subject look like? Can you add some description?” I parried this awkward (and, to me, unanswerable) question by saying, “Who cares what he looks like? The piece is about his work.”
“Our readers will want to know,” he said. A slight, intense man with eyes the color of wet coal, he tends to speak at a scornful double-speed trot. “They need to picture him.”
“I will have to ask Kate,” I said. “She is a plain but vital woman with alert brown eyes, a rosy complexion, and silver hair that she wears secured in a short ponytail. She lives as a widow in a tidy two-room apartment on the twelfth floor of a much patched and repainted gray cement building.”
He gave me a peculiar look. Seated at a round table in his office, he looked, as always, as though he had stepped from a bandbox: his short white hair perfectly in place, his dark navy suit perfectly tailored, his customary red tie the only hint of vivacity. A bookshelf was filled with political biographies and James Patterson novels, and paintings of hunting scenes and sailing vessels hung on the walls, suggesting the atmosphere of a men’s club. He is a plainspoken native of North Carolina who had arrived an awkward, intense thirty-year-old. His father was a farmer with piercing blue eyes and a broad mustache who sat shirtless in denim cutoffs in a sweat lodge in the woods behind a cousin’s house. As a stern and egotistical person, he would descend into fits of rage when money was scarce. His admirers describe him in terms that suggest a near-mystical visionary, with a powerful personal magnetism.
One night, the tall, jovial-looking billionaire came out to dinner with me and my wife and a few friends, at Elaine’s. He has a sober mien, befitting his origins as an accountant, but that night he was almost ebullient. He tipped well and ordered hamburgers for dinner. As he laughed, he looked around the room, raising his eyebrows and making eye contact, or bringing his hand to his forehead, or opening his mouth wide and leaning forward. Toward the end, he lifted his palms, twisting his torso slowly back and forth, like an oscillating fan.
More than two hundred citizens attended. One man was smiling beatifically, with his eyes closed and his head tilted back slightly, as if he could just barely catch, on the wind, the scent of a freshly baked apple pie. He is fifty years old, with a long black braid down his back, and he speaks at an unusual volume. Educated and self-possessed, though he knew nothing about geology, the ponytailed man was a palpably formidable presence in the conversations that ebbed and flowed around the room. A man of Vulcan arrogance and deeply hidden vulnerability, he seems not to have made close imaginary friends as a young child.
Near the entrance, a woman clutching a piece of lace was reading aloud from a Good News Bible. She was gripping a crucifix that hung around her neck, and brandishing it in his direction, as one would to ward off a vampire. Her mother sat selling silver jewelry and children’s tomahawks, next to the Sno-Cone stand, her white hair shooting out from under a baseball cap. The family survived by selling handicrafts, harvesting dates, and keeping a small herd of goats for milk. Dressed in a bright-yellow sari shot with gold threads, she was followed by several of her children. They are a close-knit group. On days when she is idle, she likes to sit by a window in her kitchen with a glass of champagne and look out at her courtyard of well-tended rhododendrons and hostas, where she spends much of her time in a T-shirt and underwear, lacking pants and motivation in equal measure. This was the woman from the doorway. She ordered coffee and oranges. Aside from her powerful voice, which emanates from a body that retains its robustness through her devotion to such physical exercises as swimming and salsa dancing, her most distinctive features are her expressive blue-eyes, pearl-white complexion, and a mangled finger that had been surgically reattached years ago after it was crushed by a fifty-five-gallon oil drum.
At about one o’clock in the morning, she stepped outside. It was very dark, with stars showing but no moon. There were dusky rivers meandering through dense pine forests, cotton fields, and tobacco patches. She felt her way over a cattle grid, and down a grassy bank toward a fast-moving river. In the darkness, she saw a small dog and picked it up. As the light faded, a deer sprang over a fence. She looked across the valley, and at the blue-pink blur of snow and sky.
One morning a year later, he found his seventeen-year-old daughter dead after a high-school graduation party at the family’s home. A lot of kitchenette socializing was going on. We sat down in the living room that looked out onto a small back yard ablaze with goldenrod surrounded by the usual detritus: Marlboros, Tigers cap, CD cases. He introduced me to his aunt, who wore a deer-hide dress and a necklace of shells. He fairly bounded to her side. Physically, the two were near-opposites. She was tall, lanky, and rakish. He was more than half a foot shorter, stout, bespectacled, and never seen without cufflinks, even on camelback. What they shared was a rough charm they used to persuade others to go along with what must often have seemed outlandish schemes.
He grimaced, his teeth showing, and held the expression until he looked like a sky diver. He was wearing a button-down shirt with eagle feathers embroidered on the breast pocket, a gold necklace with a bear-claw charm, a big, gold-toned watch, and an assertive cologne. He is unfailingly calm, but it is the intensely focussed calm of, say, a model builder or a calligrapher. One effect of his strange poise is that you seem to be shown both an adolescent rehearsing for the part of seniority and the man of substance that he seems quite likely to become.
A slight, copper-colored woman wearing a red gown sang, accompanied by the guitar player, a portly man in shorts and a polo shirt. It was nearly midnight before she left her dressing room, having changed into a simple long-sleeved black jersey and a skirt that she had purchased the day before. Standing in a circle of light, she began in a confiding tone, and ended in a raspy, full-throated cry. His thoughts drifted to a used ocean liner he has been planning to buy. He had stopped videotaping and was stepping quietly, almost tiptoeing. His face as he approached showed no rancor, only a sort of wide-eyed, watchful awe.
By the dining-room table, there is an oversized photograph of him and his wife, taken when he was still wearing his toupee. He stared directly at the camera, cloaked in long white robes, with a headdress framing a small, still face and a long black-and-white beard. By the entrance, a stuffed albino gorilla hangs on a doorknob. The gorilla has red plastic eyes, and a motion detector inside it. Whenever anyone walks by, its eyes blink, and it says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” This happens more than fifty times a day.
The man left, looking baffled. He was wearing a baby carrier strapped across his chest, dark-rinse jeans and Ray-Ban aviators. The yard has a fountain and several shade trees and ornamental shrubs that he prunes himself. He uses oxygen only at night.