The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


  LOVELEAR: I am an American, in this world and the next, and you are not, and will never be.

  DOVE: You are an American, in this world and the next, and I am not, and will never be.

  “Leave Ian alone, all right?” said Alex, snuffing out the candles.

  “Yeah, well, whatever. Breathe in the universe, breathe out love,” said Lovelear, making that most goyish of all International Gestures, the quote-unquote motion with his fingers. “That’s my motto. That’s what I had to say to Leonard, in the end.”

  AS THE LUNCH RECESS approached, only Dove kept his fingers firmly clenched around his paddle; he was hypnotized by the deliberate curves of a young lady in blue, holding up props from the film Tommy. She turned them this way and that for the public view. Alex had slumped in his chair some time ago. Now Lovelear joined him, throwing his paddle to the floor, ranting.

  “No point,” Alex cut in, feeling, in comparison to Lovelear, serene; becoming, briefly, the Zen Master, a role that passed back and forth between them during any auction solely to irritate the other party, “To be expected. Way of world. Look at Baguley. Twenty people, they work for him. This no business for sole trader anymore. Not been for long time. This important acknowledge. Once acknowledge, risen above. Wax on, wax off. Fact simple.”

  Lovelear drove his fist into the empty seat in front.

  “It wasn’t so long ago, man, I could come here, buy a Jennifer Jones for a reasonable price, right? And I’m not talking about for resale, Al, I’m talking about for the sheer love of it.”

  Lovelear had never bought anything for the sheer love of it, and there wasn’t a single item you couldn’t buy off him for the right price. He was unusual among his kind for this very reason: he had no sentimental impulses. Within the business it was often said of him that he would exchange his own grandmother for two Jimmy Durantes and a forged Ernest Hemingway.

  “I mean, I’m not in this business for the money. I’m a fan. This is coming from my heart. These things really mean something to me.”

  Discreetly, Alex made the International Gesture for Soon, if we are lucky, everything in this world, including the man I speak to now, will be reduced to dust (lower teeth brought forward over upper, top lip drawn short above gums, nodding head, eyes closed). “Yes,” he said. “No question. Hard for everyone.”

  Lovelear glared at the alert young men of the auction house. They sat above the crowd on their dais with their phones. Buying and selling to foreigners the American things Lovelear wanted but could not afford.

  “And now it’s like, What are they going to do with them? Well, I’ll tell you and I don’t want you to take offense. The truth is it’s like Oh I just had some sushi and now I walk back into my huge corporate office and there’s a Gary Cooper in my hallway and I don’t even know who Cooper was—like, I’ve got absolutely no love for Cooper, I’m like this Jap businessman loser asshole and I haven’t even seen High Noon. I’m like this little yellow nip who can’t even pronounce Cooper’s name. No offense.”

  “I’m Chinese.”

  “Right, no offense meant.”

  “None taken, Lovelear, because I’m Chinese.”

  “Right, no offense.”

  Lovelear rolled up his copy of the catalogue and began whacking Alex across the knees with it.

  “The thing is, the thing is, this is part of my culture. And it is Just! Not! Possible! to understand a lot of this stuff unless you come from the place where this stuff comes from! And you can put a Jimmy Stewart in your Hung Win Shan Chin office in Tokyo or wherever, but you are never—never!—going to understand what a Jimmy Stewart means. Nothing against anyone but no nip can truly understand what a Jimmy Stewart means truly in his heart of hearts. No offense. Oh, Jesus, will you look at this?”

  Alex followed Lovelear’s finger to the back of the room. A family of Anglo-Elvis hillbillies (ducktailed, rhinestoned) stood huddled and distressed in the doorway.

  “Oh-oh,” said Lovelear. “Check it out. Heartbreak Hotel.”

  Longtime residents of. They had not a chance of picking up any of these high-end-of-the-market Elvis items. The smallest girl, with her monstrous dentistry and thin hair; the two boys, legs placed wide apart in Elvis imitation; the father, full of that poignant, misplaced fat-man-in-a-caped-jumpsuit dignity; the phthisic wife—it all got to Alex, somehow. The undaunted belief.

  “Just leave them, Lovelear. They come in good faith. They’re just fans. Move away from the scene. Nothing to see.”

  “Are you blind?”

  There was a chapter in Alex’s book about the goyishness of Elvis fans; there was a subsection about the legendary Ben D. Goodall, a man who collected the autographs of everyone who ever came into contact with Elvis, from the midwife to the mortician (see Diagram A). None of these things was worth a penny. Goodall’s is a cautionary tale Autograph Men tell each other. It is meant to horrify any atheist dealer who buys to sell and aims to make a living, for Goodall was a religious man, religious about fame. He believed in the aura it creates, in the tinny, cheap, reflected light it shines out. Once Goodall and his life’s work had horrified Alex. Now he found himself intensely moved by them.

  A cowboy shirt, with inlaid gems on each cuff, went under the hammer. The wife sighed. She laid her head on her husband’s shoulder. He drew her into the arch of his arm and kissed her left temple. Almost as one, the boy and girl turned and tugged at their father’s trousers, and Alex watched with alarm as the father gathered them in too. Now they were like the last family after the Flood, teetering on this hump of earth, watching the waters rise, giving up on the dove. Of all the goyish . . . thought Alex. Yet more and more these days he wondered whether Goodall wasn’t the purest Autograph Man who’d ever lived.

  2.

  They took their lunch break in an Italian place on the corner, Dante’s, a real old-fashioned caff. The tables with red-and-white-checked cloths. The big Chianti bottles dripping wax. Lovelear ordered no food, three whiskies and a corked Beaujolais. Of this, he poured out three half-pint glasses.

  “It’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” said Alex, looking at his watch.

  Lovelear clapped his hands. “He walks! He drinks liquids! He tells the time! Al, can you do the tying-shoelace thing next? Can you, please? For little ol’ me?”

  “Look. I’m just thinking about . . . you know, Ian?”

  Lovelear thumped Ian on the back. “Ian’s fine. Ian’s just dandy, aren’t you, Ian? Alex, it’s like this: if you want a car fixed you go to a mechanic, if you want to know Christ, you go to a Catholic, and if you want to see how much can be drunk in thirty minutes, you go to an alcoholic. We are very fortunate to have sitting with us today Ian Dove. Ian Dove is a professional—”

  “Pisshead,” said Ian Dove, sadly.

  Lovelear drew the three glasses into triangular formation in the middle of the table. “Gentlemen?” he said in his best Brideshead Revisited voice. “Shall we?”

  They drank. Soon enough, Kitty began to burn a hole in Alex’s bag. Several times he almost reached for her, holding himself back only with great difficulty. Everything Alex had ever shown Lovelear, Lovelear had maintained to be a forgery, just for the hell of it. This time, he would not give him the satisfaction. He would not be demeaned, not today. Instead he sank his pint of wine and led the cry for more. Through purple lips, the three of them swiftly itemized the best all-time musicals, the greatest Hollywood scandal, largest cast, biggest breasts, earliest nude scenes, most infamous suicides.

  “Okay, okay, okay: name three vintage Hollywood decapitations,” said Lovelear, placing three new whisky shots on the table.

  The room had started to shimmy by the time John Baguley walked in, bow tie and everything. He went straight to the bar, but Alex knew he had seen them. The more successful Baguley got, the longer the period between Baguley spotting you and Baguley acknowledging you.

  “Jayne Mansfield,” said Dove.

  “Ding!” said Lovelear.

  Alex beg
an to pick wax off their bottle. Maybe he could show the thing to Baguley? Baguley knew his onions, after all! Baguley could verify, Baguley would see the truth! It would have to be done subtly, though. Lovelear didn’t roll with the idea that Baguley knew more onions than Lovelear. Also, probably best not to bring up right now, thought Alex carefully, unconsciously moving his lips, not now when I’m a bit tight. That might make me look crazy. Alex watched the room rock some more, and then roll. One and a half Baguleys stood at the bar, ordering a ham sandwich. Alex considered the situation. On the one hand, Baguley definitely knew his onions. On the other, Lovelear hated Baguley. There was that onions issue. On the third hand, Ian also hated Baguley. Baguley made bad puns along the AA (Autograph Association / Alcoholics Anonymous) comic axis. Come to think of it, thought Alex, I hate Baguley, too. How’s that for a fourth hand! My God, I hate Baguley. I never realized how much! With his bow tie. Thin mustache. The bastard. And now he’s probably going to come over here. With his hat. Forfugssake. Who wears bastard hats like that, these days?

  “Grace Kelly?” said Alex, and stood up. He felt delicate. He tried to ascertain whether Baguley was intending on the back of the bar or their corner of it.

  “A point to Mr. Tandem. Mr. Dove and Mr. Tandem now have one each. Tiebreaker.”

  “I can’t think,” gurgled Dove, “too pissed. All right, wait. Um . . . God, er . . . Montgomery Clift?”

  “Baguley’s coming,” said Alex, as Baguley came.

  “Montgomery Clift, Dove? That was half his face. As far as I remember, he still had his freaking head when he finished Raintree—”

  “Baguley, shiddown,” said Alex as Baguley sat down. Alex was much, much drunker than he had hoped. With dread he watched Baguley take off his hat and put it on the table, the worst sort of bad luck in some countries.

  “Do you know,” said Baguley loudly, “what I’ve just successfully organized?”

  “Own funeral?”

  “Hullo, Lovelear. No, actually. A charity auction. A few nights ago. You boys should have come. We auctioned off character parts. In novels. Do you see? So you paid money and you got to be in this or that writer’s book. Your own personal fifteen minutes, you see. I’m a good sport, me—I paid three hundred pounds. Lady writer.”

  “What?” said Ian, who was, of course, tighter than all of them. “What’s he saying? Is it English? Bastard.”

  “Look at that tie, man,” said Lovelear, touching it. “What is that tie about? Like, what does it mean? Does it mean something?”

  “And the trouble is, I haven’t decided,” said Baguley, trying to concentrate on Alex-Li, the one he thought sober, “quite what I’d like to be in it, though. In the novel, I mean.”

  “Amateur Satanist?” said Lovelear.

  “Just a . . . like a . . . bastard?” offered Ian, and laughed a lot, dribbling wine down his chin.

  “It’s three, we’re late,” said Alex, smiling, looking at his watch. He almost didn’t want to go; he was enjoying himself. There are friends you have who are only good when drunk. But that, according to the Kabbalah of Alex-Li Tandem, is not entirely a bad thing.

  “Tandem . . . you’re getting real flashy with that timekeeping shtick,” said Lovelear in Brooklynese, before judiciously switching to Yeoldechristmascarolese. “My boy, I say you’re hired. We’ll take you on at two thrupp’ny bits a year, and I hope we ne’er regret it! And now—”

  Ian made a trumpet noise. Alex contributed a lackadaisical drumroll.

  “Baguley,” said Lovelear, lurching forward, “it’s been real. But man . . . we seriously have to go now. We have to go watch you buy some more of Alex’s forgeries. Oh, sure—this auction is full of Tandem forgeries. That’s all he does all day. Forge, forge, forge and forge again. That’s why we don’t bid. We rise above. We are Zen. Basically. Baguley.”

  Ian tried to stand but staggered backwards. Alex laughed a lot through his nose.

  “You know what you should ask for?” said Ian to Baguley as Baguley made to leave. “You should ask that the writer lady makes you this bloke in the book who organizes an auction and then buys his place in, er . . . wait—no, yeah, in a book as a character who organizes an auction and then buys his place in a book and asks . . .”

  For this little Jewish gem, Alex bought Ian two more pints.

  WHEN THEY RETURNED, they were sincerely drunk in a melancholy way. Beneath the stark lights they rubbed their eyes like children. The popular movie actor George Sanders was under the hammer. A thousand pounds for the 1972 suicide note in which he insisted he was too bored to continue.

  “I empathize,” said Lovelear, stretching.

  “A bird went in search of a cage,” murmured Alex.

  “Jesus. What asshole said that?”

  “Remember the scene, Lovelear,” said Ian, tugging at his sleeve, “in All About Eve, when—”

  “Sure,” said Lovelear, batting him off.

  They sat, they bid, but it was not their day. Bored, Alex looked around. Young burly lads in blue uniforms were heaving in pieces meant for a later auction. Statues, tables, gold things. It was easy to forget, when one was an Autograph Man, that names on paper are the very least of what is traded and shifted round the world. Autographs are a small blip in the desire network, historical flotsam. But look at this stuff, the big stuff. These cast-iron dogs with best paw forward. Bronze eagles drawing in their wings, preparing to land. Life-sized marble Negroes, jolly and docile, holding by the paws the result of somebody else’s hunt. And like a border running round it all, many many cold fireplaces ripped from great houses, laid on their sides and overlapping each other, fallen dominoes of the gods. And a moose. Towards the back. Stuffed, standing. Behind it, leaning on its threadbare hindquarters, Alex now spotted Brian Duchamp. A second later, Lovelear had spotted him too.

  “Ai yai yai—I knew this auction was going to get worse before it got better. Dove, wake up, man. Look who it is.”

  Dove unfurled like the doormouse.

  “Bloody hell. Do you think he’s going to go for it, again?”

  Alex wiped his glasses on his mohair.

  “I ’spect so. He is still mad. I mean, unless you’ve heard something.”

  “Hey, Al, I’ll tell him to come over here, no?”

  Alex thumped Lovelear in his right breast.

  “Jesus, I see him every Thursday anyway—I don’t need to see him more than that.”

  “But don’t you want him to like come over here”—Lovelear did a stationary approximation of waddling with his upper body—“you know, and then like sit down next to you”—Lovelear slunk down into his seat until he was the sitting height of Duchamp, who stood at around five foot four—“and then put his face real close to your face, and open his mouth wide and say—”

  Here Lovelear said hello as a Cockney gremlin might say it, an accurate reproduction of Duchamp. He was not able to reproduce the halitosis, however, which was so acute it probably could not be reproduced in a laboratory.

  Brian Duchamp. He of the filthy shirts, the loneliness, the isolated debt-ridden stall (from which, in his madness, he occasionally tried to sell Alex items from his own house: toilet roll holders, lampshades), the supermarket sneakers, skin issues, bad breath.

  “What’s he doing?” asked Lovelear.

  Alex observed.

  “Preparing.”

  Out of his bag Duchamp was pulling a clipboard, several pens, some catalogues and a number of stray bits of paper, balancing them on the moose. He unfolded a pair of bifocals and thrust them as far up the bridge of his nose as possible, the result being a tremendous and terrifying magnification of milky, mad eyes.

  “Oi-oi, look out,” said Ian. “Curtain up.”

  “We begin the bid at twenty pounds, twenty pounds, do I have any takers at twenty?”

  The auctioneer was gesturing toward a pretty picture of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in what thirties Hollywood imagined the young people of Austria were wearing at the time (lederhosen,
velvet collars, pigtails with wire through them, cowbells). There were takers at twenty, forty, sixty and eighty, and then there was Brian Duchamp. He surged forward, shouting.

  “I’ll give you for’ee!”

  “Pardon me, sir—are you bidding?”

  “For’ee!”

  “Forty, sir? I’m afraid the bid is already at eighty.”

  “I’ll give yer,” said Duchamp, quieter now, and drowned out by what the newsreaders like to call general consternation, “for’ee pence and a slap—cos that’s how much it’s worth. Cos it ain’t bloody real!”

  “Brian,” said Alex as Duchamp came level with their row of chairs, “Brian, for God’s sake, sit down. Come here. Come on, come here.”

  He stood up and made a grab for Duchamp, who cursed him like a sailor and stumbled; Lovelear and Ian wrestled him into a seat.

  “Tandem? I see you Thursdays, not today. Thursday’s when I see you.”

  Alex marveled at this ability of madness to be completely beside the point. He pressed Duchamp’s shaky hands onto his knees.

  “They won’t let you back in, Brian, if you do this again. They threw you out last time, didn’t they?”

  Duchamp brought a handkerchief to his mouth and hacked something unspeakable into it. He fixed his sad, low-watt bulbs on Alex.

  “These bloody experts, Tandem. But they don’t know nothing! Barely out of fahkin’ short pants and they don’t know nothing!”

  A miniature bottle of whisky fell from Brian’s pocket to the floor. He lunged after it. There was a mauve tinge to Brian’s skin. He smelt terrible.

 
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