It's been a bit since I've posted, since I've been working on some things I hope you'll see soon in other spaces, but another item arrived in the mail that I had to share. It used to be I'd get excited about galleys of big books that arrived months ahead of pub date; now a big day for me is when some semi-obscure out-of-print book with a great backstory I've ordered shows up in the mail, and this week's was a good one: Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell. Enjoy the front and back covers:
You may know the story behind this goof of a "memoir": it was written by none other than the great brooding Bronxian himself, Don DeLillo (in collaboration with a former ad-agency colleague named Sue Buck), and disowned by its author, who had it removed from his list of published works and apparently has never officially acknowledged his paternity. I had always been fascinated by the idea of the book, and when I was recently reminded of it by my fellow bibliophile Dallas (who also turned me on to No Big Deal), I realized there was no reason I couldn't get a copy for myself, if only for the pleasure of filing it in the "D"s next to Americana.
I haven't had a chance to read much yet, but here's how it starts:
If a man's name sounds right whether you say it forward or backward, it means he went to Yale.
Sanders Meade, class of '67, was the Rangers' general manager when I made my first appearance under the smoky lights. Sanders's job was to wear plaid double-knit pants and a leisure-suit jacket with his shirt open at the top and the shirt collar worn outside the jacket. That's all you have to know about him, excepting his surprising prowess the time we hopped into bed during the snows in southern Ontario. I couldn't tell you why I wanted Sanders. He was the absolute antithesis.
Oh, I can't tell you how it lightens my heart to see DeLillo, who increasingly seems to be carrying the weight of history and consciousness on his slim, aging back, messing around like this!
A few years back Gerald Howard (once DeLillo's editor) told what appears to be the most complete story of its publication out there, and it's a good one: rejected by Knopf when DeLillo submitted it under his own name, he published it as "Cleo" with another publisher and after a spirited publicity stunt involving the lady on the back cover above it became "by far" his top-selling novel until White Noise five years later (in which, by the way, the cultural-id-channelling character Murray Jay Suskind, first introduced in Amazons, memorably reappears).
Is it just a novelty I can stick on my shelf and laugh about? I think it's more than that. Dallas, in a 1998 article in Notes in Contemporary Literature (sorry--it's not online, so you'll have to look it up in your library unless you can get Dallas to send you a xerox too) that may well have been the most thorough discussion of its authorship until Howard's, argued it "should be considered a legitimate part of his oeuvre," and I certainly agree. Published between Running Dog and The Names, just before DeLillo hit his midcareer peak with White Noise, Libra, and Underworld, it seems a crucial element in his development, and only more so (don't you agree, Dr. Freud?) because DeLillo has tried so hard to suppress it from his identity. I rather expect that when that first, mammoth biography of the man comes out in 2035 or so, the Amazons interlude is going to be given its own chapter.
I've always been struck by the moment in his career DeLillo describes in his Paris Review interview, when he was writing The Names (soon after, one assumes, finishing Amazons), and, inspired in part by the "clear light of the Aegean Islands" and the gravity of the "letters carved on stones all over Athens," he approached his writing with a new, "deeper level of seriousness." "Some of the work I did in the 1970s," he says, "was off-the-cuff, not powerfully motivated. I think I forced my way into a couple of books that weren’t begging to be written, or maybe I was writing too fast." Since Amazons was the last book he had written at that point, and the one that he has since disowned, you can't help but think it's at least part of what he had in mind, the sort of unmotivated, unserious goof that he wanted to leave behind.
I've always looked at that moment as a powerful and important one, since he did go on soon after to write the wonderful (and yes, deeply serious) books (Libra is my favorite) that made him such an exciting force in our literature. But thinking of the austere, portentious novelist he's become since (I confess that I'm making that judgment mostly second-hand, since after the terrible Cosmopolis I've lost my heart for keeping up with him), seeing a joyously inventive book like Amazons (well, maybe it wasn't joyous for him--in fact, it sounds like it wasn't) is a refreshing reminder of a loose and playful side to DeLillo that he has, for better or worse, outgrown. I've already explained here that I'm not an author completist, so it may not surprise you (though it still surprises me) that I've never actually gone back and read any pre-Names DeLillo, the books like Americana, End Zone, and Great Jones Street that he has since distanced himself from (calling them "hasty" and "shaggy") almost as much as he has from Amazons. But now I want to: whether I start with Amazons or go even further back, I think they could be a tonic. And they might be for him too.