Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Killing John Updike" by Augusten Burroughs, "Possible Side Effects", St. Martins Press

SPEAKING OF JOHN UPDIKE SIGNING ALL MY UPDIKE 1ST EDITION HARDCOVER BOOKS in 1998 - even his early work and the universally acclaimed Rabbit Run teratology (!) ? Well, fast-forward two years…and now I’m deeper into collecting signed first editions, which are worth substantially more immediately after the author DIES. Which is morbid but true, almost natural…not to mention lucrative for the living. SO.000000ooooooooooooooooo…. Augusten Burroughs and I wrote this little essay together - he wrote 90% of it, i added the inhuman bits.

it’s a true account of one night a few years ago…when we were ALL still drinking. The essay, Killing John Updike, appears in his book, POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS , which is screamingly funny. All need to read DRY and MAGICAL THINKING as well. he somehow manages to be funnier than David Sedaris.

“Killing John Updike’
by Augusten Burroughs, from Possible Side Effects", St Martins Press

Tonight, my lunatic writer friend, Suzanne, worked me into a frenzy. “Baby,” she said, “John Updike is pushing eighty! He could die at any moment. Buy his first editions, NOW.” She was calling from California -land of the vineyards- and her voice contained a Chardonnay edge. “I don't know,” I said. First editions are expensive. Did I really want to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a book I couldn't even read, because it had to remain perfect? “I'm telling you, this man could drop dead any minute,” she said. “And he's the most famous writer in the world. My God. Whatever you buy will double, triple in value. Possibly overnight. BUY NOW!” Now that was an interesting point. If Updike died tonight, my two hundred dollars could be worth four hundred dollars tomorrow. I could stick his book on eBay, and with the profit, I could buy a slew of novels at Barnes and Noble. I would pre-order whatever Elizabeth Berg had coming out. I would buy every Joyce Carol Oates, because it's time to read her. Or maybe only every fifth book of hers. I would buy multiple copies of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss in paperback and give them as gifts. Maybe she was right. So I went online and found a bunch of Updikes. But they were horrifyingly expensive. One of them was two thousand dollars. And he wasn't even dead yet. Some of them were signed, which made them much more valuable. But the fucker could still sign. If you forced him to sign, put a pen in his hand and a gun to his head, he could still sign his name. So imagine how much these would be worth when he could no longer sign at all, even at gunpoint, due to death. If I was going to spend two thousand dollars on a book about a rabbit, that old man better well be dead soon, or I was going to be furious. I selected a signed first edition from the list. A moderate first, in the five hundred dollar price range. Then I emailed Suzanne back. “Okay, baby. DONE. Bought Updike. Now what?” She wrote back immediately. “FANTASTIC. XOXOXOXOX. BUY MORE NOW. I JUST HAVE A FEELING. I KNOW THESE THINGS.” She was crazy, and tonight she was crazed. We allowed that since she and I had both been published through sheer greed and willpower, surely we could do this one little...coup. Using just our minds. Finnamore has been collecting Updike first editions since she was 14. When she published Otherwise Engaged with Knopf, John Updike, who’s been with Knopf since he was born, had very kindly signed them all and shipped them back to her in California. “It’s ironic,” she wrote, “Because his innate generosity and kindness in the past, now makes him doubly worth killing.” It was uncanny. She seemed certain of the great novelist's impending death. Was there even a remote possibility that she would have something to do with it? If so, was it wrong of me to then buy these first editions? The last thing I wanted was to get myself involved in some sort of “insider trading” nightmare. Then she sent another email. “The thing is, I worship John Updike. I'd crumple from awe if I saw him alive and in person. I think he is the greatest male writer of the twentieth century. I would drink his bath water and shine his little Yankee shoes. But I still hoard those first edition as though they were a very life insurance policy on the man, and I am his nineteen-year-old wife. It's just awful. I blame money and the fact of its usefulness in every single situation except death.” And I was the same way, just as hateful and greedy. So couldn't I buy more? It wasn't like I was throwing money away on particleboard nightstands at Wal-Mart. These were enduring classics. In Extra, Extra Fine condition, no rips, stains or price clips. So I went back online and bought two more books. Now, I had purchased three books which cost me more money than some people spend on their first cars. I emailed Suzanne. “Okay, now I'm broke. I bought two more, so have three. He better die.” She said, “Okay, let's do it. Let's kill him.” I said, “Okay. How?” She said, “Let's constantly think of him as dying. Let's concentrate very hard. And in the morning, we'll watch CNN. I bet you anything they'll announce that he died in his sleep. And nobody will be able to trace it to us. Because who even knows where he lives, and we're all the way over here, where we live.” Suzanne is a diabolical genius, which is why I adore her. She then said “BUY SIGNED FIRST EDITIONS OR NOT AT ALL. Check out ALIBRIS.COM AND POWELL’S.” So for the remainder of the night, we exchanged emails. I bought Couples. $495 signed by author, with light wear to dust jacket. She wrote: "HE'LL BE DEAD BY MORNING. “How do you think he'll die?” I wrote. “Do you think he might choke? I could see him choking. I was just looking at a picture of his neck and he has a slender, graceful neck. The perfect neck for a corn chip to get lodged in. I bet he chokes.” She wrote back, “Maybe. But I’m thinking stroke. Flip a switch, nothing. He's gone. Clean and simple. In his sleep. He is the greatest living American writer so we can't have him suffer. At least not very much.” She was right. Whatever killed him, had to kill him fast. And then I realized: someday, this will be me. Some horrible, selfish, greedy bald writer will buy my early books online and then will await my immediate demise. In fact, it was probably happening right this very minute. I decided to check. I'd never looked up my own name on a used bookstore website before. It never occurred to me that I could be collectable, like a cup from Burger King. So I went back to the website where I bought the Updike books and typed in my own name. Running with Scissors. First edition. © 2002 Augusten Burroughs. St. Martin's Press, New York, New York. Memoir about author's unusual childhood. Unread. As new. In dust-wrappers. Signed on title page. $200.00. I was shocked. It was already happening. People were selling my books online, collecting them, waiting for me to relapse with alcohol and then die. I'd make Page Six, “Scissors Author Dead, apparent alcohol-overdose.” Then that two hundred dollar book would be worth four hundred, five hundred dollars. About the same price as a damaged Updike, non-dead. What else were people selling? I wondered. I decided to log onto eBay. There, I typed my name into the little box and hit, Search. A moment later, listings appeared. Books, books, books, and then MY WATCH. I looked at my computer screen in utter disbelief. I clicked on the link next to the Picture of the watch and was taken to a page. “Rolex GMT Master. Stainless Steel, black face. Watch worn for publicity during promotion of # 1 Bestselling book, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS. Watch appears on author's wrist in many magazine photographs, including ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, PEOPLE.” The ad gave the name of the seller. The name of the seller was my brother. I called him immediately. “What the fuck are you doing, you Ass Burger?” As usual, he was unmoved. “Huh? What are you talking about?” “I just saw my watch on eBay. What are you doing?” My brother said, “What do you mean, what am I doing? I'm selling the watch. You said you wanted me to sell it and you gave it to me to sell. So I'm selling it.” He was correct, of course. I had given him the watch to sell. I wanted to buy a new watch. One that was even flashier and more pretentious. Even though that watch was nearly new, I needed to sell it and use the money toward the purchase of one costing ten times as much. I had reached a point in my life and career where I was allowed one lavish, ridiculous thing. And I'd decided it had to be the flashiest watch Dennis would be seen next to me wearing. Which meant no diamonds, as I originally wanted, but lots of gold. So I'd given it to my brother, assuming he'd sell it to his friend, who owns a jewelry store. I never expected him to sell it on eBay. With all those…words. “Well, it's weird,” I said. “What's weird about it?” he asked. “We already have three bids.” The whole thing reeked of Billy Beer II. I recall in the nineteen seventies when Jimmy Carter was elected president, his trailer trash brother launched a line of beer. Billy Beer. Mortifying the president. Another thing came to mind: Demi Moore's mother posing nude, beaver flashing, for a porn magazine. But my brother thought there was nothing strange about selling my watch on eBay. “Look, you gave me the watch to sell. I'm selling it. You want me to take the ad down, I can take the ad down.” “No,” I said. “Keep it up. Sell it. Get rid of it.” My greed was far more powerful than my pride. I wanted my new watch. And then I had an idea. What if I gave him more stuff to sell? What else would people buy? Just how crazy were people, anyway? “Do you think people would buy other things?” I asked him. He didn't have to think about this for very long. “Oh, sure. People will buy all sorts of things. What else do you want to sell?” Well, hmm. I could sell my silver keychain. I hated it. It was worth maybe twenty-five cents. But would somebody pay fifty bucks for it? “Sure,” my brother said. “I bet somebody'd pay a hundred for it.” Shit. Maybe people would buy my empty Blenheim Ginger Ale bottles. If I packaged them in a tasteful brown cloth sack and said, “Blenheim Ginger Ale bottles -empty. Consumed by # 1 Bestselling Author Augusten Burroughs while writing essay collection. $ 1,000.” Maybe I could email my writer friend, Haven. We email every single day, all day, constantly. Perhaps I could gather together a dozen of our emails and sell these as a package. Say for three hundred dollars. Then I could send her half. And we could each go out to Red Lobster. I thought of John Updike. Surely when he dies, somebody will be riffling through his home, looking for things to sell. It was unlikely that his own children, if he had any, would sell his nail clippers, underwear or Chapstick. But certainly cousins would do this. Nieces and nephews would absolutely offer his pens, unused pads of paper, bookends for sale. Probably, other things. John Updike -legendary American author. For auction: Chair cushion, blue toile fabric. Cushion from desk chair, used daily by celebrated author. Distinctive impressions in pillow, from correlating anatomical features of author. Condition is described as 'well enjoyed.' Cushion manufactured circa 1940. Believed to be from Sears Roebuck & Co. This is an authentic piece of Americana, from the personal estate of one of the countries most famous and widely read authors. Truly a unique collectable. One of a kind. Minimum bid: $3,500.00 But that's what happens when you die. The vultures come. Sometimes, even before you die. Long before my grandmother passed away, her other vulture grandchildren carted Persian carpets, Ming Vases, expensive Italian fruitwood tables out of her house. They used vans, these cousins of mine. And they did this years before the woman was in a wheelchair and on a breathing machine, let alone dead. She had simply slowed down, is all. And there they were, greedy little hands outstretched, gimme, gimme, gimme. When my friend Pighead died, his mother had his entire apartment packed up, boxed and cleaned within twenty-four hours. She was asking, “Do you want that print?” And I told her, “That print, that you hate because it's of a naked man, is worth far more than this apartment. Maybe you better keep that for yourself.” Bitch, I didn't say. But wanted to. If one were to watch us from a great distance, with the sound off and in fast-motion, one would see an individual begin to limp, and then dozens of other individuals invade the territory of the infirm individual, carting away belongings, clinging near the deathbed, waiting. We were animals, true. But we were also like insects. And here I was, with my three new John Updike novels, checking the CNN homepage every five minutes for BREAKING NEWS. John Updike -dead at 76. Story to follow. Well, I decided, if he was dead by morning, there would be nobody to blame but me. If John Updike was dead when I woke up, then I had killed him with my hateful greed. Suzanne, too, would be guilty. But somehow, I was most guilty because I got the most excited. After all, she had merely suggested I buy his books. I'm the one who actually spent the money. That shows true pathology. If anybody deserved to die in his sleep tonight, or choke on a tortilla chip, it was me. I turned off my computer and climbed into bed. Dennis would be home in an hour. And he would find me in bed, as though sick I tucked into Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, which was swiftly proving to be the finest, most elegant book ever written. And then I thought, hey. Wait a fucking minute. And I got back out of bed and went back online. Where I found a first edition, signed. I clicked, ADD TO CART. And then I said out loud, “Okay, Ira. You're number's up.”


Blue Jeanie said...

I just read Possible Side Effects and I have to ask; did you or Augusten end up selling any of your first edition Updikes?

Robert Stone said...

He kneels to comply. Annoyed at such ready compliance, which implies pleasure, she stiffens her feet and kicks so her toenails stab his cheek, dangerously near his eyes.He pins her ankles to continue his kissing. Slightly doughy, matronly ankles. Green veins on her insteps. Nice remembered locker room taste. Cheap vanilla.