Who Reads Salman Rushdie Any More ?

A story by Martin Tucker

"Nobody reads Salman Rushdie any more, and you know he's moved to New York," I said at the dinner party in Jessica Marvellous's duplex apartment. She is one of the hot agents in New York, and I hadn't been invited to a party like this in two years, not even a soiree since my last two books plummeted. (At a soiree you get less food.)

"How do you know that?" some unknown wise-ass asked.

"His new book appeared last year and I didn't know about it till yesterday at Barnes & Noble when I saw it on the Sale table. I keep up with things."

"I knew about it," Jessica said, then paused. "Sadly, you're right. The sales are disappointing. And yes, it is ironic the new book didn't take off. It's all about New York." "New York and its Furies," I said, to convince doubters at the table I had read it. Particularly my date who had taken me to the party. To be honest, it was Elaine who was invited, but Jessica hadn't objected--not strenuously anyway--when Elaine asked if I could come along with her. Years ago it would have been different. I was invited to every smart party in town. Could the same thing be happening to Rushdie after all his celebrity/notoriety? One of the women at the table--what is her name?--one of those bright young first novelists The Times liked once--but she's not produced a second book in three years--coughed. Everyone was waiting for the mot. I hoped it would be more mauvais than bon. All she said finally was "Yes."

"Yes, but what?" Taylor asked. He is an editor, so I guess he can heckle. "Well, with the fatwa everyone was talking about him and wanted him at their dinner parties," Gloria (that is her name, now I remembered) was speaking up at last.

"Now the fatwa's lifted, and no one's talking about him. No one is inviting him to dinner parties except out of courtesy. Poor Rushdie. He loves parties, and he's missed out on them for years."

"Number one," Taylor said in his annoying editor's voice. "The fatwa hasn't been lifted. It's just been rolled under the mat--no one's being encouraged to fulfill it, or rather everyone's been discouraged to take it on. And the reward has been edited out. That makes a difference--a two million dollar one."

"You seem to know everything," Gloria replied.

"Yes, Taylor," Daphne, the beauty at the end of the table, commented. She was married to an Indian businessman who owned major shares in the company that published his wife's romance novels. I guess she had to defend both Rushdie and sisterhood in the form of glorious Gloria. "You should listen more carefully, Taylor. Gloria was being subtly ompassionate."

"Openly so," Gloria edited her. "When I am passionate I am open about it. Completely."

"Of course, darling," Anjana said. She was a bonafide Indian beauty, and she had just published a best-seller in the States about street conditions in modern Bombay. Mumbai, she called it in her book, emphasizing the old name for the new reader. Jessica is her agent. "Taylor is not showing concern. Anyone can still assasinate Salman. For a song instead of a fortune, but I don't think that matters to dear Salman."

"What did you think of the book?" Jessica has asked me, without any time for me to prepare my thoughts.

"It's not his strongest," I answered. "It's called Fury, all about the fury of living in the world's great new empire city. The wildness of New York, but it's the tamest book Rushdie has written. So far. Almost stately in its contrivances. You know, you see the scenery moving rather than the actors flowing. No, being pushed. The plot's being pushed. You see it. Or maybe, it's that the scenery of the book--the inner scenery--stays
still, it's not moving, I mean."

"Not bad," Jessica judged my answer. I know I haven't convinced her but I think at least she's not unconvinced. I've planted doubt, and at a dinner party that is a growth factor.

"I liked it," Anjana said firmly. "He caught New York even if he laid it down heavy."

"I admit he's still great on the social awareness side and his puns still make one groan in admission of his linguistic talents." I was punctuating the room like a pundit.

"And his mimickry of street talk is terrific," I further granted. "There's no tongue like his tongue," I said, looking down on the tongue dish at Jessica's table. "But this novel is predictable. He was never that before."

"I learned a great deal of new things from the book--about Mumbai and New York and London, and human nature wherever," Gloria asserted. Her voice was always stronger with me than with Taylor, I thought.

"He has insights no one else has," Anjana added. "And the connections he makes. It's weird--the things he puts together. Weird only because you would never think it possible to connect them, and then you fight his true cleverness with disparate things and then you accept them. All part of his genius. That's what he was doing when they put the fatwa on him. He was searching for religion in that book. He's a boy, you know, in search of a creed, but he's too smart for all the priests, ministers, rabbis and even the Ghandi's."

"Indira or Mohatma?" I said, to be smart. Attention was starting to stray from me. Anjana turned to me, her pretty black eye softly chastizing. Young Indian beauties have this softness that drives me crazy. Rushdie wrote about it, and compared it to ... what? A million things I can't remember. Why should Rushdie continue to have every beauty in town defend him? His connections weren't that brilliant. I remembered from Fury one that was just smart, not profound. He compared a summer's day, or a sunset actually, to a Broadway flop--it closed early. HaHa. Besides, I was good at analogies, metaphors, synedoches too. Also, similies My date was giving me a dirty look. I guess from Elaine's point of view I was misbehaving and stepping into her territory as well. Jessica was her agent again-Elaine finally had a marketable manuscript after five tries. Still, Elaine's lack of regard for my wit wasn't enough of a deterrent to keep me silent. I was--well, I was annoyed with the table, the guests, the whole evening. I'll show them, I thought, I'll show Rushdie up to show up me.

"I read Fury last week." I punctuated the date with the emphasis of primaries-in New York it's not only important to do something, it's equally important to be among the first to do it.. "I agree the great Indian man can swing. He does make astute observations in both the most common and the most arcane of situations. And he proves a writer can write about anything if he's serious enough. For instance, he spent nearly a chapter --well, maybe, only half of one--on cultural attitudes to blow jobs."

"Richard!" Elaine was yelling at me.

"All right," I said, "it was only American and British attitudes to women and blow jobs. Rushdie is permissive but he's basically heterosexual."

"I wish you'd stop," Daphne said. Everyone turned silent.

"No," Jessica said, "let him continue. He's determined to get on with his monologue. Please make a fool of yourself briefly."

"I'm serious," I said, my voice not so convincing to myself. Then I got really annoyed. Angry. I had a right to talk about blow jobs. This was a free country. Rushdie could write a whole chapter about the subject--okay, half a chapter--and I couldn't talk about it at a Manhattan dinner party?

"Why only English and American attitudes?" Taylor asked in that supercilious editor's tone. "Rushdie is supposed to be ominicultural."

"You start small," I said without thinking. I giggled. Silence again. "Well, he did write it. It's on page... I don't know the exact pages."

"I'm surprised you haven't dog-eared them," Jessica said.

So much for my acquiring a new, good, hot agent.

"What did he say?" Anjana, the soft angel, softly inquired. Thank God for the peacemakers like Anjana. India, the world, needs them.

"He said there's vast cultural differences between them," I answered. "The English believe a blow job comes after missionary sexual penetration. For them it's the most intimate dessert of all, the final release and commitment. For Americans, particularly teenagers, it's the beginning of no sex. The substitution for it. A way of getting it off without its getting in. So one's still a virgin. Technically." I think I went on with my dissertation for five minutes. I was wound up. I summarized Rushdie's defense of Bill Clinton as a truth-sayer in his description of the Monica escapades. My audience was rapt around me--everyone was silently paying attention. Elaine glowered as she had been doing for the past fifteen minutes, but she no longer interrupted me. She had given me up.

No one applauded when I finished, but Jessica congratulated me on my extended performance. Anjana embraced me--like a lost brother, or sister, a brother she had lost to an outcast sect. No matter, her eyes were soft, her arms firm, her hand tactile around my waist as I felt her rub against my dinner jacket. Daphne came by too, she who had insulted me earlier. She said I had the courage to speak my piece. She blushed but touched my side and smiled. Even a woman whose name I don't remember--she was at the other, distant side of Jessica's long table-said goodnight in a meaningful way as she pressed my hand.

Elaine of course was a different matter. She was going to let me know just how annoyed she was with me. When the taxi reached her door she told me to not bother coming up, to not bother phoning her again, to not bother bothering her but please to bother remembering all the bothers she had just told me. "Okay," I said, not bothering to open the taxi door.

I got out of the taxi after Elaine exited into her apartment building. I walked back to my apartment, stopping off at bars at each corner--all right, I plead guilty to a hyperbole, it was several bars at several corners. It was still early, not much after one a.m. It was three on my radium clock when I slid into my bed--I couldn't help noticing the bothersome figures. I couldn't be bothered to hang up my clothes. I threw off my jacket, threw off my pants, threw my shirt on the floor. I kept my underwear on.

In the morning--afternoon if you want to be pedantic--I woke up with a bothersome, really bothersome headache. I knew it would go away, time takes care of everything, I said. By evening I was able to put my clothes away. I put the shirt and pants in the bathroom hamper--wine and gravy had etched their memory on them. I checked the pockets of my jacket before putting it in the go-to-the-cleaners heap I keep by my bedside. In the pockets I found three cards--no, two business cards and one stick-em note. One of the cards was from Daphne, one was from the unknown woman at the other end of the table (her name was Claudia Bucker, an agent-- I had read about her in Page 6 of The New York Post but didn't know what she looked like, otherwise I would have introduced myself at the party); the stick-em note (violet and scented) was from Anjana. Each had written down her phone number.

Each of them (Daphne, Claudia, Anjana) must have put each of them (business card, business card, stick-em paper) in my jacket when each of them said goodnight to me last night. (When I am recovering from a hangover I speak distinctly to be sure I lose nothing in the translation of a headache or the roar of a throbbing). Each of them had not only listened to my assessment of Salman Rushdie, each had found my argument worth pursing. I write this now, with Claudia Bucker as my loyal agent, and Daphne as my good friend. Anjana has become a dear colleague--our relationship is Platonic, those soft black eyes remaining virginally compassionate when it comes to her views on me. I like it that way. We talk a lot about writing and Rushdie--the brilliance of his perceptions, the depth of his wit. And his problems. And his wide-ranging attitudes, his startling juxtapositions. Yes, Rushdie has shown me how to make new connections. I appreciate him as a teacher--a force who has inspired me to forge forward to the discovery of unexpected friends.

Someday I would like to meet him and tell him my happy story.