I work near Park Avenue in the 70s, and I walk past the service entrances of several fine apartment buildings between the office and the subway. In one building, either an old tenant or the tenant’s maid put out a box of unwanted books. This was not the usual trashy stuff; I’ve bought no books to read for pleasure this summer, my selection from the box sufficed. First, a truly compelling book about the French idea of the Vichy Republic, and how it was used as political collateral in the following 30 years. I didn’t study much French history in college, but every five pages or so there was some truly outrageous quote from DeGaulle that made my jaw drop. Next, an exhaustive biography of Walter Winchell by Neal Gabler, that also charted the rise of the cult of celebrity. Third, Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale”- did any kind of editor go near this in manuscript? They should have been fired. It’s an interesting story, some of it. But it’s full of inconsistencies, and so overwritten, and the one relationship that you are pretty much promised you’ll see resolved by the end if you keep reading, isn’t. It was all I could do not to throw it at the all.
But the fourth from the cardboard box, I liked. “A Nearly Normal Life” by Charles L. Mee, is about his battle with polio at the age of 14. He nearly died, lost his faith, and left the Midwest to go to Harvard, and pretty much didn’t go back. There is almost nothing about his playwriting, though you can see given this background what led him to playwriting. He writes about his incredibly emotionally intense relationship with books and reading, which I share. Mee also writes about growing up in Illinois, and recognizing as a young adult that while life there was familiar enough to him, he really didn’t belong there at all. That there is, as Erik Erikson wrote, the “once-born” and the “twice-born.” The “twice-born” are those like Mee and myself who see the adult world where they grew up and go “I can’t be here, I need to be somewhere else to thrive.”
I like Mee’s plays okay: “Vienna: Lusthaus,” “bobrauschenbergamerica,” “Iphigenia 2.0,” and “Hotel Cassiopeia” (about Joseph Cornell) are the ones I’ve seen. I actually didn’t remember that Mee wrote “Vienna: Lusthaus” until I looked at his website. I spent an hour one hot day in July looking for the Lusthaus in the Prater Park in Vienna. Never found it, though I did see a carousel with four real ponies which was pretty great. What I really like are Mee’s essays on playwriting and theatre- there was a fantastic one in American Theatre a few years ago, which I saved. His aesthetic really speaks to me. As do parts of “A Nearly Normal Life.” I’m going to give my copy to my sister, who’s another “twice-born.”