The Poet’s Funeral: A Guy Mallon Mystery #1

The Poet’s Funeral: A Guy Mallon Mystery #1

At the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association Convention, everything goes wrong. Julia Child's cooking demonstration in the Random House aisle blows up and catches fire. A top New ...

About The Author

John M Daniel

John M. Daniel lived in Santa Barbara, California for 20 years, where he and his wife, Susan, owned (and were ...

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I had a small used bookshop in downtown Santa Barbara when I first met her. I got into that business mostly by accident, having collected first editions of post-WWII American poetry all through college and then through my twenties and early thirties, working for a big bookstore in Palo Alto. By the time I got tired of the traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had acquired enough books to constitute a fine collection. Perhaps the best private, individually owned collection in the country, although Lawrence Holgerson would no doubt dispute that claim.

I quit working for the Palo Alto Bookshop, a job I’d had too long anyway, and packed all my books into a U-Haul trailer and pulled them out onto the road. My plan was to drive south to Los Angeles, where I had a few friends. I never made it that far because my car threw a rod in Santa Barbara and I had to stay there for a few days. I found a third-floor walk-up room in the Schooner Inn, a cheap hotel on lower State Street.

It was February 1977, and the weather was gorgeous. I spent the first day out on East Beach, where everyone was naked, including myself. The second day I walked around town and knew I’d found the city I was meant to live in, a place of red tiles, blue skies, erect birds of paradise, and cascading bougainvillea.

On the third day, I stumbled onto one of the three major finds of my life among books, the Santa Barbara Used Book Factory, a hippie store in an old Spanish courtyard on a side street lined with skirted palms. I never pass up a bookstore, and the sign in the window said: “Going Out of Business. ALL BOOKS  ON  SALE.”

I walked through the door and went straight to the front counter, where a tall young bushy-haired man was staring dreamily into space, plucking a nonexistent guitar.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hey.”

“You got a stepladder I can use?” “What for?”

“I’d like to browse your stock.” “Be my guest,” he said. He smiled at the ceiling and continued playing guitar riffs in the air.

“I need something to stand on,” I persisted. “I’m only five feet tall.”

He shrugged. “Plenty of books on the lower shelves,” he informed me.

“Can I see your guitar?” I asked. “Huh?”

I held out my hands. “I play a bit myself,” I said. “Lemme see your axe.”

He gave me a quizzical smile and held out the pantomimed instrument. I took it carefully, looked it over, and said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll play a few tunes while you go get me a stepping stool.”

The dude nodded and grinned. “Whatever, my man. Oh, I got an open tuning on that. If you want to change it, feel free.” Bobbing his mop, he shuffled off to the back of the store. He returned a few minutes later with a small stepladder. I thanked him as we made the exchange.

I poked around in that store for two hours, moving my stool from aisle to aisle, picking up a few books and then putting them back, reminding myself I had enough books in my life, and then, misshelved in the European History section, on a top shelf, I came across a copy of Jack Kerouac’s first book, Lost in the Old Country, a self-published collection of poems, which Jack had inscribed to Allen Ginsberg, with the title poem hand-written by Jack on the front flyleaf.

Lawrence Holgerson had told me about this Holy Grail of a book. Ginsberg himself was offering a small fortune to anyone who could find it. Holgerson was prepared to match his offer. I put the book back in its hiding place, went up to the front counter, and asked the young man if I could speak with the

owner of the store.

“Go right ahead,” he told me with a bow. “You own this business?”

“It owns me.”

“How much you want for it? The business, I mean, including all the inventory.”

He named a figure that was slightly less than I had in my bank account and in the world, and I got out my checkbook.

That was the beginning of Guy Mallon Books. I did all the necessary things: business license, DBA, State Board of Equalization, bank account, liability insurance, Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau. I paid for a month’s rent at the Schooner Inn. I was set: thirty-five years old and in business for myself. I was lonely, but I knew that in time I’d make friends. I was also horny, but that was nothing new. Most important, I was in business, and I was glad to have a permanent home for my first editions, which had spent too much time in a trailer.

I auctioned off the Kerouac autograph quickly—Holgerson outbid Ginsberg—before I got too fond of it, and I was funded. Then I started cataloging my collection and bought a year’s worth of ads in Antiquarian Bookman.

The front room was full of the previous owner’s inventory, the usual second-hand bookstore staples, mostly crap, and the back room had my trailerful of poetry firsts. Over the next three years I improved the front room until it could pay for itself—the rent and my one employee, who dusted the shelves and ran the cash register.

And she, my employee, who joined me in early 1980, was the second great find of my life in the book business.

She walked in off the street one bright, warm winter day, this knockout lovely young Asian-American woman (actually, we said “Oriental” back then). She was short (not as short as me, but who is?), and she wore sandals and cut-offs and a UCSB tee shirt, and her hair flowed like black liquid satin over her forehead, beside her cheeks, around her shoulders, and down her back. She flashed me a sassy smile and told me she had come to pick up some books for her boss, Arthur Summers.

Yes, the Arthur Summers. By that time he was one of my best customers. He was also a former Yale Younger Poet (that would have been decades ago) and the Chairman of the English Department at UCSB and had won the Bollinger Prize earlier that year. And, knowing of his reputation as an aging Lord Byron and having enjoyed the steamy sensuality of his verse, I was not surprised to learn that he had an assistant as lovely and lively as Heidi Yamada.

I took her into the back room and proceeded to fall in love with her.

I showed her the gems of my collection, the J.V. Cunning- ham, the Yvor Winters, the Janet Lewis, the Edgar Bowers, the Thom Gunn.…

“Thom Gunn?” she said. “Sounds like a cowboy star. Who’s this guy Winters? Is he related to Summers? What kind of a name is ‘Yvor’? Poets are a weird bunch, boy.”

“I’m boring you,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Boring? You’re not boring. These books are a bit moldy, but you…” She looked into my face and gave me the first of hundreds of glittering winks, each more glittering than the last.

“I what?”

“You ain’t boring, pal. Keep talking. Tell me about   poetry.

Or about anything else. Smile at me again. Hire me.” “Hire?”

“I’ll put Guy Mallon Books on the map. I promise. I can do it. Watch.” She spun around, flipping her long black hair, stretched out her slender arms and snapped her fingers and wiggled her shapely butt.

“What about Professor Summers?” I asked. “Don’t you work for him?”

“He’ll be glad to be rid of me,” she answered. “But you won’t,” she quickly added. “I mean you’ll be glad to have me. If you’ll take me. I’ve always wanted to work for a publisher.” She took my hand. “Let’s go across the street to the Paradise Cafe for lunch. We can discuss my salary and all the many things I’ll be doing for you.”

“I’m not a publisher,” I reminded her.

“Yet,” she said. “That’s one of the things I’ll be doing for you.”

# # #

I’ve heard it said that short men fall in love too easily. Affection from a woman, almost any woman, is taken as a miracle: that this beautiful woman, in spite of my height, thinks I’m grand, and I’d better take advantage of this gift because it doesn’t come along more than once in a lifetime and it makes me feel a foot taller, that kind of thing. I like to think I’m wiser than that. And so I’m careful. But here was Heidi Yamada making eyes at me, and I knew I had been careful too long.

Twelve hours later, in my room on the third floor of the Schooner Inn, between the second and third times we made love, Heidi Yamada propped herself onto one elbow and smiled down on my face. The golden candlelight made her face shine, her teeth glow, her eyes sparkle, her hair ripple with ebony luster. I held one breast while I stroked her arm, and the breast seemed to respond to my squeeze.

“Guy,” she said.

I kissed her shoulder.

“Guy, I want you to publish me.” “I’m not a publisher,” I reminded her.

“We can fix that,” she said. “I want you to publish a book of my poems. I don’t want any publisher but you. Guy Mallon Books, Publisher. Will you do it?”

Shine, glow, sparkle, ripple. Squeeze. “You’re a poet?” I asked.

“No, but I could be. It’s about time I did something with my life. I’m thirty years old, and I’ve been a professor’s assistant for almost ten years, ever since I was an undergraduate.”

“Have you ever written a poem?” I asked. “No, but how difficult can it be?”

I started to laugh, knowing all at once that for the first time in months if not years I was neither lonely nor horny.

“Huh,” she said. “You laughin’ at me, bucko?” “No, of course not.”

“So you’ll do it? You’ll publish me? You’ll make me a postwar American poet?”

“Sure. How difficult could that be?”

“Yes! Oh man, Professor Arthur Summers is going to shit a brick!”

She fell back and held my hand, and we both giggled at the ceiling until I started to get just a little bit horny again.

# # #

And that is how I became a publisher, and how Heidi Yamada became a poet. She wrote her first poem the next day, on the job, between sweeping the floor and counting out the change in the register before we opened the door. She brought it to the back room and handed it to me and watched me read it.

“Nice handwriting,” I commented. “Yeah? And?”

“Well…”

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“Maybe you need to warm up a little bit. This is your first poem ever, right?”

The smile left her lips. She nodded. “You said you’d publish my book,” she said.

“And I will,” I said. “This poem shows me you have a way with words, your images are arresting, you have an ear for language and an eye for detail, and before long you’ll be writing real poetry. Heidi, Babe Ruth didn’t hit a home run his first time at bat.”

“I have an ear for detail?” she asked. “Eye for detail. An ear for language.” “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Too much!” The smile had returned. “I’ll have a book of poems ready for you by the end of the week I promise.”

“Well—”

“As Thom Gunn would say, time’s a-wastin’, pardner.”

So she delivered a book-length manuscript in seven days. The handwriting was still beautiful, but unfortunately she wanted the book set in type.

I chose Caslon Old Style. She got to choose all the words, and she refused editing. She let me choose the font because I was the publisher.

Her publisher.

By the time the book came out in the fall of 1980, we were no longer lovers. When the book went back to press for a second printing, spring 1981, she quit the store to write full-time. She got Beatrice Knight to be her literary agent. The following year, spring 1982, Heidi’s second book was published by Charles Levin Books, an imprint of Random House. It was reviewed by Taylor Bingham for Newsweek and she got on the Carson show and made the cover of People.

By that time, Guy Mallon Books was publishing three other poets, real poets who wrote real poetry, including Arthur Summers.

# # #

We continued to grow through the 1980s. It got to where Guy Mallon books were being reviewed regularly by the major poetry journals, and we were packing up our wares every Memorial Day weekend and hauling them off to display them at the annual American Booksellers Association convention. The conventions gave me a chance to travel all over the country, but of course  I liked it best when they came west, which usually meant Los Angeles, Anaheim, or San Francisco.

# # #

Most of us in the business of literature pretended to be appalled that the American Booksellers Association had chosen Las Vegas for their convention in 1990. Was this what the nineties were going to be all about: schlock, insanity, waste, high risk, tits and ass? And then most of us winked and shrugged and said, well, that’s what New York publishing has become in the eighties anyway, so let the new decade roll. Viva Las Vegas.

Besides, the ABA convention, known simply as the ABA, whether it’s held in Chicago or Washington D.C. or New Orleans or San Francisco or Anaheim, is wilder and goofier than Las Vegas anyway. It’s a four-day roller-coaster of hard work and wild parties, wheeling and dealing, free books, free booze, literary celebrities to bump into (literally), deals to make, nonstop noise, lines to stand in for tasteless hotdogs, hospitality suites, shuttle-buses, hands to shake, backs to slap, a lot of standing around in utmost boredom until another friend walks by and you’re off for another beer, more shmooze, more noise, more party invitations, more lies and hype.…

Tell me again: why is it I love the ABA?

Carol, my partner, thinks the ABA sucks out loud, and of course she’s right. If you’re a bookseller you’re having a wonderful time wandering the aisles, gazing at the new season’s splendid goodies, catching sight of Stephen King or the Pillsbury Doughboy or Ed Meese or Barry Manilow, being treated like royalty by the publishers who want your business. But for those of us actually working the booths, it’s a lot more standing than walking, and the smiles get to feeling forced by eleven in the morning and there’s still at least twelve more hours of smiling before the day ends and you get to sleep a few hours to prepare for the next morning’s hangover and hard work.

Yet I love it.

So there we were, Carol and I, Friday afternoon before the show opened, setting up our booth. We had driven over from Santa Barbara that morning in a rented Ford station wagon, and by the time we got to the outskirts of Vegas, where a new casino was being hoisted, a version of Camelot built out of Lego Blocks, we were already hot and tired and cranky. Then for about three hours we’d been rolling our hand truck back and forth between the car and our booth at the Convention Center, then slaving under the fluorescent lights, which were turned up to nine. A boom box blared rock from our neighbors in the next booth, who were frantically fashioning a life-sized model of the Arc de Triomphe out of papier-mâché. The music, if that’s what it was, was intermittently interrupted by the whir and beeps of teamsters’ trolleys and forklifts. Our tee shirts were sweaty and we’d gone through the six-pack. It’s this way every year, the backbreaking backstage setup. But we were almost finished, and our booth looked great. I was catching a second high as we hoisted our display panels. Carol spread our tablecloths over the rented tables, then arranged flowers and stacks of books—giveaways of backlist overstock and display copies of our forthcoming fall list—while I started to hang the posters.

“Not again,” Carol said. “She doesn’t get the center panel this year, Guy. It’s been ten years since you published that book. Give it a rest. Give me a rest. I’m tired of looking at that woman.”

“We still have a lot of copies to sell,” I reminded her. “And that book’s our main freebie for the show. Besides, Heidi Yamada’s a big star this year. Again.”

“Bullshit. She’s a has-been.”

“That’s right,” I conceded. “And now she’s making a comeback. At least she has been somebody.”

“She has been a lot of things,” Carol said. “She has been your plaything, for one, and all the world knows it, and you like to rub my nose in it.”

I stepped back and surveyed the display. There she was, on a blown-up cover of And Vice Versa, bigger than life and still beautiful.

“But that was my first book,” I said. “She put Guy Mallon Books on the map.”

“She put Guy Mallon on the mat.” She gave me a grumpy scowl and gave the finger to the poster.

“I can’t believe you’re jealous. Of Heidi? Come on.”

Carol finally cracked up, bent over laughing. I knew she couldn’t keep up the jealous act with a straight face. She kissed my forehead. “I’m glad she gave you a good time, baby,” she said. “She’s screwed half the publishing industry, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t have had a turn.”

“So can I keep the poster?”

“If you don’t want that poster, I’ll take it,” said a voice from behind me, out in the aisle. I knew that voice. That whine.

“Hello, Lawrence,” I said, turning around. There he stood in a self-deprecating slouch, his wispy goatee jutting forward. I shook his clammy hand. “Have you met Carol Murphy, my business manager?”

“Of course, of course,” Lawrence said, with a broad smile and a bow. “A pleasure to see you, my dear.”

“Likewise,” Carol answered. “Guy, give me a hand with this table. It needs to go back about three inches.”

“May I help?” Lawrence asked, rubbing his hands together. “I’ll give you a hand, or I’ll go get you a beer or whatever. Really. My pleasure. And I mean it about that poster. If you’re not going to use it, I’d love it for my collection.” He pulled a pack of Salems out of his shirt pocket and shook one into his mouth.

“Can’t smoke in here,” Carol told him.

“Those guys are smoking,” he said, nodding at a couple of men pushing a loaded dolly.

“Those guys are teamsters,” I said. “You’re not.”

Lawrence put his cigarette back into the pack and put the pack back into his pocket. “Anyway, about that poster—”

“You collect posters too now?” I asked.

Lawrence shrugged. There was a mustard stain on the lapel of his rumpled linen jacket. He couldn’t help being a shlimazl, but I wished he’d go away.

“You know I’m addicted to Miss Yamada,” he admitted. “An ABA poster would look nice on my wall. I could pay you for it. But if you’re not planning to use it anyway, well, I mean how much did it cost to have made? I could reimburse you for that, I suppose, or I could help out here in the booth.” He started to take off the jacket.

“Don’t strip, Lawrence,” Carol said. “We don’t need any help. We’re almost finished. What do you say, Guy? Give the lucky man a poster?”

“After the show,” I said. “Sorry, but I want that thing up.

Heidi’s finally getting a lot of attention again this year.” “Really?” Lawrence said. “I can have that poster after the show?”

“Yes,” Carol said before I answered. “Guy and I have just struck a deal.”

“How did you get into the building, Lawrence?” I asked him. “The convention’s not open to the public till tomorrow morning.”

“I’m not public.” He pulled an exhibitor’s red badge out of his pocket and showed it to me. His name all right, and the name of the company, Ongepotchket Press.

“You’re working for Mitzi?” I said. “Just during the show. I volunteered.” “For a price, I bet.”

“Let’s call it a swap. An energy exchange is how I like to put it.” Carol said, “I thought Mitzi decided not to display after all.” “That’s right,” Lawrence said. “But she’d already paid for the booth and we already had these badges, so even though the booth will be empty, we’re here.”

“I’m sort of sorry Mitzi isn’t displaying,” Carol said. “Just think of what she might do with an ABA booth. Ongepotchket indeed!”

“What does ‘ongepotchket’ mean, anyway?” I asked. “I’ve always wondered.”

“Overdecorated,” Carol said. “In a word, Mitzi.” “Anyway,” Lawrence continued, “that leaves me available to help you out. By the way, are you going to the WESTAF party tonight?”

“Sure,” I said. “Ugh,” Carol said.

“Any way you can get me an invitation?” Lawrence said.

“I don’t have an extra,” I told him. “Can’t Mitzi get you in?”

“She’s not going,” Lawrence grumbled. “She’s embarrassed because the book hasn’t come out. I said she still needed to be there, but she said no way. Heidi will be there of course, collecting the award even if the book didn’t come out. Everyone will be there. Mitzi doesn’t want to show her face. She tore the invitation up. That bitch.”

“She’s pretty pissed off at Heidi?” Carol asked.

“Wouldn’t you be? This was supposed to be big time. He’ll be there,” Lawrence added, putting his pudgy finger on an advance reading copy of our new Arthur Summers collection, which will be published in September. “Professor Poet Laureate. He’ll be handing Heidi the award. I want to see that! Please, Guy, isn’t there somebody you could ask?”

Carol said, “Lawrence, we’re not scalpers, we’re publishers. And right now we don’t have time to walk the aisles shmoozing and begging for tickets.”

“But your booth is finished, and maybe…”

“And maybe it’s time for us to go have a cool shower and a quick nap at our hotel. Sorry, Lawrence. Ready, Guy?”

“In a minute,” I said. “Lawrence, maybe you should wander over to the Random House aisle, over in the three thousands. Maybe you’ll find Charles Levin. He probably has plenty of party invites to give out. You should hit him up for the Linda Sonora party tomorrow night. Those invitations are going fast.”

Lawrence nodded quickly, smiled quickly, and scurried away like an overdue white rabbit.

“What was all that about?” Carol asked me. “Levin won’t be helping with the setup.”

“I know. I wanted to get rid of Holgerson before we left the booth. I don’t trust him.”

“Come to think of it,” Carol said, “I put out five advance copies of the new Summers book. Now there’s only four.”

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