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Flatbush Flashback

The Mike Nichols Reference in Beaver Street

Mike Nichols, circa 1970, the year he directed Catch-22.
Mike Nichols, best known as the director of such films as The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge, died yesterday, at 83. Below, I give you the scene from Beaver Street, set in New York City's Hellfire Club during a Screw magazine Halloween party, in 1985, that references Nichols.

I wandered into a back room and saw Buck Henry, the frequent Saturday Night Live guest host, standing by himself and observing with clinical detachment a bleached-blond dominatrix walloping a naked man with a riding crop.

“Come here often?” I asked Henry.

“I’m Buck,” he said, shaking my hand in a firm, businesslike manner. “Yeah, I’ve been to Hellfire once before. But I was expecting a classier crowd tonight—since Al invited me.” He gestured towards the man writhing on the floor. “Is this the kind of stuff that usually goes on here?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “I’ve only been here once before myself, and very briefly at that. But I hear in the old days before AIDS, you could walk in any night and find a half-dozen piss drinking orgies—stuff like that. I can’t believe people are dying now for a little fun they had ten years ago.”

“The statute of limitation for these things should be five years,” Henry said, just as the dominatrix whacked her slave’s penis with a wicked shot that made us both wince.

“Absolutely,” I agreed, unable to take my eyes off the S&M show. “But you’ve got to admit, this is something you don’t see every day. It’s like a scene from Tropic of Cancer.

He nodded and said, “I met Henry Miller once at a Hollywood party. He was there with Mike Nichols. All he wanted to talk about was The Graduate. All I wanted to talk about was Quiet Days in Clichy.

I knew that Henry had written the screenplay for The Graduate, which Nichols had directed, as well as creating with Mel Brooks the classic sitcom Get Smart. “What are you doing now?” I asked. “Writing for Screw?”

“I’m waiting for my mother to die first,” he said. Read More 
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Personal Faves: Volume II

This week I've been celebrating the third anniversary of The Daily Beaver with a look back at the ten most popular posts and a selection of some of my personal favorites. As I was putting together Volume II of my personal faves this morning, it reminded me that anniversaries also serve a practical purpose: They are a time to take stock, evaluate, put things in perspective--to see what's come out of this three year frenzy of writing, promotion, and travel. So, once again, here's a random selection of blog posts that caught my eye.

The Business of Smut: Critique #2 (June 15, 2011)
A review of "Hard Core," by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, one of the articles Slate selected as an example of great writing about the porn industry.

The Real Life of a Beaver Street Character (July 15, 2011)
Izzy Singer steps out of Beaver Street to publish a shocking pornographic e-book.

Still on the Bus (Aug. 4, 2011)
A review of Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Cool Place, and a tribute to my friend John Babbs, who passed away last year. I ran this photo essay on my other blog, Maiscott & Rosen, because you can't run multiple photos on The Daily Beaver.

Yossarian Taught Here (Aug. 18, 2011)
A memoir by Joseph Heller’s daughter, Erica, prompted me to jot down some of my own memories of Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, and one of my creative writing professors at City College.

The Trials of Traci Lords (Jan. 10, 2013)
A further exploration of one of the main subjects of Beaver Street: At age 44, the once underage porn superstar seems to have stopped complaining about being “exploited.” Instead, Lords complains that people won’t let her forget her X-rated teenage exploits.

Tomorrow, Volume III Read More 

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Yossarian Taught Here

Two biographies of Joseph Heller, my creative writing professor at the City College of New York, have recently been published. I've read excerpts of one, Just One Catch, by Tracy Daugherty, a straightforward chronicle of Heller's life. I've read extensive commentary on the other, Yossarian Slept Here, a memoir by Heller's daughter, Erica Heller.

Memories have been aroused.

Heller, who died in 1999, is best known as the author of the satirical, semi-autobiographical World War II novel, Catch-22, whose iconic protagonist, Air Force Captain John Yossarian, thinks people are trying to kill him, and does not want to fly any more bombing missions. I’ve read the book about 25 times.

When I was Heller’s student, he was finishing his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Something Happened. Thirteen years had passed since Catch-22 was published. Expectations were high, and Heller, to say the least, was stressed out.

City College, in the 1970s, was an extraordinary place to be—because the school was tuition free, and the English department had assembled an all-star collection of professors that, in addition to Heller, included Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Francine du Plessix Gray (At Home with the Marquis de Sade), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), who taught a course in Ulysses.

I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to take a fiction-writing course with one of my literary heroes. And I was so encouraged by the results my first semester with Heller (B+), that I signed on for a more advanced course the following semester.

This is what I remember about Joe Heller:

He dressed casually, usually in jeans and a canvas shirt, except for the time he had a meeting with his agent. That day he wore a gray flannel suit.

He always had a wooden gum-stimulator sticking out of his mouth.

“All agents are pricks,” he said.

“You can’t live on royalties,” he said.

He considered Catch-22 to be one of the ten greatest books of the 20th century.

He considered James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific) and Leon Uris (Mila 18) to be hacks.

He forbade us to write detective stories or stories about the supernatural.

His conception of how to structure a short story was inflexible: Beginning. Middle. Climax. End.

He also taught me two valuable lessons about writing: Condense! Condense! Condense! And have a thick skin.

It’s this last lesson—an unintentional one, I suspect—that brings me to the scene in Erica Heller’s memoir, where she discovers that she’s been portrayed in Something Happened as a person “so barren of hope that I find myself grieving silently alongside her, as though at an empty coffin or grave in which her future is lying dead already.”

She asked her father how he could have written such a thing about her.

“What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” Heller replied.

That is also an apt description of the “heartless” (as she calls him) Joe Heller I remember from City College. Because in that second semester, he critiqued my stories so brutally, I still find it too painful to read all his comments.

“This story goes bad on page one and gets progressively worse,” one critique began. He then proceeded to detail the story’s disintegration, line by line, in red pencil, in scathingly accurate detail.

In a meeting, I asked him what I was doing wrong, and why he liked my stories the previous semester.

“You were just lucky last semester,” he said.

I was 20 years old. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. And I was devastated. But I did, indeed, recover and learn to develop a thick skin. Professionally, it’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned.

I wonder what Heller would have had to say about Nowhere Man and Beaver Street. Barring communication by séance, I guess I’ll never find out. Read More 
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