Friday, March 14, 2008

The Buck Stops Here

Yesterday's blog entry about getting my Robert Cormier books inscribed-by-proxy reminded me of another book-signing event I attended (this time in person!) at the same store. Because this incident concerns an adult novel, I wasn't sure if it exactly fit the parameters of my blog...but since the novel in question is Judith Guest's ORDINARY PEOPLE and since that book has been embraced by teenagers and is now part of the curriculum at many high schools, I've decided it's enough of a young-adult novel to be discussed here.

Judith Guest was considered a home town girl since she was not only born in Detroit, but was also the grand-niece of Edgar Guest, long known as Michigan's poet laureate. Her first novel was that rare thing -- an unagented book that was plucked from the "slush pile" at Viking and published to huge success 1976. Not only was it a bestselling novel, but it was also made into a 1980 movie starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton that won the Oscar for best picture.

When her next book, SECOND HEAVEN, was published in 1982, the Birmingham Bookstore hosted a Sunday afternoon wine-and-cheese reception with a book signing. Though I wanted very much to attend, I was put off by the whole idea of a wine-and-cheese reception. Certain words and phrases unnerve me. "Wine-and-cheese reception" is one. "Hors d'Oeuvres" is another. Let's not even talk about "crudites." All these phrases speak of a place and a culture where I don't belong. Birmingham is the kind of snooty quaint town where Italian ice vendors sell their wares to young couples -- women in white summer dresses and men with tan jackets slung over their shoulders -- who then walk down the street nibbling the flavored ice off tiny spoons before hailing a horse and carriage for a ride around the downtown park. But I'm from Detroit, where you stand on the street in a T-shirt to buy an orange popsicle from the Good Humor man, then lick your wrists as the melting popsicle runs down your arms. So I don't fit in at Birmingham wine-and-cheese receptions!

...Still, I reminded myself that Judith Guest had written a book called ORDINARY PEOPLE and I was certainly an ordinary person, so maybe I wouldn't be completely out of place at this event. So on Sunday afternoon I went to the Birmingham Bookstore to have my books signed. There was a long line of people snaking its way down one wall. In the center of the room was a table covered with a white tablecloth (real cloth, not paper!) and trays filled with cubes of cheese speared with toothpicks (shudder.) Also white wine in clear plastic cups. Conversations were well-modulated in a Birmingham-kind-of-way (as opposed to the boisterous Motor-City-kind-of-way.) I always get a thrill out of seeing authors "in real life," so kept sneaking peeks to the head of the line where Judith Guest sat signing her novel. The couple in front of me were telling everyone within earshot that the husband had known Judith Guest when he was a kid; his older brother had even briefly dated Judith in high school. But this guy's real claim to fame was that his nickname as a kid was "Bucky" and, since Buck Jarrett is the name of the character whose tragic death propels the plot of ORDINARY PEOPLE, he wondered if perhaps Guest had named "her Buck" after him. Oh sure, I thought, trying not to roll my eyes. Judith Guest just happened to name an important character after some kid she hadn't seen in her thirty years. Riiight. Meanwhile, this couple's two little girls, about nine and ten years old, were running around the store and kept returning to the line where, time after time, they'd stand on tiptoes and sip wine out of their parents' plastic cups. Another example of how the wealthy suburbs differ from the city. In the suburbs that's considered cute...maybe even sophisticated; in the city we call it contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Finally, the line inched to Judith Guest's table. The couple in front of me approached her and I leaned forward eagerly, waiting to hear Ms. Guest tell the guy she didn't remember him and certainly hadn't named any character after him! I was almost looking forward to seeing the expression on his face when he turned around to leave in shame, dragging his two pie-eyed preteens behind him. When he got to the table, he was more tentative than boastful as he began, "I don't know if you remember me, but you used to go out with my brother...."

Judith Guest jumped out of her seat like a jack-in-the-box. "BUCKY!" she shouted, grabbing his hand and pumping it up and down. "Of course I remember you!"

The man said, "I wasn't sure if you would...."

"Of course, of course! I'm so glad to SEE you!"

The man introduced his wife, who said, "We've always wondered if you named the character Buck in ORDINARY PEOPLE after my husband."

"I certainly did!" replied Judith Guest. "You know, I always loved that name. Buck. So strong. So boyish and masculine. I just LOVED it and thought it was just perfect for the character in my book."

Well, the couple was just beaming by this point and I have to admit that even I (gleefully awaiting this guy's downfall five minutes earlier) was suddenly smiling as I watched this reunion occur right before my eyes. Judith Guest wrote something long (and no doubt wonderful) in the man's book. Later, after she signed mine ("For Peter, best wishes,") I thought about chasing the man down the street and having "the real Buck" also sign my book. I should have. For weeks afterward, I told everyone met that I had stood next to "the real Buck from Ordinary People" at a book signing. Borrowed glory. It's so very, very sad.

This incident also taught me something important about the way writers' minds work. It taught me that their minds are always working. Even back as a teenage girl, Judith Guest had taken a liking to the name "Buck," held it tight for safe keeping, and thirty years later pulled it out to use in a book. I guess the same thing is true of me, saving up the details of this story from 1982 -- the cheese-and-toothpicks, the boastful man, the girls on their tiptoes -- and sharing them today, twenty-six years after the fact.

Nothing is ever wasted on a writer -- or a blogger.

1 comment:

buy jeans said...

The permanence of the internet makes this kind of joke even more amusing. I just saw this today, and it wasn't until the photo was MENTIONED in the post that I looked at it closely and scrolled back up to the date to see if it was an AF.