As for our little league of feature writersótwo of the contestants, Portis and Breslin, actually went on to live out the fantasy. They wrote their novels. Portis did it in a way that was so much like the way it happens in the dream, it was unbelievable. One day he suddenly quit as London correspondent for the Herald Tribune. That was generally regarded as a very choice job in the newspaper business. Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific . . . He sold both books to the movies . . . He made a fortune . . . A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was. Which is to say that the old dream, The Novel, has never died.
". . . At the same time everybody in the game had terrible dark moments when he told himself: 'You're kidding yourself, boy' . . ."
And yet in the early 1960s a curious new notion, just hot enough to inflame the ego, had begun to intrude into the tiny confines of the feature statusphere. It was in the nature of a discovery. This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would . . . read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course. Not even the journalists who pioneered in this direction doubted for a moment that the novelist was the reigning literary artist, now and forever. All they were asking for was the privilege of dressing up like him . . . until the day when they themselves would work up their nerve and go into the shack and try it for real . . . They were dreamers, all right, but one thing they never dreamed of. They never dreamed of the approaching irony. They never guessed for a minute that the work they would do over the next ten years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature's main event.
II. Like a Novel
What inna namea Christ is thisóin the fall of 1962 I happened to pick up a copy of Esquire and read a story called "Joe Louis: the King as a Middle-aged Man." The piece didn't open like an ordinary magazine article at all. It opened with the tone and mood of a short story, with a rather intimate scene; or intimate by the standards of magazine journalism in 1962, in any case:
" 'Hi, sweetheart!' Joe Louis called to his wife, spotting her waiting for him at the Los Angeles airport.
"She smiled, walked toward him, and was about to stretch up on her toes and kiss himóbut suddenly stopped.
" 'Joe,' she said, 'where's your tie?'
" 'Aw, sweetie,' he said, shrugging, 'I stayed out all night in New York and didn't have timeó'
" 'All night!' she cut in. 'When you're out here all you do is sleep, sleep, sleep.'
" 'Sweetie,' Joe Louis said, with a tired grin, 'I'm an ole man.'
" 'Yes,' she agreed, 'but when you go to New York you try to be young again.' "
The story featured several scenes like that, showing the private life of a sports hero growing older, balder, sadder. It wound up with a scene in the home of Louis's second wife, Rose Morgan. In this scene Rose Morgan is showing a film of the first Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight to a roomful of people, including her present husband.
"Rose seemed excited at seeing Joe at the top of his form, and every time a Louis punch would jolt Conn, she'd go, 'Mummm' (sock). 'Mummm' (sock). 'Mummm.'
"Billy Conn was impressive through the middle rounds, but as the screen flashed Round 13, somebody said, 'Here's where Conn's gonna make his mistake; he's gonna try to slug it out with Joe Louis.' Rose's husband remained silent, sipping his Scotch.
"When the Louis combinations began to land, Rose went, 'Mummmmm, mummmmm,' and then the pale body of Conn began to collapse against the canvas.
"Billy Conn slowly began to rise. The referee counted over him. Conn had one leg up, then two, then was standingóbut the referee forced him back. It was too late.
"óand then, for the first time, from the back of the room, from out of the downy billows of the sofa, comes the voice of the present husbandóthis Joe Louis crap againó