It's the late Eighties, and I am calling on Tony Hendra, writer, performer, satirist, drinker, freelance schemer. While I do not remember the substance of our meeting, it's a memorable moment: His office, in a residential hotel on Amsterdam Avenue, is possibly as close as I've ever come to absolute squalor and degradation. The place reeks of urine; horrible screams and moans echo up and down the halls; crack vials litter the stairwells. There, though, in a closet-size room, with a simple wooden desk, is Tony, cordial and undisturbed, finishing up a book. (Such conditions are perhaps not uninvigorating to him.)
And then there is John Evans: the mystery man of the Murdoch organization through the eighties and early nineties, when News Corporation creates the megamedia business. He is Murdoch's Yoda. Or, depending on your point of view, Murdoch's evil genius. People whisper his name. Few people ever see him. He is the disappearing executive -- out the window, like Major Major in Catch 22. In 1991, Louis Rossetto, carrying around his plan for Wired magazine, somehow manages a meeting with Evans, and pronounces him the only man in the media business to "get it." (Evans lobbies Murdoch to launch Wired; Murdoch declines.)
I do not know if this column merely provides an excuse to write about two of the more eccentric careers in the media business (a nostalgist's view) or if it is actually about the revolution now taking place in book publishing. That's the ostensible reason I am sitting at Michael's with Hendra and Evans.
They are starting an electronic-publishing house. They believe the sudden seeming viability of a cheaper way to publish and distribute books means that independent book publishing can return and compete handily for writers, readers, and distribution outlets with the consolidated book behemoths.
They believe that books and book publishing can return to a 1920s model, when upstart independents (the Jews) challenged the nineteenth-century publishing Establishment (the Wasps).
I can't get a decent answer from either of them as to why they sat out the nineties. As real entrepreneurs, maybe they had a hard time, I theorize, in an era of false entrepreneurs.
Next week, they launch their publishing company, now called Gigawit, with money from Evans and Evans's friends, and a modest volume called The Gigawit Dictionary of the E-nglish Language. It is meant to be the first number -- electronically and in paper form -- in a more or less utopian publishing model: servicing writers (offering them health insurance!) and readers instead of book chains.
Their initial list will be of humor-oriented titles, but they see a broad catalogue of fiction and nonfiction to follow. It's book publishing, just without the inventory, which makes all the difference.
Their premise is simple: While large, established publishers will be fighting to pay for their existing infrastructure, Hendra and Evans, with vast entrepreneurial experience, an entirely new cost basis, and freedom from the ennui and bitterness of the book industry, will make a revolution.
It might seem likely that, in this post- Stephen King new electronic age, every writer and would-be literary person (are there any anymore?) would be trying to invent a new publishing notion.
But as far as I can tell, Hendra and Evans are the first guys, the first New York media guys, to say "What's stopping us?"
Possibly because we are sitting at Michael's, surrounded by everyone else in the publishing business, this all feels like an oddly legitimate business conversation.
They are certainly unlike anyone in the consolidated, corporatized book industry -- which may be the point.
Hendra is 58 and Evans is 62. For all practical purposes, they are vaudevillians in the new-media era. I doubt if there are guys like Hendra and Evans anywhere in the media business anymore. There isn't a job description for their type.
Hendra, a small man with a large head, has had, as much as anyone, a central role in influencing the direction of popular culture -- or he is one of the most marginal figures of our time (a pop-culture aristocrat or its most enduring Zelig). You pick.
Evans, a scruffy dandy, is one of the greatest publishing minds of the modern era -- or he is one of the many second-raters Murdoch keeps around because second-raters are more loyal than first-raters. Pick.
They are both serious oddballs -- even among oddballs, they have been notable in their inability or unwillingness to even approximately acculturate.
Could such characters be good for books?
Hendra emerges from a benedictine monastery in England in the early sixties. He is shortly transformed by seeing Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Alan Bennett's Beyond the Fringe ("What a mind-blowing experience: I didn't know authority could be attacked like that"). Straightaway, he joins a comedy troupe at Cambridge. Performing in the West End in the first year of Beatlemania, he becomes, rumor has it, Paul McCartney's favorite comedian. In what commences a history of ill-advised leave-takings, he departs for New York while his troupemates, including John Cleese and Graham Chapman, become Monty Python. In New York, he opens for Lenny Bruce at the Café Au Go Go (playing the climactic night when the police cart Lenny off the stage). Soon he's a regular with George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin on Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin. But he quits stand-up, and Bernie Brillstein gets him a job as a high-paid television writer, until he gets radicalized and announces he's quitting television in a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter. He joins the four-issue-old National Lampoon and soon becomes its editor (he wages a struggle for his brand of provocative, political humor against P. J. O'Rourke's Animal House T&A wit; O'Rourke wins).
Hendra writes and directs National Lampoon's Lemmings at the Village Gate, hiring a weirdly arrogant preppy guy called Chevy Chase and the equally weird and unknown John Belushi. Lemmings becomes Saturday Night Live; Hendra, for this, that, and the other reason, doesn't go with it.