The Big F

Photo: Katherine Wolkoff

The year I turned 50 I was fired from a job. I hadn’t been doing well in the job. I didn’t have my heart in it, and it showed. I wasn’t making a significant contribution. I was superfluous. It was just a matter of time.

Anxious about my performance, I had already gone to see my boss once. “I don’t feel encouraged,” I said to him. “I’m not invited to meetings, I’m not given assignments.” He was new to the job; I had flourished under the previous boss, who had hired me and given me a lot of responsibility.

My new boss was gracious but perfunctory. “You work here, you belong here. There’s all kinds of stuff for you to do, but you’re the one who has to make it work.” He called out to his secretary. He was awaiting a report and wanted to know if it had arrived. “Stop worrying,” he said and rose from his chair to see me out.

Three months later, I got a call from his secretary asking if I could come in to see him the following week: Thursday at three o’clock.

Why had he summoned me? It was a call I’d been waiting for without quite knowing it. But when his secretary called, my stomach knotted up. My mind became strangely blank.

The days passed slowly. I could think of nothing else. Endless scenarios played themselves out in my head as I went about my work. He was going to propose that I take on a special assignment. He was going to ask for advice on some matter. But I knew what it was about. You always know. I got to his office at ten of three and sat down in the waiting area. I picked up a three-week-old issue of Newsweek and leafed through it without comprehending—something about the dangers of high cholesterol. I glanced at my watch every minute, sometimes twice a minute.

The secretary was young, in her early twenties. She sat at her desk talking on the phone in a low voice, her hand cupped over her mouth so that I couldn’t hear. Was she talking about me? At two minutes after three, my boss came out of his office, shook my hand, and invited me in.

It was a nice corner office, with slatted wood blinds over the windows, mahogany bookshelves, a table beside the desk piled high with magazines. The furniture was sleek but comfortable—white fabric everywhere—and the room had a casual, unpretentious air about it, more like a college dorm than an executive’s office. The books on the shelves weren’t for show; they were the books of a person who read books. The covers were scuffed; the lettering was faded. The newspapers scattered about on couches and tables and chairs looked as if they’d been gone through that morning. Clearly, work—intellectual work—got done here.

My boss motioned me toward a chair and sat down on a couch across from me. He had on khakis and a striped blue-and-white shirt open at the neck. I’d hardly ever seen him in a tie; he was confident, at ease with himself. This wasn’t a corporation and he wasn’t an executive, his dress-down style was meant to communicate. It was a place where creative, interesting people worked. Hierarchies didn’t matter. He’d never been a manager himself until he was tapped for the job; he’d been one of us, and the open-necked shirt made the statement that he was still one of us.

He was a handsome man, tall, vigorous, with tousled black hair. He was a full decade younger than me. (Nearly everyone I worked for was younger than me in those days.) He had distinguished himself on the other side of the desk, and this was a self-enclosed, intimate fiefdom. It was natural for management to be reluctant to “go outside” when the time came to recruit a new leader. Now he was management himself. He didn’t sit around like the rest of us, waiting for the boss’s attention: He was the boss.

What’s the protocol for getting fired? Leap up and storm out? Burst into tears? Be mature and try to help?

He seemed uneasy. “I don’t want to drag this out,” he said. “I’m not going to renew your contract.” We didn’t have actual “jobs”—we had renewable contracts, usually by the year, and no benefits. But the fact remained: I was being fired.

He looked at me. I looked at him. “I can’t afford it,” he went on, brusque and efficient—or at any rate, trying to be brusque and efficient. This was all new territory. “I need to bring in people who can do the work.” He reached down and grabbed a can of Diet Coke off the table.

What was I supposed to say? What was the protocol for getting fired? Did you leap up and storm out of the room? Burst into tears? Be mature and help him out? I quite understand. I’m sure this must be tough for you. Don’t give it another thought. In some region of my mind, I thought he was just floating an idea; it was hypothetical. I was welcome to stay on if I wanted.

Something was happening to me that had happened to so many people before me. I was undergoing a nearly archetypal experience—like watching a child being born or losing a parent. This was one of the events that life threw your way. My chest tightened; I could hardly breathe. The small clock on the desk said five after three. Was it possible that I had been here for only three minutes? It felt like I’d been sitting in this chair for hours. I noticed that the cuff of my shirt was frayed.

The room had the eerie silence that comes over the landscape just before a storm, when the dark clouds are gathering in the distance: Birds cease their chirping, and everything is still. I could hear the bleat of traffic down below on 42nd Street, trucks grinding their gears at a light. I felt alert, aware of the panic clawing at my throat.

It was time to get up and leave, but I wasn’t ready. I thought of Willy Loman refusing to leave his boss’s office the day he’s fired. You’ll have to excuse me, Willy, I gotta see some people. Pull yourself together.

“Why can’t you just put me on a reduced contract?” I pleaded.

“Because I can’t afford it. I’m on a tight budget.” His predecessor had spent a fortune throwing lavish parties, hiring expensive consultants, handing out lucrative contracts. Our expense accounts had been limitless. It was a different company now. The new boss had been instructed by the owner to enforce a measure of fiscal discipline.

“But what am I going to do? I’ve got a family to support.”

“That’s why I asked you in now,” he said. His face softened. This was no fun for him either. “Your contract isn’t up for three months. That should give you time to find something.” He stood up. The interview was over.

That night, I took my 12-year-old son, Will, to a Rangers game. It was near the end of the season, and Madison Square Garden was two-thirds empty. The seats we had ended up with were the two worst in the house—the last row in the last tier. Will looked miserable. I couldn’t stand the idea of having both of us be miserable, and the idea of feeling pinched and poor was intolerable on a day when I had just lost my job. We descended the escalators to the box office and bought front-row seats behind the Rangers’ bench.

As I watched the players flying up and down the rink and downed my third Dewar’s in a plastic cup, queasy about what the $300 charge for our two tickets would do to my next month’s Visa bill, I tried to get my head around the fact that I had been in New York for more than twenty years. What a bumpy ride: Were all lives like this? Was it a condition of existence that it never reached a plateau of even momentary equilibrium? I had come here at the age of 28, the provincial staking out his literary fortune. I had been intoxicated by the city, a kingdom of limitless aspiration, of vast and uncharted possibility.

Rangers stomped in and out of the box, throwing open the low door and charging out on the ice. I was always comparing my life with the lives of others, and found myself thinking of Isaac Rosenfeld, a classmate of Saul Bellow’s at Tuley High School in the thirties. Rosenfeld, like his best friend Bellow, was a book-besotted Chicago boy with limitless ambition; Tuley classmates thought Rosenfeld was the one who would go the distance. He and Bellow attended the University of Chicago together and were in lockstep until Rosenfeld beat him to New York, the city that, then as now, represented the apotheosis of all cultural ambition. While Bellow was still brooding on park benches in Chicago, Rosenfeld was rapidly making a name for himself as a critic. But he ran into heavy mental weather, became a Reichian, left his wife, suffered crippling writer’s block, and came to a poignant end. “He died in a seedy, furnished room on Walton Street, alone,” wrote Bellow in an obituary for his friend, “a bitter death to his children, his wife, his lovers, his father.”

This story fascinated me. What would have happened if Rosenfeld had lived? Would the furnished room on Walton Street have come to be seen as the place where he’d weathered a crisis? That was a tough time when I was living on Walton Street; I thought I’d never get through it. Or would it have been the beginning of the end, the moment when his life took a turn from which he would never recover? Who could say? He brought to mind Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Why smart? Because he had escaped before the inevitable erosion of his early promise. He hadn’t had time to fail.

One night when they were maybe 9 and 13, I took my children to see Mr. Holland’s Opus. This is the movie, if you recall, where Richard Dreyfuss plays a high-school music teacher with a deaf child and major frustration over the fact that he didn’t end up a famous composer and had to settle for conducting an orchestra of pimply kids. I wept through the whole movie. Dreyfuss having a fight with his impaired son and then tearfully making up; Dreyfuss yelling at the orchestra’s hapless tympanist for losing the beat, then praising him tenderly when he gets it right; Dreyfuss being forced out of his job by a heartless principal.

The paper napkin I’d gotten with my popcorn was twisted and soggy. Mr. Holland hadn’t achieved all he might have wished to in life. He had, in his own eyes, failed. But he had also redeemed himself by giving something to the world. It was possible to survive the pain of falling short—and even to make something of it. At the end, when the stooped and white-haired music teacher, lured to the school auditorium on some pretext, walks in to find his former orchestra, now middle-aged themselves, on stage, instruments in hand, and the conductor brings down his baton with a swift and decisive chop and they begin to play the symphony on which Mr. Holland has been laboring for most of his life, it was too much. I broke down, my shuddering sobs causing people in the row in front of us to turn around and stare while my two mortified children gazed down at the grimy floor in mute alarm.

What’s with Dad? they must have thought. How could they begin to grasp the power of my identification with this man? In their eyes, I was Dad, a man who went to work, came home with his bulging briefcase, and seemed to make his way in the world. He talked on the phone in a loud, authoritative voice. He was no hollow-cheeked loser, disheveled, wan, his tie askew. He provided for them, sat upright at the dinner table, helped them with homework. He had a closet full of suits. How could they intuit his conviction that he was a failure? There was no way to explain it—either to them or to himself. It existed within him, a condition that had no cause, no reason. It made no sense, yet he believed it to be true. Don’t you see, children? Your dad thinks he’s Mr. Holland.

On a school night in the winter of 1965, I’m sitting in the basement of my parents’ house in Evanston, Illinois, transfixed by the black-and-white film on TV. Beside me on the couch are my father and mother. On the screen is Fredric March in the role of Willy Loman. The play is winding down as we sit there numb in a row, tears rolling down our cheeks. The last two hours have been wrenching, ghastly, like watching a car crash. At moments—the scene where Willy gets fired; the scene where Biff and Happy abandon Willy in the restaurant and go off with a pair of whores—I’ve been flooded with a desolation far beyond anything I could have imagined it was possible for a 16-year-old boy to feel. The house is still, and a funereal silence settles over the room as Linda, Willy’s wife, lays a wreath on his grave. I hear a car go by outside.

Then Charley, Willy’s friend, is speaking:

“Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”

What is my father thinking, sitting there with his hands on his knees? Is he thinking of his father, a timid man who came over on the boat from Russia with an engineering degree and mastery of half a dozen languages, only to end up running a corner drugstore on the Northwest Side of Chicago? Or is he thinking of himself, not as timid as his father, but somehow not possessed of quite enough of that go-getter quality, prevented by his nature and his limitations from following his dream? What he had really wanted to be was a professional musician, to play the oboe in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But it was the Depression: He needed to make a living, and so he became a doctor, hardly a humiliating profession. After all, he didn’t go into advertising (which isn’t so humiliating either). His tragedy—or is that too strong a word?—was that he failed to achieve what he’d hoped to achieve. He wasn’t a defeated man; he was a thwarted man—one of the most common human conditions.

“We’re free,” Linda is saying as Biff, Willy’s other son, lifts her up and carries her off the stage as the lights go down. My mother and father and I are sobbing now, as devastated as if someone we love had died. I stumble upstairs to my room and sit at my desk, drained. I try to focus on my American-history textbook—what was Manifest Destiny, anyway?—but I’m too haunted by Happy Loman’s words to concentrate: “It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man.”

Many years later, I read Arthur Miller’s memoir, Timebends, in which he gives an account of how he came to write Death of a Salesman. He had already experienced success with his first play, All My Sons, when he struck—or was struck by—his theme. As he wrote, hour after hour, day after day, he laughed and wept, stunned by the power of his discovery: that Willy Loman was a vessel designed to contain the essence of our human longing “to excel, to win out over anonymity and meaninglessness, to love and be loved, and above all, perhaps, to count.” That Miller tapped something deep and powerful in the human psyche was evident from the audience’s response on opening night: “As sometimes happened later on during the run, there was no applause at the final curtain of the first performance … With the curtain down, some people stood to put their coats on and then sat again, some, especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping.”

Yet I wonder if his explanation for the play’s success is right. Miller, who died last week at 89, was at heart an optimist, blessed with the American belief that things work out in the end, and so perhaps oblivious to his own work’s darker side. (Just because he wrote it doesn’t mean he understood it.) Is it the play’s let’s-hear-it-for-the-little-guy message that makes people weep, or is it the experience of recognizing their own struggles with failure? The crushing reversals that Willy suffers—getting fired, being humiliated by his associates, watching his sons turn into losers—resonate because they’re so familiar. “I don’t know what to say,” the director Elia Kazan stammered when Miller showed him a draft of his play. “My father … ”

“He broke off,” Miller reports in his memoir, “the first of a great many men—and women—who would tell me that Willy was their father.” Their father and, eventually, them. Like father, like son. The story of literature—and thus of life—is a story not of success, but of failure.

I’m so obsessed with this theme that I actually keep a “failure file.” What stands out for me in the biographies of Faulkner and Fitzgerald are the months and years they wasted out in Hollywood, getting sodden over their squandered gifts. Cyril Connolly, one of the most distinguished critics of his day, made his name with a book, Enemies of Promise, that elegiacally bemoaned his lack of distinction. And the novelist Paul Auster writes in his memoir, Hand to Mouth, “In my late twenties and early thirties, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure.” Ah!

Everybody was on the way to somewhere,in a hurry,purposeful. I stirred my coffee. I had nothingto do.

Let’s see: Here’s Norman Mailer summing up his legacy in an interview with the New York Times: “Part of the ability to keep writing over the years comes down to living with the expectation of disappointment … You just want to keep the store going. You’re not going to do as well this year as last year probably, but nonetheless let’s keep the store going.” If Norman Mailer feels this way about his achievement, imagine how the rest of us feel.

And here is Michael Eisner to illustrate how the power of failure to move us correlates with the power of the person who fails. Was there ever a guy more unlikely to acknowledge his failings than the CEO of Disney, destroying Michael Ovitz on the stand week after week in the severance case we’ve read more about than nuclear stockpiles in Iran? Yet in a memo to Tony Schwartz, co-writer of his autobiography, Work in Progress, Eisner sounds like Dr. Johnson on King Lear: “Most tragedy comes to those who simply make a mistake. The higher the position of the person making the mistake, the more interesting the fall, and the further the fall. That is drama and that is life.” The other day, I studied that hard, money-coarsened face in a photograph in the business section of the Times and thought, You, too?

Athletics is particularly fertile failure terrain. “All good sports reporters know that the best stories are in the loser’s locker room,” wrote Pete Hamill in a review of A Pitcher’s Story, Roger Angell’s anatomy of David Cone’s agonizing decline. What if the Yanks had swept the Red Sox in four straight last fall? Sure, we would have cheered our invincible home team. But wasn’t it more incredible—and in the end more satisfying—the way they let victory slip from their grasp? “Losers are more like the rest of us,” observes Hamill. “They make mistakes they can’t take back.”

Lying awake one night rehearsing my own litany of mistakes—why didn’t you write the biography of Edmund Wilson when you had the chance? Why did you quit your job at the New York Times?—I recall a moment when I was 40 and between assignments. It was ten o’clock on a weekday morning, and I sat at the counter of the Four Brothers coffee shop, staring out the window at the stream of traffic. Buses, delivery trucks, taxis stormed by, jouncing over the rough pavement of Amsterdam Avenue. Everybody was on the way to somewhere, in a hurry, purposeful. The coffee shop was nearly empty. In a corner sat an elderly woman reading the Post, her cane leaning against the seat. Another booth was occupied by a middle-aged man in a windbreaker. He had long sideburns and thick glasses; his hair was thinning in front. A cigarette smoldered in a tin ashtray by his side. He was studying a letter, reading it over and over. I stirred my coffee. My heart was a stone in my chest. I had nothing to do. I thought, This is your life. You took a wrong turn, missed the boat, bet the wrong horse. Blew it.

That night, I was walking down a street in my neighborhood when I glimpsed, through a brightly lit window, a tableau of seeming harmony—a man hunched over a desk, reading a book by the soft light of an Oriental lamp. I was seized with envy. What a perfect life was framed by that window! The man was a well-known writer, a journalist putting the last touches on his weekly column for a prestigious journal of opinion; he was just back from a lively dinner party, looking up a reference to Yeats … I was making it up: For all I knew, he was an out-of-work accountant with a drinking problem; his wife wanted a divorce; his mother had just died; his son was into drugs. All of us, I suspect, imagine that a world exists from which we alone have been excluded; all of us have our noses pressed against the glass. But if we contemplate our own lives, not the phantom life on the other side, we might find things in them to envy—a family that’s intact; a job we like; excellent health (the thing we take for granted and on which all happiness depends). Good fortune is there, however sporadic, however modest, however difficult to achieve. The trick is to recognize it.

Copyright 2005 James Atlas. From My Life in the Middle Ages, to be published by HarperCollins in March.

The Big F