NEA Literature Fellowships

Andrew Sean Greer

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli

When I began to take my place as Mrs. Levy instructed, and looked straight at my befurred and itching Alice, I was closer to her than I'd ever been. The wind blew and a hair floated out from her hat, stretched into the air, and landed on my lower lip, sticking there like a fishing line. I felt the hook bleeding into my mouth. Alice did not seem to care or notice but merely smiled.

Mrs. Levy was posing against the tree, her fur falling open to reveal her scarlet departure from widowhood which had taken place in the last few weeks. Jasmine bloomed around her. "Shakespearean again, isn't it Mr. Tivoli?"

I dared not move or speak but stared straight at the mother, blinking. I noticed it was a full moon tonight and her movements cast shadows along the grass as if it were bright day. It occurred to me, as she talked, that she stood directly over her buried spoons.

Then luck broke over me. There was a sound from the front of the house and Mrs. Levy bowed theatrically before doing the unthinkable: leaving her daughter alone with the neighbor, this kindly, elderly man.

Alice said, "I think maybe I was born in the wrong time."

"What?" I tried to speak softly, not wanting to detach the hair from my lip.

She stared away from me to where the moon was cresting the trees. Then she said, "Tonight, for instance. I love it tonight."

"Well, yes…."

"Nothing modern. No kerosene lamps smelling things up, or gaslight. Hurts your eyes. No groups of people crowded around a stereoscope, or a piano singing another round of ‘Grandfather Clock' for heck's sake. I wish every night was just starlight and candles and nothing to do. We would have so much time."

I was afraid any minute she might turn around and the hair would fall away, uncoupling us. I wanted to say something to keep her talking, looking at the moon, traveling back to her simpler age, but I could say nothing. I just kept still, looking into her eyes.

She continued in her slightly hoarse voice: "It's hard to imagine such a different life. We'd think about light all the time. You know, when it got dark in winter and there wasn't much light, that you would have to do everything before sundown, well, there weren't any streetlights on country roads back then, were there? How frightening. And you couldn't read at night except by candlelight, and you probably saved your candles very carefully. Not like us. You made your own, they were everything to you, if you read books. And you had to read, what else was there to do? They had so few nice clothes they never went out. They didn't have parlors or nonsense like Wardian cases and kaleidoscopes or watching magic lantern shows. There wasn't any of that to do. There were just…people. Think of it."

Alice lay silent and I worked my nerve up to say something: "They went to balls."

She shook her head, still facing the moon. "I mean a long time ago. I mean before kerosene lamps, and I don't mean special evenings like balls, I mean evenings like this. Ones we like to kill with a parlor game." Then my young love looked at me at last and my chest went cold with fear: "How could anyone fall in love by gaslight, I ask you?"

"And yet they do," came a voice behind us. Her mother was back.

Alice was still looking at me. "Was it like that, Mr. Tivoli? Candles and long hours in the evening? When you were a boy?"

"No," I said softly.

"Mr. Tivoli isn't that old, Alice! Really! We had kerosene lamps when I was a girl, you know. And pianos."

Alice blinked for a moment and faced the moon again. "Too bad. I'm in the wrong time. I want all my nights to be like this."

Mrs. Levy seemed to be smiling. "I do like the moonlight."

Alice considered this. "The dark, too, and the cold," she said. "And the silence."

The last word came almost as a command; we were silent. Alice closed her eyes and breathed in the night air and this action, just the contraction of her shoulders under the oily gleam of sealskin, detached the invisible hair. I was alone again. Mrs. Levy stood before me against a tree. She was looking up at the stars; you could just see her breath forming in the chill air before her face, a ghost mask. We were all breathing, all wearing these masks. It was like a play of some kind, with the bright moon and the furs and hats and the little audience of spoons below us; I did not know what it meant. I saw Mrs. Levy lower her head and smile; I saw Alice breathing open-mouthed up to the stars, her cheeks webbed with color; I saw my old hand resting against her sleeve, desperate to tap a code of some kind to her. I saw how the moon had dropped into her cup of coffee. It struggled there like a moth. Then I saw her lean forward, her mouth in a silent kiss, and as she blew on the furrowed surface to cool it, I saw the moon explode.

Andrew Sean Greer was born in Washington, DC, the son of two scientists. He studied writing at Brown University, where he was the Commencement Speaker at his own graduation. He received his MFA from the University of Montana, and when he moved to San Francisco, he began to publish in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review and The New Yorker before releasing a collection of his stories, How It Was for Me (Picador). His first novel, The Path of Minor Planets, was published in 2001, and his second book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, came out in 2004 (both from Picador) and was chosen for the Today Show Book Club. Andrew is the recipient of the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award for a writer under 35. He lives in San Francisco.

Photo by Nancy Crampton

Author's Statement

It's hard to express the full impact of an NEA fellowship on a young writer. The immediate and obvious effect is the financial ability to focus on the work at hand without the distractions of teaching, freelancing, and general worrying over money that takes up so much of any artist's life. For me, it means time to complete a novel set in San Francisco in the 1950s, which involves not only a great deal of time for the writing, but also for the enormous research. The secondary effect is one of general support. Knowing that one's fellow artists on the committee admire your work enough to recommend funding is a great pleasure; so much of a writer's life and work happen in solitude, without appraisal, so a shout of approval from the NEA is an honor.