NEA Literature Fellowships

Rafi Zabor

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(2008 - Prose)

From the novel I, Wabenzi

Avram, who retained the suffix "ovsky" that my parents had had removed from the family name when I entered grade-school, was another, altogether more primitive kind of Jew. Viewed across that black vinyl banquette he seemed normal enough, a taller version of my father with a larger, hookier but unlaughed-at-in-childhood and perhaps therefore more assertive nose, and a face whose putty had been roughed up with a bit of hasty thumbwork on the part of its ministering angel. Tufty whitening hair plumed out around his ears but was shaved short and high on the back of his neck. That neck might have provided a shrewd observer with his first clue to Avram's real strangeness: a tapering pillar that rose from shoulders that did not appear unusually large-there was no bulk as such on the man anywhere-lifting that beaked head in an eaglish bareness into its heights, it was braided, this pillar, with muscle you didn't ordinarily see on human necks, much less on those belonging to men in their eighties. From this neck, if you noticed it, you might pass to a consideration of Avram's wrists, which seemed thicker than wrists had any right to be; they looked like heavy rope each tributary strand of which was of at least maritime tensile strength. Having taken these in, one might notice the animal grace with which the old man sat even in that insufficiency of a Chevy, no hint of either a youthful or an aged slouch to him but a certain self-lofting quality, a feral wakefulness, the echo of a panther body instinctly alert: not a bad effect for a man of eighty-some. Underneath the distant uptown Manhattan bed in which Avram slept beside his necessarily docile wife Pearl-pronounced Peril, with a lightly gargled, nearly French uvular r in the middle-lay a 1930s axle from a Ford truck. Avram had brought it up (along with the ee that peppered his speech but which had lost much of its functional resemblance to the Spanish y from which it derived) from panthered South America with him in ‘48; it was the perfect weight for his exercises, he said. I had never seen anyone else able to lift it by one of its ends and with wrist-power alone or rigidly extended arm raise it to the vertical and slowly let it down again, or anyone beside him, let alone anyone his age, who could squeeze a bathroom scale in his hands and without strain run the meter past its 250 pound limit bang into its endpoint; but the most quintessentially Avramic demonstration of strength I could recall came at a family party in a Bronx apartment about a decade back when some vague cousin or other entered with one of his children, a boy about twelve years old and of normal size for that age, and Uncle Avram-a couple or six straight double vodkas to the better-who had not seen the child in question for a few years, put his wide right hand under the kid's bottom and lifted him at arm's length for the assembled company to see, saying, "Oh look what a beautiful child," while standing unaffected by the child's weight at the end of his arm with roughly the immortal poise of the bronze Poseidon in the Athens Archaeological Museum.

Born in 1946 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Rafi Zabor attended Brooklyn College, then went out into the world, living sequentially in the San Francisco Bay Area, Gloucestershire, London, Edinburgh, Boston, Istanbul, Colorado, Paris, Nashville, Jerusalem . . . puff puff puff. He's never held a teaching job, and has gotten by the best he can: odd jobs, some work as a jazz musician (drums). He's worked at writing but only started to publish, as a jazz critic, for Musician magazine in 1977, where eventually he became an editor and which serialized, in 1979, the opening chapters of his novel The Bear Comes Home, on which he resumed work after a fourteen year hiatus; it was published by W.W. Norton in 1997 and won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998. I, Wabenzi, was published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 2005. Zabor is currently working on a short jazz narrative entitled Walking Bass and plotting a novel set in Turkey, If I Take the Wings of Morning. He's been all over the map but still lives in Brooklyn.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

Let this be a lesson to me, and to anyone else it might help, should the situation arise. Once I won the PEN/Faulkner for The Bear Comes Home and received a fairly whopping, at least living-wage, advance for I, Wabenzi, I thought I had landed safely among the authors: that while I was unlikely ever to get rich at the trade, I would probably be able to write what I wanted, make a living at it and get by. Since I was an unusually late bloomer, with The Bear published just before I turned fifty-one, this was especially good news: one's capacity or at least taste for high-risk improvisation tends to decline as you get less energetic and, for instance, your knees start bothering you.

The commercial and (in part) critical failure of I, Wabenzi, which I knew to be a high-risk book both in terms of its subject matter and its demands upon the reader's patience, came as more of a surprise than it should have to someone of my experience. I felt effectively cancelled out as a writer, a quick-change, drastic version of a fate many writers have encountered: an anomalous boost followed by a reintroduction to moneyless oblivion. The book is out of print, and the publisher has declined to give it a second chance in paperback. I have spent much of the last two years in a fairly desperate attempt to adjust to the shock, applying unsuccessfully for college teaching jobs, writing this and that, depending, with mixed relief and dismay, upon the generosity of friends. I was about to go back, after an intermission of, let me think, thirty-four years, to driving a taxi in New York, where, happily, they don't shoot so many cabbies anymore, when the news of this grant came through on the telephone.

It's lovely to breathe out again: makes a nice change of pace. I hope that this grant will enable me to write most of Walking Bass - in brief, a musical picaresque - while plotting a weightier novel set in Turkey.

My ten fingernails are grateful for the privilege of hanging on, again. My father, among others, warned me how risky a life I was proposing to live, and I thought I could take it, but it's not so easy over sixty, no it isn't, and I'm proportionately happy to pass the warning along to younger souls who may be as romantic and single-minded about the profession as I have been. And good luck! You'll need it. I'm immensely relieved and grateful to be enjoying a piece of it again.