THE MAN WHO HATED AMERICANS by Tom O’Brien
I first met Paddy Woods in the grounds of a scruffy housing estate in suburban London. He was standing atop a grass bank reciting poetry to an audience of one. He was also very drunk and kept sliding down the bank, much to the amusement of his spellbound audience – a child of around seven.
‘Here’, he said to me as I tried to skirt around him when he slipped one more time, ‘where are you going with my whiskey?’, grabbing the bottle of Teachers I was holding by the neck and clutching it to his rather muddy grey jumper. Momentarily surprised, I allowed him to accomplish this task unhindered. I contemplated for a moment whether or not to wrest it back from hin, but decided against it.
He fell down again. This time I picked him up.
‘Good man…good man yourself’, he said, showing no inclination to let go of my bottle. I soon established that he lived in one of the flats on the estate. Eventually, by half dragging half carrying him, I got him back to his abode.
‘Have a drink’, he invited, savaging the top of the bottle. He poured the golden liquid into two tin cups that he plucked from a plastic basin that lay festering on the draining board. Barely fit for human habitation was how I saw the room. The living area was littered with books and papers, the debris and the piled up junk of everyday living visible everywhere. A couple of old typewriters faced each other at opposite ends of a pock-marked dining table, both primed with blank sheets of paper.
‘I hate bloody Americans…don’t you?’ don’t you said suddenly.
I hadn’t really thought about it; they weren’t my favourite race admittedly, but I bore them no particular grudge. I nodded my head noncommittally.
‘Especially American women’, he added, helping himself to another generous slug of my Teachers.
I guessed that he had suffered an unhappy relationship with a female from Uncle Sam’s fair land. Perhaps she had left him and the drink was the result. Or perhaps it was the cause.
‘I’m a writer, you know’, he said, as if that explained everything. The mess, the drunkenness, the general squalor.
‘Oh, I see’, I said, betraying an interest despite myself. ‘So am I…well…I want to be…’
‘What have you written?’ He almost bit me head off
‘Well…nothing really…I’m just thinking about it’.
‘Thinking about it!’, he roared at me. ‘The difference between writers and those who want to write is that writers write, and those who want sit on their arses and think about it’. He bounded to the table where the typewriters sat. ‘Look at these!’ he shouted. He grabbed a bundle of typescript and flung them to the floor. ‘That’s writing. Five pages every day. I’ve written more stories than Ray Bradbury – and all of them better than his…’ He attacked the whiskey bottle again.
‘You’re a published writer then?’ I enquired.
‘Published my foot! I’ve had so many rejections I could paper this room with them. Do you know how many stories Bradbury wrote before he got published?’
‘Well, neither do I. But it was hundreds. Maybe as many as five hundred. And look at him now. You know what he said about writing? ‘You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don’t. And he said this about inspiration; ‘My stories run up and bite me in the leg — I respond by writing them down — everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off’.
‘I read Fahrenheit 400 a while ago. I thought it was…cool’
‘I thought it was…hot myself’. He laughed at his little joke. ‘That was the only science fiction book he ever wrote, you know’.
‘I thought his stuff was all science fiction’.
Nah. All his other books were fantasy. He said so himself. Science fiction is a depiction of the real, fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. Remember that when you are a real writer’. He laughed mirthlessly, ‘The greatest story I ever wrote was stolen by a Yankee viper masquerading as my friend. She even sold the film rights to one of her countrymen’.
As he spoke he was rummaging through a stack of paper. ‘Ah! Listen to this. “She was a looker alright. No doubt about it. As soon as she stepped off the train I could see it. Her auburn hair, wavy but not ostentatious if you get my drift, fluttered ever so slightly as she looked around her. Her height alone set her apart from everyone else – a six-footer at least and statuesque to go with it – but it was something else, something less tangible that had my pulse quickening. There was – I reached for the word – a wantonness about her. Yeah, that was it I decided. No luggage either. That was good. Well, better without than with anyway. Less for me to dispose of afterwards. She was looking for someone and the wave of her hand suggested she had found him or her. I switched my gaze quickly towards the exit barrier and found a middle-aged man returning her wave. She hurried towards him and kissed him perfunctorily on one cheek. Though I had never met this man I knew his face from countless magazines and newspapers, and numerous appearances on television. A mover and shaker, you could say. They disappeared quickly, headed for his chauffeur-driven limousine I imagined. I wasn’t too concerned about tailing them. I knew their destination”.
The opening lines to the greatest story I ever wrote – and she fucking stole them’.
‘But…she couldn’t do that!’ I protested.
‘Oh yes she could – especially when I sold it to her for a few hundred dollars. Lock, stock and barrel’.
I looked at him incredulously. ‘What…copyright and all?’
‘The whole shebang’. He looked at the half-empty bottle, ‘whiskey is a good friend but a terrible master. And anyway, it was only words’. He waved his hand at the room. ‘I’ve got millions of them here’. He tapped his forehead with a forefinger, ‘and here’.
‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I asked tentatively.
He looked at me for a long time before answering. ‘From all around me, my friend. Listen to the stories inside of you. Look into the snake pit. Remember your dreams – and talk to them’. Then he lay down on the shabby mattress, clutching the whiskey bottle to his chest. ‘Now, my friend, I must sleep…’ The voice petered out and he began to snore.
I couldn’t resist taking a peek at some of his writing as he slept, and when I left I took one of his stories with me. I read it later that night and thought it was brilliant.
The next time I saw him he was famous, and married to the Yankee viper. It must have been about a year and a half after our first encounter and I was still trying to write -unsuccessfully.
He was being interviewed on one of those trendy art programmes on TV, and being lauded as the next James Joyce.
‘There was only one Joyce’, he told the interviewer, ‘and there will only be one Paddy Woods’.
It emerged that his new book about to be made into a film, and was already high in the best seller lists. His lovely American wife (close up of her nostrils) was collaborating on the film script with him, and when it was finished they were planning to retire to a remote spot in the West of Ireland and have ten children.
The interviewer then asked him how he became a writer.
‘Here’s the story’, he said. ‘I was born in a box in a backroom in Limerick city. My mother never knew my father, and used to beg in the streets so we wouldn’t starve. When it was too cold she would wrap up an old plastic doll in a shawl and pretend it was me. She wasn’t much of anything but she cared about me. There were men who came and went, but mostly we were alone. When I was about seven she got very fat. Through my child’s eyes I saw her get bigger and fatter as the weeks went by. And the bigger she got the uglier she looked. Then she got sick and took to her bed. The doctor came, and when she was well again she wasn’t fat anymore. With memories like that how could I not be a writer?’
What happened to your mother?’ the interviewer asked.
‘She died when I was fifteen. The hard life…and too much booze’. He blessed himself. ‘Thank God I never touch the stuff myself’.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The Paddy Woods I had met was weaned on whiskey!’
It was to be nearly two years before I saw him in the flesh again. I had taken myself off to the writers weeks at Listowel in the faint hope that some of its literary eminence might rub off on me. I still had not written anything. Paddy was still famous. – another book – and was a guest of the organisers. I was surprised that he remembered me.
‘The man who wanted to write’, he said, ‘did you like what you saw in the snake pit?’ If that wasn’t a Teachers he was knocking back then it was a fair imitation of one to me!
‘I saw you on TV a while ago’, I said, by way of letting him know that he wasn’t fooling me.
‘Ah yes’, he said, raising his glass. ‘It’s the real stuff alright. Sure I couldn’t write my five pages a day without it’. He looked around, ‘and if you’re looking for the Yankee hoor you won’t find her either’.
‘I’m curious’, I replied.
He ordered a refill before answering me then began to elaborate. ‘When they stole my story – and steal it they did, for I was legless when I signed it away – and made it into a film they didn’t realise it was going to be such a huge success. It was tailor-made for a sequel, but they couldn’t get a writer to write a satisfactory one. You see, it wasn’t just a story – it was my story. It was me. Only I could write their sequel’.
‘To cut a long story short, I wrote the sequel – I already had it written to be honest – and took them for a lot of money. Then I told the hoor that I had five more stories like that, only better, and that she would have to marry me to get hold of them. To my surprise she did!’ He was watching me all the time, ‘We got married in Reno for ten dollars one weekend’. He laughed heartily, ‘they tell me that it costs thirty dollars to get a divorce there- – but they say it’s quick’.
I was fascinated. I didn’t know if it was the truth he was telling or if it was a pack of lies. Maybe he didn’t know himself.
‘So what happened?’
‘Well, one night after the sequel flopped – which I had made sure it would – I bought three bottles of Teachers and poured two of them over all my unpublished work. Then I set the lot alight in her presence. ‘What are you doing?’ she screeched at me. ‘I know, it such a waste of good whiskey’, I laughed. Then I sat down and watched it burn, downing half the remaining bottle in the process. I haven’t seen her since, thank God’.
‘But why burn all your work?’
He laughed. ‘For years everything I wrote was rejected. Suddenly I am famous and any old rubbish I submit will be published. If it wasn’t good enough then, why should it be good enough now? I can always write the same stories again – only better’. He ordered another whiskey, ‘beside, I don’t need the money now’.
‘All that stuff about your mother, and not drinking, what was that in aid of? I asked.
‘Everything I said about my mother was true, God rest her. As for the drinking, I didn’t want the world to know that I was just another drunken bum. When you found me that first day I was on my way out. I was a bottle a day man’. He swirled the liquid around in his glass, ‘nowadays I can control it’.
‘Perhaps you saved my life, I don’t know. But when I woke up on that damp mattress with your empty bottle beside me, something clicked’. He looked long and hard at me then stared to leave. He turned and his parting words still stick in my mind; ‘Oh, I knew it was your whiskey – but we both got what we wanted. I got the whiskey, you got the story’.
He then placed a box of matches in my hand. ‘You might need these later. Adios’.
When he had gone I still couldn’t figure out whether he was referring to the story he had told me or the one I had stolen.
When I got back home I burnt it.