Get The Lithub Daily
Follow us on TwitterMy Tweets
With Bob, every meal, every phone call was its own worthy story. There’d always be a high degree of hilarity, and something in the news Bob had hooked into it and drilled deep (Bob could talk with authority on nearly any topic, and you knew to listen and learn, though he was also intensely modest). At a point he’d reveal what currently was preoccupying his fullest imaginings or at least pissing him off—something or someone—but even that had an edge of the ridiculous, some fuckup somewhere that required Bob’s erudite analysis and, perhaps, even a next book. Hellos/good-byes brought forth the sadness that was always there too. You could take the kid out of the orphanage but you can’t ever take the orphanage out of the man. Bob adored his friends, and he never took for granted, never failed to marvel, at the grace that came his way.
He spoke as he wrote, in perfectly modulated phrases. And let it be said he had one of the great, original voices. He could modulate within a phrase, pulling from every quadrant of his life: the street kid from alphabet city; King James and high Catholic Mass; the beatnik hipster; the trained Shakespearean actor; the sailor; the eighteenth-century schooner captain; the Hollywood ironist; the wheeze, the purr, the stutter; the elder great-man booming from the mount. He played all the chords, having honed them with fine deliberation, yet you always had the sense he was eager to add to his trove, to learn anew. You had the sense of what the writing took out of him physically. The edges were jagged, brittle, tender. I’m thinking now of that meal after he’d finished Outerbridge Reach, when he was so far out there—exhausted, cranked up—we feared for him and the talk that evening was geared toward reeling Bob back to earth. At the end of the night, all of us hugging at the door, I took Bob’s hand and was shocked by how girlish, virtually boneless, it was. All those epic toughs on the page had been born of a hand as soft as Marie Antoinette’s.
The gods gave Bob hardship and talent in equal measure; then, to tip the scales in his favor, he got Janice. You never really know what goes on inside a marriage, but from the outside they were a great match. They had that playful, sparky back-and-forth, that thing that reminded you of how it must have been when they were just two beatnik kids in love. Janice made the daily here-on-this-planet life possible for Bob. Full stop. Ask any artist how immeasurable that gift is. She admired Bob’s genius, looked the other way at his bullshit, talked truth in his ear, is in her own light big-hearted, smart-as-hell, and all the while—some fifty-five years—she attended to the myriad tasks that made the great engine go.
I keep thinking back to that weekend in the late 1980s. Tom and I had just moved into a flat above the Haight. Bob was in town for the weekend, so we had dinner at our place. It was a small group: Bob, Judy Roscoe, Mark Childress, Tom, and me. After a long, riotous meal, during which much drink was consumed, there was the suggestion that perhaps we’d all like to kick back with a movie. I’m afraid I may have been the one to suggest The Moderns, which had just come out on video, an Alan Rudolph flick loosely based on Paris in the twenties, à la Papa Hemingway. I’d heard someone say the film was moody, which should have been our first clue. We’d been enjoying our tequila and a good deal of wine, and, okay, we were also stoned. Merrily disposed, we settled into our chairs, popped in the tape, and waited for the inspiration to show itself. Ten minutes or so in, Bob began sputtering, the way he did when a notable pronouncement was taking shape behind that white beard. Summoning his Moses-meets-Prankster-meets-Serpico inflection, he declared, “This, ah, this, ah, movie, has to be the worst piece of shit.” We all busted up, for a truer statement has never been uttered. The night’s entertainment soon devolved into a parroting of the film’s most egregious lines, then a wholesale revising of the script, laying down our own track of dialogue as the sad movie rolled on. Frankly, we thought ourselves brilliant, and of course Bob was. The Moderns became our theme that weekend; we kept working the riff, bettering it. Our Moderns was about hope and despair, love and folly, the waste and want of this too-short life, which is also its beauty. O, how we’ll miss him.