Excerpt: Somehow, He Escaped
This is exactly what came to pass: I entered the room and, when asked why I wanted to spend a year in France, immediately ran through the whole F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James-Joyce-sleeping-on-the-floor-at-Shakespeare-&-Company, when-we-were-very-young-and-very-happy routine, then casually observed that every great non-French writer I could think of — Dante, Erasmus, Edith Wharton, George Orwell, James Baldwin — had lived in Paris, though none of them had died there. I had cribbed this material from Henry Miller, fully aware that, like many of Miller’s assertions, it wasn’t true: Oscar Wilde died in Paris. Be that as it may, my spiel manifested an edifying, if jejune, savoir faire; my determination to become a writer was unquestionable; and at least I didn’t pretend to hold any special place in my heart for the vanished splendors of the future anterior tense, much less the preterit. They gave me the 2,000 smackers.
In immigrant lore, when the eldest son becomes the first member of the family to graduate from college, and when he tops it off by winning a scholarship to spend a year in Paris, the parents react jubilantly. But there was no rejoicing on North 2nd Street when my parents heard my news; they were charter members of an ethnic group that lacked the capacity to enjoy anyone else’s good fortune. They knew that a year in France meant a lot to me, that it was far and away the most important event in my life. But it meant nothing to them. Their lack of enthusiasm didn’t derive from fear that I would get above my station and expose myself to the uninterrupted series of brutal disappointments that life held in store. Nor was their blasé response an expression of the equally popular Irish Catholic belief that human existence was a zero-sum operation — that one man’s success by definition was offset by another man’s failure. It was simply a case of my news being irrelevant to them. They were working-class people; they had been beaten down by life. My good fortune was not about to raise their salaries, heal their illnesses, repair their appliances, fix their marriage. Joy was an emotion to which they had long ago lost access.