Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ehud Havazelet's "Bearing the Body"

Ehud Havazelet is the author of two critically acclaimed short-story collections: What Is It Then Between Us? and Like Never Before. He teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new novel, Bearing the Body, and reported the following:
Interesting notion you and this Ford guy have come up with. I have my own test, called the three sentence test, where you blindly pick three different sentences from a book and see what that tells you. Often, not much; sometimes, everything.

So what would you think about Bearing the Body if you read pp 99 first? You'd see police are involved, someone may have been murdered. You'd think warmly that this may be a page-turner, police drama kind of thing, the kind of book you love. You'd be wrong. You'd learn that the main character is a tense young man on the edge of some kind of breakdown. You'd see, in his grim joke about the Holocaust, whether this is the kind of person you'd want to keep company with for 300 pages or not. For those inclined, you'd get a small pop culture hit with a reference to the best TV drama ever. You'd find, as I did, to my immense relief on re-reading pp 99, no typos or sentences demanding a recall of the novel.

Too bad it isn't the pp 100 test, because that's when it really gets exciting.

Page 99:

to a desk in a corner. Over Rivera’s desk the walls were bare. He stood until Nathan reached him, a hand out toward the chair, inviting him. Nathan sat. Rivera sat as well, turned his chair toward Nathan, smiled, waited for him to speak. What was he supposed to say? I’m here to identify the remains. Or would the be collect? A joke Daniel used to tell: How many Jews can you fit in a Volkswagen? A thousand: two up front, two in the back, the rest in the ashtray. A thousand and one now, room for one more. Begin with that? Maybe the inspector liked jokes, jokes were always good icebreakers. Rivera, a trim man, muscular, good-looking, waited patiently.

It wasn’t giddiness, after all, Nathan realized, but hostility. Why bring a knife to a courthouse? What better fucking place?

For one thing, Rivera was too young. Neatly dressed in a shirt and tie, hair fashionably cut and combed. He looked like one of the smart young interns at the hospital, the ones who should have M.B.A.’s, not M.D.’s. Nathan would have preferred Sipowicz.

Rivera flinched first. “Sorry to keep you,” he said, sounding just like a junior executive.

“It’s alright,” Nathan said quietly.

“How’s your father?” Nathan had called yesterday, postponing their meeting.

“Better. He’ll be out of the hospital tomorrow.”

“That’s good news,” Rivera said. Nathan said nothing.

Rivera opened a file on his desk and turned a few pages. The phone rang and he told somebody, “Right. Thanks for checking.” He gave Nathan a look when he hung up and made a notation in the folder. When he was done, he smiled briefly.

“Again, Dr. Mirsky, I want to tell you how sorry I am for your loss.”

The tight, rueful smile, the subtle lean in his upper body, all very convincing. No wonder he’d gotten the part. “Yes,” Nathan said. “Thanks.” On a wall over the desk near Rivera’s was an antidrug poster, “D.A.R.E.” written in slashing blood-red letters, like the title of a horror movie.
Learn more about Bearing the Body at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website.

--Marshal Zeringue