LEAVING SMALL’S HOTEL
“A compact comic Decameron, a deadpan fantasia . . . a minor masterpiece: one of the most delightful novels of the decade.”
Claude Monet, Le Pont d’Argenteuil (1874, detail)
“The belief has long been held here that Eric Kraft is one of our best writers, and Leaving Small’s Hotel reinforces it.”
Roger Harris, Newark Star-Ledger
“Is there a more beguiling writer today than Eric Kraft? In his latest comic novel, he manages to combine two of his work’s hitherto disparate modes—the pastoral (à la Wodehouse) and the black humor that runs like a stain through American literature from Melville to Nathanael West—to hilarious effect.”
I WAS UP EARLY the next morning, as always, but when I entered the kitchen I found Cedric “Call Me Lou” Abbot already there, chatting with Suki, the cook, and making himself a breakfast sandwich from the meat loaf in the “leftovers” refrigerator.
“Good morning!” Lou said when I walked in. “Coffee’s almost ready.” He was smiling, but that didn’t change my conviction that he was a grumpy guy, because I have learned that many a grumpy guy will smile in the company of strangers.
“Morning,” I mumbled, hoping that Lou would conclude from my mumbling that I was one of those people who do not like to converse before they have had their coffee. I turned quickly toward the door and said, “I’ll go see if Dexter brought the papers,” employing the same significant mumble.
“Swell idea!” said Lou, who apparently had no ear for a significant mumble. “I’ll come along.” He followed, carrying the sandwich. Together, we headed down the path toward the dock. Along the way, I decided, after a quick survey of my personal history conducted while walking with my head down, my eyes on the ground, and my hands in my pockets, that Lou was probably the first person I had ever heard actually use the word swell, or, if I was wrong about that, certainly the first person I had ever heard use the word swell so early in the morning.
“This Dexter,” Lou asked, “who’s that?”
“Dexter? He’s our mailman, paperboy, delivery service—”
“Hardly working, as we say around here. He does some fishing and some clamming, except on days when he would rather not, and on his way out to the bay he drops off our mail and our newspapers—”
“—except on days when he would rather not,” said Lou, chuckling.
“Right,” I said, not chuckling. “I have come to suspect that Dexter does not like delivering our mail and newspapers.”
“And why have you come to suspect that?” asked Lou.
“I have come to suspect that because Dexter does not exhibit any apparent desire to see that the goods actually reach us. He brings his boat within what seems to him to be flinging distance of our dock and then from that distance he flings a plastic bag in our general direction. Sometimes he puts enough effort—technically, we call it ‘oomph’—into the fling to get the bag onto the dock, and sometimes—”
Lou and I had reached the dock. We stopped there and stood in silence for a moment, looking at a plastic bag floating just out of reach.
“Sometimes he does not,” said Lou, chuckling.
“Yeah,” said I, not chuckling.
I stretched out on the dock and began trying to snag the bag with a boat hook while Lou ate his meat-loaf sandwich. After a short while Lou said, “What a great morning!”
I twisted my head around and looked up at him to see if he was being sarcastic. He didn’t seem to be. He pointed to the bag of papers and mail and said with a smile, “Looks like it’s sinking.”
“Oh, yes, it is,” I said. “It is sinking, slowly but surely.”
“Why don’t we start up the launch and go out and get it before it goes under?”
“Why don’t we?” I said with a sigh. “I’ll tell you ‘why don’t we.’ Because after a damp night—and last night was a very damp night—the engine tends to be a little reluctant to start, and also because the launch leaks, and before I leave the dock in it I like to pump it dry so that I’ve got a better chance of staying afloat for the duration of my journey.”
Lou clapped me on the back heartily, as grumpy guys will when they are desperate to hide their gloom, and, pointing toward the bag, said, “It’s not going to sink between here and there. Tell you what—why don’t I get into the boat and you just shove me out in the direction of the bag while you keep hold of the line, and then pull me back in after I snag the bag?”
“Swell idea,” I said, and that was what we did. Then we carried the dripping bag between us all the way back to the hotel and began laying the things out to dry. When Albertine came into the front hall, she found it covered with newspaper.
“‘What fresh hell is this?’” she asked.
“It’s the paper,” I said, “and the mail, and the magazines.”
“And it’s all over the whole damned place?”
“Just the ground floor,” said Lou, beaming.
He handed me a limp envelope and the letter that had been in it. “This doesn’t look like the kind of thing you’d want lying around for everyone to see,” he said.
He was right. It was a letter from the publishers of The Unlikely Adventures of Larry Peters, a series of books for children or young people or “pre-adults” that I had been writing for years, and the news was not good. “In the face of a continuing decline in sales,” they wrote, “we have decided with extreme reluctance to write finis to the series.” There was no mention of a wake with open bar, hot hors d’oeuvres, and a jazz band.
“Oh, this is swell,” I said. “This is just swell.”
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“Under the surface humor, Kraft’s take on the national experience is thoughtful, disturbing, and unlike that of any other American writer.”
Anthony Brant, Men's Journal
I SUFFER from a couple of forms of inherited mental illness that have been passed along on both sides of my family for generations. We get the idea that we can do things that a moment’s reflection ought to tell us we cannot, and we are easily sidetracked.
To give you just one example: once, when I was about twelve, I got the idea that I could build a tape recorder. I had come into possession of a recorded tape, but I had no means of playing it and didn’t have enough money to buy a tape recorder, so I decided to build one.
Not only did I suppose that I could build a tape recorder, but I expected to be able to build it out of common household junk. If that seems unlikely to you, then you have never come across a copy of Impractical Craftsman magazine. I think it is safe to say that this magazine has been responsible for more wasted hours of labor in the basement workshops of America than any other single cause.
I walked to the drug store to get the latest issue. It had just arrived, but the stock boy hadn’t put it on the rack yet. Men with nothing better to do were lined up at the coffee counter, waiting, staring into their cups with the empty eyes of the desperately addicted. I took a stool at the end of the line. When the stock boy emerged from the stockroom with a bundle of magazines in his hands, the men rose and followed him. So did I.
“All right, all right, stand back,” the boy said. He removed the last few dog-eared copies of last month’s issue and began, slowly, putting this month’s in its place.
The cover offered to show one how to “Build a Photo Enlarger from War Surplus Bomb Sight!”
I wasn’t going to be sidetracked by that. I had already tried to go into the photography business, and once was enough. From a company that advertised in Impractical Craftsman, I had ordered a Deluxe Developing Kit and E-Z Darkroom Instructions. To give myself something to do while I was enduring the pain of waiting for the kit to arrive, and to recover its cost, I advertised myself as an expert in photographic services. I had a Little Giant printing set from another enthusiasm, another ad. With it, I printed some flyers, and I distributed them throughout the neighborhood.
When the kit and instructions arrived, I set up a basement darkroom (omitted here are details concerning additional costs for materials not supplied in the kit and the expenditure of considerable labor, the need for which was never mentioned or even implied in the advertisement, unless I somehow misunderstood the meaning of “E-Z”) and picked up a roll of film from my first customer, Mrs. Jerrold.
I’m sure you have already guessed the outcome. I worked on her pictures for an afternoon, and then I gave up. I put the results, such as they were, into an envelope, walked to Mrs. Jerrold’s house, and knocked on her back door.
“I have your pictures,” I said when she opened it.
“Oh, good!” she said. “I can’t wait to see them. There should be some nice shots from our vacation.”
“Yeah, there probably were,” I said.
“Not all of them came out.”
“A couple of them came out.”
“And some of them came out partway.”
“There was a really good one of you in a bathing suit,” I said with genuine enthusiasm.
“Yeah. I was trying to get it just perfect, but at first it was sort of too light, and then it was still too light, and then it was a little too dark, and then it was black.”
“Oh,” she said. I could see her disappointment in the furrows that formed on her forehead and the way she pouted her lips. For a moment I thought she might cry.
“It’s all my fault,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, tousling my hair and trying to assume the air of a woman who considers the self-esteem of an adolescent boy who has a crush on her far more important than mementoes of the only family vacation she will take all year. “I’m a terrible photographer. Most of my pictures don’t come out. I’m sure you did the best you could, the best anybody could, and besides, everybody makes mistakes.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“How much do I owe you?”
“I must owe you something.”
“No, no. We only charge if the whole roll comes out. That’s our policy.”
I closed up shop. From then on, I entrusted all my developing-and-printing work to Himmelfarb’s photography shop, in the heart of downtown Babbington.
The equipment remained in the basement, but it began a shuffle toward the farthest corner. All the equipment abandoned in the cellar—the gear for my mother’s failed projects, my father’s failed projects, and my failed projects—shuffled miserably, humiliated, into the corners, where it accreted in heaps.
There were no plans for a tape recorder in Impractical Craftsman or the other do-it-yourself magazines. For a moment I was tempted by the idea of building the enlarger, since I knew that we had a surplus bomb sight in the cellar left over from my father’s attempt to build a theodolite and make big money in surveying, but Cellar Scientist magazine had plans for a flying-saucer detector, and I decided to build that instead.
“Funny, deftly structured . . . warm, engaging . . . just right.”
James Polk, The New York Times Book Review
“[Leaving Small’s Hotel] is vintage Leroy, or vintage Kraft, and . . . with Kraft’s typical skill, erudition and levity, it broaches the very nature of the human condition through its winning anecdotes of Leroy’s present, and of his remembered and embroidered past. . . . Kraft’s imagination, like Leroy’s, is endlessly fertile, not merely in its creations but in its connections, as well, so that each apparently innocent anecdote chimes with Kraft’s broader theme of the imagined life, of its thrilling, enhancing, and ultimately dangerous connection to the real. There is also much sorrow in Leaving Small’s Hotel, as its title suggests, and an uncomfortable acknowledgment of the potentially imprisoning consequences of imaginative escape. But the novel ends on a note of joyous possibility, offering both Leroy and his brilliant creator the freedom to create something new.’”
Claire Messud, Newsday
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“A wonderful matryoshka of a novel, with at least five stories nested one inside the other. . . . The various tales move toward contrasting climaxes with just the sort of spectacular intricacy that makes a business fail and a novel fly.”
The New Yorker
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“A dream come true.”