“A merciless sendup of contemporary American pretensions. Kraft can pack more wit into a sentence about grilled pork tenderloin than a lot of authors can fit into an entire book.”
Janice Harayda, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail, 1881)
“Kraft has a moral vision. His target is those who take nothing seriously but themselves, and his artful, bitter portrait of a man without compassion makes the best possible argument for that quality.”
Malcolm Jones Jr., Newsweek
Peter Leroy constructs a plausible adult life for his grade school chum Matthew Barber, now living in Boston, where he is vice-president of a toy company by day, but becomes Bertram W. Beath, restaurant reviewer, when the sun goes down.
Reservations Recommended is a satire of the critical mind; a dark commentary on contemporary culture; a story of midlife crisis; a morality play; and a book that matches bleakness against humor, seasoned throughout with B. W. Beath’s hilariously acid reviews. We watch as Matthew Barber descends from a self-protective superiority into a species of madness, and into the dark night of the soul.
“A moving urban fable that contains all the ingredients, comic and tragic, of our flawed design for living.”
Roger Harris, Newark Star Ledger
(From Chapter 1, “The Alley View Grille”)
Midway along the road of life,
I found myself within a shadowy forest,
For I had lost my way.
MATTHEW never takes notes in a restaurant. That’s one of his cardinal rules: Never take notes. He’s worried that if he were seen taking notes he’d be identified as a reviewer, and it’s important to him that he not be identified. He’s also a little worried that if he were identified as a reviewer there would be some kind of scene, a row. He knows that that’s not likely to happen, but still it does worry him at times. Worries aside, he enjoys feeling that he’s not himself when he’s reviewing. He signs his reviews B. W. Beath, a short version of Bertram W. Beath, an anagram of his own name, Matthew Barber. No more than five or six people in the world know that Matthew is B. W. Beath, and there’s no reason why anyone who doesn’t already know would connect a toy company executive with a restaurant reviewer. He’s rather proud of his pseudonym; there is no apparent connection with his own name, but, if he chose to, he could easily demonstrate their correspondence.
The assumed identity, the disguise, is part of the pleasure. He has a theory that most of us are in disguise much of the time, a theory not original with him, but one he came to independently and therefore feels a proprietary affection for. His version goes like this: “We spend much of our time not as our true selves, but disguised—to suit our occupations, or to appear to be the people our friends or relatives or spouses or lovers expect us to be, or to appear to be what we wish we were. The last is the important one, because when we disguise ourselves as what we want to be, we’re doing it to hide what we think we are.”
He uses himself as an example: “I used to be a fat boy. Really I’m still a fat boy, but now I’m a fat boy disguised as a fairly slim, fairly good looking, not-yet-middle-aged man, an interesting man, if you took the time to get to know him.” For quite a while now he has been working to perfect this disguise. Currently he’s concerned that he has been a little too subtle about it, that the disguise errs on the side of anonymity, so he has been trying to make himself a little more noticeable, to bring the inner, interesting man a little closer to the surface. He has begun to dress with a certain flair. He still buys his suits and shirts at a conservative shop—a department store, to tell the truth—but he’s buying his socks and ties at a little place with marble floors and brass doors, where everything is imported, up-to-the-minute, and breathtakingly expensive. He doesn’t buy anything that really stands out, only things that are a little out of sync with his conservative suits. The combination is intended to make him look a little out of the ordinary, but the other day the worrisome thought struck him that he might be making himself look even less remarkable than before, that the new mix of dull and chic had made him more generalized, spread him out all over the culture: a graying toy designer, moonlighting as a restaurant reviewer, in a conservative suit with an interesting Italian tie and startling socks, at heart still a fat boy, a suffering fat boy, for all fat boys suffer, are made to suffer, tormented by slim boys, teased and tormented by girls.
Sometimes Matthew uses the routine about disguises at cocktail parties or dinners, including the part about his having been a fat boy, but omitting the business about his still being a suffering fat boy at heart. He keeps a great deal to himself. He doesn’t want to seem to be whining.
When he was concocting anagrammatic pseudonyms, he came up with two women’s names: Beth W. A. Bertram and Martha T. Webber. At first he was strongly attracted to them, but eventually he decided against them. For one thing, although he might have been better concealed behind a woman’s name, he wasn’t comfortable hiding behind a woman’s skirts. It made him feel like a sissy, reminded him of the time in the sixth grade when he let his mother break up a fight he was losing. For another, he couldn’t seem to make himself sound like Beth or Martha, but he found that he sounded exactly like Bertram W. Beath on the first try, and his, or their, reviews were a success from the start. Matthew has been reviewing as B. W. Beath for a couple of years now. He thinks of his alter ego as “BW,” what BW’s friends would call him if he were able to have friends, which he can’t, because he must remain concealed. When Matthew’s out doing a review, he’s disguised as B. W. Beath, the well-known restaurant reviewer, almost a celebrity, who, because he must not be recognized as a celebrated restaurant reviewer, is disguised as Matthew Barber, a nearly anonymous man, a stand-in, a shell who lends BW a pseudonym to use when he makes his reservations, who is disguised as BW, and so on, round and round in a circuit of disguise, each self concealing another, each hiding within another. It’s an idea that Matthew enjoys playing with, as he does with the notion of BW as an older brother, whose background is identical to Matthew’s, but who is more worldly, whose tastes are so sophisticated that he can find the shortcoming in any experience. Sometimes Matthew has the feeling that BW is watching him, as if Matthew were his creation, not the other way around, watching his performance from an elevated position, a superior point of view, judging Matthew, reviewing him, looking for his shortcomings. BW probably takes notes. He doesn’t have to worry; he knows that no one can see him. He’s well disguised.
MATTHEW ARRIVES HOME from work in a terrible mood. Christmas is coming, and it makes him nervous, even more nervous than it makes most people, because it’s the time of year when all his ideas are put to the test. He’s vice-president for new product development at Manning & Rafter Toys, where he is sometimes referred to, even to his face, as Vice-President for Sensible Toys. Every year, before the year is out, he must present his proposals for next year’s line. The time for that ordeal is only a couple of weeks away, and Matthew fears it. He spent the afternoon in toy stores, checking to see how the toys he championed last year are doing, and they don’t seem to be doing well.
Tonight he’ll be reviewing the Alley View Grill. He knows he shouldn’t arrive in a bad mood. The wise thing to do would be to shower and change his clothes right away. That really would be the wise thing to do. Fresh clothes, a shave—that might change his outlook. Instead he makes a drink, a martini, a Bombay martini. He sits in his living room with the lights out and drinks his drink and just looks out over the city for a while.
He has a beautiful view. It was the reason he bought this apartment. His living room looks out over the poorest sections of the city. He knows nothing about these areas at first hand; the newspapers tell him that black people live there, the illiteracy rate is high, children sell crack from their front steps, banks try to avoid writing mortgages there, many of the adults are unemployed or have jobs that don’t pay well—food-service jobs, for instance—but from his living room it looks beautiful. The buildings are old, many of them brick Victorian town houses, and their roofscape is charming, by day or by night, but especially at sunset, when the red sun makes the red brick glow. A woman once told Matthew that it reminded her of Paris. He’d like to get Liz, his ex-wife, up here to take a look at the view sometime. He’s sure she still thinks of him as Mr. Suburbanite, still the man he was until she left him fourteen months ago, but this apartment would be quite an eye-opener for her, a penthouse, the best apartment in the whole building, with lots of glass, a Parisian view. The building is new. It “wraps traditional elegance in a contemporary package,” according to the sales brochure. That’s me, thinks Matthew. Traditional elegance in snazzy socks. Everything in the apartment is black or white or glass or chrome. Matthew sits here at night with jazz playing and he feels like Fred Astaire in an old movie. Liz would be amazed to find him living here. She’d be amazed.
The apartment isn’t perfect. There’s a mysterious odor. The black lacquer cabinets that lined one wall have been moved to the opposite wall, in front of another bunch of black lacquer cabinets, the dining table has been pushed against them, and a hole, about three feet long and a foot high, has been cut in the wall so that workers can search for the source of this offensive odor.
Sitting there, looking out, he can’t stop thinking about the toy stores, where his offspring seemed to sit forlornly on the shelves, as unwanted as ugly orphans. He can’t understand why parents are so stupid about the toys they buy for their children, why they buy the junk they do, especially those video games, why they don’t buy toys that do something more than just shut the kids up for a while, why they don’t buy sensible toys, like the building sets he dreamed about when he was a boy. He once suggested that Manning & Rafter use guilt in their advertising, but the suggestion was taken as a joke and he laughed along with everyone else.
Matthew lets himself start feeling blue, encourages himself to feel blue. He hasn’t done this to himself for quite a while, but he’s a past master. He cultivated this kind of self-abuse in high school, when he used to sit in the dark, evening after evening, listening to jazz and learning to feel blue. He got good at it, and he thinks the skill served him well in college. He felt intimidated by his roommates because he didn’t seem to have any talents that measured up to theirs. He began to brood. His roommates would come home from the library late at night and find him sitting in the dark, in a corner, listening to jazz and brooding. They began to think that he was deeply troubled, possibly dangerous. He enjoyed something like respect for this moodiness. He has brought with him from that period a bittersweet affection for the big, breathy saxophones of Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, and Ben Webster.
He’s finished his drink. He hops up and dresses in a hurry. He’s a little late.
IN THE HALL, when he presses the elevator button nothing happens. He’s not surprised. Among the “world-class luxury amenities” in the building are elevators that haven’t worked right for months. Every morning two representatives of the elevator manufacturer arrive, disable one of the elevators, and begin leafing through an enormous repair manual. Because they work in the building every day, they’ve come to seem like part of the regular staff. They greet Matthew when he passes them in the morning, and Matthew smiles and says “Good morning” to them. Often they’re still working when he comes home at night, still turning the pages of the manual. Matthew smiles, nods, and says hello. He never criticizes them. He doesn’t want to cause trouble, to seem to be complaining, doesn’t want them to think that he thinks they’re doing anything less than the best they can, because he knows that it’s important not to offend tradespeople when they’re working for you, lest they give up on you, but he can’t help asking himself where on earth the elevator company got these clowns. Are they men who actually know how to fix elevators, or were they sent here for on-the-job training? Every evening, when they leave scratching their heads, the super announces, “So ends another episode in the Adventures of the Hardy Boys and Their Amazing Electric Elevator.” Matthew sketched an idea for a toy elevator that breaks. It would come with a troubleshooting manual, spare parts, and tools. He suggested that this launch a series: washing machines, cars, television sets, anything that breaks. The proposal was greeted at Manning & Rafter with a silence that Matthew took for repressed amusement. Even while he was presenting the idea he realized that it was too blue-collar to sell today. He was living in the past.
At last the elevator bell begins to bing. The left car is coming up, but from somewhere far below the alarm bell from the right car begins to sound. Then Matthew hears a small voice calling “Hello?” in the apologetic tone that people who, like Matthew, don’t want to causeany trouble use when they find themselves in trouble. There is a long pause. “Hello?” There is another long pause. “Is anyone there? Can someone get me out of here?” More ringing of the alarm bell. The left car arrives. It comes up to Matthew’s floor, hesitates for a second, and then heads down again, without ever opening its doors. He considers giving up. He thinks of going back into the apartment, calling Belinda, explaining that it’s impossible for him to leave the building because the elevator isn’t safe, heating up a goat-cheese pizza that he has tucked away in the back of the freezer for an emergency like this, opening a bottle of wine, putting on one of his Coleman Hawkins tapes, and phoning the girls down the hall to see if one of them wants to come to dinner, any one. It sounds like a great plan for about a minute, but then he remembers that he’s too old to interest the girls down the hall. Besides, the elevator comes back up, and the doors open. He takes it as a sign.
Scroll down for more from Chapter 1.
“A wonderfully readable novel about an intelligent man’s capitulation to the anger and fear endemic to middle-aged, middle-class white American men.”
Richard Gehr, The Village Voice Literary Supplement
from Chapter 1
IN THE LOBBY, one of his neighbors, a man of thirty-five or so, someone he knows only as Robert, is screaming at the girl behind the desk. (This girl is not a full-time professional concierge. She’s a student. In fact, she’s the prettiest of the girls who live down the hall from Matthew.) Robert’s dressed almost entirely in black, including a black fur coat and black-and-white patent-leather saddle shoes. His date is standing behind him, with his arms folded, trying to appear uninterested, but his eyes betray him—they’re afire with the thrill of watching Robert make a scene. He too is dressed in black. He has a rhinestone pin on the lapel of his coat.
“This is absolutely inexcusable!” Robert is shouting. “Fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes we waited for the goddamned elevator. In-ex-cus-a-ble! Inexcusable.”
Matthew tries not to chuckle. It sounds like a spelling bee. He can’t keep himself from spelling, mentally, i-n-e-x-c-u-s-a-b-l-e.
“I don’t ever want this to happen again, do you hear me!” Robert stamps his foot.
The girl is on the verge of tears. Matthew loves the way her hair falls over her shoulders, fine and straight, light brown, with a little red in it. For the first time he notices that she has freckles.
Freckles, he says to himself. My God. And he asks himself, How old is this girl? Twenty-two? Eighteen? Twelve? He has no idea. He can’t tell. It occurs to him, just then, that he’s well on his way to becoming an old fart, or a middle-aged fart, anyway.
The girl has a textbook of some kind open on the desk in front of her. She pushes some hair back behind her ear in that lovely, heartbreaking way girls do and runs her finger under her eye, wiping an incipient tear. For an instant Matthew considers snatching the vase of flowers from the lobby table and smashing it over Robert’s head. Then he remembers himself as not the sort of person who would do something like that.
“You understand that I have nothing to do with this,” the girl says. She’s trying to be calm, but her lip trembles a little, and there’s a catch in her voice.
“All I know is this,” says Robert. He heard that little catch in her voice, and he’s pressing his advantage. He jabs his finger at her. “I never want this to happen again. Do you understand me?”
She frowns and nods, barely.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, I understand you, but—”
“Good! That’s all I have to say about it.” He turns on his heel, and his friend opens the door for him. They walk out and start off down the street, talking animatedly, flinging their arms.
The girl puts her elbows on the desk and lets her chin drop into her hands.
“He has no right to talk to you like that,” Matthew says. He wonders if this is a good time to ask her if she’d like to drop in for dinner sometime.
She looks up and smiles at him, weakly. “I called the elevator company,” she says. She blinks, and she brushes her hands across her eyes.
Matthew thinks again about staying home, just hanging out in the lobby, perhaps, chatting with her, helping her study, sending out for whatever girls her age eat. He pulls his stomach in and stands up a little straighter, is immediately struck by the fact that he thinks it’s necessary to pull his stomach in and stand up a little straighter, and loses his nerve. He gives her a crooked little grin that he hopes she’ll consider conspiratorial. “What more can you do?” he says.
She shrugs. For a moment he thinks she’s going to ask him something. Maybe she’s going to ask him why he didn’t speak up in her defense, or maybe she’s about to say, “I noticed you were considering hitting Robert with that vase. Why didn’t you?” Whatever she thought of asking she thinks better of it, he guesses, because she just shrugs. She probably knows that he knows that she has three roommates, two more than the building allows, and she doesn’t want any trouble from him. It has occurred to her that he must be about her father’s age, and he probably has the same touchiness about rules as her father. She smiles at him, the very smile she smiles at her father when she wants his support but doesn’t really want to talk to him.
The elevator alarm bell begins ringing again. “Hello?” calls the tentative voice. Matthew shakes his head and leaves, wondering what she’ll do after he’s gone. Will she call a friend and chat? Will she call the elevator company again? Will she stick her earphones in her ears so she won’t hear the little voice calling from the elevator? Will she slip into the mailroom and efface the unhappy incident with cocaine? Maybe she’ll say to herself, “He’s kinda cute, that Mr. Barber. I’ll bet he’s pretty interesting when you get to know him.”
OUTSIDE, Matthew sees Robert and his friend walking ahead of him, still talking and waving their arms. A short, heavy woman in a green coat is walking toward them. She looks like a gumdrop. As she approaches them, Matthew sees that she’s saying something, almost shouting. They stop and put their hands on their hips; for a moment, they are a pantomime of homosexual umbrage. The gumdrop woman is really shouting now. They shout back, and the exchange escalates in volume until finally Matthew can make out what the woman’s saying; in the singsong voice children use to taunt one another, she’s saying, “Animals suffered agony to make your coat.”
“Your mother suffered agony to make you, sweetheart,” Robert’s date shouts. Matthew laughs. The whole scene strikes him as funny, these people in various stages of coming unglued. Liz used to think he had no sense of humor, and at the time she may have been right, but he has a sense of humor now—he’s sure he does, it’s one of the many ways he’s changed, as she would be amazed to see if she would take the trouble to look. He’s learned this: a sense of humor is the best defense. He spent a whole childhood moping because he didn’t have the defensive shield of a sense of humor. He has cultivated this sense of humor that he has now, and he believes that he mopes for only a small part of the average day.
HE GETS A CAB at the corner, gives the driver Belinda’s address, and then sits in silence. Whenever he’s alone in a cab, it seems to him that he should talk to the cabdriver, but he never does unless the driver speaks to him first. Cabdrivers, he knows, are supposed to have a wealth of information, a repertoire of amazing stories, but they rarely speak to him, and he never knows what to say to them. This behavior isn’t really a reluctance to talk to cabdrivers as such—he has the same problem with anyone he doesn’t know well—but he’s not usually riding alone in a car with other people he doesn’t know well, so it’s most apparent with cabdrivers.
He rides to Belinda’s without saying a word, and by the time they arrive he’s sure that the driver thinks he’s the kind of supercilious shithead who wouldn’t deign to talk to a cabdriver, so he overtips. This makes him feel like a sap.
He rings Belinda’s bell.
BELINDA is not her real name. Her real name is Linda. Almost a year ago, not long after she and Matthew began having dinner together a couple of nights a week, she decided that Linda, as a name, had had its day. She said to him, “Try calling me Belinda for a while.” He tried it that evening, and an amazing transformation occurred. He had known Linda for years. She was married to a friend of his, and Liz was a friend of hers. He and Linda were friends by extension. When they began going out to dinner together, he still thought of her as his old friend Linda. When he began calling her Belinda, he found that this woman Belinda seemed a lot sexier than his old friend Linda, and at the end of the evening they went nuts, making love on the sofa and rug in Matthew’s living room until they were exhausted. After all those years, they were suddenly lovers—well, not lovers, to tell the truth—something more like sex fiends. It didn’t last. Perhaps friendship is stronger than sex. They are back to being friends, friends who have sex once or twice a week, after dinner or the movies or the theater—still on the couch or the rug, but with something missing. Matthew keeps hoping that she’ll decide to change her name again.
“I recommend this novel without reservations.”
Los Angeles Times
“Seria, divertida, trascendente y hermosa.”
La Vanguardia (Barcelona)
“A psychosexual ‘tour de farce.’”
Forrest Rogers, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
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“Wise and humorous, affectionate and witty.”
Read complete reviews.
“Kraft es, en mi opinion, un maestro.”
Robert Saladrigas, La Vanguardia (Barcelona)