You've read his stuff. Everybody has. What bookshelf in all America doesn't boast at least one volume by the Master. Six of his books--his last antediluvian trilogy plus the mystery series, Death Wears No Clothes--take up the greater portion of the small shelf sagging ominously above my desk. They are sandwiched there between Hemingway, whom Stiehl always regarded as a hack, and Steinbeck, whom he really disliked. Which is not to say that I shared his beliefs or considered Stiehl in the same vein with either Hemingway or Steinbeck.
He was far superior to them both in the cut of his jib ... still is, I suppose.
"The fucking hell of it all," Hymie once told me after we'd bent a few too many at John Barleycorn's on Chicago's near North Side, "is the more you do, the less people appreciate you. If a writer could crank out one good book--one really fuckin' terrific novel--and then disappear from the face of the earth, he'd be virtually guaranteed a place among the world's great literati. He'd be immortal."
He was right, of course. J. D. Salinger proved that. Forget Frannie and Zooey. Salinger's only real masterpiece was and always will be Catcher in the Rye, and it's for that that he'll always be remembered. Nonetheless, it was ironic that he, Stiehl, had made the observation.
When Hyman Stiehl was a struggling young writer working out of the bowels of the City of Big Shoulders, he was garbage, pure and simple. His work was genuinely uninspired. "Except for the dust jacket," one critic wrote about his very first novel, "it would be impossible to tell that it was a book at all."
But now. Now!
"You know him?" one of my students asked casually as we stood in the hall, talking of literary greatness and how best to achieve it.
"Who?" I asked foolishly, following the gaze of a pimply faced young literary radical down the corridor to a stoop-shouldered old goat with pock-marked skin and dead stogie dangling from a pale and puckered mouth. "Him?"
I'd known of Hyman Stiehl, the great and famous poet laureate, for years. But who was this? I turned to my student and shrugged, then glanced again at the old man. His steel-blue eyes met mine briefly, and they darted away, speeding off down the hall where they came to rest on the sylvan form of a young maiden in a tight-fitting green knit dress.
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