The Man Who Wrote War and Peace
by Dan Rafter
John Hershling wrote War and Peace today.
That’s not quite right. What he did today was finish War and Peace and walk it over to the publishing house, the one in the tower that rises 60 stories up from the pavement. Today he walked through the doors of Gold & Sons Publishing, clutching 560,000-plus brilliant words. (Their language’s translated version. If we’d been on a different world that word count could have been as low as 396,000 or as high as 645,000.)
John didn’t look so good before he left. It was to be expected, though. He hadn’t slept. He’d rarely eaten. Pretty much all he’d done, actually, was type. From the minute his day started until the minute he pulled that last word out of his computer screen and onto page number 1,474, he typed. As I watch his progress now through the lobby – I can tell how haltingly he’s moving by how the picture in the monitor jerks and bobs – I can just imagine how he must look now. I know he certainly doesn’t look like someone I’d want to see if I was a publisher. Good thing he wore his gloves this morning, which actually looks OK because it is the middle of winter here. If he wasn’t, you’d see those fingertips of his, all 10 of them covered in band-aids.
That’s what happens when you write War and Peace in three days.
John’s coming to the receptionist desk now, which means I better get busy. John’s not the best talker on a full night’s sleep. I’d hate to hear him go it alone today.
So I press the little red button on the wireless unit and clear my throat. I can see that John has jerked to a stop in front of the pretty receptionist. She doesn’t lift her head from the book that she’s holding.
“OK, John. Take a hold of yourself. We’re almost there. Start simple: ‘Hello’”
John’s voice is a croak. But it does work. “Hello.”
The receptionist looks up. I like her grey eyes, and her warm smile. It might be fake, the smile, but it is warm. “Can I help you, sir?” She’s a pro. Not even a flinch. When I first saw John this morning I certainly flinched.
I press the button: “I have a manuscript for Ms. Potter.”
John’s voice cracks. The words don’t come out.
I press again: “C’mon, John. Focus. You can sleep in five minutes: ‘I have a manuscript for Ms. Potter.’”
This time it works. John even manages to drop his papers – wrapped tight with rubber bands – on the pretty lady’s desk. It splashes her coffee but because the lady is a pro, she doesn’t notice.
I can tell from the monitor, synched to the nearly invisible camera attached to John’s shirt collar, that my partner’s just standing there, staring down at all those papers. He must look lost. Desperate. If he was standing that way on the street the police would arrest him for panhandling. But John’s not on the street. He’s in a publisher’s office. The pretty receptionist is used to writers.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be sure she gets it.” The professional reserve that freezes her face in that warm smile chips only once, when she first picks up the pages and feels their heft. “Whoa, someone needs an editor,” she cracks.
Then it was over. “Ms. Potter will be in touch if she’s interested.”
“It’s War and Peace,” I say into the microphone and into John’s ear. “How can she not be?”
John wouldn’t sleep after he got back. He wouldn’t even shrug out of his Salvation Army suit coat. I could see that the sweat stains from his underarms had soaked through the coarse fabric. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
I sat in front of the monitor. It’d been a simple trick to attach a Bug to John’s sheaf of papers; It’d been standard monitoring technology in my world for years. I’d typed in a few keywords from John’s apartment and the Bug scurried off the bottom page of War and Peace – seconds after the receptionist had dumped it onto her boss’ desk -- and onto Joann Potter’s wall. It was a perfect vantage point.
We’d been staring at the monitor for three hours when it happened: Joann picked up John’s manuscript with both hands.
This was big. Joann was Gold & Sons. She gave the go-ahead on The Scarlet Letter. Her bosses hadn’t been sure. Now it sat at number-one on the New York Times’ best-seller list. She’d done the same thing last year with All Quiet on the Western Front. It still sat in the top five.
Joann had the magic touch.
“It’ll all be worth it soon,” I told him. “This is our start, my friend. This is it.”
That’s when my Bug showed Joann tossing John’s typing into the garbage can.
“No.” John’s voice was like a match blowing out.
Then we heard Joanne Potter, the maker of international bestsellers, give her verdict: “Someone’s gonna’ read something that big? Please.”
John started to cry. He was holding his hands up at me, gloves still hiding those band-aided fingers. He was pathetic.
Another setback. We shot too high with Tolstoy. We’re pitching to a lowbrow world, after all. So I got a new idea. Go modern. Go pop. Peyton Place.
It’s not Shakespeare, I know. But the book sold more than 60,000 copies during its first 10 days back on the Blue Universe in 1954. If we could duplicate just a bit of that success? We’d have it made.
John was doing his thing in the other room – typing at 102 words-per-minute. He could keep up that rate for 45 minutes. Then it was black coffee, a 15-minute break and back to the keyboard.
The coffee was just about done. And so was John. I could hear the last few tentative taps. He must have been finishing a sentence. He hated stopping in mid-sentence, even if his 45 minutes were up.
“There has to be an easier way to do this,” John said, walking into the kitchen. He was rubbing at the bones in his hands, first his right, then his left. I heard an occasional “pop” as he rubbed at the right knuckle or joint.
I handed him his coffee. “It’s not as bad as War and Peace,” I reminded him. “It’s not even a third as long.”
“My fingers still hurt from that one,” John said, holding their tips in front of his face. “I don’t know if these sores are ever gonna’ heal at this rate. Christ, man, when are we gonna’ hit on the right one?”
I glanced at the wall clock. John had 11 minutes left on his break. “I didn’t think it’d be this hard. I can see them not liking Moby Dick, that was a bit of a bore, wasn’t it? But Wuthering Heights and The Red Badge of Courage, too? They’re a picky people.”
“Maybe we need to go someplace else. There have to be other places – tons of places – that haven’t published them yet.”
I shook my head. “You have to stick with one publisher, John. You have to wear them down. No sense in starting over.”
The beeper on my watch went off. “Two minutes, John. You better finish up and get back in there.”
John sulked into the office, leaving the half-finished coffee behind. I waited. Sure enough, less than two minutes later the steady “klick-klack” of his keyboard sounded through the apartment.
One hundred and two words a minute. Nothing less.
John Hershling was perfect.
I’d met him in a coffee house, of course. When you hunt deer, you go to the woods. You hunt writers? The coffee house, any coffee house, really, in the Blue Universe.
He had the look. Hair in his face. Glasses. Brow furrowed in concentration. Oblivious to everything else around him. And the clincher: a one-dollar tip for his waitress, the same one who served him eight cups of coffee over four-and-a-half hours.
“Thanks. I’ll be able to get that new Porsche now,” the waitress said, as she scrunched the lone bill up in her fist.
I waited. This would be the final test: John looked down, away from the waitress, tucked his laptop under his arm and scuttled toward the door. Not a word in response.
Like I said: Perfect.
I put down my cup of tea – leaving a $5 tip for less than a 45-minute stay – and went after my writer. It wasn’t hard to find him; He’d dropped a stack of papers just outside the door.
The papers were delicious, too. I read one, pulled at random: “John’s head bent toward the ground. One of his tears had crossed his lips. He tasted the salt, savored it. It was all he had left of Sarah. He held onto it.”
Perfect. He didn’t even change his own name.
“So, you’re a writer?” I asked.
“Ever been published?”
He shook his head.
I can’t remember my exact reaction. But I’m sure that I grinned.
The Traveler doesn’t look like much. It’s really just a square piece of metal the size of a microwave oven with 50 buttons on it: red, yellow, green, orange, silver, purple, blue … It has a screen, too. You can look through it to see what your partner sees.
All those colored buttons, though, are the real deal. Each takes you to one of the 50 parallel universes that are most like mine, the most advanced of them all. It’s fascinating, such travel, and its why the executives at Traveler Enterprises all sit on gold-plated toilet seats.
That’s a true perk, by the way, not just a figure of speech. They say it’s cold, almost unbearable in the winter, but awfully impressive to visitors. The feeling is: If you’ve given people access to alternate universes, even if it’s only a sliver of them, you deserve a golden commode.
The funny thing is how similar these universes are. We’re still driving cars in all of them. We’re still complaining about our politicians. We still have $12 haircut shops.
But there are some differences. In the Yellow Universe, for instance, there was no Leo Tolstoy. It’s all very complicated, a lot of coincidences, near-misses and more coincidences. But, suffice it to say, Leo Tolstoy had never been born. That meant no War and Peace. There was a Joann Potter, though.
In the Red Universe? Leo was alive and well. Herman Melville? Never existed.
You get the idea.
The plan was simple. We’d travel to one of these alternate universes. We’d present their top publishing houses with our War and Peaces and our Moby Dicks. We’d be rich.
I just needed someone desperate enough to do the heavy work. I needed an experienced, veteran typist, one who also wanted to write the next great international sensation.
Whenever I needed reassurance that John was my perfect partner, I just looked for it. Like the papers he kept lying around. They were always the early stages of another new novel. There’s one line of his that still makes me laugh: “Whenever my mother calls to tell me someone has died, I wonder: ‘Will my suit still fit me?’”
That’s one of the benefits of my universe. We don’t have lines like that anymore.
Of course, there’s the downside, too. We don’t have writers anymore, either.
I’m from the Green Universe. We’ve had everything published already. Tolstoy’s works, of course, but Melville’s, too. Faulkner, O’Connor, Oates, Shakespeare, Chabon, Fitzgerald and the rest. All the rest. We’ve even had all of the not-so-great published: Collins, Michener, Steele, King, the whole bunch of them. And the bad? We’ve had all that, too.
Then we opened the paper one morning to read that there’d be no more novels, no more short stories or plays or even poems. The libraries were full. The high school English teachers had everything they needed. Coffee tables across our world were already stacked high enough. The backs of toilets across our globe had all the Readers Digest Condensed Books they could handle.
So all us writers, and would-be writers, had to get other jobs. I became a mechanic. I get to listen all day to dirty jokes, drills and dropped wrenches. It’s almost impossible to get the oil out from under my fingernails.
Turns out, I didn’t have many skill sets. It was awfully hard for me to make money.
So I found John.
My partner, as always, looked like death when he shambled into the kitchen. “It’ll probably take two or three more chunks,” he said. “Do we have to go back to Potter?”
“We’re softening her up. Don’t you know the first rule of publishing? You have to wear them down.”
John rubbed his fingers, accidentally tearing off one of the band-aids. “This is killing me.”
It is rough on John. He’s a great typist. The best I’ve ever seen, 10 times better at hitting the keyboard than he is at putting together sentences and paragraphs. But he’s been typing like a maniac.
Unfortunately for him, it’s the way it has to work. You can’t just bring a copy of War and Peace from your own universe into Joann Potter’s office. It’s an unfortunate quirk that these alternate universes all use their own languages. When you type in their universe, you type automatically in their language, a nice trick, and the reason why we’re living here now in the Yellow Universe, home to Gold & Sons Publishing. But bring in something that was written in your own universe, or in someone else’s, and take that over to Joann Potter’s office? You’re just giving her page after page of indecipherable babble.
“Just think, Johnny. You’ll be on easy street soon enough.”
John gave me a look then. One I’d never seen him give me. And when he said, “Sure,” – just a simple word, right? – the way he said it gave me the slightest hint of a chill.
I needed someone else. That was the one flaw. It takes two people to operate a Traveler. The Traveler Corporation thought that’d make it safer. If something went wrong there was someone on the other end to rope you back home.
“I’m ready,” John said, his retyped pages of Peyton Place, stuck securely between his arm and his side.
“No typos, right? That’s important. They value professionalism.”
“Uh-huh. That’s why we’re betting on Peyton Place when War and Peace wouldn’t do?”
Poor John. He’d always be a writer at heart, never a businessman. That was his problem. I was once like him, too. I think we all are when we start out, when we put those first words down on paper.
It didn’t take me long to learn, though. It was that day, in fact, when they announced that there was no more need for comic books, westerns, space operas, adventure tales, oh-so-serious dramas, even pornography.
And there I was, two-thirds of the way done with … Well, why dwell on it? Yes, it was going to be a great bestseller. I’m sure of it. And, yes, it was going to make me a famous writer. I’d be rubbing elbows with that old gasbag Hemingway and that moralizing twerp Updike.
I learned my lesson. Writing your own masterpieces? That was too risky. Even if you were writing something as beautiful and moving as … Well, enough with that.
Sure, people were still writing in my universe. They were sticking their stories on the Internet now. You can’t log on in the Green Universe without stumbling across another Great International Novel. They disappear in a day or two, but others pop up to replace them. Others write them the old-fashioned way, on paper, and tote them around all day in tightly held briefcases, just waiting to meet that one other word-hungry soul to slip it to at a coffeehouse. They make the exchange, of course, for a briefcase of their own.
That’s all fine. But that’s no way to get famous. What’s the point of writing something amazing if it’s only five people who know you’ve done it? Think of how many others won’t know.
Now I was reduced to this: Relying on the most untalented and desperate hack I could dig out of a coffee shop. I had my share of restless nights thinking about how close my destiny was tied to John Hershling’s typing skills.
“I’m ready,” John repeated. “Are you?”
“I feel good about this one, John. I really do.” I reached forward to put one of my Bugs on the stack of papers.
John smiled. That was odd. I didn’t ever remember seeing him do that before. “Sure. It’s melodrama they like here. That’s what I think. Really cheap melodrama.”
The Bug secured, the wireless device tucked in his ear, John headed toward the door.
“They’ll get melodrama,” John said, as he slipped away.
I should have been more alarmed. John actually seemed confident. That and the smile. It should have been a combination that raised all the alarms.
He shot me three hours later.
But first, when John got back, we both sat at the monitor and watched Joann Potter as she picked up our latest manuscript. “Another John Hershling original,” Potter said. “Terrific.”
But something strange happened. Joann started reading. She pored through one page, then the next, and the next. Had it happened? Had we finally found our winner?
I prompted the Bug to skitter lower down the wall, so that I could read over Ms. Potter’s shoulder. It was then that I noticed something wrong. The line I could read. It wasn’t right: “He fashioned himself a writer. I fashioned him an idiot.”
“I found the book,” John said.
I turned and saw the gun, held tight in John’s band-aided right hand.
“It was quite good, actually,” he said. “Nice twist.”
That’s when everything exploded.
They told me I was lucky.
“Whoever shot you wasn’t very skilled with a gun,” the doctor said. “He missed everything important.”
They told me I was in a place called St. Ellis. A primitive place, really, with dirty floors, white walls and fuzzy reception on the TVs.
My stomach started tumbling. I had to confirm my worst suspicions. I looked out the window at the blazing sun shimmering over a manmade pond. Past that I saw a busy parking lot, filled with SUVs and mini-vans. And even farther, a towering yellow “M.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m on his universe. Earth. He sent me to Earth.”
The doctor frowned and jotted something in his notepad. Probably thought I was in shock.
The doctor didn’t know, though, exactly what my shooter had accomplished. I hadn’t, either, not until I got to John Hershling’s hovel of an apartment, the one we had used briefly for a base when deciding which universes to hop to, and saw that neither John nor the Traveler were in sight. That wasn’t a surprise. Why would he return after shooting me and whisking my body away? But what else had happened? I felt sick already.
But then, there was hope. I entered the spare room that had served as my bedroom during the earliest days of our partnership, reached my hand in the deepest and darkest corner of its one closet and came back with the shoebox I had hidden there months ago. And it was just as heavy as always. For a moment I thought it was OK. Then I opened the box.
The first page started like this: “Indian summer is like a woman.”
Yes, Peyton Place.
So now I wonder. Is John Hershling in the Yellow Universe known as JOHN HERSHLING! Will his name be spelled out in all caps above the title? Will they make movies of his books? And will that first movie title, glowing down from a blazing marquee, be The Man who Wrote War and Peace? Or will they dumb it down, change my title to something like Time Writer? They’re Philistines in the Yellow Universe. That name change wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
It’s an irresistible story. It’s about a man – he’s called Adams in my book -- who convinces a writer to hop across universes slinging famous works by famous novelists, all in the hopes of becoming a big-name literary star, a shining light in the writing world. They’d split the money. Adams, the cynic, would get the riches he always thought he deserved. The writer, an idiot optimist, would get his name on a book cover.
Adams, though, begins to realize something: He really does miss writing. So he does the one thing he vowed never to do again: he writes. He writes about how he bought his first gun. He writes about the shot he takes when his fellow writer returns, having finally hit it big with The Catcher in the Rye. Adams is an excellent shot, and his writer partner dies quickly. Painlessly, too. Adams isn’t heartless. He doesn’t wish prolonged physical pain on anyone.
And Adams? Well, you can guess the rest. He sends his partner’s body to some other universe and he remains in the Yellow Universe, living the life of a famous writer. And while he’s still coasting on the success of J.D. Salinger’s words, he releases his own opus, the one about two writers traveling across universes pitching the great works of dead men and women. And the reviews are all the same: “Author’s second work outdoes his amazing debut!” “Author smashes sophomore slump!” “Adams scores again!”
That’s what was supposed to be in the shoebox. But when I opened it? All I saw was an entire stack of re-typed Petyon Place. And since this Blue Universe, the one everyone sneeringly calls Earth, already has its own Petyon Place that did me absolutely no good.
So, I sit here today still suffering from a severe case of melancholy. But I have made a vow. I will succeed. I still have my computer, and I still have Adams’ story – in my head, at least. So I sit in front of my blank screen, I take two deep breaths and …
My fingers freeze above my keyboard. I try to remember that first line I wrote. It wasn’t that long ago, really, that I typed in those first few words and thought to myself, “This ain’t bad. It’s pretty damn good.” Those are satisfying words to say to yourself, and I can’t wait to repeat them.
So I wait. And I wait. And I wait.
The words won’t come.
So I wait some more …
And outside the SUVs honk and the sun makes me sweat.