George had an idea he thought brilliant but his wife thought terrible.
He had a new novel coming out titled The People of Now, a futuristic, mild satire that implemented the science of anthropology to dig up a different view of our present-day lives. It featured two star-crossed anthropologists and it was about freedom of speech. It was his third book.
George's idea was centered on how he would promote it.
He was very proud of the work, or maybe he was proud of the work he put into it. Regardless, he wanted to give it a unique marketing push to capture a new audience. He felt his career would really take off with this one, which meant he could stop doing the corporate freelance stuff and start living like a real writer. It was his time.
George's idea: He would do his first publicity-tour reading at a bookstore in the town where he lived, and at the end of the reading he would walk out front of the bookstore and light a match and burn his own book.
There was good reason for this. In his research for the story, George had read that it was a solemn ritual of the religious people of Ungaga to burn things -- even things that they liked. According to the lost civilization's sacred writ, if you burned anything, you rid it of the evil spirits inside and you forever bestowed it as a symbolically pure form, as something that was free. Back when Ungaga was a small, sovereign kingdom in what is now Africa, it was a common sight during Inkeoko -- the Season of Burning -- to see people standing before flaming piles of random belongings, chanting an Ungaga prayer.
Yes, George knew the Ungaga people got carried away sometimes; for instance, they burned people they thought to be impure. He also knew that once you burned most things, they were gone and whether they were pure or not didn't really matter in the here and now. But books, particularly ones published by a semi-large New York house, came in thousands of identical copies. They seemed custom-made for this ritual. Burn one, make it pure, and you have thousands left over.
George knew there was something to this idea of his, something that would say what he wanted to say, a message that glowed quietly in his belly every time he sat down in front of a computer. It was the thing for which he had always reached, that thing he wanted to say about life.
"It will be the saddest day in the history of literature," Gina, his wife of 10 years, said. "You're going to take this chance you have, this new book that's supposed to be your best, and you're going to throw it in the toilet with this idiotic idea."
Gina never really got George. Their relationship wasn't going well. She met him at a low point in his life, when he was too depressed to have off-the-wall ideas. As he matured and grew as a writer, he felt she always seemed resistant to his best thoughts, because they defied the mold she knew.
"I think you're being rash," George said. "I think it will be amazing."
"Oh, it will be amazing, all right," Gina said. "It will be amazingly sad."
But George knew he was right. It wasn't an argument that could be won; he just had a feeling in his gut that when he performed this burning there would be a great and beautiful response, a collective "Here is something different!" from the reading population. They would read his book en masse, and he would buy a country home and a flat in the city, and he would start living.
How Gina could not see this, George did not know. Didn't it make sense that there was a scene in his book -- a short one, but a very important one, one that tied the whole book together -- about a little girl being taught how to burn a book? And then being chastised by the futuristic free-speech people as being a fascist?
And the little girl said, "But I'm just exercising my right to free speech. I really love the book, and by burning it, I am giving it the highest compliment and setting it free, according to the lost people of Ungaga."
Didn't Gina read this?
Another reason to burn it: Authors marketed their books in such crazy ways these days. There was that fellow down in Austin who took off his shirt and sang beer-drunk punk rock. There was that young woman in Boston who pretended to be such a recluse that people became even more curious about her work and scrambled for every morsel of information on her. And there was that angry writer, George wasn't sure where from, the one who had his drug-addled memoirs published and proceeded to use his publicity tour to tell every writer in the world -- especially the ones he hadn't met, including the Austin writer and the Boston writer -- that they sucked and he wished he could knock their f-ing teeth out.
George, a quiet man in his mid-30s with a temperate mind and a balding head, needed to do something to stand out. This, the self-book burning, fit him. He would read an excerpt and talk about the Ungaga people and invite his audience outside and light a match. Easy. But powerful.
Never in the history of the world, he ventured, had an author outside of the small and extinct kingdom of Ungaga burned his own book.
He would be the first.
In the lead-up to the publicity tour, George's publisher arranged for him to be interviewed by the local community radio station. On the day of the interview, he left his modest house early and rode his bike to town. It was spring and the pollen count was outrageous. Yellow dust gathered in half-wet gutters and on cars and on windows of shops.
It made some people sneeze, but it made George feel alive. Or maybe it was the fact that his wife had just left him. Not really, not officially, but she had gone to stay with her mother for a while.
"Until your silly idea blows over," she had said.
When she had walked out, George had the feeling that she wouldn't be back, and it made him feel melancholy and fresh, like he imagined an opera singer might feel just before taking the stage.
It was a frame of mind that left him open to everything -- to saying hello to the passersby, to stopping in a flower shop just to smell the French tulips.
This is when he met Dottie. She was wearing combat boots and a black skirt and sweater. She had shaggy hair and she wore no makeup. George's first impression was that she was a college student, and he was right: She was interning at the radio station.
She had arrived to the station when he did, in fact, and when she saw him locking up his bike, she gave him one of those up-and-down looks. Then she held the door for him.
"Ready for your interview?" she said.
George had never been recognized by a stranger before. They introduced themselves. She escorted him in.
During the entire interview with the local on-air personality, Dottie sat on the other side of the glass partition with her legs crossed and her arms folded over her soft chest. The dials of a radio board glowed behind her. She watched George and smiled at the things he said and generally looked dreamy.
George used the interview to tell the population of his town and its surrounding areas about his idea to burn his own book. He hadn't planned to mention it on the radio, but it just seemed like the thing to do, like it deserved attention. He clearly explained the ritual of the Ungaga people and why he would do it. And he got a taste of what was to come when his interviewer ignored his explanations and asked again and again: 'So, you're actually going to burn your own book?'
Dottie walked him out. On the speakers around the station, George could hear callers -- the phone lines were suddenly jam-packed with bibliophiles and religious fanatics and the like -- giving their opinions of his plan. He was an idiot. He was un-American. He was brilliant. He was crazy.
"I think what you're planning to do is remarkable," Dottie said outside the radio station.
"I've read your other books. They were OK. But I always felt after reading them that you had something bigger in store," she said.
George went home feeling quite virile. In the days that followed, the PR person from his publisher called three separate times and asked if the book-burning thing was a big joke. Each time, George said it wasn't.
Although a good book burning hadn't been performed in some time, the issue became topical. Several newspapers called for phone interviews, and George grew tired of telling them about the Ungaga people. Local radio was flooded with heated debate on the pending issue, and George felt that most people who sided with him were doing it for the wrong reasons.
A FOX Network host even mentioned the planned burning in his primetime show, as proof that this country was on the downslide to hell. Protests were threatened at the burning. And George spent idle hours worrying if he had done the right thing, while intermittently thinking about Dottie.
She had a warm smile and a generous way, George thought. He wanted to talk to her again, to see if it was real, to see if she really thought he had bigger things in store.
By the day of the reading, in the middle of the afternoon, George was paralyzed by his own nervousness. The success of his idea had gotten to him. He hadn't slept well three nights before, and he kept thinking of that story about Bob Dylan, when he had come off the stage after plugging in at Manchester. Dylan's eyes were wide in that moment, George remembered reading, and he said something like, "My hands are burning."
George wasn't sure he could handle anything coming close to that feeling. Just the thought of trying to light a match in front of people who were angry and confused by the power of fire itself had helped cultivate a collection of butterflies in his stomach. By afternoon, they felt like giant hawkmoths and George could almost taste the bitter dust on their wings as they flapped and sought to escape.
He felt like he might be sick to his stomach, and then he felt as though he could not go through with the burning. People were calling him a fascist, a hate-monger. It wasn't worth it. His wife had been right. It was a terrible idea. It was traitorous to literature. It was wrong.
He decided he would call in sick. And tomorrow, he would pretend the planned burning was just a joke to see how people would react. And he'd leave it at that.
He was sitting on his sofa, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn't go through with it, when Dottie called.
"Ready to make history?" she said. He wasn't sure how she had gotten his number, but he didn't care. Her voice tied a fresh knot in his stomach, but it also freed his mind from thinking about all the things that were wrong with him and his life.
"I don't think so," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't think I can go through with it," he said.
She said that he should meet her at an old bar down the street from the bookstore and they would talk about it. He sensed that she was trying to get a scoop for the radio. He wanted to help her, whether he burned his book or not.
"OK, but I really don't think I'm going to do this," he said. "I'm not one who does these kinds of things. It's too big for me."
"That's OK," she said. "I just want to see you."
When George arrived, Dottie was sitting at the bar, wearing a sundress with black wingtips. Her hair was pulled off her sweet face, and she had on red lipstick. Seeing her primped for the occasion, George realized he didn't want to let her down.
She told him he looked handsome. She ordered shots of whiskey and they drank them down. She ordered more. George felt his shoulders loosening up. Dottie looked pale and pretty in the spring light that came through the window.
"I know why you're really burning your book," she said. "And it has nothing to do with the Ungaga people."
George signaled the bartender for another round.
"Tell me," he said.
Dottie tossed back her glass to get the last drops out.
"You're burning your own book because you're a writer, and burning your own book is just a way of taking the power away from the book burners and anyone else who tries to limit what you do," she said. She had a light smile on her lips, which were still red and wet with whiskey. She looked like she was privy to information that no one else could access. "If an author burns his own book right off the presses, he's nullifying the symbolic act of burning it. That's all burning a book is, anyway. A symbolic act. Even an idealist book burner knows he could never burn all the books in the world, even by a single author. So the act is nothing but symbolic, a dramatic way of saying, 'We disagree with this.' And when the author does it first, he steals that symbolism and claims it forever."
George looked at her red lips for a moment. He said, "Also, I kind of hate the book now. It reminds me of a previous life. It'll be fun to burn it."
Maybe it was the whiskey talking, and maybe the warm feeling in George's chest was merely the embers of Jameson still making their way down his gullet. But he didn't think so: He wanted to have sex with Dottie. She understood him.
"May I kiss you?" he asked, and Dottie smiled at the chivalry. Most guys just kissed her and never asked if it was all right. She grabbed him around the neck, and for several minutes, despite the stares from other people sitting at the old bar, George and Dottie made out.
Arriving at the bookstore, George still had red lipstick smeared across his mouth. The thin hair on his head was messy from the ardent encounter at the bar. He felt famous, with a young woman on his arm and revolution at hand. The matches were in the right-front pocket of his khakis.
Outside the store, police had cordoned off a dozen or so protesters who were holding signs that said things like 'Burn the book burners!' On the other side, a collection of a dozen or so fans cheered for George when they recognized him. It created a small tunnel of sound as George and Dottie entered the store.
Inside, it was much quieter, almost like a library. A few people walked up to George and whispered congratulations. George felt like he had secretly gotten married. Dottie wiped the lipstick from his mouth with a tissue.
For the reading, George chose the passage about the little girl learning to burn the book. An audience of fifty people sat there, listening respectfully, like they were in church. That is, until George read the girl's quote:
"'I really love the book, and by burning it, I am giving it the highest compl--'"
"Pig! Blaspheme!" The outburst came from a small woman in the second row. George knew she was a regular at a local church. She was escorted out, still screaming.
George looked at Dottie, who waited for him to continue. He finished reading. Everyone clapped. There was a dramatic pause. George realized he could still back out. People were here to see if he would really do it, and that meant the possibility remained that he would decline.
But he stood and said, "For the people of Ungaga, and for my new friend Dottie, I have something I want to do."
He picked up his book and he held Dottie's soft hand and he walked through the crowded store to the entrance. Outside, the protesters were still standing behind police lines. They hissed and booed as he exited. George's fans filed out behind him.
He reached in his pocket. He opened the matchbook. His hands trembled. He couldn't light the match and hold the book at the same time. So Dottie held the book for him.
The match scratched and caught. He held it to the book. Like a magic trick that everyone knows, the pages caught fire.
There was commotion and yelling.
George felt sick and delighted and turned on and alarmed. He felt awful, and he felt amazing. He saw words he had written, whole paragraphs and pages, lighting and succumbing to the black front of the flame, which moved across the page like an evil army blotting out an entire continent.
It occurred to George, as the flames leapt and Dottie dropped the burning book on the pavement, that this had started out as a marketing idea. But it was much more than that now. It was everything to George. It was his life, old and new. He was being purified. He was being set free.
"Why are you doing this?" one woman cried.
"Burn it! Yeah, burn it!"
"I love you, George!"
The flames flickered. A small plume of ash and smoke lifted. People screamed. And George felt alive, and dead. Dead, and alive. And he was.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/allenburning.html]
Other offerings by Mr. Allen on this site include:
B R A V E S O U L S R E C E I V E
Archive of Recent Activities
Area For Textual Encounter
Long-Ass List of Contributors
Last Year Today
LET IT BE WIDELY KNOWN THAT
you are invited to our inaugural reading
& there's this review of Staremaster