Fighting Words

Tom Piazza talks about My Cold War, the force of history, and boxing with Norman Mailer.



Tom Piazza is preoccupied with making the pieces fit. Right now, particularly, he's interested in making the seven pieces he has drawn from a burgundy drawstring bag garner at least a "Double Word Score." Mid-afternoon sun streaks through the window, falling across the deluxe edition Scrabble game board Piazza recently picked up for a song in a Missouri antique shop. "You can really tell it's deluxe because it says so. In script," he points out.

Piazza likes to frequent antique shops, and they occasionally surface in his work, as in his James Michener Award-winning collection of short stories Blues and Trouble and his debut novel My Cold War, published this month by HarperCollins' Regan Books imprint and already winner of a Faulkner Society Award. The Scrabble set, with its lazy Susan board, was quite a find.

Piazza leans back from the table, the wooden chair creaking comfortably, one hand or the other keeping his Scrabble tiles in constant rotation. Under cover of the usual coffeehouse cacophony, he mutters as he plays, talking himself into and out of various options. He is searching for that elusive play that will incorporate all of his tiles, and this afternoon, he will find it. "P-R-O-V-I-N-C-E." Sixty-nine points.

Piazza is the kind of player who tries to see the whole board; where others might see only an alphabet maze, he looks for just the place to slide in the right vowels and consonants to create something new (and usually high-scoring). "You have to be in the zone," he says. "You've got to see the big picture."

The way Piazza says it, you can almost hear the capital letters -- Big Picture -- an echo, perhaps, of the way My Cold War's protagonist tends to favor upper cases in his speech: Big Image, Iconic Moments, the Relatives. "The voice came first, even before I knew who the character was," Piazza says of the complicated character that would eventually become John Delano. "I'd started other novels before and each time I started, I would always have some kind of Big Idea, capital B capital I. I found that, for me, if I start with the idea, it's maybe the worst place to start." This time, Piazza says, he let Delano talk for a good nine or 10 months before he formulated any kind of dramatic situation.

And does he talk. My Cold War is ostensibly the story of one man wrestling with his personal past as he tries to write a history book, but Piazza is obviously much more interested in using this struggle to jumpstart an ambitious conversation about how we view ourselves and how we view our culture -- and how the smaller pictures fit into the bigger picture.

"I think one of the things that makes good fiction is that the writer is almost intuitively always seeing the personal in terms of the group and seeing the group in terms of the personal," Piazza says. "That's one of the things that made the great 19th century novelists what they were. You would have an individual's fate played out against the backdrop of not just their contemporary history but the continuum of that history."

Delano is a child of what he refers to as 1960s "classic Levittown suburbia" (a provenance he shares with his creator, who grew up on Long Island). A professor of Cold War Studies at a small Northeastern college, Delano's specialty falls technically within the parameters of the history department, but not necessarily within its good graces, thanks to his rather unorthodox approach: "I was one of the first academics to treat the Cold War as pure phenomena, without getting into the motives of either side," Delano explains. "Without getting caught up in history per se, in a story. I looked exclusively at the surfaces of the Cold War, with the idea that the surfaces would tell you things about what was going on that you would lose sight of as you went deeper and deeper into strategy, politics, elections, treaties, all the messy anatomy of history. And there's no question of evaluating right or wrong; we start with the axiom that each side creates the other side."

His colleagues -- and to a certain extent, his wife, Val -- detest his detachment. "Antihistory," they call it. "History McNuggets." Even Delano, as he spins his theories into what is supposed to be a definitive scholarly work, is beginning to wonder himself these days just where it's all getting him. He is just starting to see that his life story is about much more than a childhood fear of murderous Russians and an uneasy coming of age during an era of political assassinations, social unrest and war. It's about the dozens of cold wars he wages daily on much more personal levels, the ones with the people around him and the ones with his past. It seems he's been simply skimming along the surface of his personal life, too, and what lies beneath has begun to stir: memories of his angry relationship with his mentally unstable father; his estrangement from his needy and drifting younger brother, Chris; his uneasy marriage.

Delano is learning the hardest of lessons late in his life, the lesson at the heart of My Cold War: if it's true that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it, then those who don't process their past are simply doomed.

Piazza writes about history with a rare engagement. He understands its vitality and its force -- Delano's tale reminds us that we ignore our past, individually and in the aggregate, at our own peril.

"It's a funny thing," says Piazza, a longtime music journalist whose Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing. "One of the things I love about music, one of the reasons I'm constantly drawn to it, is that it represents an arena in which there's a constant dialogue with what has gone before. You can sort of see it; you can watch it."

That opportunity, Piazza says, is all too rare. "I think that in our country and our culture, there is tremendous resistance to processing the past. We pay a price for it constantly. I think it's very fair to say that a culture is in big danger if it will not process its past; it has to keep running faster and faster and entertaining itself with more and more urgency to keep from looking at what it needs to look at. You can see that with a person because a person ends up hitting a brick wall; a country can do that, too."

Delano's brick wall presents itself in the form of writer's block: "I don't know anymore what to put into the book and what to leave out," Delano confides. "I lived through the Cold War. But what did it mean to say I lived through it? It meant that, say, JFK's assassination was part of My Life. But then, watching The Jackie Gleason Show the night my mother cut her finger to the bone, using the serrated bread knife to open a package of frozen broccoli ("What the hell did you use a bread knife for?" my father said) was part of the Cold War. Where and how did one's life join that Other Life of History? In writing about it, I seemed constantly forced to make a choice about whether it belongs to me or to History."

But our professing professor discovers that he hasn't fully owned what belongs to him yet; he's run away from it, even going so far as to change his name and cut off his family: "What is History? As opposed to 'a history'?" he muses. "If you could write down, hypothetically, everything that happened would that be History? Isn't History, almost by definition, a version? Doesn't it imply a point of view?" Big Questions, Piazza admits, and ones for which there are no easy answers.

"Norman Mailer once said something in an interview that I thought was very useful," Piazza says. "He said you might go into football because you have some imagination of yourself running down the field with the ball for a 50-yard touchdown and the crowd cheering and that's why you get involved. You want to have that experience. But the first time you get tackled and dumped on your head and feel your brain shake, you come to a realization very quickly, which is that, if you are going to love football, you have to love it with the punishment.

"I think that's true across the board with just about any experience. You have to accept experience with the positive and negative. That's life, and if you don't admit -- as in, let into the room -- the negative parts of yourself and recognize that they're there and find a place for them, they'll find their own place. And they'll wreck the joint if nobody listens to them.

"That's true of individuals, and that's probably true of cultures."

At its best, My Cold War finds ways to connect the two. Early in the book, Piazza offers up his most resonant writing as John remembers a rare happy night with his dad. It is a not-too-cold night; father and 8-year-old stand behind their house, staring up at the stars and over at the neighbor's house:

"I asked him if I could try the cigarette, and he looked down and smiled at me. Then he said, 'Wait here for a second,' and went inside. He reappeared in a moment with the cardboard box that had contained the tape recorder.

"'Shut your eyes,' he said. I did. A moment passed.

"'Now open them.' He handed me the closed box, turned me so that the light from the kitchen door shone on the box, and said, 'Open it.'

"I opened the cover of the box. There, sitting inside, whitish in the light from the kitchen door, quivering in the box, sat a small cloud of cigarette smoke. I had seen smoke exhaled from his mouth and from my mother's, seen it piping up from the end of their cigarettes, but always moving, always going somewhere. I had never seen it just sitting someplace, like a cloud hugging the ground. It was a small miracle -- as if he had made time stand still. I looked up at him and thought, What a great man my father is. What a great man."

A birthright, this box of smoke handed down, ephemeral, elusive and toxic.

My Cold War took Piazza nearly four years to complete. Much of his writing was done in the clean, white sun porch at the back of his Uptown home. He split his time between John Delano's academic world and the real one, serving for two years as visiting writer in residence at Loyola University.

He completed his first draft of the novel at Yaddo, the prestigious invitation-only arts retreat located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that boasts an impressive who's who of alumni. Founded in 1900 by financier Spencer and Katrina Trask, who provided the institution with an initial endowment today supplemented by supporters from all over the world, Yaddo has provided much-needed sanctuary and solitude to artists of many persuasions through the years.

"The first time I went, I was told that the room I was staying in was the room where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had stayed," he recalls. "So I was sitting in bed, kind of going, 'Yikes.' It's that way all over the place. This is where Truman Capote was caught making out with Newton Arvin. This is where John Cheever got drunk and rode the antique sleigh down the mansion staircase.

"The place is very, very big and has all this lore and mythology, and you feel kind of small because there's a lot of it and not much of you."

Piazza, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, has been invited four times. He worked on Blues and Trouble there and most recently wrote an essay on blues that will accompany a five-CD box set released in conjunction with the seven-part, Martin Scorsese-produced PBS documentary series, The Blues.

Music was Piazza's first love. He didn't really know that fiction writing was for him until he discovered Norman Mailer's novel An American Dream in the late 1970s. Until then, the recent Williams College graduate was more interested in playing jazz piano in New York City, and was subsidizing his music lessons by working at Barnes & Noble. "That was where I discovered Norman Mailer's writing," Piazza says. "And he just knocked me out. Whatever else you think of his skills as a novelist, line for line, his prose, when he is at his best, is absolutely electric. I never knew that you could get that line-by-line intensity in narrative prose the way you could in music or in poetry."

Before long Mailer's prose wasn't the only thing knocking out Piazza. In 1981, Piazza struck up a conversation at a party with a fellow writer, Peter Alson, who just so happens to be Mailer's nephew. "We just hit it off immediately," Piazza says. "We had a lot in common, and we just became famous friends right off the bat. Peter was working on his first novel, and I was working on my first novel, which never got published," Piazza says. "Mercifully."

Alson, it turned out, boxed with his uncle every Saturday morning -- as well as with former light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, actor Ryan O'Neal and "various taxi drivers, out-of-work actors, all kinds of characters" -- in a gym on 14th Street. "It was in a tenement building," Piazza recalls, "and you had to climb up a couple of really dusty flights of wooden stairs and you'd hear the clinking of the chains of the punching bags upstairs coming down to you."

Mailer was pleased to meet someone so familiar with his work and invited Piazza to step into the ring. "He was a very good little boxer," Piazza says. "He's very short, but he was quick on his feet, and he had all these greasy little moves he'd throw in. I don't know where he got all these little weird moves.

"It was very strange to box with him. I would hit him in the head, and I would think, 'Oh, shit! There goes another chapter of the next Armies of the Night or Executioner's Song.' It was terrible.

"Not that I pulled my punches," Piazza says, seriously. "I will say that he gave better than he got."

Even though the building that housed the gym no longer stands and the 80-year-old Mailer no longer climbs into the ring, Piazza still visits with his friend and mentor -- and sees his fighting spirit. "In those blue eyes, he's got all that kind of fire and mischievousness of a young man -- and the intellectual spryness," says Piazza. "The thing that I love about Norman is his intense, passionate love for the possibility that America represents and so often doesn't live up to. Norman really has a love for the country, and he gets mad at it when it doesn't fulfill its potential greatness."

Piazza likes best, he says, writers with "livid social imaginations." In talking with him, it becomes clear that My Cold War -- like the works of Mailer, Don DeLillo and latter-day Philip Roth -- is as much a subtle exercise in Big Picture cultural criticism as it is a story of a man. Early in the book, Piazza evokes the dystopia of Delano's Cold War childhood:

"This is my first memory," Delano says. "Long, thin day. Sound of plane way up in springtime haze. Static afternoon, my head cocked, listening. Sunshine, the plane a silver-gray shadow, a sliver, against the sky. Laurel Avenue, around the front, a long street, without history, waiting for its history in the noonday sun."

The young boy wanders out of his yard. "At one point I turned to look back and realized I could no longer see the beginning of Alder Drive. The noon sky hung overhead, and I had the sensation of being suspended in curved space. Television music wafted faintly from inside one of the houses. I had gotten turned around, no longer sure from which direction I'd come. I was on a street that resembled my street in the aggregate but differed in particulars that were beneath the level of conscious notice. My reference points had been replaced with other reference points that seemed completely interchangeable with my ordinary ones, as if I were lost in a desert. But this was not disappearing off the radar screen into shifting dunes or dense undergrowth, with God's own inscrutability replicating itself; this was an exploration into something wholly manmade. I was moving laterally, not vertically, not going deep into a mystery but scribbling my way across its carefully constructed surface. The sky, one might say, was Their sky, not His sky. ...

"I started screaming and crying. Crying and screaming until someone came and took me home, I have no idea how. Six months later JFK was elected president."

The novel is full of these vignettes, poignant and pointed. But Piazza is hesitant to too closely interpret his own writing. "A lot of what you do is intuitive and then later on you apply a more conscious, rational, organizing part of your brain to it," Piazza says. "I think the best that you write, you find a few years down the line that it meant additional things that you weren't even aware of at the time."

He sometimes talks about his characters like they are people he is still getting to know, saying he doesn't try to make them likeable or even understandable. And offering up any sort of resolution doesn't interest him in the least bit. "I think it's enough to get a sense, by the end of the story, of what is newly possible for a protagonist or newly, finally, impossible," he says. "In other words, if you have a sense at the end of what avenues are now open to this character that weren't open before or what avenues have finally become cut off -- and you can see how that worked -- then the story has done its job."

There are episodes of My Cold War Piazza says even he can't really explain. "There are parts in the book I'm still not entirely sure exactly why they're there," he says with a shrug. "But, finally, I gave up trying to get them out. Like the sequence with Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965 when he went electric. I still can't draw a graph for you and show you why exactly that works in the book. All I know is that I tried to get it out. I tried to find a way to get it out and, over four years, I couldn't get it out, so I just left it in."

As he begins to talk about the section -- in which Delano describes Dylan's infamous folk-festival performance -- it's not too hard to guess why Piazza couldn't get the passage out of the book. It reveals his book's Biggest Idea.

"Artists are sort of like this universal joint," Piazza says. "Like one of these joints that can go in any direction. And what they do is they're always mediating between capital-H history and small-h history. (For them,) it's not just a general idea; it's this working out of reality with all its contradictions.

"On one side, you have too much organization. That's capital-H history. And on the other side, you have total particularity and no organization, which is essentially chaos and breakdown of systems. So most artists are constantly working out this balance between capital-H History and small-h history, and that's what gives the work its dynamism. It just so happens in [My Cold War] that you have someone who's very consciously working out what we really would call capital-H history and small-h history.

"In a funny way, the book isn't just doing that, but it's sort of about that."

True to Piazza's aversion to resolution, we take our leave of John Delano in a moment of beautiful ambiguity. He's revisiting his childhood home in Atlanticville, a town that turns out to be quite different from how he's remembered it all these years. He's turning a corner, but we're still not sure just where he's going. A long-time-coming confrontation with his brother Chris -- an unpleasant but necessary first step -- is behind him. Reluctant to characterize the ending, Piazza finally describes it as a "circle, a moving circle, that contains the parts of him that he's had the greatest difficulty accepting or owning. That's a beginning of some kind of other set of possibilities, you hope anyhow. You hope."

Piazza is fidgeting. The game is fast approaching the point where the board's open spaces are closed off and the burgundy bag holds only a handful of tiles. The grand plays are over for the most part. Piazza isn't happy with it, but he has a word. It's neither a high-scoring nor a high-minded word, but the pieces fit. "Tell anyone I played this," he says with a smile as he lays down the letters, "and I'll f--king kill you."

But that's Scrabble. And, as John Delano is learning, that's life.

Piazza reads and signs My Cold War 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, at Faulkner House Books;

7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 15, at Borders; and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, at Octavia Books.

Tom Piazza first wanted to write fiction after - discovering Norman Mailer's An American - Dream in the late 1970s. "He just knocked me - out," he says. "Line for line, his prose, when he is at - his best, is absolutely electric." - RICK GARGIULO/COURTESY TOM PIAZZA
  • Rick Gargiulo/courtesy Tom Piazza
  • Tom Piazza first wanted to write fiction after discovering Norman Mailer's An American Dream in the late 1970s. "He just knocked me out," he says. "Line for line, his prose, when he is at his best, is absolutely electric."

Add a comment