Back in 1961, when dinosaurs walked the land, I was a staff writer for Business Week magazine. I was also a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, having served six months active duty at Fort Dix, the fabulous military resort in New Jersey. This meant that every Monday night for five-and-a-half years, I had to don my uniform and show up at the 42nd Street armory in New York for a couple of hours, and I had to spend two weeks at Fort Drum every summer.
My unit—which was a bread-baking outfit—was composed of about 200 young men such as myself, and some officers and non-coms. It also had a company clerk, who kept track of attendance and pay, a stubby, chubby Italian guy, maybe 40, with thick, black-rimmed glasses and greasy hair, a nice enough guy, nothing special. Liked to smoke cigars. Guy by the name of Mario Puzo.
We talked, he and I, and it turned out that he was something of a writer. Worked at an outfit that published men’s adventure magazines (such as Swank) and took writing courses at night at NYU. He’d even written a novel, although no one had ever heard of it. The Dark Arena, which was published in 1955, same year I graduated from high school.
Of course, in my mind, I was the big-shot writer. Two degrees in journalism and a writing job at the biggest business weekly in America and I was only what, 24? But I knew right from the start that I’d rather talk to this company clerk than sit out in the other room with the rest of my colleagues, learning how to keep newly baked bread from molding over fifteen minutes out of the oven.
So we talked, Mario and I. About writing. I tried my best not to be condescending, which, when I think about it now, I find profoundly embarrassing. I don’t recall all of those conversations, I’m very sorry to say, but one of them stuck in my mind. As I recall, Puzo was sitting at his big, battered steel desk, the one with the heavily-gouged grey linoleum top, munching on a Little Debbie’s glazed cherry pie.
“So Mario,” I said, “who’s your favorite writer?”
Puzo swallowed and washed it down with a couple gulps of Coca-Cola. “Hmm,” he said. “I guess I’d have to say Dostoyevsky.
“Dostoyevsky?” I said. I’d expected Mickey Spillane, maybe, or Raymond Chandler. “Pretty heavy stuff. And long. The Brothers Karamazov is more than a thousand pages, I think.”
“Yes. But not a boring word in it.”
“If you say so,” I replied.
Puzo stuffed the rest of the pie into his mouth, the crusty part. “Ardman, have you ever asked yourself why people read?”
I shrugged. “Got time to kill, I guess. Looking to entertain themselves. Escape.”
“Almost,” Puzo said, guzzling down more Coke. “They read because they’re bored. At that moment, any how. Life isn’t exciting, interesting, entertaining—whatever.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll buy that.”
“So let’s say they pick up your book, looking for an instant cure. And you know what happens if they don’t get it?”
“They put the book down?”
Puzo nodded. “Damn right they do. If you don’t fascinate the reader, or making him laugh, or touch his heart, or excite him, or surprise and delight him, if you bore him, you’re gonna lose him and you’re never gonna see him again. It’s like you and he made a deal—he buys your book and you cure his boredom. And if you don’t keep your end of the deal, he’s through with you.”
“But every book has lulls.”
“Better not be boring, at least not for very long.”
“So you think abut that when you write? You worry about being boring?”
Puzo tilted back in the worn steel Army-issue office chair. He relit the dry end of a half-smoked cigar, took a big drag, exhaled slowly and lifted an eyebrow in my direction. “Damn right I do.”
“How about exposition. You have to have exposition, don’t you?” I countered.
“Like I said, better not be boring. Better be funny or touching, or even informative in an interesting way. Anything but boring.”
The next Monday night, Puzo was gone, replaced by another civilian clerk, less interesting. I didn’t think much about it. By 1966, my stint in the Army Reserve was over. No more Monday night meetings
Three years later, I picked up a copy of the sensational best seller, The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. I looked at the back cover and there was his face, looking back at me, and finally I realized just who I’d been talking to at the 42nd St. Armory, I thought about our last conversation, that Monday night nearly eight years ago. Then I read the book. I wasn’t bored for a millisecond.