Two weeks ago, the literary world lost a giant when William Goldman died at the age of 87. He was probably best known for his screenplays, among which were those for: Marathon Man; The Princess Bride; Misery; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and All the President’s Men (the latter two winning Oscars for best original screenplay and best adapted screenplay, in that order).
But it was Goldman’s books that captivated me in the early ‘60s, when I first read, in rapid succession: The Temple of Gold; Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow; Boys and Girls Together; Father’s Day; and Soldier in the Rain. I still have dog-eared, yellowed, paperback copies of each stashed on my basement bookshelves. The man could flat out write! What I loved most about his books, and what I think has influenced me most in my own writing, were his characters and his imagery. I like to think my own work is largely character driven, and Goldman’s, no doubt, was.
In Soldier in the Rain, the character of Eustice Clay is that of a low I.Q. soldier, filled with exuberance and perpetually searching for the quintessential get-rich-quick scheme, but always falling just short of his goal. His sergeant and friend, Maxwell Slaughter, is a bit brighter, but, in marked contrast, is far more pessimistic and world weary. In the movie, Clay was played by Steve McQueen, and the sergeant by Jackie Gleason. If you’ve not seen it, you should. But I digress.
The Temple of Gold, which was the first Goldman novel, features Raymond Trevitt as its protagonist. He is a midwestern youth, coming of age in the ‘50s. The book was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in 1957. Oddly enough, Goldman confessed that had the book not been published at that time, he would never have written another thing. And I believe him. What a loss that would have been. But it was, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Here is a small excerpt from The Temple of Gold that displays Goldman’s special talent for characters and imagery. It comes at the beginning of the book:
MY FATHER WAS a stuffy man.
That is not meant as criticism but rather to be the truth. It is the word that bet fit him. Stuffy. He always wore dark suits and ugly ties, and was forever pursing his lips and wrinkling up his forehead before he said anything. “Is that you?” my mother would call when he came home. Then he’d purse his lips and there would go his forehead and afer a while he’d say: “Yes, my dear.” He always called her that—”my dear”; never her real name, which was Katherine. And I was always Raymond.
It’s easiest to begin with my father rather than my mother or Grandmother Rae for the simple reason that I knew less about him than the others. We lived side by side in the same house for many years, but I never really got to know him. That again isn’t meant to be criticism; it was just the way things worked out.
Here is another passage, one that has always been my favorite whenever I think of The Temple of Gold. It concerns an incident about guppies, and has remained imprinted in my brain ever since I first read it:
But, of course, the thing for which I’ll always remember my father was what happened with the guppies.
Which isn’t fair, I know, since it wasn’t typical of him at all. I should think of him sitting in his study at his big brown desk, sucking on a pipe, his head almost lost behind the wall of book that was always piled up there. I should, but I don’t. I think life works that way, though. We are not remembered for what we are, not an action that portrays us truly, but more often for some little thing, some one-time wonder when we crossed, just for a minute, outside of the natural orbit of our lives.
And so, I always remember my father and the guppies.
They were his guppies. There was never any question about that. He bought them for himself and he kept them in his study along with all the books. He put them against the wall in front of his desk and many is the time I walked by his open study door and saw him, sitting quiet, just staring off at something I knew to be them.
A guppy, and I haven’t seen one in fifteen years so therefore this is strictly from memory, is a fish. A little fish, I suppose tropical, and you keep them in a big rectangular bowl. They are beautiful, guppies are, being more than one color and sort of shiny when they happen to swim through a sunbeam.
And if my father loved those guppies, I know I did too. I loved them as much as I loved my first dog, Baxter—all my dogs I have named Baxter after that first one—but I couldn’t tell you why. Because there’s nothing you can do with a guppy but just sit there and watch it. Which is what I’d do on rainy afternoons when my father was away at college. I’d go into his study, pull myself up in his big chair, rest my chin in my hands, and stare at them. And if they knew I was there, they made no show of it, for all they ever did was just swim around and around in their little glass world.
The passage continues until Raymond asks his mother if guppies need to eat. When she says yes, he feeds them . . . and feeds them . . . and feeds them . . . until he has emptied the food container.
Those guppies went wild, swimming around, zooming up to the water top, opening their mouths, zooming down, then up again. They were so cute I almost wanted to cry. I sprinkled some more food. They ate that too. So I took the lid off the jar and poured the whole thing on top of the water where it lay like a roof. Even now, the idea of living in a house where the roof’s made of food is pretty close to my idea of heaven. They were still eating away when I tossed the empty jar in the wastebasket, closed the study door, and left them.
When Raymond’s father returns home and discovers that all the guppies have died, he gives Raymond his first and only beating. After the dust settles, nothing is ever said about it again . . . until it is.
Except once, long after. I knocked at the door of his study, which was now always closed, and when he said to come in, I did.
“What is it, Raymond?” he asked me.
I blurted it out. “I just wanted you to know I loved those guppies too,” I said.
He took the pipe from his mouth and stared at me for a long time. Then he pursed his lips, wrinkled up his forehead. “Guppies? he said. “What guppies?”
Above all else, William Goldman was a great storyteller. If you haven’t read any of his books (I can’t imagine you haven’t), go to your local library and check a couple of them out—or download two or three to your Kindle or iPad. But be sure to start with The Temple of God. After all, that’s where it all began.