I found a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend in my local bookstore and snapped it up. I’ve never read her first novel, The Secret History, that was so successful and critically acclaimed, but I have been an admirer of hers ever since I stumbled across an early short story called Tam-O’-Shanter in The New Yorker, while sitting in a doctor’s office many years ago. I was so impressed by the story that I stole the magazine, photo-copied the story, and sent it out to just about everyone I know who is capable of reading. That probably involves the breaking of multiple federal, state, and international copyright laws, but the story was worth it. It’s extraordinary. If I weren’t afraid of her lawyers showing up at my door with brass knuckles and cease-and-desist orders, I would post it here.
The Little Friend opens with a wonderful description of how family history morphs into family mythology, a theme that is repeated as the story progresses. I do much of my reading during bouts of insomnia, and last night, after I got so tired my eyes couldn’t decipher the hieroglyphics on the page any more, I drifted off into a memory of my own family mythology.
My father was in the Foreign Service, and during the years he was stationed in Europe my parents used to take my sister and me on long driving trips through different countries to historic cities, walled towns, glorious cathedrals, museums, and decaying medieval castles. (My parents had a genius for finding little-known out-of-the-way gems where one or the other of them would say wistfully, “Maybe if we drop a $10.00 bill on the doorstep they’ll sell the place to us,” and I would go off into fantasies of living in the Middle Ages.) On a civil servant’s salary there was very little money so we usually stayed jammed together in cheap little inns and picnicked by day regardless of the weather.
One spring we went to Austria where we spent a night in the medieval town of Kitzbühel, mercifully unscathed by two World Wars. It is a very posh ski resort in the winter, and an equally posh tourist destination in the summer, but during the awkward spring off-season prices are slashed and we were able to stay in a very elegant hotel where we were practically the only guests. The only other American was a woman we saw in the dining room but never spoke to.
As we were leaving, my father noticed a very fancy woman’s bicycle outside and he and I ambled over to look at it. It had a little plaque stating that it had been custom built for Mrs. Ruth Johnson of such and such an address in Grosse Point, Michigan. The lady in the dining room. As a former newspaperman, my father always carried a little notebook and pen and now, almost by force of habit, he made a note of the information.
We returned home from that jaunt to find one of those postcards everyone used to get back in the days before email and text messages, clearly written by someone who knew my parents well, and who was simply staying in touch in a cheery, chatty manner, but with an absolutely illegible signature at the bottom. I was aware of all this because—in their desperation—my parents enlisted both my sister and me in their efforts to figure out who the hell sent the damn thing.
This meaningless little incident set in motion a chain of events that culminated in a family mythology that endured—for me at least—almost half a century.
I forget now which one of them had the initial idea (they both had wicked senses of humor) but it was tailored along these lines: Most people’s lives are much too placid and mundane, so what might happen if you knew some things—personal, family things—about someone who didn’t know you at all? Just think how exciting you could make that person’s life!
And so began the great “un-rest cure,” for that was how my parents thought of it (taking their cue from the short story writer H. H. Munro). For the next three or four years Mr. and Mrs. Johnson of Grosse Point, Michigan were bombarded with cheery postcards and Christmas cards from all over the world, wishing them well, making references to things and people and places they knew—for my father did his homework—all of them signed with an absolutely unintelligible squiggle and no return address.
The first postcard, naturally enough, said something about how sorry they were to have missed Ruth in Kitzbühel, they hoped the snow that was still around hadn’t spoiled her bike trip, etc., etc. This was followed by a few more generic cards, and then my father started doing his research. It turned out that Mr. Johnson was a vice-president of the Ford Motor Company and had actually been in my father’s class at Harvard Law School, so references were made to class reunions, inquiries after their children, fervent hopes that they might get together, gradually evolving, over time, into plaintiff chiding that they never wrote back. And on and on.
My fiendish father even got friends of his who were traveling to exotic and disparate locations around the globe to carry cards with them and mail them locally from places like Conakry and Omsk and Cochabamba. (“Wish you could have joined us here…”) And every now and then, at the dinner table, one or the other of my parents would start the ball rolling with something like:
“Do you suppose they wake up in the night thinking, ‘Who is it? Where did I meet this person? What’s his name?’”
“Oh, maybe they’re divorced by now. The stress was just too great.”
“Or they could both be in Sheppard-Pratt, in adjoining padded cells, plucking at their lips and sticking straws in their hair.”
And off they’d go to compose yet another card.
This all ended abruptly one day when a card arrived in the mail, addressed to my father, and signed, clearly and legibly, “Ruth Johnson.” It wasn’t from her, of course. It was some friend of my father’s who had an equally wicked sense of humor, but Daddy, visions of his career ending in a shambles of headlines and lawsuits, called it off.
So, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, if you, or more likely your children or grandchildren, should ever read this, have compassion and, I hope, a sense of humor. My parents were eccentric, imaginative people with a love of life and a sense of the absurd. There was no malice in either of them.
But remember, all this took place in Germany during the height of the Cold War. The pre-unification capitol of Bonn in the fifties and sixties was a hotbed of intrigue and spying and counter-spying and surveillance. German workers in the American community were regularly rounded up and deported to East Germany; apartments were scanned for bugs and if none were found it was just assumed they had been missed; phones were tapped, offices searched, and mail was read. There is a reason why so many of John le Carré’s novels are set in Germany. There is a reason why so many of them take place at least partially in Bonn.
One of the routine ways of passing confidential information was by encrypted letter or postcard, where a casual reference to a place or a date might be a reference to the passage of top-secret information, or a meeting, or an assassination. And here were my completely unworldly parents having a high old time mailing off frightfully casual cards, even having cards mailed from other countries, all of them with references to all kinds of places and dates and events that might or might not actually have occurred. You can imagine what the unimaginative, but highly suspicious, bureaucratic mind made of all this.
And you can also imagine what I made of it. I became so convinced that my father had, in fact, had something to do with the CIA that almost a half century later, egged on by my almost-as-gullible sister, I contacted the CIA using the Freedom of Information Act, and…
And was very disappointed to find out my father had nothing at all to do with covert operations. In my own defense, I must add that my conviction was not entirely unjustified. There really was an incident in the early fifties in Washington, DC, that involved my father, a Russian spy, Francis Gary Powers and his U2 spy plane, Allen Dulles, the FBI, wiretapping, and a dog, all of which actually happened, and all of which also entered the log of family history/mythology.