A Bad Boy
(Counterpoint)or Proust, the magic moment of recognition was a simple madelaine. For me, it was the The Jigger Shop, directly across the avenue from Lawrenceville School.
I had come to Lawrenceville through great good fortune of a family that wanted me out of the way, in loco parentis --- in a place where I would learn to read and write and possibly think, but, in any event, become enculturated as a man of breeding. It was also where --- by a stroke of good fortune --- I was allowed to spend three of the most miserable, agonized years of my youth.
So I'm browsing through Lost Property and I run into not only The Jigger Shop but stories of the Lawrenceville I knew so well, some fifty years back, back there in the darkness of our mutual juvenile experience:
Lawrenceville was where I met my first full-blooded anti-Semites. Blond, rich, athletic, Southern boys, with beautiful manners and excellent clothes, and masters with English accents.
Southern boys, tough, arrogant --- except for one southern boy who got roughed up because he said "Y'all" and "Over yonder" and didn't know how to swagger, or to act manly enough. Within a month, my southern accent was gone. But not the shakes. Sonnenberg remembers the terror:
There was a danger, however. Lawrenceville let us say jigaboo, but it also let us get beaten up. For being found in another boy's house. For wearing the wrong colored tie. Apprised to these "punishments" in advance, the masters stayed out of the way.
At last, I think. I've found someone who wandered the same path as I did. One who will tell my tale as his own. I have found my Boswell. Or at least my J. D. Salinger.
§ § §
ell, not exactly. While I was struggling through classes in The Scarlet Letter or Julius Caesar, Sonnenberg was, on his own, reading Howard Fast and Ezra Pound and Oscar Wilde and Horace. When I was hiding in my room, deep in the mysteries of morbid self-abuse, Sonnenberg "paid the boys I had sex with in cash and I paid protection of a sort by lending out the pornographic books I'd brought back with me from Paris..."
And when, trying desperately to get laid, I ended up at the cheesy Piccadilly Hotel in New York City, Sonnenberg was up the street in his home at 92 Gramercy Park among the "rich woods, brass accents and costly fabrics, a vanished Old World of Culture," meeting the likes of Kenneth Tynan, the Duke of Windsor, Orson Welles, hanging around while his father --- a public relations whiz --- was being interviewed for a profile in The New Yorker.
A few years later, while I was living in the YMCA in Washington D.C., struggling with a comatose bureaucracy in pursuit of a silly dream of bringing peace to our sabre-rattling, FBI-haunted, CIA-ridden country, Sonnenberg was in England lollygagging about with the likes of Sylvia Plath, "Bill" Merwin, and Ted Hughes. Of Hughes: I wrote in my notebook that meeting him I felt like Hazlitt meeting Coleridge. Samuel, meet William. Ted, meet Ben. Me: meet the old stone wall.
And when in 1960 I adjourned to southern Spain, resigned to upcoming atomic mayhem, wrestling with a novel which, thank god, got burned to death on the beach in front of my shack --- all the while Sonnenberg was living just down the coast from me in Málaga, in a castle called La Consula, the house of Bill Davis, familiar to Cyril Connolly, past lover to Peggy Guggenheim, one who had known Hemingway:
Bill told me what Ernest Hemingway had told him about his famous exchange with Scott Fitzgerald [about the rich]. "Ernest didn't say, Yes, they have more money. What he said was, Yes, they don't give a fuck, and a hoor who was sitting at the bar with them said, Neither do I?
The luck of the draw. On one side, an introverted neurotic expatriate, struggling with the futility of it all; and just down the block is this guy who hops over to Berlin to spend the weekend the weekend with Glenn Gould the famous eccentric Glenn Gould, and then, he tells us, while reading Henry Charles Lea's History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, happens to run into the rich, elegant Sabina --- whom he immediately shacks up with.
I am in a noisy cantina getting morbidly drunk with the local fishermen and that son-of-a-bitch is hanging about with the likes of Melvin Lasky (of Encounter Magazine), tippling with Kenneth Tynan, telling jokes telling jokes to Samuel Beckett. And when, after a year, I finally find love, Sonnenberg is having passionate trysts with Siriol who "had been to Oxford; Somerville College, I think." I think! My love quotes Leo Ferré to me; Siriol recites to Ben from Andrew Marvell,
How wise they dream! The Indian Slaves
That sink for Pearl though Seas profound,
Would find her Tears yet deeper Waves
And not of one the bottom sound.
§ § §
fter all this mise-en-scène, when Sonnenberg sits down to put pen to paper, not much seems to come out. A little squirt of ink maybe, a large poot of ego --- but very little in the way of soul.
Part of the problem may be that although he can reel off dozens of names of friends --- Edward Said and Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens and Virgil Thomson and Ted Hughes --- there is still one missing. Someone called Ben Sonnenberg. For he is obviously, and without much apology, a man who cares very little for others. And even less for himself.
There is a moment where he might rise up out of his lumpy bed of prose and demonstrate some life. Fairly early on, he develops multiple sclerosis. Now, we think --- now he will show us the human part of himself, tell us about the hurt, the anger, the why-me? --- the startling grief that comes from a disease that turns one instantly old. Now is the chance for Ben Sonnenberg, son of the rich, friend to the famous, to show a bit of heart, n'est-çe-pas?
Forget it. He describes the technical aspects of MS: "It's a disease of the central nervous system. Something eats away the material that sheathes the nerves..." And he lets us in on his research ("I read that the cause of MS might prove to be a case of orphan antigens in search of a disease.") Then we get a quote from Thomas Hardy,
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide...
There are a couple of stories: he's in Greece with Sophie --- lady friend number 39, or is it 48? --- and she says to the hotel clerk that they need a ground floor room Parce que mon mari ne marche pas [Because my husband can no longer walk], and the clerk says, "You better exchange him for another."
Jokes. Poems. Research. Stories. Epigrams. But not a whit of feeling.
The title is Lost Property. The subtitle is "Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy." I'm not so sure about either of them. Sonnenberg is certainly a bad money-dropper ("My trust fund had dropped to $30,000"). He's a bad bad bad name-
dropper. He's even a bad writer --- a jerky, lumpy style, filling the pages to overflowing with too many high-falutin' quotes.
But bad boy?
Not really. Not bad enough. Except around the soul. Where the lost property is not so much in assets but, more likely, in humility and humanity and heart.--- L. W. Milam