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August comes, and as the purple Gamays are being hand-plucked in Beaujolais, Susan, Teddy, Finn, and I return from Maine and prolong our summer escape on the east end of Long Island, vacationing for cheap on the beach. Fortunately, the boys are conditioned to be thrilled by the avalanche of a hotel ice machine, so they don’t expect a yacht with their sand. The best thing about being unemployed, maybe the only good thing, is being unemployed in the summer.

On a perfect, cloudless morning, a family of locals recommends that we breakfast at a legendary pancake house. Judging by the long line tailing out the restaurant’s front door when we arrive, we won’t be disappointed. It’ll be forty-five minutes for a table, and with the prospect of good eats to come, Susan and I get comfortable on the sidewalk while the boys chase each other like terriers in the sun. Sated eaters amble past us, slow and smiling, looking like they’re heading for a nap. I’m already envisioning a lazy, lovely sleep on the beach under the umbrella.

Reading the restaurant’s paper menu taped to the cluttered front window, I recognize a familiar face of brown doe eyes and gleaming white teeth. I am surprised to see Ms. Jordan, who will be Finn’s teacher in September. She remembers us and is quite gracious, mixing milk and meat on her summer vacation, asking Finn about school and introducing us to her good natured banker husband. They’re fifteen or more years younger than Susan and me, a calculation that still stuns, and they share newlyweds’ enthusiasm for the chocolate-chip pancakes. “It’s your first homework assignment, Finn,” she says, and charms him with a giggle.

He gets uncharacteristically shy, filing behind me for cover, and I’m relieved that the devil inside him will wait until school starts to make itself known. “Chocolate-chip pancakes. Excellent,” I say. “I’ll have him write a research report.”

Finally, we get in and sit two across in a booth by the flapping kitchen door. The room is humming. We’re famished and excited by the freighted plates sailing by. I know the boys won’t finish them, but the price is so low that we let them order individual plates of chocolate-chip pancakes. Susan goes for eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee. I decide to try the corned-beef hash and toast. It’s starred as a house favorite on the chalkboard over the cash register. When in Rome.

On our trips to visit Susan’s family in the Midwest, we’ve become accustomed to the super-sized portions that restaurants have made standard in their quest to stuff insatiable Americans. However, even by that more-is-better measure, the pancake-house servings are big enough to choke a horse and the horse’s fat groom. The pancakes are twelve inches across and stacked half a dozen high, like records in a jukebox. It takes me ten minutes just to cut the spongy cylinders into pieces the boys can actually fit in their mouths. Susan’s breakfast covers three plates. My corned-beef hash weighs at least eight pounds, and I dare the boys to lift it.

“This is all going in me,” I declare, and tuck a paper napkin into my shorts.

The corned beef is good—salty, lean, chewy—and they’ve browned the toast to the right consistency, so it sticks to the pile of meat and makes unbroken slabs for pushing in load after load. After nearly a half hour of solid eating, I finish the entire plate, gulping glasses of orange juice and water to neutralize the salt flats curing in my mouth. Between them, the boys leave over a full stack of pancakes that would be a shame to waste. It’s the restaurant’s signature dish, and hey, they’re already cut into bites. I clean another plate.

We waddle out of the place around eleven and drive our rental car to a gorgeous ribbon of beach bordered by dune grass and gentle, sparkling surf. There are only three other groups of people in this secluded paradise. The day looks to be terrific, and I start unpacking the beach umbrella, blankets, towels, pails, shovels, baseball gear, football, Kadima paddles, and cooler that comprise our light packing. The boys dig an umbrella hole in the fine-grain sand, and I spread the blankets and towels behind.

Suddenly, I begin to feel strange. I’m sweating and going green at the gills. I double over at the sand hole, nauseated.

“Dad, you look bad. Your neck ball is shaking,” Finn says about my clenched Adam’s apple. “I could play tennis with that.”

Susan has lain down on a blanket, and I see that she’s suffering the same post-pig-out symptoms. On my knees, I plant and raise the umbrella and collapse on the blanket next to her. “I may have eaten too much,” I belch.

“I feel sick,” she says, rolling into the circle of shade. She hasn’t taken off her capri pants and top. Her eyes are shut. “What were we thinking? Why did you make me do it? You get out of control on vacation. That was so stupid.”

“But it was so good. It would have been a shame to pass up. People eat this way all the time; the place was packed, you saw them. We’re just wimps.” Lying flat out, I unbutton my popping shorts, gross and moaning like Uncle Richard on the living room rug at Thanksgiving.

The boys build a fort at the water’s edge and, mercifully, occupy themselves by the languid tide. Susan and I quiver like dying beached whales and spend the sunny afternoon comatose and drooling, lightweights wiped out by nothing more than a hearty American breakfast. We can’t stomach the thought of lunch.

I know the plates in me will digest, however. I have been feeling great for months. I’ve crossed the threshold into corpulent normalcy, and no Jew-hating gastric menace is going to take me back. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m one of the people now. I’m an American. I’m a man.

Indeed, Susan and I laugh over our gluttony at dinner that night, eating juicy fried clams and drinking tall cups of beer at a roadside shack that—whoops—takes only cash, so we split the chowder. Susan finds a last cruddy bill buried in the sticky mess of her canvas bag. The boys throw rocks in the gravel parking lot and get us kicked out. We push on for ice cream.

From THE MAN WHO COULDN’T EAT by Jon Reiner to be published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Jon Reiner. Printed by permission.

You’re late.

My apology. It’s raining, and my son’s soccer practice was cancelled so I had to pick him up earlier than planned, and then the express train ran local downtown.

 

I’ve been waiting a long time.

I told you what happened, and I apologized. My publicist warned me that you were impossible.

 

Let’s leave personalities out of this, shall we. In the interest of time, I’ll get straight to it. You’ve described yourself as a “25-year overnight sensation.” Putting aside the hyperbole of that statement, what took you so long?

Ah ha, I see where this is going. ‘Late,’ ‘waiting a long time,’ ‘so long.’ There’s a theme. You’re a clever bugger.

 

Guilty, as charged. But, tell me, how do you account for the last 25 years?

You make it sound like I was living in my parents’ basement at the foosball table. I once heard Norman Mailer say in a reading that he’d worried about the downside of becoming a literary sensation when he was 24 and The Naked and the Dead was published. He was concerned that he became a published writer before he’d gone through the experience of living or, as I remember his words, “knowing what it’s like to work for a man I hate.” That’s what I’ve been doing all this time.

 

So you’re saying you’re a better writer than Norman Mailer? People do read this site, you know. Who do you think you’re talking to? This is not just an advertisement for yourself.

You really take pleasure in stirring the pot, don’t you? What I’m saying is that my writing has benefited from my adult struggles and triumphs in a way that only time and experience could have allowed. I was an ambitious young writer, not untalented, but I didn’t have anything to say. John Berryman put it well: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point he’s in business.”

 

Is that what you ‘have to say’ now? That the years of writing and failing to get published were a good thing? I don’t recall you being so philosophical about failure at the time – or ever, for that matter. The cynic in me would say this is a lofty position you’ve fabricated for an interview, but that has no basis in reality, certainly your reality – you were all worked up about the downtown express not running.

This is how things have worked out in my case, and there may be a point to it. For years I worried that since I hadn’t been a 24-year-old literary sensation the window had closed for me. Of course that isn’t the only path to success – with publication being one measure of success – but I’d put my marbles in that basket. Ignorance before enlightenment.

 

Thank you, Dr. Pangloss.  It’s very curious; you’re more attractive in person than in the book.

Really? I rather like my author’s photo.

 

I’m not talking about the picture. I’m referring to your temperament. The Jon Reiner in The Man Who Couldn’t Eat is a deeply flawed character – selfish, depressed, useless, not worth a damn as a cook, father, husband or provider. Frankly, I thought your wife would have been wise to throw you out. Which Jon Reiner are you?

Like St. Augustine, I selected my sins in the story in order to heighten the drama of my reform.

 

Please refrain from answering my questions with literary allusions or I will end this interview. Nobody likes a show off, and it makes you sound like a parody of Dick Cavett: “Woody Allen once said to me at a party for Noel Coward . . .”

My agent, Mitchell Waters, who had worked with other memoirists, gave me some essential advice when I started writing. He told me I would need to be brutally, even painfully, honest in the storytelling if I were to write a compelling memoir. I held myself to that in portraying the arcs of the characters over the one-year-period that’s depicted in the book – but it’s a tricky business. Emotionally, writing a memoir was much more difficult than writing fiction. As I dug into the belly of the story, I was also conscious of the risk of exposing or violating the trust of the people who were closest to me and were required to be in the story. Fiction provides the writer with the devices to draw from reality with less likelihood of causing personal damage, or at least provides the camouflage that enables eventual repair. You can write fiction with greater freedom, unburdened by the conflict inherent in telling a true personal story. The memoir forces you to stand naked. Mining one’s life for material is impossibly tempting, because that material is so available, like it’s been delivered expressly for your use, but I still wanted to have a wife and friends after the book was published. There’s a difference between the examined life and the exposed life on the page. I had my wife read the manuscript when it was finished because I knew she would be a better editorial protector of our family than I, since I was drunk with writer’s arrogance. She requested only that I delete one sentence. We’re still married, and I still have friends. By the way, have you ever seen the sketch on the old SCTV where Rick Moranis plays Dick Cavett interviewing himself? It’s priceless.

 

Canadians are very funny people. I’ll see anything with Eugene Levy in it.

Finally, something we agree on. I cried when John Candy died.

 

You won the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for food writing when “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat” first appeared as a story in Esquire. Isn’t that a bit ironic? Like Dick Cheney winning a Nobel Peace Prize?

It is a bit surreal, I grant you. I’m the anti-food food writer, a niche with only me in it, though not so unique if you look at the underlying motivation. Deprivation provided the perspective and urgency to tell a story of recognition for something essential that had been lost. My existential crisis in the story – is this a life worth living – could be told through the absence of food and the craving for something I couldn’t have. All of the elements of rich storytelling – psychology, identity, personal relationships, history, sociology, culture, health, life and death – emerged on the page through the prism of wanting food. Food, craving, eating, hunger, can propel a story literally and metaphorically. It goes back to the John Berryman quote, “The artist is extremely lucky . . .”

 

That’s enough! I warned you about using literary references in this interview, and I meant it! Apparently, you choose to disregard the rules. What are you, eight years old? I will have no more of it. This interview is over. Say goodbye, Mr. Reiner.

‘Goodbye, Mr. Reiner.’