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John Irving jumped rope for forty-five minutes while he stared at a wall in his wrestling room.

Johnny Cash sang quietly in the background:

“As he looked at the wall
So strong and tall
I heard him softly curse
Nobody at all ever climbed that wall
But I’m gonna be the first…
I’m gonna be the first…”

“That’s right, you’re gonna be the first,” John Irving said.

The phone rang.

“I hear you’ve got Melville lined up.”  It was Hemingway starting in again.

“What happened to Kesey?  Did you bore him to death and get a pass?  No one beats Kesey in the octagon, Irving.  Not you, not me, no one.  So what happened, did you have a scheduling conflict?  That’s the pansy-boy way out.  Are you too busy to get your butt kicked?”

“I’m glad you weren’t, Ernest.  What’s that noise I hear in the background?  Are you still tapping out?”

“You got lucky, punk.  I want a rematch.”

“After Melville, I’m avoiding any more beards.  You’ll have to shave before I get back in there with you.  And maybe stop complaining when you get beat fair and square.”

“You’re still upset about the thumb talk?”

“I didn’t thumb you in the throat, so stop saying it.  I might next time, though.”

“I’m doing neck work-outs just in case.  So why Melville?”

“Long story short…”

“Like that’ll ever happen with you. Just give me the novella version.”

“How about long story with short words?”

“Don’t get me started.  Why Melville?”  Hemingway stayed tenaciously on subject.  “You can tell us.”

“He’s called America’s greatest writer, Moby Dick the greatest American Novel.  I like your short-hand better and since I knocked you off, why not him.”

“It’s about a fish.  I wrote one about a fish.  Old Man And The Sea.  Got me the Nobel Prize.”

“A whale is a mammal.  It breathes oxygen.”

“Which is more than you’ll be doing when Herm wraps his whaler arm around your windpipe.”

“Really?  How does it feel?  When do you know it’s time to tap?  What’s that feeling?”

“Funny one, smart guy.  It feels like a panic, if you want to know.  Melville will explain it to you.”

“The only chance he has is if he comes in with a harpoon.  If not, he’s going down harder than you, Papa.”

“The only one going down hard is your mother, kid.”

“Or one of your ex-wives.  What are you, a Mormon?  Who needs that many wives?”

“Only one at a time, Junior.  Not seven at once.”

“It seems they all found something lacking with you alone, Ernie.  Seven times.”

“The only thing ending too bad is what Melville has in store for you.  You think Kesey is strong?  Farmer strong?  Melville is whaler-strong.  He kills whales in the ocean.  What have you done?”

“Wrestled.  I’ve wrestled, and that’s more than enough.  I’d think you would agree.  How’s the neck again?”

“Neck’s fine, but I’ve got a little whiplash from the face to face gut wrench.  That can’t be fair.”

“Did the ref call it?  No?  Then it’s fair.  I’ve got to go, Ernie.  Someone’s calling on my other line.”

“Two lines, huh, pretty boy?  I should have guessed.  Good-bye.”

John Irving crossed the room to his land line phone.

“Hello, this is John Irving,” he said.

“That’s a relief.”

“To whom am I conversing with?”

“Take a guess.  I’m the one who said “A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.”  You sound as dense as oak.”

“Almost as dense as the guy who said, “There is something wrong about the man who wants help.  There is somewhere a deep defect, a want, in brief, a need, a crying need, somewhere about that man.”  That’s you, Melville, a crying need.”

“Make fun if you must.  Laugh at the customs inspector with the 16,000 line poem.  Poke fun, but remember I’m the one with the extinct whale named after him, not you.  Livyatan melvillei lives no longer on the menu, but in our hearts and paleontology.”

John Irving switched the phone to his other ear.

“That’s good and fine, Herman.  May I call you Herman?  Listen, Herm, here’s what’s going to happen.  I know Hemingway put you up to this.  I mean I want the fight; after you I can hang the two biggest names in literary fish on my wall.  But I don’t know.”

“You’ll not weasel out, lad.  Hem said you might try.  ‘To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.  No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.’  Whose career does that remind you of, Fluffy?”


“I’ve seen pictures of your hair,” Melville said.

“It’s never been fluffy.”

“There’s a lot of it.”

“Like your beard.  Get off my hair.  I’m not weaseling out.  Did the Hemmer tell you how his match went?  I”ll help him out, it went bad.  I’m a wrestler, not some Roaring Twenties duker punching out Princeton frat boys in straight legs.  At least Hemingway had a clue.  He knew how to fight, he just didn’t understand the rules.”

“You’ll not lecture me, my good man, until after I send you to the briny deep of the octagon.”

“Okay, Captain Ahab.  This is what you can expect.  We walk out and touch gloves.  You can do that, right?  What else can you do?  What are you bringing from the 1840’s?  That’s before the Civil War, so fighting in your prime was even more civil?  We touch gloves and stand back.  It’s a respect thing.  Then I’m opening up on your face in a quick combination.  I’ll stand back then fake another combination.  But instead I’ll do an inside trip.  Did you drill that a lot back in the 1850’s?  The inside trip sits you right down, so I scramble up to a cross-chest or head lock, and rain punches down on your face until the referee stops the fight.”

After a long pause, “I see.  And this behavior is allowed in the rules?”

“This is the game.  If you want to be a part of it, okay.  At least you know what to expect.  And really, Herman, I like you.  I like your work.  I feel bad about how your work never gave any reward back to you, but it happens.”

“I performed at my best.”

“Let’s be honest.  You’ve heard the rumors.  You turned into a drunk, a wife beater, a regular lunatic your wife’s family would have signed into an insane asylum.”

“And I would have gladly gone.  Point well taken.  Back to our fight.  If art is the objectification of feeling, and we share a feeling of friendship, then what would the beating you promise in the octagon be?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Herm.  I feel bad about Hemingway, though he was better than I thought he’d be.  Kesey and I talked it out.  He would have destroyed me.  You and I can talk it out.  I just want to be fair with you.”

“Why do that?  Nothing else has been fair.  I write one the great books in world literary history and make zilch.  I crank out more books and get the cold shoulder.  Even after the war the public looked at me with a blind eye.”

“You’ve got a good name, and an extinct whale named after you.”

“And a friend in John Irving.  Thank you.  What, or who, is next?”

“I’ve got a few in mind.  Anyone on your list?”

“Just one, my friend  Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

“Your friend?  Why?”

“You won’t take him down a notch?”

“He’s on my list now.   Good bye, Herman Melville.”

“The whale, the whale!  Good bye .”


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