In the spirit of the New York Times Book Review‘s collection of fiction writers’ brief essays on the “writer or writers who ha[ve] most influenced their work,” nonfiction writer Rick Perlstein (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus) sends along an evocative piece that makes me want to run out and read Ben Hecht.
I keep losing copies on Ben Hecht’s flight-of-fancy autobiography, Child of the Century, which is unfortunately out of print. I also keep giving them away. It’s my unconscious at work. Ben Hecht scares me; his writing is too good. Reading him, I feel a physical throb. I can’t do it too long, in fact, or I start imitating him. (Like: “Reading him, I feel a physical throb.”)
Hecht did everything, of course, went everywhere: he was a Chicago crime reporter at a time when Chicago crime reporters were “half daft with literary dreams”; a foreign correspondent bearing witness to the rise of fascism in Germany (his editor kept rejecting his dispatches in disbelief); the greatest screenwriter of Hollywood’s golden age (if you want to know whether a movie you’re watching got uncredited help from Hecht, a dead giveaway: the presence of the word “bombination”). Then he went off to fight for Israel’s independence, at risk of limb, life, and reputation. He even claimed to be a childhood circus prodigy.
But dammit, his greatest adventures were sitting in a chair. The trunks of books his semi-literate father bought him as a boy, the classics he read while staking out a hanging, bookshops where readers “did not come and go like customers in other stores but took up positions and held them through the day”–Ben Hecht is never more evocative than when he is describing what it feels like to read deeply. You don’t have to join the circus, he keeps on reminding us: Anyone who can read has no excuse but to write well. Maybe that’s why I’m so scared of him.
“There are no holidays in this dreadful profession you have chosen,” his first boss in the writing game told him. I pick up Hecht whenever I need a reminder. The bastard.