Those Were the Days

By Richard Horwich
Frederic Tuten Emma Marie Jenkinson

“My Young Life”
Frederic Tuten
Simon & Schuster, $26

“I imagined myself in a vast sea, in a little sailboat riding the seas to the colors of the music and seeing, waiting for me there, in the distance, the outlines of a magical island.” 

Who writes like this these days? Frederic Tuten does, in his memoir, “My Young Life,” and I know that there are readers who respond to his florid prose style, because he has published four novels and chaired the creative writing department at City College of New York during his adult years.

But his actual young life (up to age 26, where the book stops), as opposed to what he imagined, was a different matter. His early fantasies of living the Bohemian existence of a painter in Paris (until he wisely switched to writing), of producing masterpieces and defying bourgeois manners, surrounded by beautiful naked models, are constantly at war with the reality of his somewhat humdrum boyhood and early manhood in the Bronx and the East Village. 

The task of living up to his self-image as a heroic rebel made it virtually impossible for the young Tuten to write anything at all — even schoolwork. He quit high school for a while, and later he was expelled from City College, though his brightness and undeniable imagination got him reinstated. 

Curiously, given his aversion to “the slow death of complacency and convention” that was the academic world, he “succumbed” to that fate and enrolled in graduate school when a friend pointed out he’d have summers off. But at Syracuse, lonely and freezing, he was still paralyzed by the conviction that everything he wrote “had to be perfect, stunningly original, publishable in the best literary journals, and so brilliant that a major university would seek me out and offer me a professorship.”  

So he wrote nothing, and, unsurprisingly, he failed all his courses. 

Mr. Tuten tells us that his models, both in art and life, were Henry Miller, Hemingway, and Melville (though a sentence like “Autumn, with its bright days, endearing in their brevity, quickly would take leave” sounds a lot more old-fashioned than they were). He thought of himself as “the hero of independence, the lonely loner for Art,” a rebel and failure like Ahab, Raskolnikov, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan. 

Like other romantics, he displays an almost narcissistic conviction that everything is for and about him, as when he witnesses a stabbing in a bar and imagines it was staged for his benefit: “Passion, honor, death. This was the very real stuff of life that writers were born to experience.” Empathy is not his strong suit; when a friend tearfully tells him that her father had been murdered in his office, his reply is to ask, “He was doing paperwork?” 

He prized Henry Miller for his sexual exploits, but his first hero was Hemingway, “the shirtless giant with a barrel chest.” Soon, though, reading “Moby-Dick” convinces him that Hemingway was “a lightweight and, in his vaunted brevity and concision, limited in the range and richness of language, shallow in experience, lacking in what great fiction offers and what Melville possesses: wisdom.” Nothing is said about the dimensions of Melville’s chest. 

As to the actual men in Mr. Tuten’s life who served him usefully as mentors, most of them eventually left him, either by dying or by moving away from New York, starting with his father and several favorite teachers, and including several of the husbands of the older women with whom he slept, who then abandoned him, alone in the Bronx, where he lived much of the time with his mother. 

The other obstacle to writing was his obsession with sex. “In a choice between anything and sex, sex always wins,” he claims. Maybe that’s because writing is hard but being seduced by an endless succession of women is easy. 

But his experiences with them were marked by an ennui that mirrored his reluctance to write. On one occasion, as a desirable girl is standing outside his apartment, he confesses that “As much as I wanted to go to the door, I was crushed with sleep.” By the end of a summer affair with Eva, a waitress in the Catskills, “we were spent . . . a few tender caresses before we fell into a dead sleep.” And again: “I needed to sleep. But Natasha had other ideas. But I was in luck: Natasha passed out, and was soon snoring.”

What a lucky guy! He even slept through his first experience of fellatio, and had to have the woman who performed it describe it to him when he awoke the next morning. 

Still, his sexual history included an impressive number of women for such a young man; I counted 14, including a high-priced call girl who pleasured him for free; the “sad and beautiful” Rebecca with whom sex was “comforting”; Sandra, who makes him whip her (which he doesn’t much enjoy); Susan, a belly dancer in the East Village who seems to him the sort of girlfriend a young writer should have, and finally Simona, a cultured Italian woman 10 years his senior who becomes his muse and gets him to start writing in earnest. 

We learn in passing — in a footnote, actually — that later they married. The last line of “My Young Life” is “We stayed happy for several years,” and it’s frustrating not to have anything beyond a few hints as to what came next. I had to consult Wikipedia to learn that he became a successful writer and a tenured professor, and even, eventually, made it to Paris, which is really the ending of the story this book starts to tell. 

I wish Mr. Tuten had extended its arc, because, despite his facility with words, his ability to structure scenes, and his talent for dialogue, this portrait of his young life doesn’t answer the question he raises throughout: How, despite all his self-imposed barriers, he managed to harness and focus his creative energies and turn his life around.

Richard Horwich is emeritus professor of English at Brooklyn College. He lives in East Hampton.

Frederic Tuten has been a regular visitor to the South Fork for many years.