As J lies on what I suppose is his deathbed, or death-and-resurrection bed, slowly getting smaller, more hollow-cheeked and thin-legged, I sit on my futon on the floor beside the hospital bed, reediting a digital file of his story of cheating death as a teenager in Soviet Russia.
Back in the ’90s, our friend Robyn painstakingly retyped the whole book to post on the website that she and her husband Ralph had created for Jacques. (Ralph had become our future friend as a child, when his father, Warren, operated on Jacques in 1975 — three and a half years after he and I met — discovering a massive staph infection behind his left lung and in two of his vertebrae, which had probably been smoldering in his body ever since a sadistic guard in Russia shot him through the chest, missing his heart by maybe a centimeter.) When we then republished Donbas in 2000, adding back material that the first crew of editors had cut out and new passages that Jacques had written since — and an epilogue describing his return to the Donbas — Robyn took all but the first three chapters down from the website at our request.
Jacques’ lifelong dream, which he had hoped from Day One I would help with, was to see his book read in schools and made into a movie. It was all he had salvaged from that experience (well, okay, a Russian soul — no small thing), and in many ways his sense of his own worth balanced on the razor edge of the book’s acceptance. Everybody who loves him is aware that Jacques has a bedrock foundation of natural confidence we can hardly imagine and are drawn to by an unfamiliar but gravitational force; most are less aware (some more than others) that, as with most trauma survivors, it is overlaid by (like one of those black strata in the earth that memorializes a mass extinction) a layer of ash and shame. I am reading his unflinching account of how filth-encrusted and pus-befouled he was when he escaped from the Soviets’ clutches on legs rotting with gangrene. People in British- and American-occupied Germany moved away from him in train stations; one or two even spat on him. Nothing that happened to him as a prisoner in Russia — where he had at least been valued for his strength, and even loved — had wounded him as deeply as his rejection by (barely) respectable people when he washed up like a piece of flotsam on the edge of the West, and especially his rejection from an American military hospital (a simple act of triage; they thought he was irreversibly close to death, a mistake that is still being made more than six decades later). That rejection was so devastating that he lied about it in the first edition of the book, and wrote instead the fantasy that he was taken in and cherished there.
Are you beginning to see why I couldn’t put this guy in a nursing home?
For various reasons too complicated to go into here (the simplest of which is that it’s just so goddamn difficult), I failed to devote myself sufficiently single-mindedly to getting Donbas made into a movie. In 2001, though, I did write an article about J and me for O, the Oprah Magazine (the article will soon be permanently archived on the magazine’s website). Around the same time, he had been contacted by a middle-school student in Oregon who’d loved the book and wanted a new one as a retirement present for his teacher, whose copy was falling apart because he’d taught it for 25 years. It looked as if J’s dream might finally be gathering itself to come true (just as he was beginning to get ill), but then the magazine hit the newsstands, literally, on September 10, 2001.
Decades ago, a gay editor who had a crush on J had published the book in paperback with a rather homoerotic, bare-chested cover illustration and the wince-worthy title A Man Never Dies. (“A man always dies, sooner or later,” I pronounced in my infinite thirtysomething wisdom. Oh, yeah?) Well, be that as it may, a book never dies. Or this one doesn’t. It keeps clawing its way out of the grave. Freeman Hunt, a blogfriend from the Althouse community, ordered it from the link on my blog. She gave it to her husband, David, who is a filmmaker. He fell in love with it, as certain people, over time, inexorably continue to do. And now it’s 2010, and I’m sitting here reediting the digital file that Robyn never trashed because David and his business partner plan to produce a school edition AND a movie. Is J aware of this? Intermittently. Will he live to see it? It would be a mistake to rule anything out with him, obviously, but probably not. Does it matter? The part of him he wanted most to live will live.
I noticed recently that J’s hands, which he described as having been so hardened by mine work and mineralized by coal dust that you could break a razor blade on his palm, are now much softer than mine. I also thought about how his being on hospice for a year is some kind of strange restitution for his rejection from that American Army hospital in postwar Germany so long ago. He’s having his umpteenth rematch with death — he’s won them all till now — but this time, he has a corner.