A Fairy Tale of New Yorkby J.P. Donleavy
“J.P. Donleavy is a writer of explosive, winning imagination.” —The New York Times Book Review
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A Fairy Tale of New York is a funny, lusty, and sad novel of comic genius. Returning from study abroad, Cornelius Christian enters customs with his luggage and his dead wife. His first encounter in New York is with a funeral director, with whom he reluctantly takes employment to pay for the burial expenses. In the course of his duties he meets the beautiful Fanny Sourpuss over her millionaire husband’s dead body. However, his over-enthusiastic handling of his first corpse lands him in court. Cornelius Christian wanders through the great sad cathedral that is New York, examining the human condition in all its comic pathos and lonely absurdity. Whether lingering in the Automat drinking from half empty coffee cups and stealing baked beans from the plates of customers who go looking for ketchup, or finding love on a street corner only to end up fighting his way out of a hooker’s fists, Cornelius Christian, heroic anti-hero, sings of life’s goodness in the wake of disaster.
“No contemporary writer is better than Donleavy at his best.” —The New Yorker
“J.P. Donleavy is a writer of explosive, winning imagination.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A hilarious account of an individual’s . . . attempt to impose his will on [New York City].” —Darren Reidy, The Village Voice
“Fast, funny and addictive.” —The Guardian
“Powerful and overpowering stuff.” —The Economist
“A Fairy Tale of New York is delightful. Throughout it all there are familiar Donleavy elegies, reveries, sincerities, carnalities, ferocities, honesties, and perversities, all skillfully seasoned.” —Library Journal
Three o’clock in February. All the sky was blue and high. Banners and bunting and people bunched up between. Greetings and sadness.
Great black box up from the deep hold, swinging in the air high over the side of the ship. Some of the stevedores taking off their caps and hoods. With quiet whisperings, swiveling it softly on a trolley and pushing it into a shed.
Cornelius Christian standing under the letter C. The customs man comes over.
“I’m sorry sir about this. I know it isn’t a time you want to be annoyed by a lot of questions but if you could just come with me over to the office I’ll try to get this over as quickly as possible. It’s just a formality.”
Walking across the pier through the rumbling carts, perfumes, furs and tweeds, the clanging chains and into the little warm hut with typewriters pecking. Tall dark customs man, his fist with a pencil on a piece of paper.
“I understand this happened aboard ship.”
“And you’re an American and your wife was foreign.”
“And you intend burial here.”
“It’s just that we’ve got to make sure of these things because it can save a lot of trouble later. Don’t want to burden you with anything unnecessary. Do you have any children travelling.”
“Just my wife and myself.”
“I understand. And are all your other possessions your own property, all personal effects. No fine art, antiques. You’re not importing anything.”
“Just sign here. Won’t be anything else and if you have any trouble at all don’t hesitate to get in touch with me right away. Here’s my name and I’ll straighten out any difficulty. Just Steve Kelly, customs’ll get me. Vine funeral home phoned here just a while ago. I told him everything was all right and he says you can go see them at their office, or phone any time this afternoon or tonight. You take it easy.”
“Thanks very much.”
Customs man giving Christian a pat on the back.
“And say, Mr Christian, see the stevedore, guy with the fur jacket. Just tell him Steve said you’d help me with my stuff. Ok. Don’t worry about anything.”
Out through the grinding winches, clicking high heels, the stacks of gay baggage and colored labels. The great tall side of ship. And coming out to it as it sat on the sea in Cork Harbour. A stiff cold vessel. All of us bundled up as the tender tugged us out on the choppy water. And left the pink houses on the shore twirling early morning turf smoke in the sky. Black rivets on the ship’s side. And I climbed up behind her. On the stairway swaying over the water. And now through this jumble and people gathering each other in their arms. This stevedore with fur jacket, a hook tucked under his arm. Hard muscles across his jaw.
“Excuse me, Steve said you’d help me with my stuff.”
“Oh yeah, sure. Sure thing. Got much.”
“Three small trunks, two bags.”
“Ok. You just follow me all the way. I’ll put the stuff down the escalator. Meet me the bottom of the stairs. You want a taxi.”
Under the roof of girders and signs. No tipping. Escalator rumbling down with trunks and crates. Crashing and crushing. The treatment they give things would break open her box. And they shout, this way folks. Five bucks, Grand Central. Three fifty, Penn Station. The stevedore has scars on his face, keeps his hands on his hips.
“Mr. Christian, this guy will take you wherever you want to go. Stuff’s on.”
“No no. I don’t want any money. I don’t take money for a favour. You’ll do the same for somebody. That way it goes round the world.”
Cornelius Christian opening the door into this gleaming cab. Horns honk everywhere. This driver with a green cap turns around.
“Where to, bud.”
“I don’t know. Have to think of somewhere.”
“Look, I haven’t got all day. I want to catch another boat coming in.”
“Do you know where I can get a room.”
“I’m no directory bud.”
“Place is full of hotels.”
“Do you know anywhere I can get a room.”
“Boardinghouse for a guy like you. Just sort of dumps I know. This is some time to start looking. Everybody want me to find a room I’d be starving. As it is I make peanuts. Ok. I know a place west side near the museum.”
Taxi twisting away. With smiles and arms laden with coats others get into cabs. The trip is over. Some made friends. And we go up a hill to the roaring highway.
“It’s none of my business but what’s a guy like you doing coming all the way over here with nowhere to go. You don’t sound like a guy got no friends, don’t look it neither. Ok. Takes all sorts of people to make a world. Keep telling my wife that, she doesn’t believe me. Thinks everybody’s like her. Across there long.”
“Went to college.”
“Good education over there. Don’t you feel lonely.”
“No, don’t mind being alone.”
“That right. Got a right to feel that way if you want. But look at this, how can you feel alone. Everything looking like it’s going to explode. And I got a face looks like a monkey. Know why. Because I used to own a pet shop till a relative got the big idea to make a lot of money. So what happens, I lose the whole thing. Now I’m driving a hack. Kick in your teeth and every guy after a fast buck. What a life. Keep going, keep going till you can’t stop.”
Christian folding white gloved hands in his lap. Cars stream along the highway. The wail of a police ear zooming by.
“Look at that, some guy murdered his mother for a dime. Guy like me got to drink milk all day, live like a baby. I tell you, it’s a crime. Sweat our guts out. Something awful. God damn place jammed with foreigners. Think they’d stay in Europe instead of coming over here and crowding us out. You foreign.”
“You could pass for foreign. It’s ok with me mister if you’re foreign. My mother came from Minsk.”
Clouds come grey and east. Ice down there on the edge of the river. Smoky red weak sun.
Taxi turns down off the highway. Between the pillars holding up the street above. Serve beer in there. Bar stools and sawdust. Stevedores with hooks. They say keep your mouth shut and you won’t get hurt. Safe in a crowd. Close in there by the elbows, next to the sleeves where all around me are just hands to shake and squeeze.
“Ok mister here we are. Give me five bucks.”
Red grey stone they call brownstone. An iron fence. Where the rich lived years ago. Tall steps up. First five dollars gone.
“Mister ring the bell downstairs and I’ll take your bags, never get rich this way but you look lonely. Mrs Grotz’ll take care of you. She’s crazy, but who isn’t.”
Mrs Grotz, cross eyed, wrapped in a black coat and a collar of silver fox, standing in the door.
“What’s your business mister.”
“He’s all right, Ma, just back from college over in Europe. Just ain’t got no friends.”
“Everyone ought to have friends.”
“How do you know he wants them.”
“Friendship means a lot, you crazy cab driver.”
“My wife thinks I’m crazy too, but my kids think I’m god.”
“Go home you crazy cab driver. Follow me mister, I got a nice room.”
Carrying the bags behind this large bottom shifting up the stairs. In the onion smell. And scent of dust.
“Stairs for me is work mister. Got to do everything myself. Since my husband. He drop dead right in his underwear. Right while I was watching. Such a shock. Go to turn off the lamp and drop dead right on his face. I’m nervous and shaking like this every since. So all husbands drop dead sometime. You think they have manners and do it quiet in the hospital.”
A room with red curtains high on the window. Double bed like one I saw in Virginia where once I was walking down a street and climbed in a train standing in the hot sun. Always wishing I could save the heat for the winter.
“Four fifty dollars a night or twenty dollars a week. Look what I supply, radio, shelves, gas stove, hot water. Don’t play the radio loud.”
“Could I let you know in a day or two how long I’ll be staying.”
“Give you till Friday and you got to make up your mind. You got a funny voice, you English. Learn to speak at college.”
“Just a bit.”
“Was that the accent you was born with.”
“I don’t know.”
“Give me four dollars and fifty cents.”