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Larry and Marylynne Hollis had moved up from West Hartford to the Berkshires after he’d retired from a lifelong position as an attorney with a Hartford insurance company. Larry was two years my junior, a meticulous, finicky man who seemed to believe that life was safe only if everything in it was punctiliously planned and whom, during the months when he first tried to draw me into his life, I did my best to avoid. I submitted eventually, not only because he was so dogged in his desire to alleviate my solitude but because I had never known anyone like him, an adult whose sad childhood biography had, by his own estimate, determined every choice he had made since his mother had died of cancer when he was ten, a mere four years after his father, who owned a Hartford linoleum store, had been bested no less miserably by the same disease. An only child, Larry was sent to live with relatives on the Naugatuck River southwest of Hartford, just outside bleak, industrial Waterbury, Connecticut, and there, in a boy’s diary of “Things to Do,” he laid out a future for himself that he followed to the letter for the rest of his life; from then on, everything undertaken was deliberately causal. He was content with no grade other than an A and even as an adolescent vigorously challenged any teacher who’d failed to accurately estimate his achievement. He attended summer sessions to accelerate his graduation from high school and get to college before he turned seventeen; he did the same during his summers at the University of Connecticut, where he had a full-tuition scholarship and worked in the library boiler room all year round to pay for his room and board so he could get out of college and change his name from Irwin Golub to Larry Hollis (as he’d planned to do when he was only ten) and join the air force, to become a fighter pilot known to the world as Lieutenant Hollis and qualify for the GI Bill; on leaving the service, he enrolled at Fordham and, in return for his three years in the air force, the government paid for his three years of law school. As an air force pilot stationed in Seattle he vigorously courted a pretty girl just out of high school who was named Collins and who met exactly his specifications for a wife, one of which was that she be of Irish extraction, with curly dark hair and with ice-blue eyes like his own. “I did not want to marry a Jewish girl. I did not want my children to be raised in the Jewish religion or have anything to do with being Jews.” “Why?” I asked him. “Because that’s not what I wanted for them” was his answer. That he wanted what he wanted and didn’t want what he didn’t want was the answer he gave to virtually every question I asked him about the utterly conventional structure he’d made of his life after all those early years of rushing and planning to build it. When he first knocked on my door to introduce himself- only a few days after he and Marylynne had moved into the house nearest to mine, some half mile down our dirt road-he immediately decided that he didn’t want me to eat alone every night and that I had to take dinner at his house with him and his wife at least once a week. He didn’t want me to be alone on Sundays-he couldn’t bear the thought of anyone’s being as alone as he’d been as an orphaned child, fishing in the Naugatuck on Sundays with his uncle, a dairy inspector for the state-and so he insisted that every Sunday morning we had a hiking date or, if the weather was bad, Ping-Pong matches, Ping-Pong being a pastime that I could barely tolerate but that I obliged him by playing rather than have a conversation with him about the writing of books. He asked me deadly questions about writing and was not content until I had answered them to his satisfaction. “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you know if an idea is a good idea or a bad idea?” “How do you know when to use dialogue and when to use straight storytelling without dialogue?” “How do you know when a book is finished?” “How do you select a first sentence? How do you select a title? How do you select a last sentence?” “Which is your best book?” “Which is your worst book?” “Do you like your characters?” “Have you ever killed a character?” “I heard a writer on television say that the characters take over the book and write it themselves. Is that true?” He had wanted to be the father of one boy and one girl, and only after the fourth girl was born did Marylynne defy him and refuse to continue trying to produce the male heir that had been in his plans from the age of ten. He was a big, square-faced, sandy-haired man, and his eyes were crazy, ice-blue and crazy, unlike Marylynne’s ice-blue eyes, which were beautiful, and the ice-blue eyes of the four pretty daughters, all of whom had gone to Wellesley because his closest friend in the air force had a sister at Wellesley and when Larry met her she exhibited just the sort of polish and decorum that he wanted to see in a daughter of his. When we would go to a restaurant (which we did every other Saturday night-that too he would have no other way) he could be counted on to be demanding with the waiter. Invariably there was a complaint about the bread. It wasn’t fresh. It wasn’t the kind he liked. There wasn’t enough for everyone.

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One evening after dinner he came by unexpectedly and gave me two orange kittens, one long-haired and one short-haired, just over eight weeks old. I had not asked for two kittens, nor had he apprised me of the gift beforehand. He said he’d been to his ophthalmologist for a checkup in the morning, seen a sign by the receptionist’s desk saying she had kittens to give away. That afternoon he went to her house and picked out the two most beautiful of the six for me. His first thought on seeing the sign was of me.

He put the kittens down on the floor. “This isn’t the life you should have,” he said. “Whose is?” “Well, mine is, for one. I have everything I ever wanted. I won’t have you experiencing the life of a person alone any longer. You do it to the goddamn utmost. It’s too extreme, Nathan.” “As are you.” “The hell I am! I’m not the one who lives like this. All I’m pushing on you is a little normality. This is too separate an existence for any human being. At least you can have a couple of cats for company. I have all the stuff for them in the car.”

He went back outside, and when he returned he emptied onto the floor a couple of large supermarket bags containing half a dozen little toys for them to bat around, a dozen cans of cat food, a large bag of cat litter and a plastic litter box, two plastic dishes for their food, and two plastic bowls for their water.

“There’s all you’ll need,” he said. “They’re beauties. Look at them. They’ll give you a lot of pleasure.”

He was exceedingly stern about all this, and there was nothing I could say except, “It’s very thoughtful of you, Larry.”

“What will you call them?”

“A and B.”

“No. They need names. You live all day with the alphabet.

You can call the short-haired one Shorty and the long-haired one Longy.”

“That’s what I’ll do then.”

In my one strong relationship I had fallen into the role that Larry prescribed. I was basically obedient to Larry’s discipline, as was everyone in his life. Imagine, four daughters and not a single one of them saying, “But I’d rather go to Barnard, I’d rather go to Oberlin.” Though I never had a sense of his being a frightening paternal tyrant when I was with him and the family, how strange it was, I thought, that as far as I knew not one of them had ever objected to her father’s saying it’s Wellesley for you and that’s it. But their willingness to be will-less as Larry’s obedient children was not quite as remarkable for me to contemplate as was my own. Larry’s path to power was to have complete acquiescence from the beloved in his life-mine was to have no one in my life.

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He’d brought the cats on a Thursday. I kept them through Sunday. During that time I did virtually no work on my book. Instead I spent my time throwing the cats their toys or stroking them, together or in turn in my lap, or just sitting and looking at them eating, or playing, or grooming themselves, or sleeping. I kept their litter box in a corner of the kitchen and at night put them in the living room and shut my bedroom door behind me. When I awoke in the morning the first thing I did was rush to the door to see them. There they would be, just beside the door, waiting for me to open it.

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On Monday morning I phoned Larry and said, “Please come and take the cats.”

“You hate them.”

“To the contrary. If they stay, I’ll never write another word. I can’t have these cats in the house with me.”

“Why not? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“They’re too delightful.”

“Good. Great. That’s the idea.”

“Come and take them, Larry. If you like, I’ll return them to the ophthalmologist’s receptionist myself. But I can’t have them here any longer.”

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“What is this? An act of defiance? A display of bravado? I’m a disciplined man myself, but you put me to shame. I didn’t bring two people to live with you, God forbid. I brought two cats. Tiny kittens.”

“I accepted them graciously, did I not? I’ve given them a try, have I not? Please take them away.”

“I won’t.”

“I never asked for them, you know.”

“That doesn’t prove anything to me. You ask for nothing.”

“Give me the phone number of the ophthalmologist’s receptionist.”


“All right. I’ll take care of it myself.”

“You’re crazy,” he said.

“Larry, I can’t be made into a new being by two kittens.”

“But that’s exactly what is happening. Exactly what you won’t allow to happen. I cannot understand it-a man of your intelligence turning himself into this kind of person. It’s beyond me.”

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“There are many inexplicable things in life. You shouldn’t trouble yourself over my tiny opacity.”

“All right. You win. I’ll come, I’ll get the cats. But I’m not finished with you, Zuckerman.”

“I have no reason to believe that you are finished or that you can be finished. You’re a little crazy too, you know.”

“The hell I am!”

“Hollis, please, I’m too old to work myself over anymore.

Come get the cats.”

Just before the fourth daughter was to be married in New York City-to a young Irish-American attorney who, like Larry, had attended Fordham Law School-he was diagnosed with cancer. The same day the family went down to New York to assemble for the wedding, Larry’s oncologist put him into the university hospital in Farmington, Connecticut. His first night in the hospital, after the nurse had taken his vital signs and given him a sleeping pill, he removed another hundred or so sleeping pills secreted in his shaving kit and, using the water in the glass by his bedside, swallowed them in the privacy of his darkened room. Early the next morning, Marylynne received the phone call from the hospital informing her that her husband had committed suicide. A few hours later, at her insistence- she hadn’t been his wife all those years for nothing- the family went ahead with the wedding, and the wedding luncheon, and only then returned to the Berkshires to plan his funeral.


Excerpted from Exit Ghost by Philip Roth Copyright © 2007 by Philip Roth . Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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