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A regular guy, p.1
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       A Regular Guy, p.1

           Mona Simpson
A Regular Guy


  A Regular Guy

  “Perfectly pitched…. [A] true reflection of our time.”

  —The Philadelphia Inquirer

  “[Simpson’s] best so far…. [Tom Owens] is the ‘regular guy’ of the title, high irony in that he is hardly regular…. He is one of the great fictional creations of our era…. Lyrically rendered.”

  —Vince Passaro, The New York Observer

  “Simpson is in her element, with her astute eye and compassion for idiosyncratic detail and characters…. [Simpson writes] wonderfully about oddballs craving normalcy, about parents so busy pursuing their dreams they forget about their children’s.”

  —Chicago Tribune

  “Simpson knows the ripple effect that spreads from wealth, the social earthquakes and aftershocks that follow when sudden riches erupt…. Like Austen, for whom the nuances of income are more than just numbers, Simpson knows the prices of things. And, more crucially, the prices of people.”

  —New York

  “Simpson has never written a novel so teeming, nor one so technically daring…. Her language is as compelling as ever, and so is her wonderful way of prying into all the crevices of the human heart.”


  “What’s mesmerizing is the razor-sharp way Simpson unveils delicate levels of human covetousness and greed [and the] lyrical flow of her assured, inventive prose.”


  “A Regular Guy is rich in scale, funny and bitterly poignant…. A beautifully crafted story.”

  —Miami Herald

  “The kind of narrative writing—poetic but rooted in the real sights and sounds and smells of living—of which [Simpson’s] in total command…. My, how imaginative and ambitious a writer is Mona Simpson.”


  “A marvelous chronicler of the fractured American family.”

  —Washington Post Book World

  “In her luminous and most brilliantly realized novel to date, Mona Simpson … has finally proven Tolstoy’s axiom wrong for this age: Not all happy families are alike and not every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way…. Simpson never loses her fine command of perfectly tuned speech, nor does she ever falter in her subtle observations about relationships between men and women, friends and lovers, parents and their children…. Completely absorbing.”

  —Detroit News-Free Press

  “Simpson’s intensity and poetic capabilities are as engaging as they were ten years ago…. This is indeed Simpson territory, and territory worth travelling.”

  —The Boston Book Review

  “Simpson captures the subtleties of personality and syntax in beautifully modulated voices … [and] brings emotional surrealism to vivid life with … sympathy and intimate detachment.”


  “Sparks in its confrontations and provocations.”

  —Los Angeles Times

  “Wryly comic…. Simpson’s most powerful and moving writing is reserved for the fragile, makeshift alliances that sustain her characters, though she turns her deadly irony even on these.”

  —Sunday Times (London)

  “A Regular Guy is a minor classic…. Could it be the start of a wonderful series like Updike’s Rabbit quartet? … Mona Simpson’s talent is a match for a task that ambitious.”

  —Scotland on Sunday


  A Regular Guy

  Mona Simpson’s work has been translated into fourteen languages. She is a recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim grant, and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. Since 1988 she has taught at Bard College, where she is now the Sadie Samuelson Levy Professor of Languages and Literature. In 1996 she received a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. She lives with her husband and son.


  The Lost Father

  Anywhere But Here


  Copyright © 1996 by Mona Simpson

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1996.

  Portions of this work first appeared in Ploughshares and Granta.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:

  Simpson, Mona.

  A regular guy : a novel / by Mona Simpson.—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  I. Title

  PS3569.15117R44 1996

  813’.54—dc20 96-2947

  eISBN: 978-0-307-76537-6

  Author photograph © Gasper Tringale

  Random House Web address:


  For Ye, who now has faith



  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title page



  Prologue: Monuments

  Chapter 1: What Existed, Far Away, While He Never Wondered

  Chapter 2: The Driving Child

  Chapter 3: The Proposal

  Chapter 4: A Chain Letter

  Chapter 5: Van Castle

  Chapter 6: In the House of Women

  Chapter 7: The Spanish Influence

  Chapter 8: Dying Young

  Chapter 9: The European Way

  Chapter 10: The Hard Way

  Chapter 11: Christmasing

  Chapter 12: Cherries

  Chapter 13: Matisse

  Chapter 14: Money

  Chapter 15: Parking

  Chapter 16: Who Will Be Queen?

  Chapter 17: Shoes

  Chapter 18: Two Rings

  Chapter 19: Election

  Chapter 20: Lab Nights

  Chapter 21: Voting

  Chapter 22: Two Parties

  Chapter 23: To the Moon

  Chapter 24: Three Regrets

  Chapter 25: Here

  Chapter 26: The Dance


  Prologue: Monuments

  He was a man too busy to flush toilets. More than most people Jane had known, he was oblivious to the issuance from his body that might offend. He didn’t believe in deodorant and often professed that with a proper diet and the peppermint castile soap, you would neither perspire nor smell.

  This inability, not just to pander, but to see any need to pander to the wishes or whims of other people, was unusual in a man who had political aspirations. It was fortunate, for him, that he was wealthy. Also, he was handsome, so even before his prosperity, he had not been lonely in love. His favorite art was art in the classical mode, particularly public art, in the form of monuments. He was as interested in the Louvre itself as he was in the paintings inside, which, beautiful as some were, and arresting, seemed to him just so many details. If a man wants the face of the earth to look different after his life upon it, he must think on a certain scale.

  This afternoon he was taking his daughter to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Although he had limited patience for many things, he would never tire of showing places to his children—works, gardens or even states of feeling he had known. Someday, he would show her Italy. Next winter he intended to teach her how to ski. That, for the most part, made up what he believed a father should do for his children: introduce them to the wonders of the world.

  And it was true, years later, long after she’d forgotten walking into the powder room while he was talking cross-continentally to his girlfriend too long
on the phone, Jane remembered her father’s tall form, riding with her in the crushingly crowded elevator, to the second-to-top landing of the Eiffel Tower, then walking up the metal stairs in his slant way, standing on the top balcony, his longer-than-most-fathers-of-his-day hair whipping against his round forehead, lips pressed together in a kind of patriotic awe, a smile breaking down towards her. That was him. His hair disheveled by wind, his voice raised to be heard over nature, he strode at the very end of the balcony like the mascot on a ship, invested in the future of the world. He was an American industrialist, a believer in the potential accomplishments of state, and, in a way he couldn’t explain, proud. He was her father. And they saw all of the planned city of Paris spread below them.

  He whispered, “I’m kind of thinking of running for office. Hey, doesn’t this remind you a little of the Statue of Liberty?”

  He had just told her he might run for office. She assumed he meant running for president. It never occurred to her then that the choice would be anyone’s but his.

  That evening, in the hotel, he picked her book out of her hands, flipped through and then returned it. “Have you read anything by Abraham Lincoln?” he asked, dismissing the book issued by her old school. “You should read his speeches. I feel I can learn from people like Abraham Lincoln. See, I think it’s individuals who make history.” He paused a moment. “I think sometime when you’re older, you’re going to understand a lot better.”

  “Understand what?”

  “I don’t know, why I’m so busy. Why I wasn’t always around when you might have wished I was.” He knocked the cardboard cover of her book. “In school you study history; well, Genesis probably made a few of the great inventions of our time.”

  “It’s a company.”

  “It’s a company but it’s more than a company.” He fixed a look on her. She was too young to break in at the moment an adult would have, to force his own claims upon himself. His eyebrows went the way they did when he was serious. “You’ll understand when you’re older. A lot more about me.

  “Here,” he said, on the top landing of the tower, “we’ll remember this.” He pulled out two candy-colored franc notes, big bills, folded one into a paper airplane and sailed it down, over the metal railing. “Now yours.”

  “I’m keeping mine,” Jane said.

  Over the years, he took her to see the Empire State Building, the Lincoln Memorial and his favorite mountain lodge, built in the 1930s. He showed her Yosemite, his favorite place on earth, save home.

  She led him, once, to an old abandoned factory at night.

  “You like this?” he said, features like an owl’s. “Why?”

  “Never mind,” she said, turning back, face parallel to the ground. She’d found it beautiful, the moonlight on hundreds of half-cracked-out windowpanes.

  But he truly was only curious.

  He made various thwarted efforts to erect his own monuments. All his life, he was impressed with architects and listened with his head cocked a certain way when they were talking, but each of their collaborations failed because the men he hired fell short of his standards and he did not have the time to direct the projects himself.

  He bought a tower once, and he bought an orchard. He also owned a cave in Italy. Usually, he demanded that no statements involving money enter his sphere at all, but because of an odd carelessness of the accountant, Jane had seen a credit card bill on his dressertop. “Grotta,” it said, and then converted a phenomenal amount of lire into eighteen thousand American dollars.

  When she asked him about it, his face changed, his lips self-happy, remembering. “That’s where Olivia and I made love one time. We fell asleep on this little haystack right outside the cave. And then while she was asleep, I hid her dress.”

  All of these purchases took place when he was living in a drafty upstairs wing of rooms with a roof that leaked and floors that bloomed fungus and an outside terrace where weeds grew up, cracking the tiles. A colony of bees made their home in a corner of the dining room.

  He was not—as she had long hoped—a man inclined to ordinary dwelling.

  What Existed, Far Away, While He Never Wondered

  It would take Jane years to reconcile her father with the man she’d grown up imagining, on the strange dark slide into sleep. One long-ago morning, she’d gone with her mother to a post office in a small Sierran town and seen a picture of a very young man, wanted for armed robbery. He appeared delicate and misunderstood in the grainy photograph, fugitive as an angel.

  Her mother found her staring forlornly at that picture among the sad gallery. Jane was still a young child, but her face assumed an expression of concealment. For years afterwards, Jane would stare at certain men on streets and try to follow them. Her mother, Mary, would nod sadly and say no, he doesn’t look like Owens at all, because it was the criminal’s young face.

  Mary wanted to correct the error, but she’d burned every photograph she had of Tom Owens.

  Jane was born in Gray Star, a settlement in remote southeastern Oregon, where her cries were lost in miles and miles of orchards, stilled by a constant, omniscient rain. One of the people who lived in the communal house drove to town to wire Mary’s message to Owens. Eight days later, she’d heard nothing. Staring out at the endless gray, she wrote a letter to her mother and told her she’d named the baby Jane, the name she’d once given her only doll.

  They’d moved many times in the decade since, always because of a man. First there was the one who repaired string instruments and lived with nine cats. He gave Mary a guitar and made a high chair, where he allowed Jane to eat with her hands. Then, for a long time, there was the man who constantly traveled, following the greatest band on earth; he left them a truck, after he’d only begun to teach Mary how to play chords. Then came their months in Seattle, with the man who almost eclipsed Owens because he was beautiful, although he wanted to see them only weekends and said goodbye every Sunday by noon. Though he professed little aptitude for children, he taught Jane to read, because he couldn’t stand the garbled language of toddlers and wanted to rush her to the age of conversation. It was this man who first showed them Owens’ picture in the newspaper. With the small photograph, composed of dots, Mary tried to prove to Jane that her father was not the thief whose face she’d memorized from a post office wall.

  In the article, Owens said he was the father of no children.

  The city man’s weekends shrunk. He started to come on Saturday morning, still leaving punctually before Sunday lunch. When his visits began at midnight, they moved again. But by then Tom Owens seemed to them the most famous man in the world.

  They moved to a place with natural hot springs, where they tried to learn to sit and not think. There, in a mud whirlpool, Jane told a group of children her father was rich.

  “And I’m heir to the crown of Curaçao,” a boy replied. Actually, it wasn’t unusual for the children Jane met in communes and ashrams to claim lineage so distant it would be impossible, ever, to trace, while they lived in trailers and trucks, on bare mattresses. She once befriended a family of Hungarian royalty whose only proof was a rare hereditary disease called porphyria. They had never been to school and their mother taught them out of a book of Elizabethan plays and a video of the movie they watched over and over again in their van.

  Finally, a woman called Bixter led them to a mountain town, where they lived in a wooden cabin at a camp once operated, during the warm months, by the park service. Most nights, the men built a bonfire and the women cooked, everyone watching the weather, sniffing for the hidden pith of bread that meant snow in the sky.

  Jane understood that no place they had ever lived was where they were from. Auburn was the name of that place, and although she’d never seen it, she knew it from her mother’s stories. She drew the one wide Main Street blue with yellow lanterns and ended it in a pink square, where there was a newspaper-and-tobacco shop and a movie palace. She rimmed the town with stunted peach groves and palms full of dates, and set h
ouses in every direction, each with its own yard and fruit-bearing tree. At night, she imagined the town sighing as the sky turned pink, then slowly dark. Jane had seen only one picture, on an old postcard they’d found in a dusty drugstore, showing horses and carriages instead of cars.

  Unlike most towns, Auburn had been started by one person who’d had an idea. He had stopped not because the place was beautiful or different. In fact, it so exactly resembled land he’d already covered that only the collapse of his young wife made him stop. She had been called Auburn for the color of her hair, which had grown dark years before. Once she was buried there, he would never leave. Others in his party, however, noticed the kindness of the evening, a faint sweet smell emanating from white flowers in the dark. The man envisioned a clean town, no saloons, where ordinary people could grow their living. Over the next decades, more immigrants arrived, wealthy New Englanders from the long sail around the Horn, midwesterners in covered wagons, off the overland route, and eventually the patient citizens came on Pullman coaches, with modest expectations for the smell of fruit trees wafting through their afternoon rest. By then, Auburn had become an apricot town.

  The founder’s daughter declared a swap meet every month, where people brought things found or no longer wanted and gave them to anyone who craved. A weekly clemency was instituted to encourage criminals’ remorse and the return of the stolen to its owners.

  Over the years, the swap meet had grown into a dump. Mary sometimes ached, missing the soft blurry start and end to the days in Auburn, the scent of wild rosemary and sudden mint rising from patches of refuse. When she was a child, the farthest she’d imagined going was San Francisco, the City of Clouds, which was no doubt still beautiful and corrupt. Now, though, when she felt far away, it was the homely valley town she remembered.

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