The Known Universe should become better known
because it is caviar to the general, a phrase that sets off
a montage of images starting with Ike smoking four packs
a day on the fifth of June 1944 (unfiltered Camels)
and a champagne brunch in the corner office at General Electric,
a great American company in its postwar heyday.
Neither Ike nor GE figures in The Known Universe
by Terence Winch except to the extent that it is caviar
for the general, and the generals that first came to mind
when I wrote that line were Ike and GE, and it was
getting light out, and I could hear the garbage truck
make its slow way through the alley off Dyckman Street.
The guy driving the truck, a red-haired boy drinker,
chose between the Catholic church
and the tavern on the corner, and peaked at seventeen.
Among my favorite Winch poems is “Small Potatoes,”
which is what Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone
about someone the latter wants bumped off.
“Small Potatoes” is not small beer. It is not small time.
It is better than sour grapes, spilt milk, and the apple of my eye.
It is living large with the gusto of a fat man having dinner.
It is dining on caviar with hard-boiled eggs, onions, rice crackers,
and halves of yellow potatoes that were boiled and then chilled.
Add a glass of champagne and hold hands with your wife
knowing you will get to read The Known Universe
in the hammock later in this dream.
Caviar to the general (Hamlet, act II, scene 2)
means a critical success, Milton’s “fit readers but few,”
and if caviar is an acquired taste, then both halves
of the phrase are misleading except as a stimulant.
When I interviewed the author about his writing “process,”
which is a word that both of us detest, he said,
“You have to break a lot of eggs to make an omelette.
You have to break a lot of legs to make it in the mob.
That’s neither here nor there. So much depends upon
whether the caviar is red or black, did it cost a fortune,
and how was it served, and with what beverage?
I cast my vote for James Joyce on Christmas Eve.
The taste for caviar is general like the snow in Ireland
and, in the tavern on the corner (‘The Scholar Gypsy’),
you serve vespers because you are the bartender hero
who expands the known universe in his spare time.”
Also by David Lehman (see all)
- “Happy the man who stays awake in the dark” - March 2, 2023
- Caviar to the General - September 21, 2022
- Harold Bloom: Every Inch a Genius - February 7, 2020