Heroes In Literature

Among the acknowledgements listed back of my debut novel is Barry H. Leeds, Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at CCSU. Hemingway, Mailer, Kesey—these were the writers Dr. Leeds expounded to us, models who wrote tough, lean sentences and big, enduring books. I worked like hell to write the strong prose Dr. Leeds demanded in his 400-level composition course.

If we could make good use of 100 words error-free, he’d let us write 250. We got 250 right, he stretched it to 500. Leeds was telling us something: he wasn’t there to shine our turds—we were to roll up our sleeves and work that stuff ourselves. In this way, my mentor was tough.

Leeds Cover

He was also human. In his 2014 memoir, A Moveable Beast, he recounted the first days back teaching after the death of his daughter in 1996. “As the days wore on, I found myself again adrenalized by teaching. I could even crack jokes. But every day, leaving the University energized and upbeat, I got only a block or so away before I had to pull my Jeep over and break down in wracking sobs before pulling myself together and driving home.”

I put Barry’s name in the acknowledgements of Two Pumps for the Body Man out of respect, both for his role as a professor who shaped my writing, and as an archetype of a man who derived power from great books. Since childhood I knew I would write. But Barry armed me with the tools—the broad strokes of vision, the fine scalpels of craft—that turned conviction to quest. His name belongs beside my brother and sister, my parents, sons, wife, because he held that kind of unequalled significance on my path to specific accomplishment.

Barry passed away a year before the novel came out. I had no idea. I’d been in touch the year before to share a literary milestone, shortlisted for a book prize. He responded immediately and heartily. His own book was out, the aforementioned memoir. I put it on Kindle and read it right away, grateful to hear Barry’s voice one more time again. We wrote back and forth, then returned to the silence that defined our post- teacher-student relationship, he to work on further memoirs, I to the daily task of fiction. Same time, cancer went to work on Barry. When I reached out to let him know I’d finally got my novel out, the message bounced. I found out the hard way—the way that meant I hadn’t found out at all—that Barry had passed the year before, on April 15, 2015.

The book is there. The acknowledgement remains. Yet I concede a defeat, a palpable void in the achievement. Barry’s approval, his awareness and pride in this shared triumph, goes unassigned.

Only, there is this. A few weeks after publication, an anonymous review appeared.

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