The Poser: A Novel

Paperback | March 15, 2016

byJacob Rubin

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• Named one of the Huffington Post's 2015 Books We Can't Wait To Read 

“Smart and absorbing. . . . Echoes of Steven Millhauser and Tom McCarthy. . . . Probing, witty.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A masterful debut . . . delivered with vaudeville verve.” —The Washington Post

“Darkly funny. . . . A deeply sensitive exploration into matters of identity and authenticity.” —Associated Press

The Poser is smart and grand and funny, a wonderful fable. Mr. Rubin is a great hope for comic fiction in the 21st century. He’s got the spirit and the ear.” —Sam Lipsyte

A hilarious and dazzling debut novel about a master impressionist at risk of losing his true self

All his life, Giovanni Bernini has possessed an uncanny gift: he can imitate anyone he meets. Honed by his mother at a young age, the talent catapults him from small-town obscurity to stardom.

As Giovanni describes it, “No one’s disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a seam, a thread curling out of them. . . . When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.” As his fame grows, Giovanni encounters a beautiful and enigmatic stage singer, Lucy Starlight—the only person whose thread he cannot find—and becomes increasingly trapped inside his many poses. Ultimately, he must assume the one identity he has never been able to master: his own.

In the vein of Jonathan Lethem’s and Kevin Wilson’s playful surrealism, Jacob Rubin’s The Poser is the debut of a major literary voice, a masterfully written, deeply original comic novel, and the moving story of a man who must risk everything for the chance to save his life and know true love.




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• Named one of the Huffington Post's 2015 Books We Can't Wait To Read •“Smart and absorbing. . . . Echoes of Steven Millhauser and Tom McCarthy. . . . Probing, witty.” —The New York Times Book Review“A masterful debut . . . delivered with vaudeville verve.” —The Washington Post“Darkly funny. . . . A deeply sensitive exploration into ma...

JACOB RUBIN’s writing has appeared in the anthology Best New American Voices, The New Yorker online, New York magazine, Slate, n+1, and The New Republic. He also writes for television and film. He lives in New York.From the Hardcover edition.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8.2 × 5.4 × 0.6 inPublished:March 15, 2016Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:014310795X

ISBN - 13:9780143107958

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Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) LLC 375 Hudson Street New York, New York 10014 USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China penguin.com A Penguin Random House Company First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015 Copyright © 2015 by Jacob Rubin Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Rubin, Jacob. The poser : a novel / Jacob Rubin. pages cm ISBN 978-0-698-14373-9 1. Impersonation—Fiction. 2. Singers—Fiction. 3. Self-actualization (Psychology)—Fiction. 4. Humorous stories. I. Title. PS3618.U294P67 2015 813'.6—dc23 2014038538 This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. JOHN KEATS Imitation is criticism. WILLIAM BLAKE “There you are! Christ!” Anthony Vandaline, of all people, came waddling up the stairs. “I’m a pilgrim in the dark. I’m searching and searching. And—ah, finally.” At this late hour, only four men remained at the balcony bar, stoking each other’s laughter with shouted stories. One even bent at the waist, gripping the back of a chair. Performing for me. Soon, I knew, would come the sharp compliment or offered beer, and I prepared myself by seeming unaware, a man immersed in his life. I stroked Lucy’s hand, doing that thing where I looked from her hands up to her eyes and down again. What she was saying in that low voice, however, the one she risked only when we were alone, I can’t rightly say, for I was listening to the men. Then Vandaline arrived, and they fell silent. Lucy stood to meet him. “Ugh, you’re one of those people who’s always heeere ,” she said. “It’s like I’m gonna turn around and trip on you.” “Look, my priest is gonna blush at this thing when I print it in full. All my sins. But I was talking to Max, and he said, and I quote, ‘the heart of his technique is something called’—yeah, here it is—‘the thread.’” A show tune played through the house speakers. “Now you answer this,” Vandaline said, “and I’m gone. I mean, I walk out the door.” “It’s a skill you should practice more,” Lucy said. “Doll, whatever you think of me, I’m after the truth. A servant of the truth. A butler to it, truly,” he said. “Now I wasn’t wrong about everything, was I? Your man Maximilian printed that profile about Giovanni, so I did what any reporter worth his salt would do, didn’t I? I checked the facts, humbly, and published them. Humbly.” “But what happened then?” I asked, half-turning to the men who tittered at the attention, like schoolboys before an upperclassman. “Did I get overzealous?” Vandaline said. “Guilty as charged. But, boy, oh, boy, did you prove me wrong. Hell, I’m shaken up just standing here. You think I wanna stand here after what happened tonight? I’m just a butler with my plate, asking someone to put the truth on it, so I can serve it to the public. Warm and tasty. Now, I’m gonna correct the whole thing in tomorrow’s column. My god, am I gonna correct it. This is gonna be the best goddamn advertising you ever got—not that you need it. But, in all seriousness, please, just tell me about the thread.” “If Max lied earlier,” I said, “why isn’t he lying now?” “Are you saying he is?” Like a man in a shootout pulling for his gun—with that practiced, defensive quickness—the reporter raised the pen to his pad. “No,” I said. To my surprise Vandaline didn’t harass the pause that followed, waiting for me, I guess, to say more. Bless him. Despite himself, he was a collaborator. When earlier in the night, Max’s patter was derailed by the appearance at the foot of the stage of a stubby man declaring that I was a fraud and pretender—well, I immediately recognized Vandaline and was pleased, for I knew he would insist on joining us onstage, where I could do him once and for all. So it was when he appeared at the balcony bar. In my churning waltz with the public, there was a time to lead and a time to be led, and the upstairs bar of the Communiqué at two a.m. did feel like the venue for a second performance, more intimate than the night’s formal entertainment. “The thread,” I said. Downstairs they’d started stacking chairs and clearing the stage. Shadowy figures scooped up a table’s glasses, four in a hand, and pushed, back first, through the doors. “Well, okay, so most people believe imitation to be an art of exaggeration. There’s truth to this, of course. It’s important, as a tool, it is. But it comes second.” Bernard, I noticed only then, sat at the end of the bar. It might have been a photo of him if not for the smoke rising from his cigarette. “Now I was fortunate to be born with the elastic limbs, the perfect pitch you and your colleagues have been kind enough to write about. But I would have been lost without this knowledge: The real thing, the heart of it, isn’t exaggeration, or even duplication. It’s selection : knowing which parts of a person to take and which to leave alone.” I frowned the way people do to indicate a concept too complex to be articulated. “You see, everyone disguises himself with certain gestures. A man clearing his throat while snapping open a newspaper, the way a woman covers her yawn on the bus—these gestures are a costume. Now some do it better than others. Some have made perfect little suits for themselves: politicians, for instance, movie stars. Those charismatic types who tool around in their bodies like rented sports cars. They’re smooth , right?” Vandaline held the notepad at his chest like a cop writing a ticket. “The miracle of the world, Mr. Vandaline, is that no one’s disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a seam, a thread curling out of them. It’s like a pimple that rouge cannot cover up, a patch of thinning hair. Often, it’s the almost-unnoticed thing that’s a thread: a bit lip, a slight sigh. But when pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.” In the silence I knew would follow I found myself thinking of Mama. How she and Mr. Derringer looked that day in the glass of the principal’s door: a patch of red (Mama), a blob of black (Derringer). It was a sort of magic, what the closed door did to them, or seemed like it from the outer office where I was made to wait. Across from me, the principal’s secretary, Mrs. Chappabelle, mouthed words she clacked on a typewriter, out of view. Every few minutes she’d look up at the desk’s basket of candy canes. “You don’t want a tasty treat?” The smile I was holding began to wilt. “Suit yourself. But if you change your mind, you know exactly where they are.” She winked and had lowered her gaze to the typewriter, thank God, when I burped up, “Suit yourself.” “What was that?” The phone on her desk rang. “Principal Derringer’s Office . . . Oh, hi, Susan. Yes. But. No. He’s in a . . . you want me to—perfect. Five o’clock at the—okay, great.” There was a giggling by the door where two girls stood. They grinned like hobos: mouths pocked with missing teeth. “Freak , ” they whispered. “Monkey.” I was standing up when the principal’s door yawned open, and out strode Mama. There must have been an event at the library for she wore her fanciest dress: the checkered one with the belted waist and big bow at the collar. It didn’t matter what she wore. Mama was the queen of every room. She thanked Mrs. Chappabelle, took my hand, and walked me out of the office. Outside it was overcast, and the wind sprayed a hint of salt on the school building, Main Street, and the animal-faced cars as if to prevent it all from going bad. When we reached the curb, Mama looked down at me with an exaggerated frown. It did no harm. Beatrice Bernini was a beautiful woman, I’d heard other parents say. “That Derringer’s a real crow, isn’t he? Someone ought to tell him life’s already started.” With that, she snatched my hand and just short of skipped me across Main Street, past Lipswitch Avenue to the gusty boardwalk where she plopped down on a bench and promptly folded her legs. She patted the space next to where she sat, and I joined her. Before us stretched the ocean, its gulls and clouds. “Ah, school’s all screwed up. How to laugh. What jokes are. Those should be the first things they teach you. Come.” I sat stiff as a post until she’d ducked behind me and lit a cigarette. “Mr. Heedling, huh?” Heedling. Whatever interests had led him to the profession of teacher, a desire on his part to spend his weeks in the company of thirteen-year-old boys and girls could not have been counted among them. The paraded sense of humor, the jaunty manner some teachers perfect so as to endear themselves to adolescent tastes, Heedling never attempted. He spoke to us like a drunk at a bar: often gruff, rarely dishonest. Word was, he had been discharged from the army after falling victim to, or helping perpetrate, a massacre on a distant, palm-treed island. His method of instruction was one of impassioned repetition. The previous week he had repeated, Don’t you envy Sisyphus ? We were forced to scribble it in our notebooks thirty times. “What did Helen of Troy look like?” he asked that day. As he lectured, he stalked and circled our desk-chairs, curling Mary Hammerworth’s Anthology of Greek Myth around its spine. Since he could fly into a rage if he suspected the slightest bit of daydreaming or note-passing, the class did its best to strike postures of attention. For my classmates, I guess, this involved some theater. Not for me. I loved the Greeks. They weren’t like other stories where you, the reader, decide if they are any good. Questioning Atlas’s or Icarus’s fate was like complaining the ocean rolled the wrong way or the sky carried the weather with too much pomp. Inspired by those stories, I’d been on good behavior all semester. Each fall was that way, offering a brief window of renewal. In recess I watched the older boys play stickball. The way they strode and wound up to fling the ball, all of it such glamorous evidence of what growing up could do, and every night I went to bed hoping the Big Change would happen, that I would stretch to six feet tall and say goodbye to all that trouble at school. In fact, things had been looking up. I had even volunteered in class, a once-unthinkable risk made possible by a new strategy. That is, I had begun using the voice of Jimmy Nelson, the bemused and even witty son of Danny Hoagland’s neighbor on the popular radio program The Hoaglands . It seemed a safe choice. For one, Jimmy Nelson appeared on the show irregularly, and when he did, existed, mainly, to air concern in the face of Rascal Hoagland’s latest lawn-ruining mischief. His very off-to-the-sidedness appealed to me. “Tell me now, what did she look like?” Heedling asked. “My mother,” Philip Howes volunteered. Philip sat in the front row and was always offering a first response to Heedling’s questions even though our teacher had never approved of his answers and once, in a fit of anger, called him a “true egg sucker.” “You are wrong !” Heedling said. He asked Alice Krut, who sat behind Philip: “What did Helen of Troy look like?” “Rebecca Rell, the cheerleader.” “Absolutely incorrect.” He asked Adrienne Chitwood, who sat behind Alice: “What did she look like?” “A movie star.” “Oh, god.” He addressed the classroom. “What did she look like?” Silence. “Jesus Christ.” He turned to draw on the board. Because Mr. Heedling possessed exquisite peripheral vision, no one misbehaved, even when he faced the blackboard. He often called on Todd Willinger, third seat, row five, while looking at Mallory Mayhall, first seat, row one. Someone once asked him why he did this, and he gave that person detention. With staccato strokes, he drew a stick-figure face: two tiny circles for eyes, a line for a nose, line for a mouth. Then he drew curly sprouts of hair. “Helen of Troy!” As with many of Heedling’s lessons, it was hard to tell what the lesson was, but a fury of passion was behind it, so you knew you were missing something. When he taught us the myth of Orpheus, he kept saying, Music is when something disappears , hovering over us as we scribbled the saying ten times into our notebooks. “Helen of Troy!” Heedling said again, looking almost pleased. “That’s just a face,” Philip Howes protested. Heedling stopped and looked at Philip. “Philip,” he said, “be very, very careful.” He marched behind us, to the other side of the classroom. “ Helen of Troy! The one and only !” He was wrong, though. Helen of Troy inhabited our very classroom, three rows to my right through a thicket of profiles. Her name was Margot Stamfield, and she was the chandelier in my brain. Every class I studied her face: the subtle lift of her chin, the hint of a smile. Once when I was heading down the fourth-floor stairs, repeating, “Don’t you envy Sisyphus?” (Heedling’s phrases were like sucking candy to me), I rounded the landing to find her standing there, in all her Martian beauty, clutching a textbook. “Envy him, goddamnit!” I yelped, and sprinted down the stairs. “Copy this in your notebooks,” Heedling said, stalking the class. A flurry of turned pages. The mouse noise of pencils. “This is a very important face, remember! Essential. Without it, you—what’s this, Ms. Stamfield?” “It’s what you wanted,” Margot said. Heedling hovered over her desk-chair, I saw when I looked up. “To draw it ten times,” she said. “Is it? Is this what I wanted, really?” With a light-footed movement Heedling all but danced to the front of the class where he drew, with quick, impassioned stabs of chalk, a second Helen of Troy. The chalk dusted his hands, a very specific feeling. This new figure, Margot’s presumably, looked admirably close, if not identical, to the first. “The same, really ?” “They are, right?” she said. “Are they, though?” Heedling grinned, approaching her desk again. He could move stealthily, too, with quick, catlike steps I liked to practice. “I—I think so.” “Perhaps you’re thinking too much , Ms. Stamfield.” Her lip began to quiver. “Ms. Stamfield, no need to get emotional, I am simply asking—” “Ms. Stamfield, I am simply asking!” I found I was pacing along the side of the classroom. I grabbed a piece of chalk, to feel it on my hand. “I’m asking,” I repeated, “if you can answer me that , please? Write the answer ten times, please! I’m asking if you can write the answer and erase it ten times! No, eleven, please, erase it, yes !” Mr. Heedling reddened in the corner of my eye, but my classmates laughed uncontrollably, laughed in that bottled way, as if soda were bursting out of their noses, Margot among them, and I turned to them and began laughing, too. Yes, this laugh was so delicious, it burst out of me, more and more of it until their faces blanched, Margot’s most of all, as though some mean ghost were parading before them. Yet the laughter kept cascading out my nose, so much of it, like the handkerchief a magician endlessly pulls out of his pocket. Someone grabbed the back of my neck— “Get out! Get out! . . .” I did it for Mama at the boardwalk. “You little—Brrring . . . Brrr. Why hello, Principal Derringer’s office—yes, of course. Helen of Troy. Of Troy! ” When I looked back at her, Mama was beyond laughter, already casting her look at me, her Look, I should say, for Mama’s eyes were unnaturally big, like sideways teardrops, and could do things no one else’s could. It was all the parts of her you couldn’t reach, that interior mystery, pushed against their furthest limit, and you gathered how much she hated the rules of bodies, that one person could be only one and that certain spaces would always separate us. Most rooms just weren’t big enough for her. “You found his thread,” she said. “And you want to pull it, don’t you? Undo his whole costume.” She reached out her hands for me, and I sat in her lap. She growled and squeezed me, crushed me for a moment, in the near-violent way mothers do. The sky was getting grayer. Soon winter would come when darkness falls at four o’clock, and the stars make sad dreaming babies of all the world. “One day everyone will see you the way I do.” She said this often. “People don’t like me.” “Not true.” “I have no friends.” “Friends are overrated. You’ll get some soon enough and see what I mean.” “Giovanni,” Vandaline said. “Yes?” “I said, if everyone has this—this thread as you call it, this seam sticking out—well then, I must ask, what’s yours?” The men leaned in. At the far end of the bar, Bernard raised a cigarette to his lips. I didn’t dare look at Lucy. “Why,” I said. “I’m the exception.” MAX ONE After high school, my mother’s friend Julius Weld helped me land a job at the train station in Dun Harbor, a dour nub of coastline twenty minutes south of Sea View. Mainly, I was relieved to finish school, where nearly every week I was banished to Derringer’s office. Too much stimulation, Mama said. The girls with their skirts and sculpted hair; the boys oily and mean. “Giovanni!” someone would howl, and I’d come to, like a boy who with every step knocked over an expensive vase. As I soon discovered, my job as a ticket seller required me to utter the same pronouncements dozens of times a day: “We recommend getting to the track ten minutes before scheduled departure.” Or, “Kindly check the board for updates.” I kept to the ticket seller’s booth. I knew what to say, and if ever the old urge came over me, I dammed it with politeness: the simple rules that, once followed, erected a brick wall between you and the world. Excuse me, Good day . “After you,” I insisted, holding the door for all strangers, unless, of course, a man my senior insisted otherwise, in which case I dug my chin to my chest, said, “’Preciate it, sir,” and strode ahead. Of course, this meant every businessman and runaway, every stubbly bachelor when buying a ticket unwittingly logged the details of their appearance with me. My politeness, I discovered, made for an acceptable disguise, so when wishing a man a good day, I could secretly relish each detail: the way he checked his watch, say, or slid change off the counter, sharing these bits with Mama at night. Always she was my strongest encourager. If ever I got into trouble at school, she would tell all offended parties that I was sympathetic to the bone. This, her constant response to the hurricane of hair pulls, harangues, schoolyard exclusions, and teachers’ meetings I was always causing the world. When I was four, for instance, Great Uncle Arthur, Mama’s only living relative, visited us from out west. A sigh punctuated each effort of his limbs, and the old man’s kiss he gave Mama sounded like tape being ripped from a wall. “Put it there,” he said, throwing out his hand. “You heard me, pardner, put it there,” I answered. “I heard about this,” Arthur said, turning to leave minutes after arriving. Mama jumped in front of him. “You can’t, Arthur. He’s just—” Or at Susan Sanders’s June party. Lobster, shrimp, and steamers served in their never-ending backyard. The older children cavorting by the tire swing. I remember chasing a freckled girl with straw-colored ringlets around some oaks, believing if I caught her, my whole life would explode, and must’ve still been exhilarated by that chase when we gathered, fifty of us, around the red picnic table for Susan’s annual toast. Many wore white linen suits and pearls. Mama beamed at me from behind a cityscape of champagne bottles. The girl I’d chased was thumbing bits of brownie from between her teeth. “A toast,” Susan said. On cue the adults raised their flutes of champagne, the children their glasses of chocolate milk or ginger ale. “We are just delighted everyone could make it,” she said, playing with her earrings. To speak Susan Sanders had to kick the grass or twist her legs around each other. But most of all, she couldn’t keep her hands off her earrings, and I often wondered what mute depths she’d sink to if parted from that essential jewelry. “A delight to have you. An absolute delight. With the money, the money, the friends, and the money,” I surprised myself by announcing, and soon all I could hear were the birds, and the mouths around the table were getting bigger until Mama draped her arms over my shoulders and said, “He means perfectly well. He’s just—” Or when Mama and I attended Brad Mason’s funeral at the Sea View Cemetery, which sits atop one of the few real hills outside of town. Even with its weeds and jagged gravestones the cemetery provided a sort of grandeur because of its view. Seagulls ambled around between flights, like ducks. That day it was overcast and blustery. Me, in a blazer with brass buttons, Mama sniffling out of view. It was the tragedy of that year: Brad Mason, my ten-year-old classmate, smashed by a truck. The women had to keep one hand atop their wide-brimmed hats to prevent the wind from snatching them. The priest’s exact words were lost in the wind. You could hear his sincere voice but couldn’t make out the words. When he stopped speaking, Brad’s mother, behind a speckled veil, buckled to her knees and wept so that two handsome young men in black suits had to hoist her up; and soon they were glaring at me with iron mouths—Mrs. Mason, too, her eyes white as eggs under her veil—because I was buckling my knees and weeping to the sky; Oh, no, I think I was saying, Oh, no , and poor Mama had to explain—as she had to Uncle Arthur and Susan Sanders, as she had to so many people—that Giovanni, her son, was sympathetic to the bone. She even wrote a note that I was to keep in my pocket and present to people if ever things got out of hand. By the time I began work at the train station I had gained control enough of my instincts to spare myself and others these outbursts, storing them for my performances with Mama. We had a ritual. After dinner, Mama would sit Indian-style on the couch while I cracked my neck and stretched as if we weren’t alone in our one-story house but center stage at the Sea View County Theatre. Mama might even shush imaginary attendees and then flick the lamp on and off, signaling the start of the show. To this day I wonder how those demonstrations appeared to any passerby chance may have placed at our picture window: a woman, they would have seen, upright as a piano teacher, yanking and steering her boy around with the strings of her words. “Tilt your head.” “ Sloshy hips.” “Raise it, yes! Perfect!” Sometimes Mama even stopped by the train station to observe the exact way a favorite of ours doffed his cap or, say, lightly licked her finger, making a pleased expression of the mouth before turning a magazine’s glossy page. This was no mere indulgence. These field trips felt, if anything, like missions, akin to our jaunts to the movie theater, a sanctuary of my childhood. There all the dull bits of life had been excised, the world distilled to happening , a dream in which even homely acts—a body tossing in bed, say—rivaled a general’s howl for sheer immortality. There I could hike knees to chest and mirror it all. At a deserted matinee, I would sometimes even gallop through the aisle to hail a cab like the hair-flying prosecutor onscreen, Mama ogling me as much as the picture. And yet, as I grew older, I preferred to stay in my movie-theater chair, watching like anyone else. Each moment like learning a new word. The way a man grabbed a woman’s shoulders before kissing her. The flashing eyes of a pursued driver in the rearview mirror. The correct style in which one combs a bronze coiffure after removing a hat. Or the way to set that hat down at the edge of the desk. Or, for that matter, the difference between the way an honest man sets a hat down on a desk and a liar does (the latter removing his hand right after, as if the lid might snap at him, then briefly rubbing his escaped hand with the other before slipping both in their respective pockets, whistling and pacing with shifty eyes). Yes, I preferred to observe these gestures rather than make them. The same was true at the train station, where my politeness helped make me a viewer. I don’t remember when exactly in my four years there my nightly performances stopped—or slowly receded, to be revived only by a rare peacocking figure or bona fide celebrity, as when the movie actress Lydia Peele came up on the south train from Pellview. Mama pushed, but I begged off. To mimic felt like a risk, a frightful departure from a far cozier act, one that began at seven a.m. sharp with the bleeping alarm clock and ended at five when I rode the bus home. Nor did the ticket-seller act have to end then. It carried on past dinner when I read a popular novel in bed and would live on soon enough, I hoped, in a house of my own populated by a ticket seller’s wife and ticket seller’s children, a family who would kiss and be kissed by me and who would never meet, as long as they lived, the heaps of sleeping strangers inside their man.  • • •  One August afternoon I was walking to the bus station when a voice called for me. “Excuse me,” it said. “You, there. Excuse!” I turned. There stood a broad and tall man with apple-sized cheeks and a shock of black hair. “You’re the boy, correct? The boy with the million faces?” When he smiled, he revealed teeth so white and square they looked fake. “Correct is right!” I said. “That I am. He is I.” He slapped me. “No games, boy! I’m not some object to piss on!” A moment later, though, he sucked in a deep breath. He was wearing gray slacks and a satin blue shirt stained with sweat at the crown of his belly. “My apologies for not introducing myself,” he said. “Maximilian Horatio, Management and Artist Representation. A great pleasure to meet you.” I weakly accepted his hand. “I have to say, that was quite a good Maximilian Horatio you did and you’ve only known me—what—the time it takes for two fits of gas to escape a horse’s rear?” He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “You’re Giovanni Bernini, no? I’ve heard of your talent, and I think there’s money in it. And after money come the other treats—women, fame, girl fun . . . but let’s get out of this goddamn sun. Discuss it at my place. Just an hour of your time?” He kept shifting the jacket he was holding to one hand, then the other, then to the crook of his elbow, so he could point and gesture without interruption. I dug my hands into my pockets. Felt something, a ball of lint, maybe. “What I thought,” he said. “Quotation marks.” I focused on not knitting my brow. “Now, an imitation like that—you do a dead-on imitation like that with no warning and someone will slap you. Hell, they might wait for you to fall asleep and urinate on you. But do it on a stage, do it for an audience, and they’ll piss themselves .” We were the only people on the street. Outside of the port, where longshoremen hauled containers on and off ships, Dun Harbor’s greatest landmark was the state prison, a dismal knuckle of gray, from which you were wise to keep your distance. “What’s a stage?” he asked me. “I don’t think I know,” I said in my ticket seller’s voice. I couldn’t believe how much effort it took not to do him. “A set of quotation marks. On a stage, you’re not saying anything as you . You’re saying, ‘ What if I said this.’ You’re saying, ‘ What if I were this.’ Now, I’m willing to bet you’ve been living a what-if kind of life all along while everyone around you’s been saying and doing , getting in their cars and drinking cherry soda.” He lifted his gaze toward the low, lifeless buildings. “What do you say we get out of this goddamn heat?” I couldn’t say no to him. What I mean is, I was physically incapable. I was like a moon in the orbit of a bullying planet. “Okay,” I said. He patted my back so hard I rattled. “Excellent! Excellent!” Together we walked up the sorry boulevard. He talked more and more, his hands dancing to his speech. I pulled out the ball of lint to toss in the gutter, realizing, as soon as I did, what it was. “What’s that there?” I handed it to him, hoping he’d read it in silence. Instead he cleared his throat. “If Giovanni has given you this note, it is because an incident has occurred. Please understand no harm is meant. He is simply sympathetic to the bone.” He frowned, impressed. “A boy who comes with a manual!” Maybe he noticed my expression. “Have you heard the one about the man who wanted to forget his past?” I shook my head. “Oh, it’s a classic.” He smiled like a ringmaster. “An old widower, right? Terrible past. His wife killed, all three of his sons killed, his two daughters, cow, dog, even his lovely, baby pigeon ‘Orangutan’—all dead. Someone destroyed his pigeon. It’s a whole other thing. Anyway he prays to God, saying, ‘How can I get rid of the past? Jesus, please erase my past. I’d rather be ignorant than live with this foul dung on my brain. Please, oh, please.’ Because he’s afraid, you see. ‘With this past, how can I have room for anything new, oh, Jesus.’ And so one night the man’s praying, and Jesus comes to him and says, ‘You want to forget the past?’ ‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘Yes, thank you.’ ‘You want to be freed of it, have it erased?’ ‘Yes, Jesus,’ the guy’s saying. ‘You really want to?’ ‘Yes, oh, yes.’ And Jesus tells him, Jesus looks at him and Jesus says: ‘Forget about it!’ ” He slapped his right thigh and hooted toward the sky. “Now, that’s a joke,” he said after his laughter softened to a sigh. Then he said, “Oh, right,” as if remembering something he’d planned to do for a long time. He held the note with both hands and, with a magician’s solemnity, tore it up in the sunlight, like confetti, like a celebration, like he’d made a rabbit disappear. TWO “The place is, well, unclean ,” Max warned as we trudged up the five flights in the tenement where he rented a room. The light fixtures droned like insects. “You’re my worst disease!” a woman somewhere yelled. When we reached his door, a copper 4 hung sideways, resembling in that position a crude sailboat. He fought with the lock. “C’mon,” he muttered. “Mean, goddamn—” Then it yawned open, and the odor hit us. It smelled like many things, like curdled milk, newsprint, and cabbage, but above all reeked of meat. Either Max had murdered a pig or his native musk hung around so long, had become to the air what wallpaper is to walls. “Home—sweetest—sit, boy, sit.” The door opened directly into the kitchen, and he motioned to what must’ve been the kitchen table, though drowned as it was in magazines, brown banana peels, coat hangers, and, strangest of all, a lady’s green pump, its surface could not be seen. Two green socks, soaked black at the heel, occupied the nearest chair. I gloved my hand with my sleeve, removed them, and sat. Many of the kitchen cabinets swung all the way or partially open, revealing amorphous garbage bags and what looked like deeply used athletic equipment. There was no other room, but a small bathroom, and no bed that I could see, just a mat of towels with a pillow behind the refrigerator. The man lived in the kitchen. “Beer?” He pushed open the window above the sink. “No, thank you.” “I was right, huh?”

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Jacob Rubin and The Poser“If a novel can be measured by its imaginative precision, the shrewdness of its characterization, and the authority of its prose, then The Poser, Jacob Rubin’s smart and absorbing debut, claims its power early and rarely surrenders it. . . . I hear echoes of Steven Millhauser and Tom McCarthy. . . . But the sensibility with which [Rubin] shapes his story is highly individual: probing, witty, yet hiding at its center a strangely iron compassion.” —Kevin Brockmeier, The New York Times Book Review“Zelig with a dash of Being There.” —New York Magazine, Approval Matrix (highbrow/brilliant)   “A masterful debut . . . [a] meditation on the nature of identity delivered with vaudeville verve. . . . The Poser, as it follows Giovanni from triumph to perilous triumph, seduces you with its fanciful prose, its larger-than-life characters and its fun-house-mirror take on a land of opportunity where appearance often trumps reality. It’s also one heck of a way for Rubin to announce his own presence on the literary stage.” —The Washington Post  “Precise and inventive writing. . . . The Poser is an exciting debut and I recommend it for its noirish beats. It is also richly, darkly funny. The novel is set in a fictional country that resembles America in the 1940s and '50s, and Rubin has exquisitely created this world; it is easy to get lost in it. . . . At its heart [The Poser] offers a deeply sensitive exploration into matters of identity and authenticity.” —Associated Press  “Rubin writes with unbridled inventiveness, a vaudeville show on paper. . . . There’s a hint of Woody Allen’s film “Zelig” here, and a picaresque quality that finally tips over into darkly comic horror. . . Rubin, who’s worked as a stand-up comedian, knows about performance, and the ways it can both trap and liberate. . . . The novel’s last pages . . . open out into a surprisingly tender ending.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer   “To map Rubin’s lineage, one would have to draw improbable links between the rueful comedy of Sam Lipsyte, the strange, tender inventions of John Crowley, and the off-historical tales of Steven Millhauser. . . . Rubin isn’t afraid of majestic, trippy metaphors à la Denis Johnson.” –Alexander Benaim, Bookforum.com  “Startlingly fresh. . . . Rubin's uniquely hyper-energized and metaphorical prose . . . seems to fizzle and shriek itself off the page.”—Forth Magazine“Witty, inventive . . . immensely entertaining . . . well-sculpted.” —Publishers Weekly   “Zany.” —Booklist   “The Poser is smart and grand and funny, a wonderful fable. Mr. Rubin is a great hope for comic fiction in the 21st century. He’s got the spirit and the ear.” —Sam Lipsyte, New York Times bestselling author of The Ask   “I yawped—because when you read a book as exquisite as The Poser, you yawp. Have you ever met a character like Giovanni Bernini? My heart breaks even now. With astonishing control, Mr. Rubin has created the perfect comic noir tragedy of mimicry and betrayal, of great love and greater loss. Bernini is one of fiction’s great ciphers and his parallel universe is such a good imitation of our universe I can no longer distinguish which is which. This is a novel that will be loved and admired for years to come.” —Reif Larsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet and I Am Radar    “Jacob Rubin writes with more vitality, drive, and vision than any young writer I’ve seen in ten years.” —Barry Hannah   “With twists and snap and more than its share of vaudevillian flair, The Poser is often-dazzling, a high-wire entertainment about entertainment.  Jacob Rubin is a first-rate comic writer, and somehow, don’t ask me how, he's crafted a hummingly smooth, aching look at why we perform, loneliness, and the nature of self.” —Charles Bock, New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Children    “The Poser seduces with its imaginative energy, the sheer wit and reach of its invention, but is propelled at its core by a deeply human generosity to its characters—their fierce and confused and fragile hearts.” —Leslie Jamison, New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams    “Jacob Rubin has, to borrow a term from his wondrous debut novel about the world’s greatest impressionist, deftly unraveled the ‘thread’ of his protagonist and impersonated a writer twenty years his senior. The Poser is a rollicking picaresque that is also a surprisingly affecting meditation on authenticity and loneliness.” —Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine   “The liveliest prose and most ebullient voice in fiction I’ve read in some time. Full of rich, odd, humorously soulful, and tortured souls who yearn for – well, they don’t often know, even if they think they do, but they want it. It’s a romp, this novel, as if Dickens spawned Stanley Elkin and the Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49, yet the voice is Rubin’s own. Masterful prose, full of kinetic energy. —Brad Watson, author of the National Book Award finalist The Heaven of Mercury and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives    “Jacob Rubin’s The Poser is a tour de force of voice, a genius act of ventriloquism, a terrific novel. From the opening you’ll be hooked, as I was, and you’ll love it all the way through.” —Tom Franklin, New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter From the Hardcover edition.