I became friends with Jamie when I was 13, a few years after my family fled the Soviet Union and settled in what was then one of the most diverse neighborhoods of south Brooklyn. When we first met, Jamie (not his real name) told me that he was a genius—that his Catholic school teachers said so after he wrote a poem about vaginas and read it aloud in front of the whole class. He told me he wanted to be “an author.” In the 1990s, our street was a spontaneous symphony of the working poor, a place where kids bonded by trading ethnic insults in a dozen languages. I had mastered this crude local vernacular. Jamie’s ability to step outside of our street language, speak freely and dream about something larger was transfixing.
Unlike Jamie, I churned through the city’s public schools without attracting much notice. My teachers did not seek genius. In high school, they were too busy keeping us from killing each other. I learned nothing and barely graduated. After Jamie went off to a university in Manhattan, we lost touch. I attended a local public college and came out with degrees in Business and Philosophy, graduating shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The business major was a concession to my immigrant parents. But Wall Street was in ruins. And philosophy obviously wasn’t much help. I worked a string of odd jobs, ultimately landing a writing gig for a consumer magazine that paid less than what I’d earned parking cars.
In 2009, I joined Facebook and looked up Jamie online. He had graduated from a prestigious Master of Fine Arts program in fiction. He also was awarded a coveted fellowship that came with a brief mention in one of the country’s finest literary magazines. He was married, and had a toddler son. Though surprised at first, he seemed happy to hear from me.
I was eager to catch up. We hadn’t spoken or seen each other in more than a decade. But the conversation invariably steered itself toward our young new president, Barack Obama. I’d voted for him and felt a swell of emotion when he spoke at his 2008 inauguration. Like Jamie, Obama was bi-racial, raised by his white mother, with a penchant for rhetorical flight.
Jamie and I would speak on the phone, discussing how refreshing it was to finally have a man of eloquence and grace in the White House. We railed against obstructionist Republicans who undermined Obama—like Joe Wilson, who shouted “you lie!” during the 2009 State of the Union address. We were living in momentous times. At last, the nation had elected its first black president, and Jamie and I were friends again.
I met Jamie’s wife, a blue-eyed blonde who looked, as Jamie was inclined to mention, like Scarlet Johansson. She taught middle-school English full time in one of the city’s toughest public schools. Jamie was a part-time adjunct lecturer at a university. He took the rest of the time off to work on his novel. The two of them shopped exclusively at Whole Foods and lived in a Manhattan apartment with their son, three cats, rustic-looking furniture and lots of Apple devices. They often hosted parties where I got to meet his friends, mostly attractive women who had moved to New York City from all over the country for school or work. They liked the off-color street idiom Jamie and I naturally fell into, two quirky friends from Brooklyn—one dark-skinned, the other light. His wife didn’t seem to mind, as she usually was busy with the toddler in another room. One time, I arrived late. “Finally,” Jamie exclaimed. “The clown is here!”
For a time, this urban menagerie dictated my new sense of who I wanted to be. I didn’t ask questions. It was too dazzling to stain with doubts. Soon, I was going with Jamie to readings and literary events where authors whose books I loved stood in the flesh before us and read from their stories and novels. I watched in awe as Jamie approached them as if they were casual friends. By then, I had worked as a journalist for a few years, covering everything from gadgets to crime to local political races in Brooklyn. Just as English itself had once been a swirl of mysterious sounds to my native Russian-speaking brain, this new language of agents, publishers and quarterly reviews was just as foreign. Jamie spoke it fluently. During conversations, he would bring up, all in one breath, his fellowship, the college where he taught, his forthcoming novel—beginning sentences with “the last time I talked to Junot…”
Jamie could tell how all of this impressed me. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. He encouraged me to enroll in an MFA program. We planned to write a book together. Late one evening, still buzzing with excitement from one of these events, we returned to Jamie’s apartment. His wife and son already asleep, he leaned back in their Pottery Barn sofa and said, “You know, when I walk into a room, I know I’m the best writer in that room.”
A few months later, Jamie fell off the grid for a few days. His phone was off, and he didn’t answer email. When Jamie finally resurfaced, it was with an unsettling text message: “My wife wants a divorce. I am losing my family.” Later that day, when we spoke on the phone, Jamie told me that he’d spent the last few days in a hospital mental ward, where he’d been taken by police.
He went on to tell me that three years earlier, while his wife was pregnant with their child, he’d been with another woman. Burdened by guilt, he confessed immediately after it happened. Being parents to a newborn had kept their marriage intact, but things had been on a downward slope ever since. They argued about money, too. After Jamie won his fellowship, his wife, also a writer, put on hold her own creative ambitions so Jamie could finish his novel. The Manhattan lifestyle of a genius writer was being financed by her full-time job as a teacher, help from her parents, and ballooning credit-card debt. Meanwhile, Jamie, who was barely working or writing, had been avoiding his wife altogether—mostly by hanging out with me. It all came to a head during a heated argument, when she’d finally asked for a divorce. At one point during all of this, Jamie’s behaviour frightened her and she had called the police.
I defended my friend. I knew Jamie. I knew that he would never hurt his wife or, God forbid, their son. I thought it was unfair that he had to spend three days locked in a padded room with potentially dangerous, criminally disturbed people.
As I later learned, Jamie was lucky—lucky that the police took him to a mental ward instead of the police station. Lucky that, even with all that resentment between them, his soon-to-be ex-wife allowed him to continue to see their son. Still, my instinct was to take his side. After she threw him out of their apartment, I came in my car to pick up his things. I took them to his mother’s house in Brooklyn. For a time, Jamie and I were closer friends than ever.
Less than a year later, I took out loans and moved to Manhattan to pursue an MFA. A Master of Fine Arts in fiction program typically is based on a workshop model: Once a week, a student submits a piece of prose, usually a short story, to a group of roughly 15 classmates who take turns discussing the work and providing feedback. These workshops are led by professors who are established authors. MFA students also are given a chance to teach undergraduate English and, upon graduation, can become adjunct instructors like Jamie. These programs emphasize the “craft” of writing, and tout access to contacts in the publishing industry—agents, editors and famous guest writers who are invited to speak at panels and events.
Like our old Brooklyn neighbourhood (by now, gentrified out of existence), the students varied stupendously by race and culture. I was excited at first, but soon began to sense a disconnect. Too often, their reasons for being there seemed to have little to do with a love of books. Some only read within a single genre. Others actually bragged about not reading at all. And the social climate could be tense—something I learned for the first time when a gay black classmate warned me to “be careful” before commenting on his story, which was centered on a gay black character. I thought of the verve and confidence that Jamie had always shown when discussing his identity as an author and, as politely as I could, explained that I didn’t have to be careful, because I could say whatever I wanted. Then I went on, as I’d initially intended, to praise the story for its vivid language.
A few weeks later, while scouring the racks at the school’s annual library book sale, I bumped into my professor. I held up a used hard-cover of E. L. Doctorow’s 2005 novel The March, which I’d scored for just a dollar. He looked at the book and asked, “Who’s he?” Doctorow was arguably the greatest living historical novelist in America. The professor, who taught a class on the role of history in narrative fiction, would later become the director of the school’s MFA program.
Similarly telling episodes followed, and I came to realize that I’d been burying myself in student debt so as to gain the feedback of people whose opinions didn’t matter. I dropped out at the end of the year. But before doing so, I met Junot Diaz—the Junot of Jamie’s casual braggadocio—who’d been invited to address us as a guest speaker. He talked about the importance of reading, and told us that he didn’t hang out with other writers. His only friends, he said, were those he grew up with in New Jersey. He seemed like a good role model.
Jamie, meanwhile, was pursuing a relationship with a new woman. After less than a month, he told her that he was in love. We saw each other less frequently. When we did, it was at readings and literary events, where Jamie flirted openly with other women, including one of his former female students. One time, on a train, he and I sat next to a young woman who was reading Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl. Charming as always, Jamie asked if she was enjoying the novel. The woman looked up and smiled. “She is my colleague,” Jamie said, before launching into a list of his accomplishments and famous friends. (To the best of my knowledge, Jamie and Flynn had never met.)
Later that week, I confessed to Jamie my growing unease with his behaviour. Torn between moral discomfort and loyalty to a close friend, I explained that I felt complicit in his pretenses, especially in the company of others. I assured him that he was a talented writer—the best writer in any room—that he didn’t have to posture or prove anything. I also expressed concern about him jumping into another relationship in the midst of his divorce, and about his cavalier behavior around female students. He was, after all, still legally married and fighting to keep custody of his son.
“Sometimes I think you have a problem with women,” he replied, and told me his plans to move into his new girlfriend’s apartment. We spoke less and less, and soon stopped communicating altogether.
When I did run into Jamie again, it was late 2015. Doctorow had recently died, and a New York real-estate celebrity named Donald Trump was preparing a run for President. I’d been translating death records from Russian by day, and driving a flatbed delivery van at night. Nevertheless, I’d made progress with my writing, getting a number of stories published in literary journals, and even winning a few awards. I had an agent, and was finishing a book-length manuscript. Jamie, on the other hand, was in a difficult place. He’d been writing in fits and starts, ultimately joining a private workshop composed mainly of former MFA classmates. After one of them criticized Jamie’s writing as vague and poorly plotted, he’d decided to quit the group. “I need a more supportive community,” he told me.
Jamie and I then had a heart-to-heart, in which he offered something approximating an apology. He talked about his biological father—a black man whom he claimed to have never met. Jamie told me that his dad was a crack cocaine addict who repeatedly beat his mother, a slight Jewish woman, while she was pregnant with Jamie. As a result, Jamie was born dangerously premature, barely surviving the first few weeks of his life in an incubator. Jamie also talked about how his stepfather’s neglect had affected his treatment of his own son. One of only a handful of dark-skinned kids at his Catholic all-boys high school, Jamie recounted being bullied by other boys. He also brought up his older sister’s mental illness, and suggested that she may have been raped by a boyfriend, who later turned to alcohol and now lived on the streets.
There’s no question that Jamie’s family had hard luck. But I remembered Jamie’s stepfather as an amicable, even gregarious, neighbour who told stories while walking their large husky with pale blue eyes. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors, of course. But I began to question my own memories—and Jamie’s, too, even if his recollections seemed sincere.
Over time, I seized on Jamie’s stories to help explain the chasm between the giant Jamie I idolized in Brooklyn and the shrunken Jamie who stood before me. There was a political undercurrent: The idea of Jamie as a victim of not just the circumstances of his own household, but also systemic racism more generally, seemed very much in keeping with America’s history of persecuting black boys and men.
“Forget them,” I said, referring to the members of Jamie’s unsupportive workshop. “Let’s start our own.” My futile MFA attempt behind me, I imagined the two of us engaging with the books we loved back in our childhood, in an environment free of social friction. Rather than nibble at the edges of style or craft, we could interrogate the moral choices made by enduring characters in history’s great novels: Why was it wrong to kill old women in Crime and Punishment? Who was this Gatz before he became Gatsby, and what was it that really motivated him? Together, we could trace the contours of the divine in Isaac Bashevis Singer and Flannery O’Connor, or the specter of war in John Cheever and Walker Percy; we could expose madness in Chekhov’s placid stories and Santiago’s courage in The Old Man and the Sea. A hopelessly old-fashioned reader, I wanted us to revisit Hamlet, the saddest moral clown of them all, as well as Chaucer’s lustful pranksters, no less juvenile than Jamie and I once had been on Brooklyn’s streets.
“Let’s start with Lolita,” I said.
But Jamie said that Lolita bored him after the first few sentences, so he stopped reading: “Maybe it was a bad translation.”
It brought me no joy to have to tell him that while Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian émigré who wrote his first nine novels in his native tongue, the later Nabokov of Lolita fame was one of the great prose stylists of the English language. What followed was a contentious exchange in which it became clear that Jamie has never read or finished many of the great books that I held dear. When I asked, in all sincerity, how he could teach writing to college students, he shot back by rejecting my beloved texts as artifacts of white, male European hegemony.
It wasn’t long before tirades against the Western canon—against my use of terms such as “Shakespearean” or “Dickensian” in reference to Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston—spilled over onto Facebook pages, where they turned personal, especially after I critiqued Ta-Nehisi Coates’ politics of nihilism and doom.
“I take offence to that as a man of colour,” Jamie wrote in response.
I read Coates’s 2015 book, Between the World and Me, then newly published, and judged his vision of America as dark and hopeless—more of a provocation than an accurate take on an open society that had welcomed millions of immigrants, like myself, fleeing despotic regimes. I was equally put off by Coates’ blithe dismissal of Martin Luther King Jr. and other influential intellectuals. Like many prominent black scholars, I questioned Coates’s analysis of history.
“That comment,” Jamie replied. “And other things you’ve said to me…have me asking you to think more about whiteness, privilege, and how it affects every moment of our lives.” In that moment, I realized that the frank and evocative language that once had brought Jamie and me together as children had been replaced by brittle ideological boilerplate, copied and pasted from social-justice Twitter accounts.
But I refused to nod in agreement to Coates, who “could see no difference between the [police] officer who killed [Coates’ friend and classmate] Prince Jones, and the police who died [on 9/11], or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me.” Many of the surviving 9/11 first responders are now battling cancer. These were also some of the same uniformed officers who for years stood guard protecting my father, a retired New York transit worker, while he fixed MetroCard vending boxes full of cash amid the grime and madness of the city’s subway system.
My small acts of revolt against the political orthodoxy that now filled Jamie’s social-media world represented my first steps outside the New Faith to which the two of us had jointly pledged allegiance during the Obama years. With his stunning division of America into oppressed and oppressor, Coates seemed to be tapping into a moral world that lay beyond traditional Western ideals—a moral world that, in some respects, began to remind me of the one my Russian family had fled in the 1980s.
Things only got worse when I expressed reservations about voting for Hillary Clinton, whom I had found to be duplicitous and out of touch with the modern American left. This was not a defence of Trump, whose misogyny and lack of integrity require no elaboration. For the first time in my adult life, I considered sitting out a presidential election. That, too, can be an act of resistance. Just ask any refugee from the Soviet Union, where voting was compulsory.
To save what was left of our crumbling friendship, I pointed to the words of the man we both revered, Barack Obama, who’d declared in his last State of the Union Address that “a better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests…But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us.”
Jamie was unmoved. To not take sides against Trump was, as he put it, “the epitome of white privilege.” I responded that our friendship had survived every presidential election since George H. W. Bush. Surely, it would survive this one.
After Trump was elected, I continued to seek the company of bookish kin, without fully realizing that they were in the process of excommunicating me. Something shifted in late 2016—and not just with Jamie. An author I’ll call Daniel, who’d solicited my critical feedback in the past, sold his novel to a top publisher, earning a huge advance. I was happy for him, and he was kind enough to thank me in the book’s acknowledgements. But the novel didn’t sell well. And Daniel found a way to blame the bad numbers on Trump’s presidency.
“I hate every Republican, good or bad, with every fibre of my being,” he declared to the world. Trump’s supporters, he said, were all “soulless troglodytes.”
While Brooklyn is known for liberal silos such as Park Slope and Williamsburg, the Brooklyn I’d known as a child was politically diverse. A number of my former classmates and colleagues remain Republicans. And some of them have come to my aid at the darkest, most tragic times in my life. Many are still my friends. They are police officers, nurses and combat veterans; they are Jews, immigrants, Asians, Latinos and African-Americans. Some would vote for Donald Trump: Conservative Jews who liked his pro-Israel stance; Wall Street workers who liked his business background; rank-and-file police who wanted to stick it to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; visible minorities who liked his “America First” rhetoric, and imagined that he’d bring back secure manufacturing jobs. These promises may have been empty and dishonest. But they resonated with a lot of people, not all of them “troglodytes.”
I also witnessed something else that alarmed me. The charges of Russian collusion against Trump’s campaign—while being a completely legitimate (and ongoing) political concern—were curdling into Russophobic hysteria among some members of the New York literary caste.
“I think Russians have been at the root of our discord for years,” Daniel announced at one point. “I think they own the government and the NRA.…They are the true enemy…Seriously, #russia, fuck you.” Caught up in these negative reveries, he would lapse into Swiftian absurdism, declaring at one point, “I hope we deport every single one of you motherfuckers back to Russia where you’ll live in gulags.” Eventually, Twitter deleted Daniel’s account after he allegedly posted threatening tweets against other users.
On another occasion, after I refused to discuss my Soviet immigration experience via Facebook and suggested we talk in person instead, the daughter of a renowned American novelist told me to “honestly fuck off. Go translate media monitoring kits for Trump… How did you all get into our country? Jesus Christ…You are a great reason why we need immigration reform now.”
As a New York writer, I’m supposed to be reflexively hostile to Trump voters—a political breed that often is caricatured as a bunch of racist Appalachian hillbillies. But because of what I do for a living, and who my friends are, I’ve learned that Trump’s enemies can be every bit as Manichean and hysterical as Trump’s supporters. As with a massive gas giant orbiting a smaller body, the gravitational field of Trump’s symbolic presence has come to draw in the petty grievances, career anxieties and existential dread of a whole generation of intellectuals. I hate my boss: Fuck Trump! My spouse hates me: Fuck Trump! No one will buy my book: Fuck Trump! Please, I want somebody to love me: Fuck Trump! Here, at last, was somebody we could freely hate more than we hate each other or ourselves.
“I have to say this for Trump,” Daniel wrote once. “All the hate and anger I had against the coffeemaker and at myself for backing my car into a tree, etc.., well, that’s all gone thanks to our imposter-in-chief. So…thank you, Mr. Trump, for channeling all my anger.”
As shown by the arc of my relationship with Jamie—and the many other Jamies who populate the New York writing scene—Trump is as much a symptom as a cause. His appearance in American politics coincides with a larger trend on the left that now serves to elevate every form of personal disappointment into a symptom of “systemic” abuse. The result hasn’t just been that my erstwhile friends are afflicted with debilitating persecution complexes: It also has destroyed their ability to exercise independent thought. For free thought requires the free use of language, which is impossible when smart people like Jamie or Daniel are required to push the round peg of art and creation into the square hole of political sloganeering.
“The objective conditions necessary to the realization of a work of art are, as we know, a highly complex phenomenon, involving one’s public, the possibility of contact with it, the general atmosphere, and above all freedom from involuntary subjective control,” wrote Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in The Captive Mind. “‘I can’t write as I would like to,’ a young Polish poet admitted to me. ‘My own stream of thought has so many tributaries, that I barely succeed in damming off one, when a second, third, or fourth overflows. I get halfway through a phrase, and already I submit it to Marxist criticism. I imagine what X or Y will say about it, and I change the ending.’”
Is this process of submission—and the resulting discordance between ideology and one’s own authentic stream of thought—what drove my friends to states of miserable, anti-social agitation? I don’t know, because I am no longer in touch with either of the two men. I also have parted ways with my long-time girlfriend, who got swept up in these same currents, and who once literally wept in my presence because I had made a flattering reference to Camille Paglia.
I thought of that episode recently, when I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Paglia at a speaking event. Her restless intensity that evening, her encyclopedic command of ancient culture and myth, always will stay with me. At one point, Paglia, who identifies as a lesbian, banged her tiny fist against the podium and shouted, “Give women the freedom to risk rape!” Her presence was electric, a blazing amaranth of inquiry and knowledge. As I helped Dr. Paglia, a small woman with a noticeable limp, back to her car, a group of students followed. Even those who found fault with Paglia’s views kept asking questions. We simply couldn’t let go of her.
But let go we must. For any form of idolatry—or idolatry’s opposite, demonization—always will bind an intellect in the shackles of some New Faith. The price one pays for acceptance by the congregation is, and always will be, one’s intellectual freedom.
Miłosz wrote: “It is not hard to imagine the day when millions of obedient followers of the New Faith may suddenly turn against it.” This will happen in Brooklyn, as it happened in Europe after my family came to America. Until then, I write pseudonymously, afraid to lose what little ground I have gained while taking flight from the apostles who once called themselves my friends.
Lester Berg is a pseudonym. The author is a writer living in New York City.
Featured photo: Brooklyn, photographed in 2016 by Jason McCann.