“Boy On A Unicycle: Confessions Of A Young Man Trained To Be A Winner” by Dan McCall, edited by Steven McCall | $16 | Available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and at local booksellers.
This old house at 108 Midway Road, former home to the late Cornell English Professor and author Dan McCall, is cleaner than it used to be.
Gone is the blue paint its former owner was once remembered for, whitewashed and neat among the orderly rows of the suburban Shangri-La of Cayuga Heights. Gone are the rows of bookshelves, filled from top to bottom with thousands of books and loose sheets of paper, the chaos today curated down to a few choice rows in synchronicity with its tastefully-furnished surroundings. Gone is the sharp click-clacking of a typewriter, the ringing of a bell as it hit its margins, and the tinkling of ice against a sweating glass of bourbon as the man behind the cacophony takes another sip. There are no more poker games. No more clutter. No more noise from the television as Alex Trebek passes plaudits to the contestants who score favorably on the Daily Double.
But for the music that vanished in June 2012, nobody’s forgotten the voice of Dan McCall.
“Hollywood” Dan McCall, anyone who knew him would say, was a man made for T.V. Tanned and gifted with a gleaming smile, the image belies the face of a man whose Fall and Spring were spent far off from the sun-soaked eternity of his native Southern California’s mild, Mediterranean climate. Outspoken, charismatic and oftentimes controversial, his gruff, booming timbre commanded dozens of sections in Cornell University’s English Department, a place he held court over for 40 years. He was show business incarnate, boasting a personality so large, so infectious, so polarizing, it could seemingly not be contained within a single lifetime: it needed to be projected, shared, broadcast into the collective psyche of an entire nation – rapt at attention with the whirlwind that was Dan McCall.
It seemed for a time, everybody knew who he was. Everyone, except Dan McCall himself.
Dan McCall was many things, an exotic anomaly of Modesto, California by way of Eugene, Oregon. He was a respected critic of American literature, a bestselling author, a professor of high regard, a husband, a father; a man with an enviable capacity for charm and generosity. But he was also a highly imperfect being: a man easily taken to vice, prone to bouts of cruelty and provocation that came from somewhere mysterious, some place within him he seemed aware of but he, nor those closest to him, could ever seem to define.
It was a question he, and his typewriter, would grapple with for a lifetime.
The summer of 2012 was a stressful one for Steven McCall.
For ten profound days in June, he had been at his father’s bedside – a constant companion during the final moments as a long succession of callers gathered for a final dose of his father’s gruff charm. After Dan’s death on June 17th, Steven had a funeral to plan, documents to pore over and a life to piece together, tie up and settle with the state: the last bureaucratic steps to eternity, he thought.
Then he turned his attention toward the inside of the house.
Since 1966 Dan McCall had lived in this modest two-story Colonial, purchased upon his hiring to Cornell’s faculty that year. Straight from the doctoral program at Columbia University, Dan McCall was a man on his own path: he’d just married his French teacher from Columbia, a fellow graduate student named Dorothy Kaufmann, who would later become the mother to his only child. It was a place he’d come to – New York City – gray and lit in neon light, that marked a far deviation from the life he, the man who would later become “Hollywood” Dan McCall, always seemed destined: a life lived out through the screens of millions of Americans.
“After Dan graduated from Stanford,” Dorothy, whom he remained married to for ten years, read at his funeral, “he made what I still consider his bravest decision. It had been understood that he would go to graduate school at UCLA to study television and perhaps, become a talk show host. Instead, he broke away from the path he had been programmed to follow and decided to go to New York City, a world away, and pursue his deepest passion: literature.”
For years, the calendar went season by season for Dan McCall. In spring and in fall, he’d take his books and his focus to the classrooms of Cornell – the popular teacher, well-liked and received by the students he gave so much of his time to. In the offseason, he’d head back to Laguna Beach, where he’d write his novels.
“After several weeks, I worked up the courage to show him one of my short stories,” one of his first students, Reuben Munday, who’d developed an extremely close, lifelong friendship with him, once wrote: “He told me that he thought the story was ‘very creative.’”
“But, if I worked with him,” he joked, “we could make it better. We made it better, and a friendship developed.”
A gifted teacher, Dan had a magnetic demeanor in the classroom and on campus, as loved as he was loathed. He had venerable qualities, his word of honor and integrity committing him to a series of inalienable principles few could shake. He believed in literature and shunned the idea of theory, concerned about the distortion of the meaning and experience of literature. The notion of the theorists, he thought, was once you dehumanize yourself from the true meaning of the written word, twist its motivations, one loses all sense of literature’s purpose.
“Dan was very precocious,” Lamar Herrin, a colleague and longtime poker partner said in an interview. “I could tell you a million stories about him if you wanted to hear ‘em… he was self-consciously and theatrically gruff: as with a lot of gruff people, he had this sentimental, sweeter side that he didn’t like to expose all the time. But he created a lot of enemies; he got on his principled high horse a lot. He couldn’t stand the theorists.”
McCall, in Herrin’s terms, liked literature as it was classically understood, not so much political or critical perspectives on these pieces – his territory of the 1800s to the 1950s – of American literature.
“He thought [the theorists] would take swipes at these works of art, just to get what they wanted to bolster their theory only to run off,” Herrin said. “And Dan didn’t like that.”
But McCall was also a resolute man, one for whom there always had to be a “right” answer.
“He’d ask people, ‘Rank in order the five greatest books you’ve ever read,’” Steven says. “He’d ask in this tongue-in-cheek sort of way, implying he knew he was full of crap. At the same time though, he believed intensely there was only one ‘correct’ way to answer the question.”
But even if Dan’s views were wrong in the popular sense, he was adamant and unapologetic if he believed he was in the right. He liked to provoke people in his own theatrical way, Herrin said: he told off-color jokes, politically incorrect jokes, jokes that challenged ideals of class, race… constantly challenging the fragile lines that divide and categorize us in society that too often, go untouched. One of his favorite icebreakers for his classes, in fact, was having each student write a joke to share with the class to start off each semester which, funny or not, they would then have to defend in front of the class. Some would even make their way to the poker table each month, a poker table that included the likes Donald Cooke, a Cornell chemist who had been in the war room with General Eisenhower planning analytical weather forecasts in the lead-up to Normandy. “He’d heard it all,” Herrin said. “And even he would get offended by some of these jokes.”
“And some of [the jokes] were very foul,” mused Herrin. “Some of them you’d never forget, but I’ve managed to.”
He was a polarizing personality. Some accepted and enjoyed his outrageousness. Others, naturally, took offense.
But as selfless with his time and social as he could be, Hollywood Dan, by any measure, was something of a narcissist yet, in private, savagely self-critical and constantly over examining of his own psyche. In fiction, it’s often said a great writer is one who borrows from real life, but projects their own worldview and perspective upon their characters.
“His old friend Bert States said to him, ‘do you realize every book you write is about yourself?’” Steven recalled. “My father knew himself intimately well and yet was a stranger to himself at the same time.”
On the day one dies, it could be thought the truth of who they are and the urge to answer that question – ‘who is Dan McCall?’ – oftentimes dies with them.
Luckily, Dan left notes.
In his youth, Dan McCall had been something of a prodigal son of oration.
At the age of 12, he captivated audiences with his recitation of the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a performance that boosted him to the first of what would be several national championships in speechcraft and the All-American status as “California Boy Of The Year.” The young Dan McCall, by all accounts, was exactly how his parents “trained” him to be: the great speaker, the star performer, the perfect version of American exceptionalism his father, a prominent professor of rhetoric, had always envisioned him to be.
It was a childhood that gave him fame, gave him direction, put him through school and arguably, defined the person who he would eventually become. But in living it, it perhaps killed the man who could have been.
“He always had these contradictory, conflicted ties to his teenage past,” said Steven. “On one hand, he was terribly proud of it. On the other hand, he was traumatized by it. And the question of whether his parents pushed him to do this or whether he wanted it himself is, frankly, an open question and still a bit mysterious.”
Dan McCall lived through his adolescence defined by his own greatness. He was an eloquent speaker forged through an obsession with winning. He traveled the country, taking titles from state to state and delivering moving performances, artificial passion distilled through his own, conditioned values of patriotism and excellence.
“I’m the least insecure kid I know,” he said once to a teacher, Mr. Renner, responding in turn that the only pure world was one with only a single person in it.
Perhaps that was his plight.
Through his newfound fame, he played the role of emcee at a number of high school functions, often to the vexation of his less-accomplished peers – the “jealous” ones, as his mother would say. Through his teenage years, he missed out on many of the normal rites of passage-- friendships, alcohol, the carnal pleasures we’re so wont to think as taboo in the 1950s. But he had fame and notoriety, at the very least. He was “the boy on the unicycle,” the kid from Eugene with his own variety show winning acclaim on regionally distributed television. At an older age, he shook hands with politicians – important ones – and found himself a player in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, giving pre-packaged answers to the host of the nationally syndicated show Strike It Rich in return for a new wardrobe and a few minutes of airtime.
Growing up, he’d always assumed he’d be on television forever. The plan, always, was Stanford, UCLA, then straight to the silver screen. He was too perfect for it, his trajectory too focused not to end up with a name in lights. And until the day he died, he never seemed to know whether that was him that was meant for Hollywood or who he was trained to be.
Four times throughout his life, Dan McCall sat down to try and make sense of it all.
Plenty of his friends, like Herrin, knew about Dan McCall’s memoirs. Steven, having read two separate drafts written in 1999 and 2006, knew about them as well. What they didn’t know was how many dozens of drafts written in earlier years were hidden somewhere among the stacks in that house on Midway.
“My Dad was always so over-the-top”, Steven said. “I remember him telling me, ‘I know where every single piece of paper is in this house.” But once I started going through everything, I discovered how obviously that was a blatant and complete lie.”
After settling his father’s affairs that summer of 2012, he set about the arduous task of cleaning up the house. He gave away or sold many of the 3,500 or so books packed in between the walls, keeping only a few as well as his father’s more rare editions of the books he’d written, several of which were translated into a number of different languages. Then he turned his attention to the papers, crammed in every spare space in the house from the basement to the attic. Unfinished manuscripts, pieces of published novels shoved away that didn’t make the final cut, letters to and from friends, endless comments scrawled on 3x5 notecards, research materials… a disorderly hodgepodge offering a window into the mind of Dan McCall over the previous 40 years.
And among the havoc was the draft of a memoir Steven had never seen before:
“Me and my brothers were going to a whorehouse…”
It took several months to sort it all out. Steven sat on the floor of Dan’s expansive living room, many nights spent sorting out hundreds of thousands of pages into individual piles based on their corresponding genre – letter, notes, novel, memoir – and the year they were produced.
Once had had separated out all the memoir material, Steven realized that there were four distinct time periods in which Dan had worked on the memoir – 1970, 1986, 1999, and 2006 – each with distinct characteristics. Pages from the 1970 manuscripts, yellowed and decaying with age, were typed up on an older crème-colored typewriter that Steven found in the basement. The pages from the 1986 drafts bore the distinctive typeface of a Royal Deluxe: Hemingway’s brand of choice. The 1999 and 2006 versions were easily identifiable by their printer font, since they were typed up on a word processor by an assistant (one of the few concessions made by “old school Dan” to the digital age). Each piece; an effort to explain a life Hollywood Dan could never bring order to on his own.
But Steven, the person who knew him best, knew where to take it.
Each draft was written without a chronology, darting back and forth between past and present. So in each version, Steven ordered the storyline of each of the four distinct manuscripts into chronological order to create paralleling accounts of Dan’s life in each. Then it was about finding the differences in each separate draft of each separate year, splicing sentences from every draft of each year’s iteration to create the “best” version of each.
Each round, he would consult Dorothy and, oftentimes, they agreed with each other. Particularly on the decision to put all these disjointed thoughts – these crazy episodes of introspection and self discovery – into order.
“That was one of the artistic decisions I am confident was the right one,” Steven said. ““He wrote the book dozens of different times in dozens of different ways, but every time he wrote it, he did so in a way that was often fragmented and a bit confusing. One of the biggest contributions I made was putting the story in chronological order.”
Some of the versions flowed well together. 1999 and 2006 – the last attempts to get it all down – were intellectually consistent. 1970, artfully done as it was, was filled with numerous passages needed to fill the gaps. In a literary sense, all the pieces were there. But the biggest challenge, seemingly, could be seen in giving order to a story its author saw as chaotic and inexplicable.
A memoir, at its heart, is a novelist’s attempt to explain himself honestly. In McCall’s four attempts at finding meaning, he examines his adolescence at four separate stages of his life, each told from a separate understanding of his own existence.
As a 30-year-old in 1970, Dan McCall was a man at the height of his powers, a flamboyant, magnetic personality four years from completing what would inarguably become his greatest hit, Jack The Bear. In the year 1970 lived a writer armed with the infallible power to transport a reader directly into a world he had painted from the deepest pockets of his own creative potential: he was a writer that didn’t just invite you into his world – he dragged you into it. In 1986, the “magic couple” of Dorothy and Dan had long ago ended, a new significant relationship had just dissolved, his health was failing, and he was struggling with the futility of alcoholism. “It was a dark period of his life, and it was reflected in a dark version of his memoir,” Steven said.
In the 90s he began to recover somewhat, emerging a more contemplative man with a maturing perception of his childhood. Over the years, McCall had grown a better understanding of how his past affected his present, how the decisions along the way led to where he had ended up:
“I was very close to him, his only child, and so I felt like I knew him as well as anyone in the world,” Steven said. “And by taking the time to follow the evolution of his drafts, I developed a deeper intuition for his mindset as a writer. I came to understand not only the “how”, but the “why” as well —I knew the purpose of each sentence.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
–‘The Great Gatsby,’ Final Line
In the end, the conclusion we come to at the end of Boy On A Unicycle – the result of Steven’s years of effort and 40 years of Dan’s struggle – remains a mysterious one. To the man who loathed theory and loved Jeopardy, where everything had a “right answer,” maybe it was a futile exercise trying to find the answer to an unknowable question. Maybe the pursuit of a truth not so simply told was an impossible task for a man who, by modern understanding, had everything anyone could have ever wanted: he escaped from his destiny to find his own.
But the open-ended question, Steven rightfully closes the memoir with, is whether or not that destiny was really his own. Is the person at the end of the book a portrait of the truest version of Dan McCall? Did he find himself? Or is he the unshakeable result of trauma, the manifestation of something lost that we’ll never get back?
At the book’s close, we realize we may never really know the story of Dan McCall, the meaning of his life, what was lost and what might have been.
Couldn’t we all say the same?
Steven McCall will be reading from his father’s memoir, “Boy On A Unicycle,” at the Cornell English Department Lounge at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 23 and at Buffalo Street Books on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 3 p.m. Learn more at BoyOnAUnicycle.com.
Follow Nick Reynolds on Twitter @Nickthaca