When Your Childhood Hero Becomes a Sad Clown

Annie Hartnett recommends an excerpt from the debut novel 'Stay Up with Hugo Best' by Erin Somers

Stay Up with Hugo Best by Erin Somers Rec by Annie Hartnett

INTRODUCTION BY ANNIE HARTNETT

June Bloom was, until recently, a writer’s assistant on the talk show Stay Up with Hugo Best but the long-running show has just been cancelled. June has a sharp wit and no stage presence; she wants only to be a writer behind the scenes, not a stand-up comedian, and she’s just lost the job that was possibly taking her somewhere. So June decides she has nothing to lose when the Hugo Best, star of the talk show, now just retired and probably all washed up, invites her to his mansion for a long weekend. He’s in his 60s, and June is 29.

Stay Up with Hugo Best_Recommended Reading_Erin Somers_Annie Hartnett
Buy the book.

Yes, Erin Somers’s debut novel Stay Up with Hugo Best is timely, and every review from now until forever is going to say something about that. It’s kind of silly to call novels timely, because most novels take years to write, but yes, fine, it’s a novel of this moment.

But what I loved most about the novel was June Bloom herself. Somers has captured the experience of being in your late twenties: feeling like you are just on the cusp of something, what maybe is a career, while simultaneously feeling like you might mess that career up before it really begins. Everything feels so uncertain, and somehow everyone around you seems to be ahead in the Race to Figure It Out, so maybe you should just throw in the towel now and gracefully decline to keep racing.

“Is it enough?” June Bloom asks Hugo Best in this excerpt, when he asks about her childhood. “Enough bad stuff. To convince you that I’m miserable or lonely or whatever it is you think qualifies me to be a comedian.”

When I was a graduate student in an MFA program, one of my professors said to the class: “Well that’s what we, as writers, all have in common: Horrible childhoods.” But I did not have a horrible childhood, and I was at that cusp point in my MFA—my last year of the program, wondering if I could make it as a writer outside of the comfy confines of the classroom. When my professor said that, so many in the class nodded, and because I was in my mid-twenties, I really worried: my parents hadn’t wreaked enough horror on me when I was small. Maybe I’d run out of things to write about before I even really got started. And what’s more, what an annoying thing for me to complain about.

June Bloom has the same worry: “Not enough bad stuff.” She says: “I hadn’t been scarred, but I had quietly failed anyway.” Despite her stable upbringing, her dentist father and office manager mother, twenty-nine-year-old June still makes some really terrible choices. She is morbidly curious about what will happen to her next, and she’s both self-destructive and self-aware through it all. Sometimes she is downright bad.

She’s also very funny, though, so you’ll still root for her. Even, I think, if your childhood was an awful one.

– Annie Hartnett 

When Your Childhood Hero Becomes a Sad Clown

An Excerpt from the novel Stay Up with Hugo Best

By Erin Somers

The house lay behind a solid gray gate on a long arm. A winding driveway carried us deeper onto the property. It sat in a clear field, a boxy structure of glass and pale concrete. Instantly I could imagine the way it would take on the color of the seasons. White in winter, green in summer. Tonight with the lights off it looked nearly invisible in places, a suggestion of angular geometry against the night. It was an esoteric design object you could live in. It belonged on a plinth.

“The architect chose everything. The furnishings, the art,” Hugo was saying. “Unity being the idea. Blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. The dimensions of the recessed living room are the same as the pool. All of the materials are local. The granite. The wood. Every few years the state tries to make it a landmark.”

We climbed out of the car. Hugo insisted on carrying my tote. The straps were filthy, I noticed, and his arm was touch- ing a bottle of store-brand face wash I had crammed on top.

“Why not let them?”

“It’s a house,” he said. “Not a museum.”

He led me through the downstairs, turning on lights as we went. Through the windows: acres of moonlit field in every direction. The kitchen was white and stainless, opening seam-lessly into the living room. Beyond the sliding glass door the flat of the patio gave way to a dark, wobbly presence. The pool. I sat down at the marble slab of island to unpack our grocery bags. I took out high-concept crackers and pricey Côtes du Rhône, while Hugo busied himself retrieving silverware.

He had a whole drawer of tiny, specific knives and he looked down into it thoughtfully for a long time before giving up.

“So what’s your story?” he asked.

I was struggling with a wine opener evidently from the future. “Me? Nothing. I’m just over here trying to figure out how much manchego is acceptable to eat in this scenario. We should all get together as a species and nail down some cheese protocols.”

Hugo nodded. “A Geneva convention for dairy. I like it. But what I meant was what’s your story more generally. Your upbringing, et cetera. Are you from New York?”

“South Carolina,” I said. “Outside of Charleston.”

“You don’t seem southern.”

People always said this to me. I had lived in New York since college and didn’t have an accent. I was never sure how people expected southerners to act. The place I had grown up was a lot like this place. The Upscale Anywhere. Only the wealth was not as great and the worst of its ruthless villains were already dead.

“The South isn’t all that different. Except for the trees.”

“So why leave then?”

“Hope. Ambition. Belief in myself. You know, kid stuff.”

Hugo crossed his arms. He was tall and broad in an appealing way. His paunch seemed solid rather than flabby. What wrinkles he had appeared calculated, left intact so he’d look like a reasonable facsimile of a gently aged human being. Leaning against the sink in his shirtsleeves, he was just this side of too orange to be my thesis advisor, or my rumpled editor in chief, or—I didn’t want to think it but there it was—my father.

“What fucked you up enough to want to become a stand-up?” he asked.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “Not a stand-up, not really. No stage presence, you see.”

“Then why do it?” he said.

“It’s that or a Web series, right? Or improv.”

“Improv. Ick.”

He took the wine opener from me, negotiated its stainless steel levers. He poured us each a glass and held his up in a shy toast.

“Thank you for coming on short notice. I think you’re going to have fun. While you’re here you can treat this place as your own. That’s it. You can drink now.”

I clinked his glass and we both sipped.

“Mm,” I said, “tannins,” though I didn’t know what that meant.

He swirled his glass. “I like my wine like I like my women.”

I groaned. “For real?”

“Humor me.”

“Abundant? Great legs? Available for purchase?”

He looked pleased. “I was going to say dry.”

He handed me a plate and I laid out crackers.

“Your childhood,” he said.

“I wasn’t abused, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“It’s not always abuse. Sometimes it’s a stutter. Sometimes it’s childhood obesity. Sometimes, it’s, I don’t know, a back brace.”

“I didn’t have a back brace,” I said.

“You’re being literal. You were an outsider.”

“You mean because I’m Jewish.”

“There couldn’t have been many.”

“None. None that weren’t eighty years old. So few that people didn’t know. The possibility of a Jew didn’t even occur to them. My brother and I more or less passed. Kids at school would ask us where we went to church.”

“And what would you say?”

“Episcopalian was a safe bet. Evangelicals were too intense and Catholics could sniff you out. You had to know stuff to be a Catholic. When I got older I would tell the truth. People didn’t know what to do with that.”

“Well, there you go,” said Hugo. “That must have been isolating.”

“But everyone feels isolated as a teenager, don’t they? The reason is almost beside the point.”

“So nothing causes anything. That’s your thesis?”

“I don’t have a thesis,” I said. “I’ve got my woes like anyone. No one’s unscathed. My grandparents are dead. Three of four, anyway. I was only intermittently popular in my small town. Not, you know, full-on popular. Um what else? I don’t know . . . I’ve had an abortion?”

“Are you asking me?”

“No, I definitely had the abortion. And I’m not trying to be flip about it either. In case that kind of joke makes you uncomfortable. What I’m asking is, is that enough?”

He chewed a cracker, half smiling. There was a poppy seed stuck to his lower lip, and I thought of Gil. On Thursday afternoons Gil printed out bingo cards and the writers all played while we watched a live feed of the taping: B-plus ad-lib was a square. Glance at guest’s tits was a square. Spittle on lower lip was a square. Winner gets a raise, Gil always joked. I never knew what Hugo thought about these games, if he found them funny or insulting. If he saw them as a way for the staff to let off steam, if he knew about them at all.

“Is that enough what?” asked Hugo.

“Enough bad stuff. To convince you that I’m miserable or lonely or whatever it is you think qualifies me to be a comedian.”

“I never said you had to be miserable. I’m just saying that’s usually the case. I know a lot of comedians, too many, and they’re a pretty desolate bunch. It’s not always something in their past; sometimes it’s clinical. Is it clinical for you?”

I took a gulp of wine to conceal my surprise. “You’re asking if I’m depressed? I thought this was supposed to be a date. Or a datelike hang-out.” I blushed. “Maybe I misread it. Can we just eat these crackers? Damn.”

I shoved a handful into my mouth and coughed. They tasted earthy, like rosemary and dirt, and absorbed all my spit. I had to drink a lot of wine to get it all down.

“Nothing fucked me up,” I said, when I could speak again. “Nothing in particular.”

It was true. I hadn’t had a difficult life. My father was a dentist and my mother ran the practice. We had health care, school clothes, summer camp. We had an extra room just for the computer. A Honda Civic that my brother and I took turns backing into street signs, telephone poles, other cars. I could get a twenty from my dad on the way out the door anytime if I was willing to needle him for it.

And it wasn’t just money either. I hadn’t been beaten  up or neglected. I hadn’t ever been mugged. I’d done well in school, well in college. I’d had a couple of iffy sexual experiences that I’d thankfully been able to shut down before things went too far. The worst I had suffered was nonsuccess. I was twenty-nine with an entry-level job and unable to pay my bills. I had been provided for. I hadn’t been harmed or held back, I hadn’t been scarred, but I had quietly failed anyway.

I said, “I don’t hold with sad clown theory. It’s facile, superficial. The idea that something horrible has to happen in a comedian’s past. Like all comics had shitty dads or dead mothers. Like that’s the only reason you could have for wanting to be funny.”

Hugo said, “Maybe that’s what you need. Something big to hurt you. Maybe it would make you funnier.”

“Is this a preamble to sexual assault?” I craned my neck and looked down the hall off the kitchen. “Does this place have a designated rape room?”

I knew my tone was nasty; he’d gotten under my skin.

Hugo shook his head. “Come on. I just mean that you probably need to have some more experiences.”

I said, “Maybe I just want to be funny because the world is funny. Maybe it’s the only way I can see of telling the truth.”

I looked at him, daring him to laugh at this preposterous statement.

When he didn’t I put down my wineglass, pushed back from the countertop. “Where’s the bathroom?”

It was cleverly hidden under the staircase, a cubbyhole with a smooth, black-tiled floor. I peed looking at the copper bowl of the sink and considered leaving. I pictured walking down the long drive and waiting outside the spooky gray gate for a car service. There was nothing actually spooky about the gate. I was drunk. I wondered if Hugo would follow me out. Come on, June. June, come on. He would use my name a lot like that, I was sure. Possibly, it would work.

Or if it didn’t I’d what? Call my own bluff? Get on the train? Ride back to the city, back to Brooklyn? Go to the roof party and drink a warm PBR? Pick up the mail on the floor of the vestibule?

It was too logistically difficult, I concluded. I had come this far and I was still curious. The experience hadn’t even amounted to a story I could bring back to Audrey yet. I washed my hands, reapplied lipstick, studied my reflection for signs of credulity. There was no medicine cabinet to check for pills. Better that way, because I’d have looked if there was. I’d have been unable to resist confirming for myself the things I suspected: his sadness and erectile dysfunction, his growing prostate and failing heart.

The kitchen was empty when I got back. Maybe he left, I thought, and the house belonged to me now. I picked up the cheese knife and held it in my hand. A pleasing silver heft.

“This is mine,” I said experimentally.

I got up and looked in the refrigerator. It was empty except for Diet Coke, pickles, and condiments. Even the condiments were sparse. The mustard lids looked crusted on. I opened a low cabinet and saw nothing. I opened another and saw a SodaStream still in its box. I didn’t want to get caught gazing at an unopened SodaStream, so I sat back down.

He returned from a door off the kitchen, brushing the dust from a bottle of wine. He held it up so I could inspect the label.

He said, “No offense, but the wine you picked out was garbage compared to this.”

“I read something awhile ago that said if wine tastes good then it is good.”

“Hm,” he said. “Not really.”

“But if it tastes good . . . it is . . . good.”

“You just said that. Are Hostess cupcakes good just because they taste good?”

“Yes. The theory holds.”

He poured me a glass. “Here. Try this.”

It tasted woody, like someone had dragged some grapes along the deck of an old boat. I told him that and he laughed. “You’re not actually wrong.”

We both sipped. He opened his mouth a couple of times to say something and closed it again. Finally he said, “I had the shitty father you mentioned.”

He was trying to apologize, I realized. The special wine was an apology. His sudden openness about his childhood was an apology, too.

“Shitty how?” I said.

I already knew the answer. I knew all about his upbringing. Years before I’d found his memoir on the one-dollar rack outside the Strand and stood skimming it while smoke from the halal cart on the corner stung my eyes. It had a purple cover with raised silver lettering and brittle yellow pages that kept falling onto the sidewalk. Finally I fished out a single and took it home.

“You name it,” he said. “Distant. Ragey. The type of person who would hit a kid with a closed fist.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“Yeah. He waited until I was ten, though. Double digits. That was his bizarre boundary. I probably weighed eighty pounds.”

“And your mother . . .”

“Did nothing. I could never really get a handle on her. She was this soft, creative person, but she let him do what he did. Maybe she didn’t like it, but she didn’t stop it either. She had boundary issues of her own, my mother. She was a dancer. She’d been a Rockette for about an hour when she was young, and she used to put on her costume and perform the whole Christmas extravaganza in our living room for fun. Oil up her legs.”

He fell silent. All of this, I remembered, took place in Woodside, Queens, in the crisscrossing shadow of the LIRR. They had a grim little row house, brown on beige, loose banister, silverfish in the tub. His room was divided from his sister’s with a particleboard partition that wobbled when one of them rolled over in bed. The mailbox said Bechkowiak.

“Is that why you changed your name? To distance yourself from them?”

“I changed my name because you can’t be Bechkowiak in Hollywood. Or you couldn’t back then.”

But yeah, he went on, he picked Best because it sounded good, was empty of association, and also because he was nineteen and pretty dumb. He picked Best because it said nothing except that he was the best, which made him laugh to this day.

“It wasn’t all bad,” he said. “My childhood. My dad was a mechanic and he taught me about cars. He had an incredible breadth of knowledge. He’d flown planes in World War II. Probably he should have been an engineer. He was smart enough. And we watched Carson together almost every night. That we did do. My father didn’t really like it, but I could tell he thought it was a bonding thing. I can’t remember if he ever laughed. I’m guessing not. I would have enjoyed it more on my own. But instead it was this weird solemn ritual. Glumly making popcorn, sitting down on the couch.”

“But you loved your sister,” I said. “Vivian.”

There was a photo insert in the middle of the book that included some family pictures. Hugo with a terrifying Easter bunny; Hugo and Vivian on roller skates in front of the house; the whole family posed for a frowning department store portrait. Hugo and Vivian looked alike. Tall, fair, and miserable.

He narrowed his eyes at me. “You read my book.”

“I might have. Does it have a purple cover?”

“I was against that cover. It was silly. It misrepresented the content of the book. People picked it up thinking it was this light, gossipy thing, and were surprised to find out it was really about a kid clawing his way out of an abusive home. It fell out of print.”

He ate the last sliver of manchego, tossed in a jagged shard of cracker after it. That was something you didn’t consider when you wrote a book, he said. That one day it would be out of print, and sooner than you’d like. Not thinking about endings didn’t stop them from happening. It only made the endings sneak up on you.

He stood to clear the plate, tilted the crumbs into the sink. He pressed buttons on the dishwasher, trying to get it open, but it seemed to be locked.

“Eco wash in progress,” he mumbled. “What does that mean? No it isn’t.”

He looked up at me and smiled abashedly. I went over and took the plate from him. “Let me.”

I punched a few buttons and opened the dishwasher, set the plate on the empty rack. As I was closing it again he grabbed my wrist. His hands were aging faster than the rest of him. They were lean, tanned to spotting, and the tendons stood out. His grip was urgent, but not painful, and the warmth, the give of his skin, startled me.

He said, “You’re not a sad clown, okay? It was wrong to assume that we’re the same, you and me. That you’re a mess just because I am.”

We stayed like that for a moment, not speaking. I thought he’d do something else, pull me closer to him, kiss me, but he didn’t. The dishwasher started to whoosh—all that water for one plate. I hadn’t meant to run it. I hadn’t meant to come to this beautiful house and needlessly run the dishwasher. It was the last thing I ever meant to do.

He let go and told me a joke, the classic Catskills one-liner about two old Jewish women in a restaurant. The joke went like this: two old Jewish women are sitting in a restaurant eating their food. Waiter walks up to them and says, “Is anything all right?”

I didn’t know exactly what he was trying to tell me, but because the joke was funny, and because he was a professional with perfect delivery, I laughed.

At midnight, we tuned in and caught the end of Hugo’s lead-in. We had finished the bottle of wine and I sent Hugo down to the cellar to retrieve an even nicer bottle. He came back with one that tasted like a Hershey bar and we sat drinking it on the hard charcoal couch in the recessed living room. I kept getting distracted by the room’s functional twenty-first-century objects, its flat-screen TV and sliding Jenga tower of remotes. It was as if a set dresser had let a few anachronisms slip through to see if anyone was paying attention.

On TV, a different middle-aged white man presided in a different signature suit. He had an America’s sweetheart of his own on, this one newly minted. Her dress zipped all the way up the front and Hugo wondered aloud whether some part of her felt tempted to unzip it in a single deranged swoop and continue telling her anecdote in her underwear.

“They’d burn her like a witch,” I said.

“She’d deserve it,” said Hugo.

I expected the host to acknowledge the end of Hugo’s show, pay tribute in some way. But he only said, “Don’t go anywhere. Stay Up is next.” The credits rolled and were interrupted immediately by a commercial for bleach.

Hugo’s intro music began, dominated by jazzy, dated sax. When Bony’s tenor boomed through the speakers announcing the night’s guests, a bad feeling crept into my chest.

I said, “Hey, let’s put on a movie instead.”

Hugo didn’t respond. His own face, his own body, had appeared on TV. He stood delivering his opening monologue.

Behind him, the purple curtain caught the light and shimmered like stardust.

“I, Hugo Best, being of sound mind and body,” he said, “declare this to be my last will and testament. I appoint my bandleader, Bony Saurez, as my personal representative to administer this will, and to make sure that there are no, you know . . .” He paused, rubbing his palms together. “Shenanigans.”

The audience laughed. Hugo said to Bony, standing off to one side behind an old radio mike, “That cool with you? You prepared to administer?”

Bony nodded. “On it, boss.”

“To the incoming host,” Hugo continued, “I devise, bequeath, and give all my hackiest material.” He paused. “And man, there have been some turkeys over the years, am I right?”

“Some clunkers,” agreed Bony. “Some whiffs. Some real, uh, what do you call it? Comedic misfires.”

“All right, Bony,” said Hugo. “We get it.”

“And that’s the best stuff. You guys should see what doesn’t make the show. Woof.”

“All right, Bony,” said Hugo again. He addressed the audience. “This guy’s a media expert all of a sudden. A bold and incisive critic of TV’s new golden age.”

Next to me, Hugo chuckled softly. I turned to look at him. The real version of the man sat with one leg crossed over the other, wineglass resting on his knee. But it was the version on the screen that caused a clenching in my chest. When I was ten, eleven, twelve, I lived for Hugo’s show.

It had seemed like such an act of largess on my parents’ part to allow me to watch him, even though it made me tired at school the next day. Hugo was younger then, cool, something of an iconoclast. My crush had been a mini-collision of forces, a science fair Krakatau. The double whammy of loving him and also wanting to be him. Here, for the first time, was a way of living. You could move to New York, be urbane, wry, ironic. You could be a wit and hover above the whole sad, grasping fracas.

Tonight he was up there for the last time, on the same set, in the same clothes, trying for the same vitality. His face was older. His body was heavier. He was carrying around the knowledge that it was all over. Even so he was almost pulling it off. Something was the same. His self. His Hugo-ness.

The Hugo on the couch reached over and put his hand on my knee.

The Hugo on the screen said, “I’m so happy you’re here with me. We have a great show planned for you tonight.”


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