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A Leaky Faucet And a Gush Of Recognition

By David Streitfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Rafi Zabor Rafi Zabor, making the most of his one story idea. (Frank Schramm/for The Post)
Any tour of Rafi Zabor's apartment includes a prominent stop in the bathroom. The ceiling has a hole the size of a Buick, which ordinarily would be noteworthy enough. But what really draws attention is the fact that the bathtub faucet is gushing hot water.

You say all faucets do that? Yes, but this one is broken, which means the water has been going nonstop for several months now. It was born as a drip, became a trickle, and by now is a full-fledged torrent.

Just as the modest Colorado River carved the mighty Grand Canyon, the water from this faucet has, over time, made its presence felt. The porcelain where the water hits the tub has worn away, revealing underneath a dark, chalky material. This bodes further trouble, but Zabor, who says he can't get the super to do anything, is curiously unworried.

"It's every Turk's dream to have a fountain in his home," he says. While Zabor is not Turkish, he's fond of the country. The fact that it's hot water is a plus. The Turks also are partial to hammans, the steamy communal baths.

Why, Zabor suddenly realizes, he's living out a Turkish fantasy right here in deepest Brooklyn! "I've got it all," he says.

True enough. Forget about the funky apartment – have we mentioned the way the bedroom wall seeps moisture whenever there's a rainy wind from the east? – and concentrate on the good news: Zabor's first novel, "The Bear Comes Home," will be presented the PEN/Faulkner Award at a gala ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Saturday night. With the award comes enough money to afford a plumber, $15,000.

"Did it turn my head? You bet. I've spent a very giddy couple of weeks," says the 51-year-old Zabor.

While big literary awards have varying impacts, his novel has at least been rescued from the instant oblivion that greets the vast majority of books. Now it can be labeled "prize-winning" instead of described, which is much harder.

The only simple thing to say about "The Bear" is that everyone who's read it and knows something about music feels it captures the making of jazz better than almost anything else.

Otherwise, it's easier to say what "The Bear" isn't. It's not cute, in the way of most books with talking animals. It's not particularly fantastic – the Bear, who is always referred to just that way, is the only magical thing in it. Despite the Bear's falling in love with a woman, it's not prurient.

Recalling, for instance, how he was so infatuated he would watch his beloved sleep, the Bear felt "like a large dark planet revolving around the delicacy of her light, spun through the elliptical orbits of longing and gazing down through the vertiginous gulf between their species. He'd felt just about broken in two by the gap between his clumsy yearning and the elegance of her perfect formal achievement . . .

"If this ain't love, it's the best a poor dumb bear can do."

Until the novel was published last August, Zabor's central previous artistic achievement was producing and writing the rap song "Drop the GATT," done for a French organization trying to rally citizens against the trade pact:

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
Ain't no better than a bootlegger's raid.
Make the rich get richer and the poor mo' poor
GATT get you in its clutches then slam the door.

"Pretty terrible, huh?" asks Zabor, stopping the tape in the middle of the refrain ("Drop the GATT/ [we gonna stop it]/ Drop the GATT/ [we gonna pop it]"). The product of two days of studio work, "Drop the GATT" was a lark. The novel, on the other hand, took most of his life.

He wrote reams in the '80s for Musician magazine, but "The Bear Comes Home" is the only fiction he has published since attending Brooklyn College 30 years ago. It wasn't supposed to happen like this.

"My notion of myself when I was 20, 21 was that I was this incredibly brilliant young man who was going to write great things almost anytime soon," Zabor says. "In fact, clearly I was the world's next great writer. This was obvious."

Perhaps it came from being the only child of Jewish parents. His father, who shortened the family name from Zaborovsky after emigrating from Poland in 1938, owned a hot dog stand in Harlem and then a liquor store in Flatbush. The son was born Joel, but picked up the name Rafi on his wanderings and it stuck.

Not much else did.

"I'm a product of how many centuries of European Judaism in which scholarship was everything and the world was a forbidden place, so you live on the air. I'm as unworldly a person as you will meet this side of the monastery or nut hill."

In the beginning, it cost him. In college he was a Dostoevski fan, which led to an involvement with a woman who was a schizophrenic. A pregnancy was followed by an abortion in Japan, which used all the money Zabor needed to go to Paris and become a great writer.

The experience showed him he knew nothing about anything. "I'd been living with my head in a narcissistic bubble. I tried to think, 'How do I get from here to understanding life?' I didn't have a clue."

During a trip to Istanbul in 1979, when he was making a marginal living as a writer and critic for Musician, Zabor saw a Gypsy and a bear. He only glimpsed the bear being led down the street. That was all he needed to muse about a bear in New York, one that could talk and even play the saxophone.

"I don't get ideas for fiction very often – once every 25 years or so," the writer says. So he ran with it. In Turkey he was supposed to be working on a story about Sonny Rollins, but he began to mess around with a story about the bear. He sent it to the magazine for safekeeping. By the time he got back to the States, they had printed it.

For a year, Zabor kept writing and Musician kept printing the installments. He got a contract for it as a novel. Then he dried up. Meanwhile, real life taught him a thing or two. His parents became ill in the mid-'80s, and he devoted several years to caring for them. Through it all, the Bear wouldn't show up.

"We were all worried about Rafi," says Mike Zwerin, a friend who used to play with Zabor in a jazz trio in Paris in the late '80s. "And he, more than anyone, was worried about himself. He put himself on the line. He was 40-something and wondering, 'What have I done with my life?' "

Or, as a girlfriend of the time put it more brutally: "Rafi, you're 48 years old. It's not happening. Wake up! Maybe you could at least get a part-time job?"

But he couldn't, and she left. Remember the Hunger Artist in Kafka's story, the guy in the circus whose act was that he never ate? At the end, he revealed he was driven neither by his art nor the admiration of his audience. No, it was simply the fact that he could never find anything he liked to eat.

"Of course it made sense for me to get a part-time job," Zabor says. "But I'm a Hunger Artist. Nothing besides writing remotely interested me."

He resembled in some ways Jones, the engaging human hero of "The Bear Comes Home," described thusly: "When younger, Jones had been a man of obvious potential, smart, funny, not too bad-looking, with an engaging manner and a certain flair: a typical strolling boho with artistic tastes and predilections, if no art, and the habit of ready money. . . . Too hip for corporate life, too funny a take on things for academia, he had waited tables, hacked a little journalism, done a couple of roles off-off-Broadway – had a small hit as Dr. Van Helsing in an avant-garde 'Dracula' but never realized his dream of playing anyone, absolutely anyone, in Chekhov – hung out around petty crooks and carny characters, in short had done a lot and not much really."

What changes Jones's life is winning the Bear in a card game. What should change Zabor's is winning the PEN/Faulkner, which is one of the three top fiction awards. "The Bear Comes Home" may never be a huge seller – it's too quirky for that – but it should become at least a cult favorite.

So far, though, things are slow. Zabor's Brooklyn-born and -bred, but some of the local papers – the New York Times and the New York Post, for two – haven't even mentioned he's won the award. And the publisher isn't exactly turning up the heat, having decided not to rush the paperback out early. Consequently, books are somewhat scarce in stores. But stardom, as the Bear learns, can't be rushed.

A Multivolume Life

This was his parents' place, which he moved into when his mother developed a form of Alzheimer's that made her aggressive toward her husband, whose health was so fragile he had trouble breathing. It was a nasty situation; by the time they were both buried, Zabor could do little but watch television. Only in Europe did he regain some spark.

The apartment has more books in it than in his parents' time, not to mention a set of Gretsch drums that Zabor tries to play only while his neighbors are out. There's a balky stereo and many, many CDs and vinyls – including "The Songs by Ritual All 7-70," an obscure record from 1967 on which Zabor debuted on drums.

This is avant-garde music, which means it sounds like a bunch of performers tuning their instruments. Zabor doesn't leave the record on for long, but not much is needed to get the point.

Asked to critique "The Songs," he settles for "horrible. There are worse records, although not many. Maybe 'The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing.' That's a guy who cannot play the saxophone playing the saxophone unaccompanied, for a whole record. At high points he hits a gong."

It's possible, after a lapse of 30 years, he'll make another record soon with Alan Sondheim, with whom he did the first one. But much more important is Zabor's current writing project, "I, Wabenzi," begun while he was blocked on "The Bear."

The second word of the title is a mock tribal name for "people of the Benz," as in Mercedes-Benz owners. Originally, the book was meant to string together some incidents that occurred to Zabor when he was driving a secondhand Mercedes around Europe and the Mideast after the death of his parents. By the time he reached the third sentence, however, he knew it was much bigger.

"The whole thing should run to 2,000 pages."

That's a mighty long book.

"Oh, it'll be multivolume. It's supposed to be a travel book, right? Part One ends at page 175, which gets me to the point where I'm just leaving Brooklyn. It's now a book about my folks, about Eastern culture, Western, a whole bunch of stuff. I think it's my best writing, but it's also the most unsalable thing that I could come up with. My agent was appalled."

He's writing it on his living room couch, the same place he finally did most of the work on "The Bear Comes Home." This doesn't bode well for the floor. The novel wore away the carpet, leaving only shiny wood. Another long book and Zabor's feet might well plunge through his neighbor's ceiling. In this apartment, such a fate seems not only possible but likely.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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