The man who created the monster is here, somewhere. There have been sightings.
Some people don't know who they're seeing. The retired dock master, Captain Bill, waving to people as they pass him on Main Street, seems to know everyone in the village, but he draws a blank on the name.
Then he's handed a copy of "Hannibal." On the dust jacket is a photograph of a middle-aged man, stout, with a trim white beard, squinting a bit behind glasses, neatly dressed in a blue blazer and striped shirt, a triangulated handkerchief jutting rakishly from the jacket.
"He walks to the grocery store every morning."
The grocery store is directly across the street. It's called Schiavoni's. The owner, Mike Schiavoni, says he hasn't heard of a "Thomas Harris."
He sees the photo.
"I know him. Very nice guy."
Down the sidewalk comes an elegant older lady, her face strikingly familiar. Isn't that . . . Betty Friedan? Indeed it is. The writers swarm Sag Harbor, as they have since Steinbeck moved here in the '50s, writing in a tiny backyard gazebo and taking his whaler every afternoon to the flounder beds.
"I know Tommy Harris. He is this sweet Southern person, and underneath is this sadistic imagination," Friedan says, laughing.
Friedan talks her way into a closed restaurant, the Paradise, and over a Cobb salad continues with this refrain, that Harris is the most well-mannered, charming fellow, a delightful dinner companion, positively courtly. And so it's really a mystery: How can it be that this consummate gentleman is the creator of one of the most fiendish characters in all of literature, Hannibal Lecter?
The author is no cannibal. Harris is known as a man with a gourmet palate, skilled in the kitchen, having taken cooking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He is a frequent diner at the most exquisite restaurant in Sag Harbor, in the American Hotel. Hannibal Lecter is also a gourmet, an oenophile, a man of genius and impeccable taste. But he eats human flesh. Sometimes he eats people when they are still alive, without their permission. To his credit, Lecter uses the best silver, the finest crystal and the most elegant china as he dines on human sweetbreads.
His classic line from "The Silence of the Lambs":
A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.
(In the movie they changed it to "a nice Chianti.")
Hannibal Lecter is, of course, far more famous than Thomas Harris. Harris merely wrote Lecter into existence. Lecter took it from there, escaping from his fictional dungeon. He became like Elvis, James Bond, Michael Jordan and Xena: one of those cultural icons so vivid and powerful that it doesn't really matter whether they're real or invented.
Harris, 58, doesn't mind the anonymity. He gives no interviews, ever. He attends no book readings or book signings. But neither does he seem to need to promote his new book. The initial print run for "Hannibal" of 1 million copies was escalated to 1.5 million due to frenzied advance orders.
Mort Janklow, the author's agent, said this is the biggest publishing launch in the history of the United States or Britain. As Janklow spoke to a reporter by phone, Harris entered the office. Janklow declined to pass the phone along.
"No interviews. No signings. No nothing. It'll just be the biggest book of the year without all that," the agent said. "He just doesn't like being in the public eye. He lives a life of the mind. And he does it in a very quiet way. He enjoys traveling, he's a great gourmet cook, he has a perfect life and he doesn't want to spoil it."
Repeated requests to speak to the author were deemed exceedingly unrealistic.
"If you delivered a check here for a million dollars, he would not give you a three-cent interview. I just want you to understand how ludicrous the request is."
And so there is no choice but to go to the man's world, sniff the air and look for fibers of his clothing.
It is known, from multiple witnesses, that Harris dined at the American Hotel on Sunday night and lingered for several hours. What he ate and drank remains unclear. Perhaps he sampled the Petrossian Caspian Sea Caviar (your choice of sevruga, ossetra or beluga). Perhaps he had the Rognons de Veau Grille Saint Lazare a la Moutarde (thin-sliced kidneys, bacon and hot mustard veloute, parsley crumbs). For his wine he could select from a cellar holding 67,000 bottles; perhaps he was tempted by the '79 Pomerol from Chateau de l'Eglise, a double magnum, heavy enough to prove lethal if used as a blunt instrument of mayhem.
It has further been ascertained that his friend Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was at the bar that night, and sidled over to say hello. Wilson said he hadn't read the new book because the bookstores had sold out.
You lucked out, Harris told him. You'll get a copy in the mail tomorrow.
And so he did.
There have been other sightings. In New York City on June 8, the day the book was published, Harris attended a small cocktail party at Delacorte Press to celebrate the launch.
"He was very gracious and thanked everybody," says his editor, Carole Baron. "And then he disappeared. His duties are over."
It is known that Harris actually went to dinner that night, at Le Cirque, with his longtime companion, Pace Barnes; his daughter from a previous marriage; Janklow; Baron; and their spouses. And it is known that the next day he was in New York City and visited Janklow. Beyond that his movements are undocumented.
Harris spends much of the year in Miami Beach, but in the summers lives in a lovely frame house in Sag Harbor. It's an old whaling village and factory town, and once was a major port of entry for the United States. There are no whales anymore, and the red brick Bulova factory is abandoned and overgrown with vines. Instead there are antique shops, espresso bars, a whaling museum, some ostentatious yachts and many carefully tended Victorian homes, cherished for decades by sprawling blue-collar families, that are now being snapped up at enormous prices by rich Manhattanites absolutely desperate for a place to spend Saturday and Sunday.
One of Harris's friends is Ted Conklin, who renovated the American Hotel in 1972. Conklin, sipping a cappuccino on the hotel porch, says some longtime residents are unhappy with the influx of the rich, people who make "dozens of millions of dollars a year," he says.
"They hate the American Hotel, and they hate everything it represents. They hate the guy who's well dressed, they hate the guy who drives a Mercedes, they hate the guy who drinks a bottle of Bordeaux."
He won't talk about Harris. But other friends will.
Wilson, the playwright--his many works include "The Hot l Baltimore"--lives a few blocks from Harris. Wilson's front yard is unmowed. The back yard is a series of gardens so magnificent they have been photographed for national magazines. Wilson is the gardener. He's on the back deck, unshaven, in jeans and a T-shirt with a small stain on the front. He's smoking a Camel Light as he reads "Hannibal."
So what's Harris like?
"He is very funny. Enormously genial. A great cook. Though I've said, 'Don't serve me kidneys and liver.' "
He figures Harris got his interest in serial killers while working as a reporter for the Associated Press in New York City. That was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He covered crime, misery, carnage.
"He said when 'Red Dragon' came out in hardback, he took it down to the beach and started to read it, and was horrified that he had written it. Because of the madness and violence. He said, 'My God, where did that come from?' He horrified himself."
It doesn't burble out terribly frequently, to judge from Harris's writing record. It has been 11 years since his last book. Apparently Harris is an example of the truism that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than other people.
We get a hint of this from Joe Pintauro, the playwright, a Harris friend:
"We were talking about writing. Tom was telling me, 'I'd rather dig a ditch 60 feet long than to do one day's work of writing. That is how it feels to me. It is very difficult.' "
What Pintauro doesn't understand is where the material comes from. Harris is so polite and gentle. So Southern.
"You'd almost expect him to write like Eudora Welty."
There are all these other writers in town. E.L. Doctorow, the master storyteller ("Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate"), says he's met Harris only once or twice, and wants no part of this article. We can touch bases with Spalding Gray, the monologuist, who's written a book about Sag Harbor, but Gray doesn't know Harris, either. Writers aren't all that clubby; writing is an activity conducted in silence, alone.
Here's an idea: Let's go see down the road, to Sagaponack, to see Vonnegut.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. answers the door and quickly lights up a cigarette. He is flamboyantly casual, still groovy in his late seventies, with a raspy voice that explodes, at every conceivable chance, into raucous laughter. He is a man still looking for a good joke, a man who is free to wander his house in dirty sneakers, no socks, his laces trailing behind him as if he were a boy.
He doesn't know Harris, either, but he volunteers that he once inadvertently tasted human flesh on a trip abroad. "I think I have had 'long pig,' " he says.
He understands, he says, why people like violent fiction.
"In childhood I think we're fascinated by gory stories, tales of torture. My father had a picture book of the First World War, bodies piled on one another. It's porno. It's something you're not supposed to look at. But it's perfectly safe sex, exploring cannibalism."
He has other thoughts on cannibalism.
"I know that under British admiralty law, it is permissible for people marooned, or more likely in a lifeboat, to engage in cannibalism. But of course they don't kill them, they eat them when they die."
He recalled something a judge said to the survivors of the Donner party.
"You ate the only three Democrats in the county!"
All right, then. Some conventional bio.
Harris came out of Rich, Miss., attended Baylor University, in Waco, Tex., worked for the local paper, then went on to the AP in New York. For a decade he was the typical hack. He and two colleagues cooked up the plot for the 1975 novel "Black Sunday," and Harris wrote it. It was a standard potboiler about terrorists who try to blow up the Super Bowl.
Then Harris dug deeper. He wrote "Red Dragon" (1981), about an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer who turns, for insight, to an imprisoned cannibal named Hannibal Lecter. The book drew rave reviews and became a movie, "Manhunter."
Harris, energized, rented a room above Marty's barbershop, on Main Street in Sag Harbor. There he wrote "The Silence of the Lambs" (1988), sharpening the Lecter character and introducing the steely FBI agent Clarice Starling. Three years later came the sensational movie. Jonathan Demme's film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Jodie Foster as Starling) and Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins, believably cannibalistic as Lecter).
After the success of "Silence," Harris signed a multimillion-dollar contract for two more books.
He turned nothing in.
There was a fire in the building with the barbershop and his writing studio. He was burned out of the place.
Finally, roughly a year ago, he holed up somewhere in Paris. One day in late March he called his agent and his editor and said he'd finished the book. Janklow claims that, under his contract, the publisher was not allowed to change a single comma. Baron, his editor, says that's not true. She didn't change things, she said, or make suggestions, but she did ask some questions.
Maybe she didn't ask enough.
As this thick, creamy bearnaise of hype and acclaim drenches the book--Stephen King in the New York Times Book Review raved that it was, with "The Exorcist," one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time--nonetheless there has appeared on the plate a nasty and unappetizing hair. It seems many readers don't like it.
One need only call up the reader reviews posted at Amazon.com, more than 470 of them as of yesterday. The book is averaging only three stars out of five. Some readers love it, and some are truly furious. The skill and brilliance of Harris is not in dispute. But the complainers say Harris has, in essence, reneged on the implicit compact between writer and reader, because this book is so different in tone, so weird, with the characters evolving to the point of being unrecognizable.
"Red Dragon" and "Silence" were realistic, tense, scary, detail-driven thrillers; "Hannibal" is Gothic, fantastic, campy. Lecter had previously been an inscrutable psychopath, a genuinely disturbing force of evil. Now he's become the romantic lead.
He's the epitome of good taste, a Florentine scholar who plays the harpsichord, drinks Chateau Petrus, and shops for fine soaps, Riedel crystal and, of course, the sharpest knives. He is not the ultimate cannibal so much as the ultimate consumer.
At moments the book reads like an excerpt from Saveur, Bon Appetit, Architectural Digest, Town & Country or some other magazine built around the allure of the finer, fussier, fruitier things in life.
The worst moment in the book for Hannibal Lecter is not when he is tortured. No, it's when he must fly coach on a transatlantic flight, stuck between two children. He survives only by retreating into his memory palace.
The cannibal-consumer equation has been noted before, in Jane Caputi's award-winning if tendentious 1993 essay in the Journal of American Culture ("American Psychos: The Serial Killer in Contemporary Fiction"). Caputi argued that cannibalism is related to unbridled materialism in a "corporate consumerist society." Hannibal Lecter and the real-life serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer "so grip the collective imagination in part because they mirror gluttonous American incorporation of the land and resources (bodies) of others."
It seems unlikely that Thomas Harris is on a crusade against consumerism. There is no sign that he has chosen an ascetic existence. When we look again at the photograph on the jacket we see that Harris is a well-fed boy. And listen now to Wilfrid Sheed, the author, a good friend of Harris:
"The tragedy of Tom's life is that he has a wonderful palate. He loves to eat. But he also has to diet," Sheed said. It's the major tension in Harris's life, he said.
And Lanford Wilson said: "We write about what we know. He likes to eat. He likes to cook. He knows food."
Let's go to the text, to "Hannibal." We see a recurring theme of eating, drinking, the mouth, the tongue, the nose, the digestive system, grocery shopping--life as shaped by the gustatorial urges.
A woman puts a child on a cutting board.
A man is eaten alive by pigs. (They go first for his jaw.)
A man is disemboweled.
Hannibal Lecter is caught on videotape buying fancy wine.
Hannibal Lecter gets in bad trouble in the parking lot of a Safeway.
Three more guys are eaten alive by pigs!
A man is eaten alive by an eel!
And finally, a really awful guy is . . . eaten alive with a buttery black truffle sauce and a chilled white Burgundy!
The two earlier Hannibal Lecter books may have been explorations of evil, but "Hannibal" is different. This time the cannibalism isn't a variation on murder--it's just a variation on eating.
Eating too much. Eating the wrong foods.
Thomas Harris still has one book left on his contract. Get ready for "The Hannibal Lecter Diet."
CAPTION: Thomas Harris, like Hannibal Lecter, has excellent (though different) taste.