Bettering Abraham: Daniel Polansky on the Low Town trilogy

By Daniel Polansky

Posted on October 31, 2013 in Books with tags Daniel Polansky, Fantasy

I was twenty-four, and I was tired of where I was living, and I often caught myself staring at spots on a map and wondering if I was ever to get to any of them. I had a job I very much disliked, the one upside of which was that I could carve out a significant stretch of time each day for my own work, which at that point consisted of half-baked political screeds and the occasional thousand-word essay which I supposed was not altogether unfunny.

And then one morning a voice began to whisper in my ear. He did not tell me his name—in fact, he never did tell me his name. But he told me everything else. Indeed, he seemed unwilling to shut up, and I duly recorded his story, his sins and his evils.

The day I put the final word down on what would become The Straight Razor Cure—though of course it was not called that at the time, titles are even harder than names—I walked into my boss’s office, and I told him in a not entirely polite fashion that I was no longer interested in working for him. After that I skedaddled off to central Europe, and in between shots of vodka and bowls of borscht, I managed to find an agent, and then a publisher.

How long have I lived off of that voice? How much do I owe him? How many cups of coffee, steaks and slices of pizza, craft beers, artisanal cocktails, plane and bus tickets, nights in hostels, books, records? How many places seen, girls talked to, friends made, how many adventures on the strength of his misfortune? Because let us not kid ourselves, his stories are not happy ones, quite the opposite in fact. The agonies I have so freely distributed upon him I would not wish on an enemy. Maybe not, at least—our capacity for sadism is always greater than we suppose.

Well, well, well, let’s not run too far ahead, he’s gotten his fair bit of flesh from me. The Warden, he’s a savvy character, he doesn’t give nothing for free, not to no one, or almost no one. I’ve got some weight on my end of the scale, you’d best believe. Who knows how many hours I’ve spent thinking about him, wondering about him, pitying and loathing him? A thousand or five thousand or ten thousand, I couldn’t begin to guess. What would I have been if I hadn’t stumbled upon him, what paths might I have carved, and who’s to say that those paths wouldn’t have been happier ones? Perhaps I give myself too much credit, a writer is a writer is a writer, after all, but still, in that case, what stories have I left untold while busy telling his? And mightn’t they have been cleverer, kinder, happier?

For four years his life has run inextricably around mine—or would it be more accurate to say, for those few fans I have been lucky enough to find, that his life is the more real, at least the more important? Certainly there are more people now walking about the planet who could tell you of his bitter experiences as an impoverished street child, or of the horrors of the war which he survived, than there are men or women who know anything of who I am, of my own history and deeds.

Only appropriate; after all, his story is the far more interesting. But still, but still—what a strange thing it is, to breathe life into something, to see that life flower, to see it surpass your own! Like having a child perhaps, except that I hope, should I be lucky enough to one day sire, that I will love them more than I do the Warden, that I will be kinder to them. For if I am his father then truly I have done one better than Abraham, one better or one worse.

But it’s done now. She Who Waits comes out today, the end of the Warden’s story. A story needs an ending, you know, as a sentence needs a period


Anyway, don’t feel too bad for the man. He’s been waiting for it, the end was the first thing he told me, all those years ago, when I first put pen to paper (finger to keyboard, really, but it works better the first way). And if he’s done me a good turn or two in his time, don’t think for a moment that it was charity, because the Warden doesn’t do that, as you well know if you’ve read his story. The Warden gives what’s owed—and in this, if not in much else, he and I are similar.

So are we quits now, you grim-hearted bastard? Are we not quits?


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