ROBERT COHEN

THE UNTRAGIC DEATH OF HENRY GLADFELTER

BE YOU AN ACTUAL PERSON OR A FICTIONAL CHARACTER (OR AN ACTUALLY FICTIONAL PERSON), THE SEARCH FOR A DISTINCTIVE, NONEMBLEMATIC NAME REQUIRES A HARPOON AND A CRANKY, VEHEMENT EDITOR.

DISCUSSED: Jesse, Bob, Sylvie, Dave, God, The Edge, Dooley Womack, Uncle Sherman, Pecksniff, Ishmael, James B “Rot-Gut” Ferret, Jim, Steve, Pete, Buster Bradshaw, Bill Gray (a.k.a. Willard Skansey), Dan

When I was eighteen I tried to change my name for the second time. I had started out in life as a Robert and then, at thirteen, as part of the declaration of independence that went along with my bar mitzvah, I began to refer to myself as Rob. I’d flirted with Bobby but in the end Bobby seemed chirpy and diminutive; it lacked gravitas. The same with Bob, a name I did not like at all. I did not like Rob much either, but I preferred it to dull, palindromish Bob, and to the stilted formality and bland-Jewish-boyishness of Robert. Rob at least had a little velocity, a cool, suggestive note of thievery and transgression. This Rob fellow, whoever he was, may have been a nice Jewish boy, but he wasn’t only a nice Jewish boy. He was also a dangerous character, someone who stole trivial items from hardworking shopkeepers for no reason, as I did, and performed unspeakable acts upon himself in the privacy of his room, as I did, and brazenly walked out of other people’s bar mitzvahs when things got boring—which is to say, all the time—and strolled out to smoke in the parking lot with those other dangerous characters, the Daves (né Davids), the Matts (né Matthews), the Steves (né Stephens) I smoked with.

My parents of course continued to call me Robert. So did my brothers. So did my teachers. So did almost everyone else. This in some form or other went on for a long while.

At eighteen I went away to California and began what seemed to me a new and more interesting life. As part of this new life I decided to dispatch with the whole tedious Rob/Robert issue for good. I asked people to start calling me Butch. I mean Jesse. Honestly, I wasn’t wild about Jesse either, but it was my middle name, and I’d run out of alternatives. I may have been a dangerous character, but I wasn’t so brazen as to go out and steal—rob, rather—a new, utterly fraudulent name for myself: I had my own integrity to consider, even if this integrity of mine was not quite visible to me, or, for that matter, existent, at the time. So Jesse it was.

Or rather, wasn’t. Because here was the thing about my experiment in renaming myself (and renaming ourselves is a way of becoming—pace Ralph Ellison—our own fathers, which seemed a pretty good idea at the time): the problem wasn’t so much that people couldn’t remember to call me Jesse (though in fact very few people could remember to call me Jesse), the problem was that I couldn’t remember to call me Jesse. On those rare occasions when someone did remember to call me Jesse, they eventually wound up resorting to Rob or Robert at some point anyway, because I consistently failed to answer to the name Jesse. It was too much work to remember that I was now Jesse and to keep living my (let’s face it) rather Rob-ish life at the same time; I could do one or the other, apparently, but not both. Another way to say this is that I could not become my own father and still be my father’s son, and if I thought myself ready for the former I was in no way ready for the latter. But why am I going on about this, you’re wondering?

For the past three and a half years I’ve been working on a novel with two protagonists: one’s a small-town school principal trying to bail out of his settled life, the other’s a luftmensch from New York who’s desperate to bail into it. The name of the New Yorker is Oren Pierce. I have known this about him from the first, from well before I knew where he was from or even what his problem was. The source of this knowledge is fundamental but mysterious. I understand it more in its absence, I mean, than in its presence. And as it happens its absence stares me in the face every day. Because the other character, the principal, I have never known what to call. As a placeholder I’ve been calling him Henry Gladfelter, but I have never liked this name either and even he seems reluctant to answer to it. Meanwhile I have a list on my computer of other, substitute names for this character. There are about sixty-five of them at the moment, and counting. Invariably at some point during my workday I will consult this list, or add to it, and yet none of the possible names for him (and readers of Kierkegaard, that great, gloomy possibilitarian, will recognize this dilemma) ever quite proves preferable to the accumulated potentialities of all the other names combined. That is, to call him Buster Bradshaw, say, might be attractive in itself, but when compared to the collective promise of all the other names that calling him Buster Bradshaw rules out, and their attendant colorations of self, it seems a very poor choice indeed. So I don’t call him Buster Bradshaw, or anything other than Henry Gladfelter, a name I don’t like.

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Robert Cohen is the author of four books, including most recently Inspired Sleep and The Varieties of Romantic Experience (Vintage).

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