The Lives They Lived: Books Left Unwritten

Michael Chabon

The New York Times Magazine, December 28th, 2003


My wife, Ayelet Waldman, met her before I did -- roped by Amanda and her golden lasso into a friendship that while heartbreakingly brief was one of the truest and fiercest I have ever stood next to and admired. And one of the first things she told me about Amanda was that she had just finished reading her novel, ''Wonder When You'll Miss Me.'' ''She's the real thing,'' Ayelet said. Or maybe what she said was, ''The girl can write.'' I'm not sure anymore. It's only after your friend's airplane has crashed into a mountain in North Carolina -- killing her, at 32, along with her mother and her father, who was flying the plane -- that everything she ever said to you, and everything anyone ever said to you about her, takes on the weight and shadow, the damnable significance, of history.

It was obvious to Ayelet that Amanda had the goods -- maybe that was what she told me -- and then when I read Amanda's books, it was obvious to me too. Her sentences had the quality of laws of nature; they were at once surprising and inevitable, as if Amanda had not written so much as discovered them. As the catcher Crash Davis said to his wild and talented young pitcher, Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, in ''Bull Durham,'' ''The gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt.'' Amanda had that kind of great stuff.

It's unfair, as well as cruel, to try to assess the overall literary merit, not to mention the prospects for future greatness, of a young woman who managed to produce (while living a life replete as a Sabatini novel with scoundrels, circus performers, sterling friendships, true love, hair's-breadth escapes, jobs at once menial and strange and years of hard rowing in the galleys of the publishing world) a single short story collection, the remarkable ''Circling the Drain,'' and a lone novel. I would give a good deal of money, blood, books or years to be able to watch as Amanda, in a picture hat, looked back from the vantage of a long and productive career to reject her first published efforts as uneven or ''only halfway there'' or, worst of all, as promising, or to see her condescend to them, cuddle them almost, as mature writers sometimes do with their early books, the way we give our old stuffed pony or elephant, with its one missing shirt-button eye, a fond squeeze before returning it to the hatbox in the attic.

At bottom of this kind of behavior on the part of old, established writers is the undeniable way in which our young selves, and the books that issued from them, invariably seem to reproach us: with the fading of our fire, the diminishment of our porousness to the world and the people in it, the compromises made, the friendships abandoned, the opportunities squandered, the loss of velocity on our fastball. But Amanda never got to live long enough to sense the presence of her fine short stories and of her stirring, charming, beautifully written novel as any kind of a threat or reproof. She was merely, justly, proud of them. On some level that was not buried very deeply, she knew that she was the real thing. This is, in fact, a characteristic of writers who are (alas, it is often found as well among those who are not). After ''Wonder When You'll Miss Me,'' she was going to write a historical novel about early Jewish immigrants to the South or a creepy modern gothic, and then after that she was going to try any one of a hundred other different kinds of novels, because she felt, rightly, that with her command of the English language and her sharp, sharp mind and her omnivorous interests and her understanding of human emotion and, above all, with her unstoppable, inevitable, tormenting, at times even unwelcome compulsion to do the work, the hard and tedious work, she could have written just about any book she damn well wanted to.