The Quarter-Century Book Club
I rarely take off my literary beer goggles. But there was nothing willful or misguided about my affection for Peter Cameron’s first novel, Leap Year. It is by no means a perfect book, but it is generous in spirit, a tad weird, and it made my life more fun.
Leap Year follows an upwardly mobile newly-divorced couple, Loren and David, and a constellation of their gallery-hopping, biological-clock-crisis-experiencing associates. Over the course of a year, we witness David negotiate a new relationship with a young photographer (a man!), while his stylish ex-wife Loren takes up with a handsome television producer (also a man). The frequent references to Tower Records, Moonlighting, and videocasettes keep us well aware that it was written in 1988 — the year the Silver Palate gourmet empire collapsed and, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the word “scrunchie.”
New York of 1988 is the book’s most winning character. It opens at a spring party where the raincoat-clad hostess opens seltzer bottles over the bathtub, while her friend David declares “the nineties are going to be the decade of friendship. Everyone’s just going to have a lot of really good friends. The whole notions of lovers and partners and spouses will fade.” Later on, Loren visits her ex-husband David at the hospital and brings him his favorite things: “a banana Frozfruit, a can of Diet Dr. Pepper, a copy of People with Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, finally married, on the cover, and the next week’s New York Times Book Review.”
Cameron’s universe is neatly ordered and a little cozy, like that of Laurie Colwin by way of Armistead Maupin. Here is a grandmother-granddaughter sleepover: “They arrived at Bennett Avenue just in time to watch Jeopardy. Judith and Kate reclined on the waterbed. Kate was occupied with a book of photographs by Diane Arbus, which belonged to the man from whom Judith was subletting. Kate looked at it every time she came over. Judith, who thought the pictures a little inappropriate for a four-year-old, kept forgetting to hide it.” And a cute beat from a lunch date that is to follow: “Their waitress was an older woman whose hair looked as if it had just been done. All the waitresses in Burger Heaven looked like that. There was something tribal about them. Lillian wondered if they all lived together.”
It merrily moves along and then, like a party I wish someone would invite me to, the narrative becomes wild, with Cameron layering in kidnappings, evil-minded gallery employees, and murder victims whose corpses go missing — temporarily. It’s a thrilling time capsule-cum-celebration of love and joy and camp and weirdness.
Cameron’s writing is always uncluttered and energetic, though even at its most ridiculous it never lacks tenderness. When Loren glances at David’s body, Cameron writes: “In the dark it looked familiar and unprotected and a little pitiful. If you look at anything closely enough, long enough, Loren thought, it will break your heart.”
Leap Year is a quarter of a century old — too new to be considered a classic, and too old, charmingly enough, to count as relevant. I hadn’t seen the book on any charts in New York magazine. The author hadn’t been on NPR, nor had I spotted him on Twitter.
Although it went out of print, thanks to the miracle of digital book publishing, Leap Year is now available electronically. Which is how, during a browse through the Kindle store a few weeks ago, I found myself slowing down for promo copy for a novel that promised “the vibrant, gritty New York of the 1980s” and mentioned a Soho art gallery, yuppie maladies and a passionate young artist. The book was by the author of the 2007 novel Some Day this Pain Will be Useful to You, one of the loveliest coming-of-age stories out there.
Peter Cameron lives in New York and leads a blessedly lo-fi existence. He runs Wallflower Press, a publishing house that puts out very limited-edition (we’re talking runs of ten) chapbooks of short stories or essays. He makes these paper gems out of things like scraps of wallpaper and vintage cigarette holders. His existence, like Leap Year, pushes against all that is yucky today.
Cameron was twenty-eight years old when he wrote Leap Year. It was originally published as a serialized novel in 7 Days, a New York weekly that was aimed at an uptown readership, and edited by Cameron’s friend Adam Moss (who would go on to edit New York magazine).
“Adam showed me the prototype and he said the only way fiction might work would be as a serial, which might get readers coming back,” Cameron told me when I visited him at Wallflower Press’s Flatiron district office, a room whose shelves display art supplies and a manual typewriter. At the time of his late-80s meeting with Moss, Cameron had published a short story collection and written a novel with “nice moments” but little action, and that did not sell. “I thought, ‘I’m the least qualified writer to do this but it’s the only way I’m going to learn to write a novel.’”
Cameron had been writing the column for six months when he had lunch with Moss and his editor, Pat Towers. They told him that something had to happen in the story. Soon after, he treated his readers to an art-gallery murder, a case of coming back from the dead as well as a sperm-donor intrigue.
The columns were published as a book two years later. “The critics knew my first book and thought it would be a quiet literary novel and there were kidnappings and murders,” he recalls. “Michiko Kakutani was not happy with it at all.”
Her review faulted it for being soap operatic and featuring characters who “speak in zippy little sentences peppered with buzz words and psycho-babble phrases” and who “watch Jeopardy and LA Law read People and Art News and drink Evian.” She’s right about that. And, as far as this book is concerned, nothing else.
Cameron wrote five more novels — from an academic love story to a period piece set in postwar England. They garner good reviews and, he said, they sell well in Italy (there, his sales eclipse those of his work in the rest of the world, combined). Since his most recent release, last year’s Coral Glynn,he hasn’t started a new book but he says he is toying with one in the vein of Leap Year. He is thinking about a New York story, and he might spoof websites like Kickstarter, where artists ask their friends to fund their projects. “I got a message from somebody who said she was going to be homeless and live with homeless people for project, and she’s raising money for it. It’s like, why do you need money to be homeless?”
It is my hope that I can hold off until 2038 to find out where this exploration ends up. These things tend to be worth the quarter-century wait.