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Assumed Identity
By John Rodat

Trevanian, international man of letters and mystery, releases an intimate memoir of his early life in Albany’s slums—and still the mystery persists

Chances are, if you’re in this section of town, you’re lost. Unless you’re a congregant at the Mount Olive Southern Missionary Baptist Church, the block of North Pearl Street between Wilson and Livingston streets hasn’t much to offer. Some workday parking for tardy feds, scuttling to their offices in the Leo O’Brien Building, perhaps. But the neighborhood—if you can call a short strip consisting of a handful of ragged row houses and an abandoned and now-mysterious public building or two a neighborhood—isn’t much of a destination. The few attractions of North Albany that draw non-residents in—whether for concerts at the Palace Theater, dinner at the upscale restaurant Nicole’s Bistro, or happy hours and weekend binges at the dozen-or-so bars—don’t keep them in for more than an evening. And, besides, this particular stretch is just a block too far for much spillover traffic, and a block too drab for anything else. If you don’t happen to live in this neighborhood, you’d be forgiven for an urge to get out.

If you do live in this neighborhood, you’d be forgiven, as well. It’s a defeated block, a nowhere block—battered, disconnected and now overlooked. So, an ambitious person, an imaginative person, might long for something more glamorous, more stately, more central or just more alive; deprived of the immediate means to make that move, that creative sort might enlist imagination as an escape route until an actual departure could be effected.

This is North Pearl Street, between Wilson and Livingston, on a rainy day in May, 2005. Now, this is North Pearl Street between Wilson and Livingston—specifically 238 North Pearl—on a chilly day in mid-March, 1936:

“Number 238 was at the center of seven identical brick row houses that had been built as private homes in the 1830s, when Pearl Street was a middle-class residential street that had the advantage of being close to the teeming commercial wharves where merchants did their business. . . . The overall effect of our building, with its traces of erstwhile refinement in the intricate plasterwork now muffled beneath coats of ancient paint, was one of fallen gentility, of tawdry elegance. An old gentlewoman with her front teeth knocked out in a bar brawl.”

Then, as now, this block was marginal, largely out of sight and out of mind for the more privileged classes in the tonier neighborhoods up the hill, like those ringing the lush and quiet elegance of Washington Park. It was those addresses that housed the best and the brightest, surely, and those to which a city could look for an upcoming crop of favored citizens.

Yet, in 1936, lowly, faded, toothless 238 North Pearl Street would first receive a young man who would go on to be a worldwide best-selling author, and international man of mystery. A man whose elusive identity, kept shrouded and protected, would inspire much speculation, and a stalker or two. A man whose celebrity was carried—like Elvis, Marilyn, Madonna—in a single word: Trevanian.

Though Trevanian’s novels have sold well over five million copies, outside of a dedicated cult following, his work today is less well-known than authors who have sold mere fractions of that amount. Even among those who consider themselves “readers,” his most famous work, the 1979 thriller Shibumi, may not ring a bell at all. The title of his first novel, 1972’s The Eiger Sanction, may raise an eyebrow, but the recognition is more likely for the 1975 film version starring Clint Eastwood. True enough, bestselling authors of yesteryear fade quickly from memory, replaced by the latest Robert James Wallers or Dan Browns (Richard Bach, anyone? What about Taylor Caldwell? Helen MacInnes?). But Trevanian had five novels sell more than a million copies each between 1972 and 1983, and unlike other former mainstays of The New York Times lists—Michener, Uris, Forsyth, Robbins—you’ve likely never heard of him, even in passing. Why?

The glib and easy answer is that Trevanian doesn’t exist. It’s a pen name, a fabricated identity. But, then, of course, that’s not a real or complete answer: There’s someone behind the pseudonym, after all. Some real identity behind the artifice that’s been labeled “Trevanian.” What about that guy? That’s where you’ll get your answer—but, though less glib, it won’t be easy.

In part, you’ve likely never heard of Trevanian because he doesn’t really care very much if you do. Accordingly, he’s never participated in the ritual pimping of the work or of himself as author of the work for which he first became opaquely famous. Even an only passingly literate nation can accommodate an occasional author in its celebrity-making mechanism. Sell enough, and the morning news programs and talk shows and the star-driven checkout mags will get around to giving you some play. Everyone knows that J.K. Rowling was once poor as dirt and is now richer than the Queen; too, we all know that snooty Jonathan Franzen had something like a midlife crisis about his possible inclusion on Oprah’s lowbrow book list—an amazingly public midlife crisis.

But Trevanian never participated in that routine at all. He didn’t do talk shows, he didn’t do book tours, he didn’t make public appearances, he didn’t grant interviews expounding at length about why he didn’t. And he outdid recluses like Salinger and Pynchon by never attaching his real name to his work in the first place. He insulated himself from the public aspect of authorship, which is still slightly baffling to a personality-addicted consuming audience.

For the most part, that was all it took to maintain privacy: an unwillingness to give it away. Check the Internet for info on Trevanian. Spend a little time. Though you’ll be able to find out what Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes ordered from Netflix this weekend (Shaving Ryan’s Privates, we hear), and streaming video of Fred Durst’s morning void, you’ll find little on Trevanian, the man.

The official sites of booksellers and publishers give little beyond sales figures and “Trevanian lives in the French Basque region.” The fan-site bulletin boards mix credible theories with outright fibs, taking their cues from his fiction: His interest in Japan puts him in a kimono in an incense-filled room for one alleged meeting; his use of the Swiss Alps as a setting transforms him into a hardcore alpinist, and so on. But if you’re diligent, you’ll begin to pick up hints and threads suggesting that the author of the Trevanian books is, possibly, a man named Rod Whitaker, a former college instructor and administrator in the Department of Radio, TV and Film at the University of Texas at Austin.

This is backed up and given some momentum by the scattered and fragmentary anecdotes you can gather together from other sources. In an interview given by Daniel Pearl to the International Cinematographers Guild, the man who shot the cult-hit splatter film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre speaks kindly of his UT acquaintance: “Rod Whitaker, who I mentioned, had been involved with the French film industry. Later, he wrote The Eiger Sanction under the pen name Trevanyan [sic]. He was quite an amazing man.” And in a 1998 Newsweek article about the release of Trevanian’s “historical” Western novel Incident at Twenty-Mile, another Texan friend says of Whitaker, “You never know where fact stops and fiction begins. He did once have me pretend to be Trevanian at a dinner party.”

A call to the University of Texas, however, proves inconclusive: The department administrator helpfully agrees to check the files, then reports that there’s no record of any student named Rod Whitaker; when it’s explained that the information needed is not on a student but on a former instructor, she says confidently that there’s been no one on faculty with that name for as long as she’s been there, which is only 11 years. Rather than scheduling a trip to Austin to pick the brains of longer-tenured administrators and faculty, a call is made to Crown, the publisher of Trevanian’s newest book, the “memoir-novel” The Crazyladies of Pearl Street.

Steve Ross, publisher of Crown and Three Rivers Press, is happy to talk about Trevanian and his works. Though he’s harried, squeezing in the call between meetings, he takes the time to enthuse: “As a young man I was a very big fan, and I still think that Shibumi is one of the all-time greats of commercial fiction.”

So, when Trevanian’s agent contacted Crown (Trevanian’s original publisher) about publishing the memoir, Ross was enthusiastic both as a businessman and as an aficionado. He believes that the time is right to reintroduce Trevanian’s earlier books to a new generation [Three Rivers Press has already reissued Shibumi and The Eiger Sanction, and in upcoming months will also offer The Loo Sanction, The Summer of Katya and The Main]; and he thinks that both new readers and Trevanian fans will respond to The Crazyladies of Pearl Street.

“I believe that it will appeal to the William Kennedy readership; it’s beautifully evocative of that time and place, Albany during the Depression. But as a fan, I was very curious to find out about his roots, what underlay his writing.”

And does the nine-year window, from 1936 to 1945, that the memoir provides onto young Trevanian’s life give a fan that access, that insight?

“I got so absorbed in the world that he describes that I felt completely satisfied,” says Ross.

The book, however, is labeled fiction. It comes with a disclaimer that states that “a lively desire to thwart the litigious impulses for which Americans have renowned obliges me to declare that all the characters and names are products of my imagination and exist in no other reality than my own.” The main character is named not Trevanian, not Rodney Whitaker, but “Jean-Luc LaPointe.” For all its rich historic and social detail, for all its nostalgic warmth and gentle sarcastic humor, for all its evocation of that place and time, it leaves much out. Can Ross add anything to the author’s note?

“I can’t really elaborate on that,” he says, with slight hesitation.

Trevanian is still alive.

“Yes.”

Probably in his mid-70s.

“Yes.”

Living in the Basque region.

“Yes.”

Ross has a meeting to get to.

There’s a 9-year-old boy in knickers huffing and scrambling through the alleys of North Albany, his legs and imagination working overtime. He’s wrapped up in one of his “story games,” the fanciful adventures into which the bright kid often retreats—since moving from P.S. 5 on his North Pearl Street block to Our Lady of the Angels up on Lexington, he’s no longer regarded as the brainy freak, but still he uses these flights as a kind of “narrative narcotic,” freeing him from the squalor and the anxiety of slum life.

“Panting, my lungs grasping for air after a desperate zigzag run down our back alley, I pressed back against the weathered siding of a disused stable dating from the horse-and-wagon era, and slowly . . . slowly . . . eased my eye around the corner to locate the snipers concealed in their bunkers at the far end of the—Oh-Oh! They’ve spotted me! Two near misses ripped slivers of wood from the stables just inches from my face! I drew back and hissed at my followers, ‘We’ll make a dash for the shed. It’s our only chance to stop the anschluss!’ ”

At the far end of that story game there’s a man—probably in his mid-70s, possibly in the Basque region of western France—fondly recollecting that he “passed most of the summer vacation of 1939 incognito.” He’s recalling that it made him “smile deep inside to realize that people seeing me walk down the street in last year’s knickers patched at the knee and butt, worn-out sneakers with many-knotted laces, and no socks to cover my bruised shins, probably mistook me for just an ordinary kid, little suspecting that I was, in fact, the daring and resourceful leader of a team of battle-hardened mercenaries.”

And all along that timeline, there’s a man who may or may not be Rodney Whitaker, onetime resident of Albany, former university professor, best-selling author, ersatz celebrity and passionate storyteller.

jrodat@metroland.net

 


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