The plan is that Richard will get to the bookstore at quarter to seven, and he will be greeted by an events coordinator named Lindsey. When he arrives, he is disappointed to learn that Lindsey is not a young, earnest woman, but a young, earnest man. A young, earnest man with dark-rimmed glasses and a too-small tee shirt. He looks like someone who plays acoustic guitar badly.
Lindsey leads Richard past a display table of new releases, down a flight of stairs, and into a small, airless room that might be a storage closet. “Our staging area,” Lindsey says. He gestures to a stool. “Please. Make yourself comfortable.”
The stool is backless and on wheels. It is impossible for a fifty-two-year-old man to be comfortable on a backless stool with wheels. Richard sits, the plastic creaking beneath him.
“Can I fetch you anything?” Lindsey says.
Fetch? Richard thinks. “Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” He knows enough to ask graciously. No one wants to fetch anything for an asshole.
Lindsey scuttles away, and Richard is left alone in the room. A clock ticks on the wall over the door. The reading will start in 12 minutes, and he is anxious about the size of the crowd. It should be a large crowd: today is the launch of his novel, which has garnered what his editor describes as strong prepublication buzz, and he is at his local bookstore (a Washington, DC, institution), and his wife has implored several dozen of their friends to attend, sending emails and calendar invites. Even his editor has taken the train down from New York (she has a daughter at Georgetown, and the reading is probably an excuse to visit the daughter, but so what).
It is warm in the storage closet, and Richard rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. The shirt is a deep green cotton, with an expensive sheen, purchased by his wife in Italy. He chose it tonight with care, pairing it with dark-wash jeans, deciding against a jacket. He wants to look casually refined. He secretly believes he looks ten years younger than he is—he swims twice a week and uses a daily moisturizer with SPF to placate his wife.
Lindsey returns with a paper cone of water, which is lukewarm and tastes faintly of chemicals. Richard drains it and crumples it into a ball. “How’s the turnout?”
“Fantastic,” Lindsey says. “Standing room only.”
Richard is so relieved he could kiss him.
Richard’s first novel was published ten years ago to warm critical reception but modest sales. It was admired by writers and unknown to nonwriters. This novel, in contrast, is what his editor calls a big book. It is about a teenage boy whose mother has a love affair with a famous novelist. It happens that Richard’s (now dead) mother had a love affair with a famous novelist—Richard has the snapshots and postcards to prove it—and that is one reason the book is expected to be big.
Another reason is that the famous novelist in question died last month, and, in the wake of his death, several once-beautiful women are staking a claim to his estate. It is a deliciously messy story, enthralling a certain corner of the internet. “In all seriousness,” Richard’s editor has said, “the timing could not have been more perfect.”
The reading is a huge success. Lindsey gives a surprisingly lucid introduction, and Richard reads from a scene toward the end of the book, where the protagonist goes sailing with the famous novelist. They drink gimlets, and the novelist grows sloppily drunk, throwing a bag of perfectly good limes overboard. As Richard stands at the podium, a pyramid of his books arranged on the table before him, he can feel the audience’s rapt attention. The reading is followed by a Q&A: questions about the line between fiction and autobiography, and the state of publishing, and revision. A young woman with white-blonde hair says, “What authors are you reading at the moment?” and he lists four writers, careful to include one woman and one Black man.
Then Lindsey announces the start of the book signing, asking the audience to form a line, and it stretches all the way back to the self-help section.
After the signing, Richard and a sizable group of friends proceed to a restaurant across the street, where Richard’s wife has reserved a private room. It is up a narrow staircase, overlooking Connecticut Avenue, with a full bar and high tables dotted with candles. Richard orders a gimlet, drinks it quickly, and orders another, suffused with a sense of well-being. His editor approaches, using the word stunning three times in less than a minute. His friend Cooper, whose book about the Jazz Age was published by a sad little university press, claps him on the shoulder. “Good stuff,” he says, somberly. The young woman with white-blonde hair introduces herself. She wears a scarf-like top somehow engineered to expose her entire back. “Lindsey invited me,” she says, and in his gin-infused state it takes Richard a moment to remember who Lindsey is.
He recovers quickly, placing a hand on the girl’s naked back. He has already forgotten her name. “So pleased you could join us,” he says.
“I liked your first book,” she says. “You write women well.”
He raises his glass. “I take that as a huge compliment.”
He and the girl chat for another minute before she slips away to refresh her drink. She is soon replaced by Richard’s wife, who tucks herself beneath his arm and places a hand on his chest. “Are you pleased?” she says.
She kisses him on the mouth. “You deserve it.”
They have been married for six years. She is his second wife, twelve years younger than his first, and he adores her. She is lovely, with flawless skin maintained by an array of gels and serums. She is a successful, financially independent lawyer. And she has a way of looking at him, intently, like he is worthy of her singular focus. Even Richard’s first wife approves. The first wife and the second wife cross paths about once a year—most recently at Richard’s son’s high school graduation—and they are always strenuously pleasant to one another. He sometimes pictures them at his funeral, inconsolable, crying into each other’s necks and whispering about what a wonderful man he was.
The next day, Richard receives an email from the headmaster of the moneyed, all-boys school where he teaches English (though he is currently on sabbatical). Enjoyed your reading immensely, it says. Eager to have you back in the classroom.
He gives an interview to a journalist writing about novels based on famous novelists and takes a call from his editor, who reports the Times is reviewing the book. The review should run sometime in the next couple of weeks. “Who did they have review it?” Richard says, barely containing his excitement. He knows it is too much to hope for Franzen. He would settle for Dwight Garner.
“I don’t have those details,” says the editor, but promises to send a link as soon as it is live.
She calls back the next day to announce the book is being considered for a celebrity book club. Not the celebrity book club, but a celebrity book club. “They dropped the title they had slated for next month. Something to do with plagiarism,” the editor says. “This is huge. It’s hard to overstate the impact it would have on sales.” She laughs a little maniacally. “Keep your fingers crossed, say a prayer, whatever.”
So when Richard’s phone buzzes on Friday morning, he allows it to skitter around on the table for several rings. He knows it will be a good call, and he wants to prolong the feeling of anticipation. He takes a sip of coffee and answers.
“Ignore the email,” the editor says. There is something off about her tone, some current of anxiety. “I have no idea why she forwarded it to you.”
“What email?” Richard says.
There is a pause. He can hear her tapping on a keyboard, recalculating. “When was the last time you checked your email?”
Richard does not have the email app on his phone. “Last night. Is it about the book club?”
“Did we not get the book club?”
“It’s not about the book club.” The editor sighs. “Look, we received an email making—” here, she stops, choosing her words—“strange claims. I asked my assistant to send it to our legal department, just in case. She sent it to you instead.”
“Who’s it from?”
“I don’t know,” the editor says. “Some woman.”
Richard ends the call. He goes to the study and opens his laptop. The email was forwarded at 8:38 a.m. The subject line is “Richard Benton,” and its original sender is someone named Elizabeth Towers. Richard does not immediately recognize the name but, as he reads the email, his brain starts to assemble a low-resolution image of her. Elizabeth Towers claims that in February 2011, when she was a graduate student at Boise State University, she was sexually assaulted by Richard Benton. The assault took place in the hotel where he was staying. She did not report the assault to the police, and she has since moved forward in her life. But in light of the recent publicity around his book, I wanted you, as his publisher, to be aware that you are elevating the voice of a man with a history of sexual violence. I recognize you will need to confirm this allegation, and I am prepared to do so.
Richard lingers on one phrase: a history of sexual violence. He feels wholly disconnected from the person it describes. It is like he is reading about someone else. A suspect in a news article, or a villain in a novel.
Richard sits at the desk, clenching and unclenching his fist. He has not thought about this woman in eight years; until today, he had never learned her last name.
Fuck, he thinks. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Here is the problem with the email: it is measured and free of grammatical errors, which makes it harder to dismiss as delusional. He searches her name on the internet and scrolls through the results, pausing to study a picture of a vaguely familiar woman with bland features. She is thirty-one years old. She has published a story collection and is a visiting professor at a well-respected college in Ohio. He is, for a moment, distraught at the thought of her college-level teaching position, but then he assures himself a visiting professorship could not possibly be tenure-track.
He shuts the laptop. He calls his friend Bob. They lived across the hall from each other in their twenties; Bob attended both Richard’s first and second weddings, and he is a lawyer specializing in corporate governance. “I need to speak with you confidentially,” Richard says.
“Sure,” Bob says.
Richard describes the situation, emphasizing the woman’s claims about assault are fabricated—the sex was consensual—and then he answers Bob’s questions. He confirms that the woman never went to the police, and that it is highly unlikely she recorded the encounter.
“And what communications have you exchanged since?” Bob says.
“None,” Richard says.
“Okay,” Bob says. “No prosecutor in their right mind would take a case like that, and the chances of her being awarded damages in civil court are exceedingly small. From a legal perspective, you have virtually no concerns.” He clears his throat. “From a personal perspective,” he says, “it might be a different story.”
Richard lets that sink in. He picks up a ballpoint pen, compressing and releasing the clicker. “I guess my next question,” he says, “is do I have any recourse?”
“How do you mean?”
“Like some kind of libel suit.”
Bob does not respond immediately. “Look,” he says. “It’s not my area of expertise. But I have to imagine your best course of action is to resolve this as quickly and quietly as possible.”
“But she’s lying,” Richard says.
“It doesn’t matter,” Bob says.
Eight years ago, two years after the release of his first book, Richard was invited by a friend of a friend to be a guest lecturer at an MFA program in Boise, Idaho. This was shortly after he met his second wife. They were seeing each other, but not seriously. The invitation was extended less than a week before the event; Richard sensed that another, more important writer had canceled at the last minute. He remembers the indignity of believing this and going anyway.
In Boise, he delivered a craft lecture, gave a reading, and joined the program director and a handful of students for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. The Mexican restaurant was decorated with lights that looked like chili peppers. Across from him sat a young woman.
He remembers drinking more than one margarita and ordering an entrée that arrived on a sizzling plate. He remembers the conversation veering toward Philip Roth, and the young woman across the table rolling her eyes. A misogynist, she said.
Yes, Richard said. And a genius.
They made eye contact. She looked at him with what seemed like curiosity, or interest.
The evening sputtered onward, eventually winding down. He slipped into the bathroom, chewed tablets of Pepto-Bismol, and returned to the table, asking the Philip Roth skeptic if she might be able to drop him at his hotel.
The details of how she ended up in his room are hazy.
The sex itself is hazy. It was a long time ago, and he had been drinking. It is, perhaps, in his best interest to keep it hazy—he has nothing to gain from conjuring the hotel’s slick, polyester bedspread, or the dusting of acne on Elizabeth Towers’s shoulders. Or from recalling that the sex ended before he had an orgasm. He does not recall why it ended. Sex without an orgasm is, after all, best forgotten.
Richard does not tell his wife. One could argue that to tell his wife would be an act of selfishness, causing her profound and needless anxiety. That is the last thing he wants.
The next few days pass uneventfully, though Richard feels a vague uneasiness. Like he has lost a credit card, and is waiting to see if unauthorized charges appear on his account. By Monday afternoon, he still has not heard from the editor—not about the email, or the celebrity book club, or anything. He drives to Baltimore for a reading. It is raining, the traffic abysmal, and when he arrives at the bookstore, the girl behind the counter says, “Tell me your name again?”
The bookstore does not have a staging area; he sits on a stool in front of twenty-five chairs, only a quarter of which are occupied. Two minutes before the event is supposed to start, he receives a call from a New York City area code and sends it to voicemail.
It is the worst of all possible readings. The microphone is spotty, a phone chirps with a text message, the man in the back row snores audibly. Richard reads for a total of seven minutes, then fields a question about how to find a literary agent. He answers as graciously as possible, though, in truth, if someone lacks the wherewithal to google how to find a literary agent, they are as doomed in life as they are in book publishing. He signs four books and leaves.
He remembers the missed call hours later, when he is trying to read in bed. His wife is in the bathroom, applying her regimen of serums. He reaches for his phone, taps on the new voicemail, and listens to a female voice identify herself as a journalist for the New York Times. “I’m reaching out for your comment,” she says. “I’m working on a story about your alleged—”
His wife emerges from the bathroom and slides into bed. She looks at him strangely. “Everything okay?”
He does the only thing he can think to do: he deletes the voicemail and returns the phone to the nightstand. “Fine,” he says.
On Tuesday, Richard calls his editor. “She’s speaking at a conference,” her assistant says. The same assistant who forwarded the email from Elizabeth Towers—and whose tone, if he is not mistaken, is rather clipped. “Can I have her try you back?”
He turns his focus to the upcoming week. He is scheduled to give readings in Richmond, New York City, and Providence, where he will stay with friends, since his publisher balked at the prospect of paying for hotels. He calls each of the friends to confirm his travel plans. He googles the distance between their homes and the bookstores. He prints his train tickets, sliding them into a leather portfolio. His editor does not call.
His wife returns from work. “How about dinner out?” she says. They end up at the Italian place, where Richard sets his phone on the table as his wife scans the wine list. “What do you feel like?” she says.
“Anything. You choose.”
She glances up. “You’re distracted.”
“A little,” he says. “Just thinking about the book tour.”
She orders a bottle of white, and the waiter delivers it, pouring a taste for Richard to sample. He takes a sip, nods at the waiter, and listens as his wife describes her day at work. Listens might be an overstatement, but he gets the gist of it. Something about a meeting with a prospective client. “I asked James to come along, to give him more direct experience with clients.” She pauses, trying the wine. “And I give my little pitch, and then the client directs all his questions to James. To this twenty-six-year-old child.”
“Huh,” Richard says. His phone buzzes with a text from his editor, linking to the Times review. I think you’ll be pleased, she writes.
He taps on the link and skims the review, looking for key words. Then he reads it slowly. It dawns on him that it is not a glowing review. It is lukewarm at best. It is written by a woman he has never heard of, and it describes his prose as assured, his eye for New England’s social mores as keen. Here is the sentence he memorizes:
It is, in its way, a willfully unambitious novel, a story you’ve read a hundred times before.
“Willfully unambitious?” he says. “Who is this person?” He googles her, discovering she is the author of four novels, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
His wife, who has pulled up the review on her phone, takes another sip of wine. “It’s a good review.”
“Good? Are we reading the same thing?”
The waiter returns with an appetizer of grilled octopus, garnished with a wedge of lemon. “You’re fixating on the negative.” The wife squeezes the lemon over the octopus and picks up her fork. “I wish you would put your phone away.”
“You can, actually.” She moves swiftly, reaching across the table, plucking the phone from his hands. She presses the power button and drops the phone into her purse. “See?”
The next morning, Richard remains in bed, sulking, imagining an encounter with the female book reviewer: she is in the audience at one of his readings, and she closes her eyes, letting the prose wash over her, and afterward she approaches him, nervous and contrite, confessing her failure to perceive the ambition of his book. He reaches for his phone and discovers it is not charging on his nightstand—his wife never returned it. He rises from bed, wandering around the house, looking for it. He calls his wife at work from the landline. “Where’s my phone?” he says.
“How about good morning?” she says.
“Good morning,” he says. “Where’s my phone?”
It is in the wife’s nightstand. Richard turns it on and, immediately, it buzzes with a call from his ex-wife. He declines it. A moment later, it buzzes with notifications: three new voicemails and a text from the ex-wife.
Have you seen the Times? she says. I thought you should know our son is asking about it.
Richard bites. The review?
Not the review, she says.
He googles himself and taps on an article time-stamped one hour earlier. The headline says, Novelist portraying badly behaved writer accused of sexual assault.
The article describes Richard as a respected novelist whose highly anticipated second book was released last week, garnering publicity in a variety of magazines and literary publications. It contains a detailed account of Elizabeth Towers’s story. How, in February 2011, she agreed to drive Richard to the Courtyard by Marriot in Boise, Idaho, and, once they arrived, he invited her inside.
“He was adamant that I read Goodbye, Columbus, and he said he had a copy in his room. He wouldn’t leave my car until I agreed to go with him,” Ms. Towers says. She recalls that she accompanied him to his room, where Mr. Benton was unable to locate a copy of the book. When she attempted to leave, he took her car keys, holding them out of reach. “He thought it was funny,” she says, “but it was belittling.”
Richard stops. He closes his eyes, pressing the palm of his hand against the center of his forehead. He has no memory of holding Elizabeth Towers’s car keys out of reach. But he has a vivid memory of holding his wife’s keys out of reach. It was on their third or fourth date, and she found it charming. It is one of their origin stories. They recount it to each other fondly.
Richard tries to calculate how soon his wife will see the article. In all likelihood, it will be a matter of hours. Maybe a day. He knows he needs to tell her before she finds out from someone else—that the cost of her finding out from someone else, without the appropriate context, is catastrophic.
Here is what he does next: he turns the phone off, sets it on the nightstand, and walks out of the house. He continues walking for 2.7 miles, until he reaches the bookstore where he gave the reading just over a week ago. His novel is prominently displayed on a table at the front of the store. He picks up a copy, runs a hand over its smooth, matte surface. He thinks of the words inside the book. Nearly 80,000 of them, written over a span of five years. He toiled over those words, injecting them with life and curiosity and pathos. And now some bland, angry woman wants to take it away from him.
He flips to the acknowledgments. The final two sentences read, Writers rarely make the best husbands. Thanks to my wife, for her grace, patience, and humor.
He returns the book to the stack and proceeds to the Fiction section, searching for his first novel, but it is not on the shelf. He feels a stab of irritation. It really should be on the shelf.
He walks to the information desk. “Pardon me,” he says to the girl behind the counter. She looks at him with some alarm, and he realizes (1) he has left the house in pajama pants, and (2) he is sweating profusely. He wipes his forehead and smiles. “I was hoping you could tell me if you had a book in stock,” he says, giving her the title.
She taps away at her keyboard. “Nope. Want me to special-order it?”
“Yes,” Richard says.
Richard’s wife is home early. She sits at the dining table, dressed in sleek professional attire. When he enters the room, she sets her phone on the table but does not look up. “So,” she says, flatly. “You’re not dead.”
“You saw the article,” he says.
She arranges her face into an expression of innocence. “What article?”
“Look,” he says. “It’s a complete and utter fabrication.”
“So you didn’t sleep with her.” Her voice does something funny. It wavers—just a little—but it hits Richards squarely, as if she had placed both hands on his chest and pushed.
“I slept with her.” He says it quietly. Gently. “But it was consensual.”
The wife is silent. She places her hands on the table. Her fingernails are neatly trimmed and painted a gray the shade of elephant skin. It is a strange color to paint one’s fingernails, Richard thinks. But, of course, she would not have painted them. She would have paid someone to paint them. He is wondering how much she would have paid someone to paint them, when he catches himself: he is fixating on a trivial detail, isn’t he? Almost as if to avoid his culpability in hurting the woman before him, a woman he considers tremendously worthy of love. It is something he might have a character in a novel do, this disassociation, this clever device. He is thinking clever device when he realizes she has asked a question. “What?” he says.
“I said, will there be other women.”
“What do you mean?” he says.
“Other women,” she says, “who accuse you of rape.”
“No,” he says. “Of course not. How can you say that?”
“I can say that,” she says, “because I am not a complete fucking idiot.”
There are no other women—Elizabeth Towers is the only one to accuse Richard of rape. You would think that would matter, but it doesn’t.
The next day, Richard’s publisher releases a statement. “We take the allegations against Mr. Benton very seriously. We are reexamining our relationship with him moving forward.”
Also: a secretary at Richard’s school sends an email, copying the English department chair and the headmaster. Please send your availability to join a conference call as soon as possible, she writes. The matter is time-sensitive.
Also: his wife relocates to the second bedroom. He is encouraged, if not surprised, that she does not move out of the house entirely. She has always been a methodical decision-maker, one who weighs her options carefully.
After prolonged internal debate, he takes the train to Richmond for the first of his readings. He worries that it will be attended by a mob of vitriolic, antirape protesters, but, in fact, only eleven people show up. Most of them appear to be retirees. That night, he stays at the home of a childhood friend and his wife, both of whom are so studiously polite that he is certain they’ve read the article.
The bookstore in New York cancels his event, the manager sending an email that is both curt and vague. The reading in Providence is a lot like the one in Richmond.
On the train home, he receives a surprising email from his editor. The book is selling well, she writes. If anything, the controversy around your personal conduct is bolstering sales.
It is good news. There is something pleasingly old-fashioned about getting a piece of good news on a train and, to celebrate, he goes to the cafe car, orders a whiskey, and carries it back to his seat. He drinks it. He is disappointed to find that it does not taste celebratory. It tastes like whiskey in a plastic cup, on a sold-out train that smells of industrial-strength cleaner and feet. He looks out the window, watching the nothing landscape blur past, troubled by the editor’s email. Your personal conduct, she wrote. Like he is a malicious actor. A malicious actor whom she will profit from, but only grudgingly.
When he returns to DC, his wife is still occupying the second bedroom, though she is now willing to speak to him in complete sentences. For instance, when he tells her the book is selling well, she says, “How marvelous for you.” That is all she says. He cannot help but think that, a week ago, she would have kissed him on the mouth and cracked open a bottle of something fizzy and expensive. Instead, she sifts through the mail on the counter. “By the way,” she says, “the car needs to be inspected.”
“Does it,” he says.
She holds up a letter on DMV letterhead. “See for yourself,” she says.
He takes the car to be inspected. He is not thrilled to do it—he is a novelist, after all, and his time could be better spent writing his next novel—but he is also a husband trying to demonstrate remorse. At the inspection station, he gets a call from a local number and sends it to voicemail. A minute later his phone buzzes with a message: his local bookstore reporting that the book he ordered is ready for pickup.
He stops on the way back from the inspection station, not because he wants to buy a copy of his own book, but because he does not want to go home. The girl behind the counter is engrossed in whatever she is reading, and he has plenty of time to observe her. Her mouth is small and humorless, caked in plum-colored lipstick a shade too dark for her complexion. He wishes he could reach over and wipe it off her face. All these bookstore girls are the same, he thinks. With their drugstore lipstick and long, unwashed hair and tattered copies of To the Lighthouse. With their sly little literary aspirations. He wishes they could see how utterly alike they are.
He clears his throat and she startles, setting her paperback on the counter, looking at him in a prolonged way. At first it seems like recognition—maybe she recognizes him from the reading a couple of weeks ago, or from the Times article—but then it dissolves into something fuzzier and dull-eyed. She might just be a little slow.
“Can I help you?” she says. She rises idly, without any sense of urgency, like she is already bored with him.