We are sitting in Rafi Zabor's apartment, in a dim room with grayish yellow walls, beside an old coffee table stacked with books and CDs: Beethoven, Niño de Ricardo, Bach, Coltrane. It is August and the window blinds are down against the thick, New York heat. The room has no air conditioning. The only real light comes from two weak fluorescent lamps, one on each side of the mushy sofa, the same one that Zabor sat on while writing the dazzling first volume of his four-book memoir, I, Wabenzi, due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux this October.
"We knew that my mother was killing him," Zabor says, his voice light and matter-of-fact as he explains how his father decided to die rather than spend the family's savings. Anger and dementia had flooded Zabor's mother in her 70s, and she directed all her rage at Zabor's father, who refused to defend himself though he himself was ill. It's a history I, Wabenzi recounts in heart-tearing, and occasionally comic, detail. What the memoir doesn't clarify is why the Zabors didn't employ professional help. The answer: economics. The only real solution to Sadie's anger would have been to move her out of the apartment, into a nursing home—at the cost of $90,000 a year.
"My father and I knew that it was a trade-off between his life and my having money after his death," Zabor says. "There was no question: he was going to sacrifice himself for me. It never got verbal, but it was clear and I accepted it. I wish I had been capable of more, but under the circumstances it was the right decision. It was fucking awful."
In turn, Zabor spent two-and-a-half years sleeping on the floor of his parents' apartment in Brooklyn so he could provide them with free, round-the-clock care. After they died he inherited roughly $200,000. It lasted him less than 10 years.
By 1997, when Norton was ready to publish Zabor's first book—a 484-page bildungsroman about a saxophone-playing bear called The Bear Comes Home—the author was $15,000 in debt. The only thing he knew to do for money was write belles lettres and jazz criticism; his novel wasn't selling. Then, suddenly, The Bear Comes Home became the surprise winner of the $15,000 PEN/Faulkner prize and, shortly afterwards, the author's proposal for a multivolume memoir about his parents, his spiritual awakening and his 1986 road trip across Europe to Turkey became the object of a fierce bidding war that FSG won for $150,000. Never mind that 10 publishers had rejected the same proposal in 1993.
These days, Zabor, 59, is in the red again. He says he owes somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000, but it's clearly not a result of personal extravagance. His clothes are plain; his living-room carpet is worn to the floorboards; his refrigerator door is bearded with rust. He still lives in his parents' old apartment; all the furniture in it was once theirs. "At least the ceiling isn't falling in," Zabor wisecracks. "That's happened a couple of times."
Zabor's bank account might have stabilized after The Bear. But his income has been hobbled by two traits. His monomaniacal focus on writing leads him to view subsidiary forms of employment as distractions, and his perfectionism prevents him from releasing manuscripts to publishers until his hand is forced by debt.
"I worry about him," says Zabor's old editor, Gerry Howard. "He's just the opposite of a practical person."
England and Back
Before he moved to California in 1969, Zabor (né Joel Zaborovsky) lived an urban Jewish experience in the Saul Bellow—Vivian Gornick mold, and the effects still show in his memoir. His mother, Sadie, was pulled out of school at 12 and forced to work through the Depression. His father, Harry, who immigrated to the United States from Poland right before WWII, owned a greasy spoon in Harlem, then a liquor store in Brooklyn. (The family changed its last name to Zabor when the author entered elementary school. Zaborovsky, they decided, was too difficult to pronounce.) Together, Sadie and Harry formed something of a bipolar parenting team. During the day, she battered Zabor with shouts and accusations. At night, Harry compensated by filling his head with sweet talk.
"He told me very high things about myself," recalls Zabor. "And then later, when I played these things back at him—that I was going to go off and be a writer, I wasn't going to pay any attention to the world—he saw the results of his own input and was appalled."
At 23, Zabor fled for Berkeley, where friends inspired him to visit Beshara, a religious commune in England that emphasized the mystical aspects of Sufism. There he found himself "whomped" by the transformative experience of the self "outside of Time."
"He believes stuff that I couldn't believe on the best day of my life," says Zabor's editor Lorin Stein. "I think that's the stuff that makes the book not just entertaining but really revelatory. I think there are many more people who have had experiences like his than there are who haven't."
Zabor's sprawling, fugue-like autobiography was conceived neither as a spiritual narrative nor as a family history, though it reads like a picaresque fusion of both. What he intended to write, back in the early 1990s, was an amusing little road story that would take 75 pages, 100 pages tops, and would revolve entirely around the experience of driving a Mercedes across Europe. ("Wabenzi" is an African term for people who own Benzes.) But when Zabor reached the middle of the second sentence, the project slipped from his control.
"I saw this enormous crystalline structure start to proliferate itself," he says. "There was no sense of content yet. And I remember my fingers coming off the keyboard just like they'd burned themselves on the stove."
He didn't touch it again for a year. When he did come back to it, he found the crystalline structure filling with the most private and revealing stories of his life. "This is going to be bloody murder to write," he realized.
"Now, will I live long enough and have the energy long enough to write [the entire four-part memoir] the way it needs to be written?" Zabor wonders. Somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of volume two is done. Volumes three and four are untouched, but mapped out in his head. What he would like to do is move to Paris, where a woman lives whose company he finds so gratifying that it makes him "forget to be an insomniac." He's wanted to be there for a long time. It's his father who has kept him in Brooklyn.
"Just before The Bear came out," Zabor explains, "I had a dream. [My father and I] were sitting on a bench and he said to me, 'Okay, Joel, I'm going to give you another $200,000, but this time don't spend it. Be careful, don't do what you did last time.' I said, 'Dad, okay.' Then the book failed, and obviously I forgot about all that. But then it happened." PEN/Faulkner called. I, Wabenzi sold in America and Germany. After taxes and commissions, he earned roughly $200,000. "And that was why I didn't move to Paris when I got the payment from FSG. Because I promised him, I didn't go. And I regret it. But maybe this book needed that much struggle."