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Rays of delicious sun pierced the unopened bottles of Ukranian mineral water set out on the conference table, imbuing the room with a soft light. Though a natural phenomenon, it evoked an image of Bernini's sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila, enraptured with the ecstasy of heavenly love.
(The mind through which this image flitted, however, couldn't swear as to the chastity of la doncella's expression.)
In the same thought there was no escaping that age-old truth: sex sells.
Unlike Teresa, however, the earth wasn't moving that morning for the copywriters of Heep/Goode's New York office. They'd grappled off and on for several days with a new account, the Hoosier Shirt Company of Gary, Indiana, which wasn't exactly their line, accustomed as they were to putting the spin into such finer fare as Quickie's quick energy snack bars and beverages ('That'll be a Quickie to go!' or 'Howabout a Quickie?', the latter said with just the right touch of innocent cheekiness); gaseous microbeers ('Boulder -- the Rocky Mountain High Beer!', with the appropriate music) that actually originated in the small bowels of conglomerate breweries; go-getting blondes new to the city with their pictures in the papers seeking carnal knowledge of rich, older men; a mouthwash that tripled as a drink mixer and appliance cleaner; the 'Intelli-Telly', a television set which turned itself off if your attention wandered or you fell asleep (the networks and competitors were fighting to keep this insidious technological threat off the market on the grounds that it was un-American); tea cosies that fitted around computers ('CompuCosies', a surprising success); grass snake oil, which was found to have curative properties.
Frankly, nobody gave a flip for Hoosier.
A paper plane was directed at a cut-out photo of Joseph Goebbels that someone in a festive mood had taped up at last year's Christmas/Channukah party.
It nose-dived short of his weak chin.
'Anybody awake here this morning?'
'Hey Joe,' warbled a young man with horn rims and a goatee. He was a creative at Heep/Goode.
The speaker, a brilliant underachiever who nonetheless managed to achieve his set aside level of incompetence as head of marketing, said that since they'd hit a wall with Hoosier they'd have to go back to the drawing board, return to zero, take it one stitch at a time.
He interpreted his team's deafening silence as assent.
'Hoosier not only want to raise customer awareness of their product, they want to go upmarket, have a smarter image. This is longterm because you know what people think when they hear Hoosier'.
'Larry Bird,' someone drawled.
'Stockcar racing,' another yawned.
'Twinkies. White trash cuisine'.
'Pushy Midwestern social climbers'.
Ears pricked up. 'Like who?'
'That Bass woman? The Getty woman? Nancy Reagan? Uh, wouldn't say she was a social climber, but Hillary Clinton?'
'I didn't know Bass was from -- '
'That's not the point. But Hoosier's sort of like that, they want to forget they ever came from Indiana. It's not a sophisticated image'.
As if to contradict him, the only hoosier in the firm (a fact he kept to himself), an elfin character who amused everyone with his arch ways, alighted on to table and began to belt out in a clear, bright tenor voice, 'Gary Indiana' from The Music Man. He was a veritable Mickey 'Sugarbabies' Rooney standing in for Robert 'Victor/Victoria' Preston. He even did a little soft-shoe that skirted the edges of the conference table, skilfully managing to tip-toe between the bottles and paper pads. His reward was wild applause and a nice pat on the small of his back, 'Good for you!', as he bowed off.
'You dance divinely!'
'That was great Randy. You've got a great voice'.
'I'm in the church choir,' he piped, bristling his moustache.
'I bet you are'.
'If it were only that easy,' Jamie quipped, bringing the meeting round back to business. 'Anyway, it's definitely not a sophisticated image'.
The young man with the goatee suggested they call up the real Gary Indiana.
'I think he's available'.
'Is he still alive?'
'Who's Gary Indiana?' asked an educated young woman a year out of New Haven. The goatee rolled his eyes.
'I don't think that's the image Hoosier want. They want white tie and tails, not Warhol weird'.
'They ought to go for a cooler image. Workshirts. Artists love workshirts'. He was wearing a workshirt, with an electric blue tie. 'They've got nothing to lose'.
A clean-cut, milk-fed young man you'd be proud to bring home to mother leafed through the pages of a book.
'Rob, you know you're not supposed to be reading at work'.
'You're supposed to have given up all that reading when you got out of college, Rob'.
They were joshing him of course, they'd all kept up with their reading after college. Why, the young woman a year out of New Haven was very conscientious about reading at least one good book a week, preferably an editor's recommendation in the Sunday Times Book Review. And the goatee always had a book under his arm that everyone could see, usually a slim Editions de Minuit.
'The Great Gatsby. Good book,' Jamie said, turning it so to glance at the cover.
Rob informed them that out of the blue he'd had a brain storm, right there, under their very eyes. He could hardly contain himself, he was full of beans, flatulent even.
The college girl made a clever literary allusion, saying that Rob had been visited by the 'Advertising Angel'.
'My idea is brilliant,' he asserted.
'Well, don't hide your light under a bushel, Rob, we're all lost,' Jamie said. 'Is it based on this book?'
'With this book'.
Jamie was sceptical. 'Now Rob here has come up with a brilliant idea' he said in his best Jack Nicholson voice. 'Rob, would you please tell the folks your brilliant idea'.
Rob leaned forward a bit, the Great White Hope of 6th Avenue ready to broadcast the news to the nation.
'In a few years, the rights to the Great Gatsby will be in the public domain. That means anyone can publish their edition of the book. What we can do is publish our own edition of the book and mention Hoosier in there, in passing. I have the passage, here, the famous shirt scene'.
There was a moment of uncertain silence, antennae probing the air before Jamie spoke again.
'I think it's a good idea, but wouldn't it cost a lot to publish our own edition? Why not sponsor an edition?'
'Well, I was really thinking more of product placement, as you see in the movies'.
'Yes, it all comes clear to me now. Like a flash. Yes, by George, I think you may be on to something'.
Someone asked why not shoot a commercial but it was explained to him that Hoosier's penny-pinching budget wouldn't go that far.
'Let me read you the passage,' Rob interrupted, clearing his throat.
'He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-coloured disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher -- shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavander and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
A fly on the wall batted its wings.
'He really wrote beautifully, didn't he? What a tragedy'.
'It's so visual' exclaimed the closet Hoosier. 'Pity about the commercial'.
The educated young woman was about to mention her thesis on Zelda Fitzgerald and the Crisis of Confidence in Depression Era American Literature when Rob snapped his wrist like Toscanni signalling for attention.
'This is the master stroke: at the end of all this, we have Gatsby turn to the narrator and say, 'They're Hoosier, sport'. Or something to that effect'.
A gimlet film came over everyone's eyes, save Jamie's. Rob had walloped the pitch into the bleachers.
Jamie asked which publisher might allow such liberties to be taken with a text. He'd never heard of such a thing outside the Soviet Union.
'I was thinking of this one', he said, pulling a paperback Huckleberry Finn from his satchel. 'Acme. They're in Hackensack. You pay them a small fee, they do what you want as long as the book is in the public domain, bespoke books as it were. We can have our name with Hoosier's on the back or the front or on the spine, or, if we wish to be discreet, in small print next to or on the title page inside. They did this edition specially for the Oakland School Board. It doesn't have -- pardon my saying it -- the word 'nigger' in it. Nigger Jim is just plain Jim now'.
'They should have gone whole hog and made Jim a yachtsman,' Jamie observed quickly. 'Still, nice work,' he said, kicking the tires, checking the teeth.
The young scholar said she could see where one might take offense at the gratuitous usage of racist terms in a literary work unless it was somehow socially redeeming or inextricably vital to the context of the narrative, which it usually wasn't.
'Feel this' Jamie said to his team. 'Fine paper, quality stuff'. He passed it around like a decanter of port.
'One of the big investment firms is doing Edith Wharton, a complete set I think. It's a marketing tool aimed at well-heeled, well-read customers. Whether they're changing anything I don't know. Probably they'll figure out a way to get their name in there'.
Rob sensed, however, that the flag he'd run up the pole wasn't about to be saluted right away. Raspberries lay ahead, unfair second-guesses very likely but that's life, what can you do?
Sure enough, the young woman of the thwarted Zelda thesis worried about the integrity of what they were doing. As a graduate of a selective institution of higher learning, an illuminati, she felt obliged to be on the side of the angels and spoke eloquently in defense of the humanities, of the sanctity of literature.
'It's a masterpiece we're talking about here. A great book. We can't tamper with this. It would be like the Vatican allowing God to hand Adam a Quickie bar up there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for a tithe'.
'That's a good idea, Tina', Jamie laughed, 'I'll suggest it to them, they're interested in cracking the European market'.
'That's not funny', she said, displaying some emotion. She hadn't been so passionate about a cause since the time she attended a campus rally to protest the bestowing of an honorary degree on the author of God and Man at Yale. She shouted herself hoarse that glorious afternoon.
The goatee, who was irked that he hadn't come up with the idea himself, asked rather brusquely if Hoosier even existed back in the days of Gatsby.
'Of course not, polyester didn't exist then' .
'They make blends too, Charles,' Jamie told the goatee.
'Gatsby's a Midwesterner though, that's key,' Rob said.
Sounding a gentler tone to the inquiries, Jamie wondered would Hoosier wait a year or so until they put their edition on the bookshelves? If a year is a lifetime in politics, think what it is in sales.
'I suspect they'll wait. They understand this isn't traditional product placement. The readers of our edition will barely be aware that it's there'.
'It'll seep into the subconscious'.
'You with your Freud, you knucklehead' Jamie joked, grabbing the goatee and giving him a noogie sandwich on the cranium. They were mellowing out, the tension was passing. 'Yeah, sort of. We know what they want. Hoosier will register with them, say, the way Charvet registers with people who read Tom Wolfe or some Brit writer. Sorry, Simon'.
'That's alright. This is Charvet by the way'.
'Very nice material' Jamie said quietly, inspecting the cuffs.
'Hoosier will never be Charvet,' the dancing fool snickered. He favoured Pinks himself.
'Maybe they should change their name to Charvet,' Jamie said with some sympathy for their hopelessly aspirational client.
'Well, actually, this line of shirts they're launching is going to be called something else, something classier,' Rob explained, he alone privy to this confidential trade secret. It was safe to reveal it now; the game was afoot. 'They're reinventing themselves like Gatsby'.
Jamie cautioned his charges not to read too much into this. 'Client might think we're being smart alecks'.
'I think they're calling it Terre Haute or something like that'.
'Terre Haute?' the Ball State Baryshnikov spluttered. 'What the hell's that? Some hick town. Might as well call it French Lick'. Everybody enjoyed this sally at humour, even la pasionara.
'Why not Gatsby Shirts?'
'Oh no, that's much too obvious'.
'We can come up with a better name than Terre Haute or Gatsby for that matter. You mention it to them, Rob, but be delicate. You're dealing with farmers you know'.
'I thought Indiana was the rustbelt'.
'Whatever, they're there and we're here and ne'er the twain shall meet'.
'If I can play devil's advocate, I think there's something obvious we're all overlooking', the bluestocking persisted but Jamie cut her off and asked Rob if he had thought of any other product placements for the book.
'Well, there's a lot of drinking and driving going on in the book, so you know where that leads us. Seriously, one problem is that the book is set during prohibition, so we can't get any of our liquor clients into the book, you know, it's all bootleg'.
'Unless we change the period when the action takes place'.
'Could do, can do, say the eve of prohibition. It's not that big a difference, a little restructuring'.
'We have a novelist on the staff who can handle this,' Salomé remembered.
'I didn't know we had a novelist on the staff,' Jamie said, genuinely astonished. A bonafide priest serving in the temple of Mammon; who'd a thunk it? He'd been 'working on the novel' for twenty goddamned years. 'You mean someone around this joint actually writes prose, complete sentences, paragraphs, plots, characters, the whole shebang?'
'Yes, someone at Heep/Goode actually writes prose, Jamie, Ed Knaff in advertising. Course, his books don't sell so he has to work'.
'Say, Rob, don't several of the major characters die in a carwreck at the end of the book?'
'You're thinking of the movie. In the book they get shot so we're in the clear there'.
'Do we have any ammunition or gun clients?' Jamie asked, a twinkle in his eye. 'That would be in poor taste,' he said. As an afterthought he asked if Heep/Goode had any automotive clients.
Rob shrugged. Nobody knew.
'Well, let Ed do it' Jamie concluded, looking down at his diary. 'OK, then, I think we have this settled.
'I love your Britishitisms, Simon. Have you read Gatsby?'
'I saw the film I must confess, the Mia Farrow one'.
'It's utterly, utterly, isn't it Simon?'
'Uh, yes Jamie'.
'Yeah, it is sort of utterly, utterly', Jamie murmured, looking through to next week and his skiing trip in Berkshire. 'You know Simon, you don't say much during our little powwows here. I might have to start calling you Simple Simon'.
Simon smiled uncomfortably. Nobody liked him much. He was seen as a billeted redcoat from London HQ.
'Rob, anything to add?'
'I've just had a glance at the passage again and discovered something. In the paragraph right before the shirt speech, Gatsby mentions he has 'a man in England' who buys his clothes. We'll have to omit England entirely, keep it neutral, say that he has 'a man' who buys his clothes, just to cover our asses'. Rob stressed 'asses' to show that he was as capable of strong language as the next fella, that he wasn't just a granite chiselled monument to Connecticut probity and breeding.
Jamie nodded sagely. He was impressed with Rob this morning. His star was on the rise, at last.
'I have to play devil's advocate here', the bluestocking interjected, getting on everybody's nerves. 'I'm still bothered about the integrity of what we're doing'. She blew back a wisp of a hair that had cloyingly come undone in the heat of battle.
'Tina, we all want to go to lunch. Can we discuss this tomorrow?'
'Well, maybe we're going too fast with this. Would we do this to a poem?'
'No one's suggesting we do this to a poem'.
'That wouldn't work very well,' the goatee said, 'imagine the Howl being used to sell dogfood'.
Jamie smirked. 'That's pretty good'.
'That might happen. That may be funny but that's what will happen if we're not careful'
'You take everything far too seriously, Tina,' the goatee said calmly. 'None of us is going to read this crap. It's for the dumbos out there'.
She folded her arms in scorn.
'We're pulling your leg Tina, laugh,' Jamie said, giving her a playful nudge on the shoulder, dismissing with cavalier aplomb the remote possibility of a sexual harassment suit. 'Smile, Tina'.
She smiled, like the village idiot.
'Maybe you're right, Mr Davenport'.
'We may be getting ahead of ourselves here. For now one product at a time in the book,' Jamie decided, tapping his diary with his No. 2 pencil to bring the meeting to a close. Captain Toss's clam chowder swirled around on his palate. 'For now'.
The conscience of Heep/Goode was the first on her feet. She had tried, manfully. The others started to drift off.
'Are you coming to lunch Rob?' she asked. She liked Rob's features. He was still sitting there with Gatsby in his lap.
'Yeah, in a minute, Tina, I just have to do something first', he said, leaning back in his chair, taking a sip of the mineral water which tasted so chemically vile he spit-sprayed it across the pages he'd gone over with a yellow marker.
He was going to have to have a word with Jamie about this.
© 2001 George Rafael
George Rafael writes for Cineaste, Chess Life, Salon and Archipelago. He works as a legal writer and lives in London. He supports "River Plate" - (an Argentine soccer team).