Ben Greenman‘s last book, What He’s Poised To Do (Harper Perennial), was full of stories about love and loss, populated by men and women who spanned a wide range of places and times. His new book, “Celebrity Chekhov,” is full of stories about love and loss, populated by American celebrities. Add to that the fact that Greenman didn’t exactly write them from scratch—the stories are based heavily on original works by Anton Chekhov—and you have a high-concept experiment in surreal comedy, that’s also an act of devotion regarding the persistent power of literature. Below, Greenman has “translated” one of Chekhov’s originals, “The Death of a Government Clerk,” into “The Death of a Redheaded Man.”
One fine evening, Conan O’Brien was sitting in the second row at the Staples Center, watching the Lakers run away from the Sacramento Kings. He was thrilled to see the game, excited and gratified. But suddenly, In stories one so often meets with this “But suddenly.” The authors are right: life is so full of surprises! But suddenly his face puckered up, his eyes disappeared, his breathing was arrested, he put his head down, then drew it up suddenly, and “Achoo!” It is not reprehensible for anyone to sneeze anywhere. Petty thieves sneeze and so do captains of industry, and sometimes even television stars. All men sneeze. Conan O’Brien wiped his face with a napkin, and like a polite man, looked round to see whether he had disturbed any one by his sneezing. But then he was overcome with confusion. He saw that an old gentleman sitting in front of him in the first row of the stalls was carefully wiping his bald head and his neck and muttering something to himself. In the old gentleman, Conan O’Brien recognized Larry King.
“I have sprayed him,” thought Conan O’Brien. “I am not planning to be on his show any time soon, but still it is awkward. I must apologize.” Conan O’Brien gave a cough, bent his whole person forward, and whispered in the man’s ear.
“Pardon me, Mr. King, I sprayed you accidentally “
“Never mind, never mind.”
“Excuse me, I did not mean to.”
“Please, sit down! Let me watch the game. I’m here with Chance and Cannon!”
Conan O’Brien was embarrassed, he smiled stupidly and fell to gazing at the court. He gazed at it but was no longer feeling bliss. He began to be troubled by uneasiness. At halftime, he went up to Larry King, walked beside him, and overcoming his shyness, muttered: “I sprayed you, Mr. King. Forgive me. You see, I didn’t do it to”
“Oh, that’s enough about it. I’d forgotten it, but you keep reminding me. It’s like Liz Taylor,” said Larry King, moving his lower lip impatiently.
“I don’t know what he means, but there is something fierce in his eyes,” thought Conan O’Brien, looking suspiciously at Larry King. “And he doesn’t want to talk. I ought to explain to him that I really didn’t mean anything by it, that it is how nature works. I don’t want him to think I spit on him. He doesn’t think so now, but he will think so later!”
On getting home, Conan O’Brien told his wife about his sneezing. It struck him that she took too frivolous a view of the incident; she was a little frightened at first, but when she learned that Larry King had said that it was nothing to him, she was reassured. “Still, you had better go and apologize,” she said, “or he will think you don’t know how to behave in public.”
“That’s just it! I did say that I was sorry, but he didn’t take it right. He just said something strange about Elizabeth Taylor. There wasn’t time to talk properly.”
The next day, Conan O’Brien went to apologize. He found out that Larry King was taping a series of brief interviews with sitcom stars. He put on a shirt and tie, drove to the studio, and waited while Larry King spoke to Kaley Cuoco, Jon Cryer, and Joel McHale. Finally, Larry King stood and walked toward the bathroom. Conan O’Brien intercepted him.
“Yesterday at the game, Mr. King,” Conan O’Brien began, “I sneezed and accidentally sprayed you.”
“I have nothing to say about it,” Larry King said. He went to the bathroom and when he came out, he went straight over to Julie Bowen to speak to her.
“He won’t talk to me,” thought Conan O’Brien, turning pale. “That means that he is angry. It can’t be left like this. I have to explain myself to him.”
When Larry King had finished his conversation with Julie Bowen and was heading out to the parking lot, Conan O’Brien intercepted him again.
“Mr. King! If I am bothering you, it is only because I feel such regret. It was not intentional. Please believe me.”
Larry King made a mournful face, and waved his hand.
“You’re just making fun of me,” he said as he closed the car door and drove away.
“Making fun of him?” thought Conan O’Brien. “That’s not true at all. He has interviewed thousands of people, but he won’t stop to listen to me. If that is how it is, I am not going to apologize to that guy anymore. He can go to hell. I’ll write a letter to him, but I won’t make any more attempts in person.”
So thought Conan O’Brien as he drove home. But he did not write a letter to the Larry King; he thought and thought but could not write a sentence. He had to go the next day to explain in person.
The following day, Larry King was interviewing sports figures: Lamar Odom, Phil Mickelson, Rafael Nadal. When Conan O’Brien saw that he was done with Danica Patrick, he hurried toward him. “I tried to talk to you yesterday,” he muttered. Larry King fixed him with an owlish stare.
“But it was not to make fun of you. I was apologizing for having sprayed you when I sneezed. I did not dream of making fun of you. If I made fun of you, if people started making fun of people without any concern for the truth, then there would be no respect for persons, there would be…”
“Get out!” yelled Larry King, turning suddenly purple, and shaking all over.
“What?” asked Conan O’Brien, in a whisper turning numb with horror.
“Get out!” repeated Larry King, now stamping his foot.
Something seemed to give way in Conan O’Brien’s stomach. Seeing nothing and hearing nothing he reeled to the door, went out into the street, and staggered to his car. Reaching home mechanically, without taking off his tie, he lay down on the sofa and died.